Connie Stillinger has a fabulous reason for looking forward to Mondays. After clocking in grueling 36 straight-hour shifts at Edgefield County Hospital in Edgefield, SC, a rural town not too far from the Georgia line, the 54-year-old mom packs up and heads to Spartanburg, two hours’ drive north, to spend three days as a Converse College student.
“Being too afraid to attempt something new or different is much more oppressive and constraining than the fear of actually trying something new.”
Here, she morphs from medical laboratory technician to creative writer. And now she’s seeing her first work published – after 30 years at the hospital, her first-ever submission, an essay titled Let The Honey Soak Through, was accepted for publication by The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature.
“I’ve been a right-brain person working in a left-brain world my whole life,” Stillinger says, explaining how she arrived at Converse to channel her passion into craft. “I’m a storyteller, trying to learn to be a writer.” In fall 2011, she enrolled in Converse II, an undergraduate program designed to meet the needs of women 24 and older.
After spending 25 years “without writing a single word,” she says she found herself in 2010 in a winter of discontent. That year, her second of two children, Anna Beth, graduated from high school. Six weeks later, her beloved dog died — Ben, a “golden doodle,” part Labrador, part poodle. (Today, Anna Beth is a 21-year-old senior at Winthrop University, and Caleb, 26, is a firefighter in south Georgia.)
Stillinger says her empty nest sent her back to her own childhood in South Carolina’s hardscrabble Low Country, where she retrieved the stories that grow like cotton, an oral tradition filled with characters as abundant as the alligators in the black-water rivers and swamps.
“My family has a marvelous history of storytelling,” she says. “We don’t hide our crazy people in our attic, they’re the ones who sit on the porch and wave to you when you go by.”
So it was that she came to write Let The Honey Soak Through, a lyrical essay about a summertime episode with her Uncle Jesse, who harvested White Tupelo honey from hives he kept in the Tupelo Swamp, about an hour’s drive due west of Charleston, where she was born.
She writes: “He cautioned me to stay close to him as we made our way to the first bee hive nestled under a Tupelo tree in full bloom. We could hear the hum of the hive from the canoe, but Uncle Jesse winked and smiled as he said his bees wouldn’t sting, ’cause they loved the blues. … He sang, and those bees just hummed and buzzed around him, never stinging either of us.”
Next thing Stillinger knew, her piece found a home. At the urging of Converse professor Susan Tekulve, Stillinger sent the essay to the first place she happened across, The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature. The Webzine publishes fiction, poetry and new literature of the South. Stillinger’s first-time submission for publication was accepted in less than two weeks.
“That particular story just came to me,” she says, “it’s one of the easiest things I’ve ever written.”
Stillinger’s accomplishment comes as no surprise to Tekulve, a Converse College associate professor of English who herself won the 2013 South Carolina First Novel Competition with her book, In The Garden Of Stone.
Tekulve calls her protégé’s essay “just gorgeous.”
“She took every writing class she could,” Tekulve says, “and excelled in every single one. My immediate response was, this woman has one heck of a story, and she was trying to find a way to tell it. It really only took about one (school) term, and after a term, she learned all the elements of ‘story.’ “
Stillinger says it’s that kind of encouragement – in addition to the nurturing she gets from Converse as a whole and the confidence boost she won from Dead Mule – that gives her the affirmation she needs that she’s moving in the right direction.
“I’ve learned that being too afraid to attempt something new or different is much more oppressive and constraining than the fear of actually trying something new,” she writes in her blog, Revelations of A Southern Belle.
So next May, she graduates with her first college diploma, a bachelor of fine arts degree – the only one of its kind offered in the state. “I could’ve gotten an English degree with a concentration in creative writing,” she says, “but Converse offered the only degree I wanted.”
As for Stillinger’s future, Tekulve says, “I think by the time she graduates, she’ll be on her way to way to publishing novels. She’s the kind of writer who would attract an agent. She’s got this tremendous, powerful story. She’s the whole package.”
And Stillinger? She may keep her day job, but, she says, “I’ll just keep telling stories until I don’t have any more to tell – probably 10,000 of them.”