Rejection by Guest Author Susan Rebecca White

021susanheadshotWe’re very pleased to welcome Susan Rebecca White, author of Bound South, to the ball today. Born and raised in Atlanta, Susan White graduated from Brown University and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Hollins University, where she was awarded a teaching fellowship and the James Purdy Prize for outstanding fiction.

Bound South, published in February 2009, was called a “wonderful debut” by Publishers Weekly, the Atlanta Journal Constitution says, “Like its characters, Bound South comes dressed in innocence and comedy…but underneath, its concerns are far more serious.”

It was the fall semester of my first year at Brown University, where I was a transfer student. I had begun college at the University of Colorado, and frankly, I was a little star struck by where I had managed to land. Indeed, when a Brown admissions officer had phoned that past spring to tell me I was admitted, my first words were, “Are you sure?”

It didn’t matter that I had made A’s for the past two years at school in Colorado, that I was in the Honors program there, that my professor once read one of my papers aloud to the class. In my gut I did not believe I was good enough to go to an Ivy League school.

And I was right. I wasn’t.

At least not at first. To say I floundered that first year is an understatement. Let me give you the most extreme example:

Because of a mix of naïveté, hubris, and insanity, that first semester I decided, as a non-major who had not taken a history class since high school, to enroll in a senior seminar dedicated to the advanced study of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill. There were only twelve students in the class. We sat around a wood table covered with a hundred years of scratch marks from former students. Our professor was an octogenarian with a British accent who was fond of tweed jackets and mentioning his lifelong friendship with Henry Kissinger.

It was sort of like being a character in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, only none of us killed each other. But I kid you not, some of the students in our seminar started affecting British accents. That should have been a sign for me to drop the class, stat. That or the fact that I really had no idea what anyone was talking about ninety-nine percent of the time. Generals’ names, crucial dates, references to the colonialism of Libya—all flew over my head like perfect little paper airplanes. I didn’t even know how to fold the airplanes they were launching, let alone fly one.

Over the course of the semester we had to turn in three papers. On my first paper Professor Tweed told me that he decided not to put a grade on it based on the assumption that I must have been “quite ill” while writing it. The second paper received a C, which in the world of Brown equals an F. (There is truth to the statement “Brown stand for ‘B.’”)

Before the final paper was due, I met with Professor Tweed and asked if he had a recommendation of anyone in the class who was a particularly good writer of history papers, someone who might serve as a mentor.

“Frankly you could ask anyone,” he said. “Every other student is significantly better than you.” He stroked his chin and added thoughtfully, “I hope you know you are a very poor writer. A very, very poor writer.”

I returned to my off-campus house, relieved that no one was home so I wouldn’t have to explain why I was trying not to cry. I drank one beer, then another. I called a friend who was a history major at a small liberal arts college and begged him to find a paper on Churchill that I could copy. He didn’t deliver.

The night before the paper was due I wrote something for Professor Tweed. God knows what I said, but I have no doubt it read like the ramblings of a “quite ill” woman.

I received my C with a measure of gratitude. Tweed could have failed me. As thanks, I never took a history class at Brown again, but I did, luckily, have an English teacher who sat down with me and taught me how to write a competent analytical paper with a real live thesis sentence. I learned the form. I started making good grades.

Still, I believed that Professor Tweed had diagnosed something fundamentally wrong about me, that despite the fact that I was now doing well in my English classes, deep down I was a “very, very poor writer.” I couldn’t shake the fact that someone from that hallowed institution had proclaimed me bad. It resonated with every bad thought I had ever had about myself.

I wrote almost nothing creative during my remaining time at Brown, and instead only wrote responses to other people’s creative work.
I was circling a fire I wanted to be a part of.

bound-south-cover-finalIt wasn’t until years later, living in San Francisco and having left my teaching job at a Catholic girls’ boarding school, that I started writing again. I had recently moved into the city from Marin. I was living in a shared apartment with two women I’d met through Craigslist. I was temping and waiting tables at a Middle Eastern restaurant to make rent. I was no longer in the Ivy League, one of the chosen few, full of pride and yet also ready to self detonate because of the carelessly spoken words of one professor who was tight with Kissinger.

I learned to answer, “I wait tables,” when people asked what I did. For some reason, giving that answer, devoid of references to my past or plans for my future, was good for my soul.

I wrote at night, after my shift, still smelling of hummus and lamb.

I wrote and wrote.

18 Replies to “Rejection by Guest Author Susan Rebecca White”

  1. Thanks for being our guest today, Susan! Your experience with that professor gives me the willies. Why do people like that insist on teaching? I’m so glad you persevered and became a writer.

  2. This makes me want to stand up and cheer! The ending, that is. The parts in between are frankly harrowing. It takes real nerve to persist after that kind of experience, and I’m so glad you did! Welcome to the Ball, and your book is going on my “must read” list.

