Art Hum Inspired Yvonne Woon ’06 to Create

Yvonne Woon
Yvonne Woon ’06, SOA’10 is the author of five books for young adults: the Dead Beautiful series; If You, Then Me; and a forthcoming literary thriller, My Flawless Life, which will be published in winter 2023. She is a recipient of a 2022 National Endowment for the Arts Creative Writing Fellowship and has been published in Boston Review. Woon taught University Writing at the College while working on her M.F.A. She’s represented by Ted Malawer ’06, of Upstart Crow Literary, whom she met in a fiction workshop her junior year; they’ve been friends ever since. Woon lives in Decatur, Ga., with her husband, Akiva Freidlin SOA’10, and their two young children.

What were you like when you arrived at Columbia?

I was painfully shy. I remember arriving at my dorm, seeing everyone chatting and introducing themselves, and feeling like there was something wrong with me because all I wanted to do was hide in my room and get bagels delivered so I wouldn’t have to come out.

I’d only been to New York twice before I arrived, and though I’d always wanted to live in a big city, being there felt terrifying. Everyone else seemed so comfortable. They knew how to ride the subway, they had strong opinions about pizza and how to eat it (folded, standing up) and they thought Times Square was terrible, which I couldn’t comprehend because at the time it was the only other part of New York that I’d been to and I’d assumed it was cool.

Once classes began, I started to get more comfortable — I loved the reading and the discussions — but I rarely talked in class for fear I might say something embarrassing. The place where I finally found my confidence was my writing workshop. There, I felt like I could experiment with my voice, both in class and on the page. Reading my classmates’ work and talking with them about writing felt like an explosion. I still feel so lucky to have found those workshops and those people, many of whom are still some of my closest friends.

What do you remember about your first-year living situation?

I lived on John Jay 8, in a walk-through double at the end of the hall, which, in retrospect, was a pretty great situation. I had a roommate, but I also had privacy. After I got over my move-in nerves, I ended up loving my floor. I remember a huge group of us sitting in the hallway late into the night, talking and eating couscous someone made in an electric kettle. I remember tying one end of a string around a quart of milk and the other end to my bedpost, and putting the milk outside my window on the ledge to stay cold in the winter because I didn’t have a mini fridge (why I needed milk available to me at all times when the dining hall was just a few floors down, I honestly don’t know). I remember making instant pudding in the reservoir of a Brita pitcher with a bunch of floormates (maybe this was what the milk was for?). I remember talking on the phone to my mom in the stairway because it was the most private place I could find (no one used the stairway that high up in the building). I remember watching snow fall from my window while people built giant, anatomically correct genitalia out of snow on the lawn below.

What Core class or experience do you most remember, and why?

I’m a person who thrives with constraints, so I honestly loved all of my Core classes, but the one I remember most fondly was Art Hum. I took it my senior year, so, how do I put this — I was extremely relaxed and able to enjoy the content without caring about how I was graded. I didn’t know much about visual art or architecture before then and had always felt “uncultured” as a result. I went into the class hoping it would teach me how to look at a painting in a museum and not feel clueless, but instead what it did was inspire me to create. I still remember the first time I saw a photo of a Le Corbusier building and thinking, “DAMN, now that’s a building.”

Did you have a favorite spot on campus, and what did you like about it?

Like everyone else, I spent most of my time on the first or second floor of Butler, but when I wasn’t there, I would often go to 301 Philosophy, which was where all the grad students hung out. I’ve heard that they have a café there now, but when I was in undergrad, it was just a big room with chairs, couches and a piano. Every afternoon they held “tea time,” where one of the administrators brought out a bronze samovar filled with tea, along with a plate of dry cookies, and anyone could partake. It felt like a child’s fantasy of what being an adult was.

But I can’t talk about favorite spots without mentioning The Hungarian Pastry Shop and it’s long-defunct-but-ever-eternal-in-my-memory sister business, P&W Sandwich Shop (R.I.P.). Two leaf cookies (one green, one pink), a rainbow cookie and a pot of orange tea, please and thank you.

What, if anything, about your College experience would you do over?

You know, I’d like to say that I wish I had spoken up more or been more confident in my first year or two, but I’m still pretty introverted and if I did it again, I probably wouldn’t be able to do it any differently. So — and this is such a boring answer — but I never took any history classes while I was there and have always wished I had. So I think I would do that.