Susan M. Stabile’s essay “Mustard” was the 2017 recipient of the Annie Dillard Award for Creative Nonfiction and is part of Issue 76 of Bellingham Review. Subscribe or purchase a single issue through our Submittable page here.
What would you like to share with our readers about the work you contributed to the Bellingham Review?
Walking inspires my creativity: my mind moves easily between associations, engages absurdities, and makes rich connections that sitting in front of the computer stifles. I always take the same route, finding comfort in the ritual. Reversing direction four summers ago (hardly daring), I was delighted by the unfamiliarity walking on the other side of the same road brings. I would never have discovered “Mustard,” who I’d past daily for years without knowing she was there. I knew I had to write about her, convinced our interaction was about walking’s assuring repetition and my reluctance to change my habits. I read Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust and Field Guide to Getting Lost and other writers on walking. But Mustard begged another interpretation, stirring a preemptive grief about, and prepared control over, her decay. (Truth be told, though, if she fades too far, I may still repaint her.)
Tell us about your writing life.
I’ve been writing creative nonfiction since 2010, the summer my five-year-old niece had a heart transplant. Waiting uncomfortably for another child to die to save Avery, I vowed—regardless of the outcome—that I would start writing something that matters. Something that reached a wider audience. An academic for twenty years (steeped in 18th-century women’s literary archives for a decade; moving into material culture and museum studies; and then into contemporary memoir) my scholarship has always been about materiality and embodiment. My creative work, similarly sensate, turns toward the cast-off from than the refined, to what we’d rather turn away from. This has led me organically into Narrative Medicine, learning and writing about cardiology, neurology, chemotherapy, and organ transplantation. The joys of following one’s meandering curiosities!
Which non-writing aspect(s) of your life most influences your writing?
I try to live analogically. Travelling to new places and returning to old ones (always the Catskill mountains where I grew up). Visiting museums and attending artistic performances. Gardening and cooking (especially soup). Practicing yoga and guided meditation. Collecting rocks and fallen bark. These are both engagement and distraction. Epiphanies come when I am doing something else.
What writing advice has stayed with you?
Annie Dillard’s advice “to follow your own weirdness.”
Who is/are your favorite writer(s)?
My favorite writers are Lia Purpura and Brian Doyle.
What are you reading right now?
I’m reading Mary Oliver’s collection of love poems, Felicity, and rereading Brian Doyle’s The Wet Engine.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I’m completing my first essay collection, Salvage, which approaches recycling and second life through what I call “a poetics of redemption.” Shaped like a bricolage, it dwells in the uncomfortable (and often miraculous) space of eclectic discards, contemplating their vibrant potential for reuse, including: organ transplants, roadkill, auto salvage, trocars, repurposed hearses, helper birds, junk mail, and dopamine scaffolds. My next project, Triptych, picks up where Salvage ends. I envision it as an accordion book of flash essays and collograph prints about my father and uncle (identical twins): how they’ve become untwinned (through my father’s Parkinson’s and chronic myeloid leukemia) and the elegiac spaces in between.
Anything else our readers might want to know about you?
I garden to learn patience; I’m obsessed with birds and their nest architectures; I’m an amateur printmaker (inking collographs from detritus collected along my walking path); and I’m a cat whisperer.
Where can our readers connect with you online?
I haven’t made the leap into social media, but would warmly welcome emails!
SUSAN M. STABILE is an Associate Professor of English at Texas A&M University, where she teaches courses in Creative Nonfiction, Narrative Medicine, Women’s Memoir, Literature and the Other Arts, Material Culture, and Museum Studies. Stabile’s creative nonfiction has appeared in such literary journals as The Iowa Review and The Southwestern Review; and her essay, “Bestiary” was nominated as a “Notable Essay of 2014” by the Best American Essays series. Stabile is the recipient of notable awards and honors, including a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship, Andrew Mellon Foundation grant, Winterthur Museum fellowships, and several writing residencies at Ragdale, Vermont Studio Center, and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She is currently completing her first collection of creative nonfiction essays, Salvage, an unconventional reflection on contemporary recycling practices (from organ transplants and roadkill to birds’ nests and dopamine scaffolds) through she calls a poetics of redemption that reclaims our waste and our intimate connections to it.
Featured Image: “greenroom” by Puste Blümchen (JOP)