We’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.
It 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.