Monday, February 17, 2014

My First Time: Susan Perabo

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands.  Today’s guest is Susan Perabo, author of a collection of short stories, Who I Was Supposed to Be, and a novel, The Broken Places (both with Simon and Schuster).  She is Writer in Residence and an Associate Professor of English at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, though she currently serves as the resident director for the Dickinson humanities study abroad program in Norwich, England.  Her fiction has been anthologized in Best American Short Stories, Pushcart Prize Stories, and New Stories from the South, and has appeared in numerous magazines, including Glimmer Train, The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, and The Sun.  Her new collection of short stories is upcoming from Simon and Schuster.  Regular readers of The Quivering Pen may remember how impressed I was by a recent story of Susan's which appeared in One Story.

My First Celebration in Solitude

At 21 I left my hometown of St. Louis to attend the Master of Fine Arts program in creative writing at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.  In my entire life I had never been away from St. Louis for more than two weeks at a stretch.  My family and my friends were there.  I’d gone to college there.  Everything I cared about most--my dog, my grandmother, a budding relationship, the Cardinals--was there.  But I wanted to be a fiction writer, and I’d been offered a spot in the respected Arkansas program, as well as a teaching assistantship.  My parents helped me make the move, following me down to Fayetteville, my belongings split between the two cars.  I told them that when we got there, even if I cried and said I’d changed my mind, they should just shove my stuff out of their car and drive off.  I knew neither of these things--my crying, or them driving off while I was crying--was actually a possibility.  It was just my way of telling them I was scared.

I had taken a room in Pomfret Hall, which was the university’s dorm for studious upperclassmen and graduate students.  I wanted to live in a dorm.  I wanted a meal plan.  I wanted a small, manageable, safe space.  I assumed that others from the MFA program would live in Pomfret Hall with me.  I imagined chummy, undergraduate-like gatherings--but just for writers!--in people’s dorm rooms.  I was sorely disappointed.  It turned out that all the other MFA students were grownups.  And because they were grownups, they lived in apartments.  Some had spouses or partners.  Some even had kids.  All of them had furniture.  So I was alone in Pomfret Hall with several hundred strangers.  Only a handful looked old enough to be graduate students.  No one spoke to me, and I spoke to no one.

I liked my new classmates in the program, even if they did scare me a little.  The first couple weeks I met many of the people who, twenty years later, are my best friends.  But at the end of the day, during orientation and the first week of classes, my classmates either went home to their families or they went to bars and drank beer and listened to loud music until all hours.  At the end of the day, those first couple weeks, I’d go back to Pomfret Hall and try to figure out how to explain usage errors to my freshman composition students who were three years younger than me…I mean three years younger than I.  I’d eat in the Pomfret dining hall, which consisted of maybe thirty round tables for eight.  Since I did not know anyone I always sat at a table by myself.  I’d bring work--my grammar book, or a novel--so it wouldn’t look like I was lonely, so it would seem I was sitting alone by choice.  Tables for eight are very large, and I felt very small, very self-conscious.  I kept my eyes down and ate my meals quickly.

I volunteered to go first in the fiction workshop.  A bold move, but here I was in an MFA program, so why not come out of the gate in a hurry?  I had a story I felt pretty good about, one I’d written the previous spring and which my undergrad friends had said nice things about.  I’d even sent it out to a magazine--The Missouri Review--a few weeks before the move to Fayetteville.

The day came and I entered the workshop with high but not unrealistic hopes.  What commenced was the kind of brutal, jaw-dropping smack down that instantly becomes MFA lore.  My story was absolutely demolished by the professor, dismantled sentence by sentence until, in the end, literally only a single image remained unscathed.  After class I went back to Pomfret Hall in a daze.  I sat down on my dorm bed, still reeling from the blow, and looked around at my stuff.  It wasn’t all that much, really.  If I put my mind to it, I could probably have everything in my car in two hours, three tops.  Then it would take me six hours to drive home.  I could be at my parents’ house by 3:00 a.m.  I could wake up tomorrow morning in St. Louis, make the necessary phone calls, and be officially out of the program by noon.  I could just pack it in, and no one would particularly care.  It had only been a few weeks.  I could just do something else.  In 24 hours, this whole place, this whole experience, could be history.

Simply acknowledging the pack-it-in option was crucial.  I could do it; I could leave.  The choice was entirely mine, because I was a grownup.  I alone was responsible for this decision.  Stay or go, my reasons, my call, and my consequences.

I decided to stay.  I dug in.  I taught my classes.  I started a new story.  I went out with my friends.  Then, one evening in early October, my mother called and said I’d received a letter from The Missouri Review.  It was an acceptance letter, my first one.  She read it to me over the phone, her voice shaking.

After we hung up I went down to dinner.  I got my food and sat down alone at my table for eight.  I hadn’t thought to bring a book.  I just sat there and ate my dinner by myself, my self-consciousness gone.  Gone.  I was a different person.  My life had changed.  No one in the dining hall of chatting strangers knew it, but in the space of an hour I’d become someone else.  How often can you pinpoint the moment your new life has begun?  How fortunate I was in that moment to realize it, to feel it, to know it.  And--this is the crazy part--how fortunate I was to be alone, to have that amazing moment to myself, to not have to share it with anyone.  That moment was all mine.  No friends or family to celebrate with.  No smiles or congratulations.  It was like a secret, what I knew.  A secret so powerful that it filled all the other chairs at the table.

That was my first night as a writer.


  1. This was lovely - I've ordered the two books- can't wait to read them. What a first time and a first night.

  2. I've read only The Broken Places, but it's a fine, fine book. I wish Susan the best in her future writing.