The Coolest Monsters

Dear Megan Baxter,

Thank you for your book, The Coolest Monsters. This debut essay collection is electric, a true page-turner. I read it in just a few days as I sat on a porch in Wyoming with a view of the Bighorn Mountains. These essays, all stitched together, awoke something in me, a certain nostalgia for lost childhood, mingled with a sharp reminder of real-life monsters and challenges. I also experienced a keen taste of love and its many faces. I appreciate how you leaned into writing about love and loss, particularly about romantic love, without layers of irony and coolness or even false humor the way many writers treat these subjects out of a fear of waxing cliché or sentimental. Your first person, present tense, lyrical style exudes a palpable urgency. These essays are alive and wriggling.

A wise writing mentor of mine once recommended I write from within an experience instead of telegraphing. For the longest time, I wasn’t sure what he meant by that. But your collection presents a model of what it looks like to write from within, to relive and render with poetic detail the lived emotion rather than a flat telegraphing of merely what transpired. Your descriptions lingered in my mind long after I put the book down:

birch spilling over the stone walls
lightening white and purple
eyeliner sharp as bird’s markings
neat hexagons of last year’s wasp nests

This is the work of a writer with a powerful imagination, as vivid as a child’s, who runs up against pressing, difficult adult questions. The result is magical, luminous, and often surprising. What I especially appreciate about this book as a teaching model is how you play. So often in workshop classes I have heard well-meaning but dangerous warnings such as:

Avoid second person.
Present tense limits you too much to write something long and sustained.
Numbered section headers are a cop out for finding the narrative arc.

You “break” many so-called “rules,” and the result is thrilling. Thank you for sharing your answers to these questions I had about what brought you to this collection:

1. What was your process for getting this collection together?

First of all, I’m so glad you enjoyed the collection. I’m driven by the idea of how things relate to each other. I’ve been thinking a lot about the action of collecting recently and examining everything from albums, to books, to museums exhibitions but ‘The Coolest Monsters’ came together very organically. I began writing the pieces in this collection when I moved to a new city and had three months of blissful back-pay from the job I’d recently left behind. I hadn’t written in over five years and felt creaky getting back to the page. I started where I always begin, in a journal with hand written notes and those notes grew and concealed into a list of twenty ideas for pieces. I didn’t know at first what genre they would be but as I began it became clear to me that it was essential to their power that they presented themselves as truth. I wrote about 75% of the pieces in the collection during this three-month time period. As the essays started to accumulate I found that they were all connected, which is perhaps not particularly insightful discovery since they are all based on my life, but thematically they grew as I matured in age. There are a few pieces that didn’t get collected and some that I inserted later which added to the depth of the themes and brought a sense of reflection to the book. Some of the pieces were long and others very short and where it was possible in the time-line of the story I inserted short pieces between long ones to break up the readers pace and control the dynamic energy inherent, I believe, in shorter works. The essays are arranged chronically and are thus more of an accounting than a collection.

2. You have an ability to evoke the child narrator with real energy and believability. What helps you do this? Can you say more about the full spectrum of writing tools in this collection?

I am thankful that this comes across. Although I acknowledge some of memory’s slippery tendency I feel that I have vivid recollections of my childhood. This memory tends to recall sensory details more than narrative and so I tried to seep myself in those details as I wrote. Smells, tastes, sounds and images fill my notebooks. Sometimes they seem to be the only thing I remember. I also began telling stories at an early age and thought a lot about narrative. I think many children who grew up loving books have this natural tendency to see themselves as characters, to dress up, to try on different voices. My memory of childhood feels magnified by my sense of story – princesses and villains, fairies in the woods. I think in my twenties I did a similar thing by imaging myself grown up, settled and happy. To invoke these memories I simply have to remember the girl I wanted to be at that time. I didn’t write from pictures and I did very little research in these essays. I was more interested in mining my own memory.

3. Though you do write primarily in present tense, especially in the beginning of this collection, you have a few essays written in past tense. How do you decide which mode to work in?

Tense alters the way a reader experiences a piece more than any other tool I can think of. The present tense brings urgency to the page while the past tense creates separation between the voice and moment of the story. It was important to me that the rush, the flood of being young came across in the essays. Of course the present tense is limited by this immediacy and makes it challenging to weave reflection into the narrative. There are other ways of offering reflection – of course every detail of setting, image and word is controlled by me, the older, hopefully wiser writer but where I needed to open up space for that mature voice I felt bound to use the past tense. I also feel that this reflects my sense of self within the narrative arc of the essays. As a child I thought a lot about the present moments and the future and as an adult I have a tendency to daydream and time travel backwards hoping to dredge up meaning or discover some familiar joy in a memory.

4. I noticed that in several of your essays, you speak directly to the tropes of storytelling. You discuss the words The end in “A Princess Story,” that the narrator was becoming a character in a story I didn’t like in “The Promise,” and that the narrator realized I wasn’t in a story in “Heal the Sick”. You also address this thematically in one of the final essays, the beautiful and ominous “The Wrong Love Story,” where the narrator proceeds with a planned wedding despite her inner sirens. To what extent do you think we trap ourselves in these story tropes, or to what degree does waxing meta about stories within stories speak to a universal truth?

I’ve been reading a lot of Carl Jung recently and his type of analysis was very narrative focused and perhaps unique to the culture in which he developed his ideas and therapeutic techniques. Freud seems to me to be more concerned with the stories that we can trapped in than the stories we tell about ourselves. One is interested in free will, the other in pre-destination. My fiancé is a psychiatrist so we speak about this often and I feel that stories are both terribly dangerous to one’s sense of self and also essential. Some of the earliest lessons we learn as children come in the form of stories and fable and are meant to be instructional at the same time that they are enjoyable. I read and was read to often by my parents. My sisters and I also watched every Disney VHS religiously. I was surrounded by story and as I grew I sometimes felt trapped in a narrative line. Other people might describe this differently but I wanted very much to have a happy ending and the way to that was through tropes that I’d absorbed both through story and culture. They can be restrictive, yes, but easy. The hard things lie outside the lines. Stories, as we know, aren’t always true but the act of telling stories is a communal attempt to find meaning, teach lessons, and gather insights from whatever disorderly life we live. A story isn’t an essay but an essay can contain a story and then break those bonds all to pieces.

5. What are you working on now?

I am working on a series of food articles for a local paper, a travel essay about returning to the city where I spent two years in college, and a piece about having an essay of mine fact-checked. I’m in the research stage of several others and completing a long lyric essay and a hybrid research piece which I find really exciting.

6. What advice would you give to an aspiring essayist?

Stay curious. Be someone who is interested in things. Read not just essays but poems, history books, novels, magazines, shampoo bottles, diaries and song lyrics. I like my essays weird and vibrant, like they’re trying to bear hug all these things that wouldn’t normally be in a bear hug together. I’m a believer in over-producing. There are many ideas that I don’t research, much research that doesn’t get used and journals that are beautiful but useless. But once I feel two or three things buzzing together, magnetized, I’ll fight to the end to make an essay work because I know there’s something there of interest. Joni Tevis, who is an amazing essayist, told me to focus on the things that I’m attracted to and can’t look away from, the things that come up again and again with an almost pornographic fixation. I think that’s great advice.

Rachel Rueckert