South Carolina native and award-winning author Rebecca Godwin ’77 has led a literary life of writing, teaching, and publishing – with a little steel mill and real estate on the side. After earning a degree in English from Coastal Carolina College of the University of South Carolina – the institution would become Coastal Carolina University 17 years later – Godwin’s career took her to the Northeast, where she published two novels and spent 25 years as a professional writer and faculty member at Bennington College in Vermont. Now that she’s returned home to Pawleys Island, S.C., she’s amped up her writing – and the literary community has taken notice. Godwin, 72, has been named the 2023 South Carolina Arts Commission’s Prose Fellow.*
When Godwin was a student, she attended morning classes at USC-Coastal Carolina and worked shifts at Georgetown Steel Mill in the afternoons. Her professors included longtime English faculty members Tom Trout, Gerald Groves, and Don Millus.
“It was a fabulous experience and a big turning point in my life,” said Godwin.
Godwin worked in a family real estate agency after graduation but soon missed the creative environment and the classroom. She was back at USC-Coastal Carolina for a masters-level class when she saw a brochure from the Bread Loaf School of English in Middlebury, Vt. On the spot, Godwin applied for the master’s program, which would take her away from her family every summer for five years, and was accepted.
When Godwin arrived at Bread Loaf, the “imposter syndrome” so familiar to artists and graduate students set in: “I spent the first week there thinking they were going to knock on my door and say, ‘I’m sorry, the name of the student we wanted was Rebecca Goldwin,’” said Godwin. “’You have to go home now. We don’t take real estate agents here.’”
In 1992, Godwin published the novel Private Parts, and in 1994, Keeper of the House, which was excerpted in the Paris Review and named one of the ten best books of the year by the Charleston Post & Courier. Keeper of the House chronicles the life of Minyon Manigualt, a Black girl of Gullah descent who is sent to a South Carolina brothel to work as a maid in 1929. Godwin appeared at CCU, at the invitation of then-Department of English chair Jill Sessoms, in the early 2000s to read from Keeper of the House.
During Godwin’s years at Bennington College, first as a professional writer and later as a faculty member, she established plain china, an online journal showcasing undergraduate writing from around the country. When she began planning her retirement from Bennington, Godin went looking for a home for the journal, and Virginia Commonwealth University acquired it in 2015. Ensuring continuation of plain china was a significant moment for Godwin. “That felt like the crown,” she said.
Before returning to Pawleys Island, Godwin lived in Edisto Island, S.C. During that time, she noticed a cultural phenomenon consistent with themes from her books.
“Descendants of enslaved Africans and plantation owners lived side-by-side, many of them related. But there seemed to be little interaction or acknowledgement. It was if they were living on two completely different planes,” Godwin said. During those years, Godwin was further impacted by the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church massacre that occurred in Charleston, S.C. “After the AME church massacre, I knew I had to write a story of a place like Edisto, to try to make sense of it,” Godwin said. The work grew into Convergence, a novel-in-progress that won the S.C. Arts Commission grant.
Now back in Pawleys Island, Godwin is focused on not only producing but also publishing her work. Her story “Breaking Through” appeared in the August 2022 issue of The Rumpus, an online literary and culture magazine, and “Bus Stop,” a story inspired by the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott, was published in the write launch in June 2022. Both pieces are part of her collection of linked stories titled No Place Like Home & Other Stories.
Godwin believes maintaining a focused life of writing and publishing requires a few main ingredients: time, practice, and community.
You’ve got to have blind faith. You’ve got to keep on. You’ve got to have people to talk to. And you’ve got to have a schedule – a time, every day, to write.
With her background, talent, and perseverance, Godwin embodies the life of a serious writer, still going strong.
* This project is funded in part by the South Carolina Arts Commission, which receives support from the National Endowment for the Arts.