In college you majored English and biochemistry. What drew you to these two majors?
I grew up reading obsessively and was always surrounded by science – my Dad would bring math books home from the library for fun. I thought I would eventually be able to decide where to focus my attention, but the older I got the more I liked both science and literature. So I double majored hoping that one day I’d find a way to bring the two together.
You recently performed your work “How to Say It” for The Moth Radio Hour episode “GrandSLAMs Coast to Coast”. How is presenting a story out loud a different experience from writing a story down?
Presenting a story gives me more control over the audience’s experience. When someone reads a story, what they see is what they get. I can’t change the tone or the pacing in real-time. I’ve sent it out in the world and have to have faith the reader will connect to it. When I’m on stage, the story isn’t just a product of words, but a product of my connection to the audience. The story gets to evolve when I tell it live. I rarely get the opportunity to watch someone react to my work when they read it, and when I do, it’s nerve-wracking to watch and to remain silent. But being on stage, hearing the audience laugh or get pin-drop quiet, is exhilarating.
Your stories “How to Say It” and “What You Tell” are both based on experiences you have had as an emergency physician. What makes an event worth writing about for you?
The hospital is one of the last really dramatic places: birth and death, success and failure, family drama, and of course, the endless possibility for comedy. Almost every major life event can occur between those walls. As an ER doctor, I’m meeting people during emotionally charged moments, so stories are everywhere, which can make it difficult to figure out which stories to tell. It’s not always the big and dramatic stories that find their way on stage. I’m often surprised by which stories develop into something I want to perform and which fizzle out. It’s during the act of writing that I figure out what I’m trying to say and if it’s something I want to share.
What do you see as the benefits of nonfiction and fiction writing?
Nonfiction is a chance to create intimacy with my audience and to have a personal stake in the story that goes beyond that of fiction, where the narrator is a character I wrote myself, but isn’t actually me. But there are so many stories I want to write, and life is short, so I don’t have time to live all those stories personally. Thanks to fiction I don’t have to. I’m drawn to write any story that won’t leave me alone until I get it down on paper.
What are some ways you feel that your passion for writing complements your career in medicine?
During medical school and residency, I thought that it was the worst thing I had ever done for my writing. When would I find the time between studying and working in the hospital? Now I see that it was the best thing I could have done. I had written nonfiction before, but during school it became a way for me to think about and share the overwhelming experience of becoming a physician. Writing is what helped me make sense of what I was doing, and medicine has given me something real and unique to write about. I might be able to do one without the other, but I can’t imagine it.
Along with being a physician and a writer, you have an online admissions consulting business for medical school hopefuls. What made you decide to get involved in this side of the medical school application process?
I’ve actually been an admissions consultant for over a decade. I started helping students applying to undergraduate and graduate school, which I still do, and then I began working with medical school and residency applicants about five years ago. I began by sitting on the admissions panel and scoring applicant’s essays. Later, I evaluated and interviewed applicants and was part of final decision-making. So, I’ve both been through the process and judged people going through the process, which put me in a unique position to help applicants. The students who find me are often motivated and interesting and it’s actually a lot of fun to help them craft an application that makes them shine as real people, not just a list of accomplishments. It’s the same process I bring to my storytelling and writing.
Are you currently working on any new projects?
I’m currently at work on a novel and remain active in the storytelling community. You can follow my work at www.BessStillman.com/blog.