  3. You wrote and wrote … and we are so glad you did! I remember once having to submit a few poems to get into a poetry course as an undergrad (and mind you, it was NOT an advanced level course and it was NOT at a venerable Ivy League institution – in fact, quite the opposite!) and the damn professor proclaimed my poems NOT GOOD ENOUGH to get me into his class! Ah … I wonder where he is now?

    I guess your story is just another example opinions – even bad ones that result in rejections – are just opinions!

  4. Thanks for the comments, Debs! I can still hear Professor Tweed articulating in that very, very proper British accent, “You are a very, very poor writer!”

    Luckily I had a great roommate during that experience–who is still one of my best friends to this day–and eventually I told her what happened and she and I were able to turn it into a joke. (Sort of.) It’s amazing how cathartic it is just to tell another person about a mortifying thing that happened to you. I guess it’s the whole “own it” principle.

    Oh and Eve, thinking about your poetry story, my big sister Lauren Myracle, who is an amazing and really successful YA author, loves to tell the story about *not* being asked to move on to Intermediate creative writing while an undergrad at Chapel Hill. I guess learning to get over your professor’s rejections is early training for the writing life?

  5. Hey Susan – I enjoyed reading this story. I would agree that everyone who is successful, especially in a creative field, has been rejected multiple times along the way. Maybe it exposes the resilience in people who overcome the rejection and can be successful, because I bet many people probably start to fall by the wayside at that point.

  6. Hi Susan, thanks for being our guest today. You know, I think I had that professor’s relative in graduate school! I’m still jumpy from that liteary theory course I had to take! What amazes me about this story is how sheep-like students can be. In a setting where we’re meant to be thinking as individuals and challenging theories, sometimes the opposite happens and the class becomes a cult of personality. Good for you for surviving. Also, good luck at Book Passage today! I’m right down the steet from you, but, sadly won’t be able to come because my daughter has a soccer game. But greetings from Marin anyway!

  7. Hey Deb,
    Lucky you to live in Northern California. I’m living in Atlanta now, where I grew up, and it suits me, but man, I flew into SF yesterday and immediately started wanting to look up craigslist listings for apartments…

    About the sheep-like nature of students. Yep and yep. I’ve been one. You figure out what the teacher is after, and then you deliver. It’s like learning a formula. I know it’s not *always* that way, but I’ve definitely been guilty of going “bah.” Guess it’s something about group think, too, huh? I’ve finally gotten to a point in my writing group where I can say, about someone else’s critique, “Oh wow, you and I read this story in completely different ways…and here’s what I think.” I’m probably able to do that because I trust the people in my group, and our goal is bigger than getting an A in class.

  8. Susan,

    I suppose there will always be those out there who think extreme criticism is the way go…I never will truly understand that though. In any case, I for one am very glad you didn’t give up on your dreams of writing! Your book is lovely! I am oh so proud, and I’m eagerly awaiting your books yet to come!


  9. I have come to think that every published author has a story like this. Maybe it’s part of the process of becoming a writer; proving that your spark can survive anything and everything. At a Dartmouth creative writing seminar, the teacher steered me away from fiction, saying with devastating cheer, “Maybe you’re a poet!” (The only poems I have ever written in my adult life were assignments from that teacher.) I never wrote fiction again. The teacher’s name was Suzanne Brown, and once in a while I wonder if she knows the effect she had on my career. But her name is so simple that I haven’t been able to find out what became of her on Google. As for me, I became a journalist and a nonfiction author. I attended your reading today at the Corte Madera Book Passage, Susan, and I have to say, you made me wonder if I should try writing fiction again. Thank you.

  10. Hey Sooz, that guy/professor was a total dick. You are so Not a “very very poor writer.” Proof, “all flew over my head like perfect little paper airplanes. I didn’t even know how to fold the airplanes they were launching, let alone fly one.” Nice metaphor. Oh Yeah, loved the book!

  11. It’s amazing how swiftly people can dispense cruelty, especially when you consider how long it takes to work through something like that. Thanks for being our guest today!

  12. Thanks so much, Debs, for a delightful guest blogging experience. (Delightful and cathartic!) And thanks all for the great comments. Stephanie–great to meet you in person today. Now I know why Alan has always been such a big fan.

    I think I should probably thank “Professor Tweed,” because, you know, he helped me learn to be skeptical of pronouncements coming from up high. And when I graduated from college, and started teaching English, I never assumed that one bad paper (or two or three) made a student a bad writer. We’ve all got to start from somewhere, and I think the key is to keep plugging away. Take the helpful advice, discard the useless, and render the really awful advice into entertaining/horrifying stories!

  13. Susan, good for you that despite being labeled a “very poor writer” you persevered and proved that “teacher” wrong. As a former teacher, I cannot understand why someone would dispense that kind of mindless cruelty to a student. I hope you send him a copy of your book, autographed with a very special note to a special guy. 🙂

  14. I was Susan’s roommate and fellow transfer ally during those Brown years, and I, too, made the mistake of taking that history seminar! Susan’s account perfectly captures the tragic-comedy aspect of “Professor Tweed.” I am so proud of her accomplishments as a writer! I think Prof Tweed retired after that semester — we did him in!

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