What reading slowly taught me about writing | Jacqueline Woodson


A long time ago, there lived a Giant, a Selfish Giant, whose stunning garden
was the most beautiful in all the land. One evening, this Giant came home and found all these children
playing in his garden, and he became enraged. “My own garden is my own garden!” the Giant said. And he built this high wall around it. The author Oscar Wilde wrote the story
of “The Selfish Giant” in 1888. Almost a hundred years later, that Giant
moved into my Brooklyn childhood and never left. I was raised in a religious family, and I grew up reading
both the Bible and the Quran. The hours of reading,
both religious and recreational, far outnumbered the hours
of television-watching. Now, on any given day,
you could find my siblings and I curled up in some part
of our apartment reading, sometimes unhappily, because on summer days in New York City,
the fire hydrant blasted, and to our immense jealousy,
we could hear our friends down there playing in the gushing water, their absolute joy making its way up
through our open windows. But I learned that the deeper
I went into my books, the more time I took with each sentence, the less I heard the noise
of the outside world. And so, unlike my siblings,
who were racing through books, I read slowly — very, very slowly. I was that child with her finger
running beneath the words, until I was untaught to do this;
told big kids don’t use their fingers. In third grade, we were made to sit
with our hands folded on our desk, unclasping them only to turn the pages,
then returning them to that position. Our teacher wasn’t being cruel. It was the 1970s, and her goal was to get us reading
not just on grade level but far above it. And we were always
being pushed to read faster. But in the quiet of my apartment,
outside of my teacher’s gaze, I let my finger run beneath those words. And that Selfish Giant
again told me his story, how he had felt betrayed by the kids
sneaking into his garden, how he had built this high wall, and it did keep the children out, but a grey winter fell over his garden and just stayed and stayed. With each rereading,
I learned something new about the hard stones of the roads
that the kids were forced to play on when they got expelled from the garden, about the gentleness of a small boy
that appeared one day, and even about the Giant himself. Maybe his words weren’t rageful after all. Maybe they were a plea for empathy, for understanding. “My own garden is my own garden.” Years later, I would learn
of a writer named John Gardner who referred to this
as the “fictive dream,” or the “dream of fiction,” and I would realize that this
was where I was inside that book, spending time with the characters
and the world that the author had created and invited me into. As a child, I knew that stories
were meant to be savored, that stories wanted to be slow, and that some author had spent months,
maybe years, writing them. And my job as the reader — especially as the reader who wanted
to one day become a writer — was to respect that narrative. Long before there was cable
or the internet or even the telephone, there were people sharing ideas
and information and memory through story. It’s one of our earliest forms
of connective technology. It was the story of something
better down the Nile that sent the Egyptians moving along it, the story of a better way
to preserve the dead that brought King Tut’s remains
into the 21st century. And more than two million years ago, when the first humans
began making tools from stone, someone must have said, “What if?” And someone else remembered the story. And whether they told it through words
or gestures or drawings, it was passed down; remembered: hit a hammer and hear its story. The world is getting noisier. We’ve gone from boomboxes to Walkmen to portable CD players to iPods to any song we want, whenever we want it. We’ve gone from the four
television channels of my childhood to the seeming infinity
of cable and streaming. As technology moves us faster and faster
through time and space, it seems to feel like story
is getting pushed out of the way, I mean, literally pushed out
of the narrative. But even as our engagement
with stories change, or the trappings around it morph from book
to audio to Instagram to Snapchat, we must remember our finger
beneath the words. Remember that story,
regardless of the format, has always taken us to places
we never thought we’d go, introduced us to people
we never thought we’d meet and shown us worlds
that we might have missed. So as technology keeps moving
faster and faster, I am good with something slower. My finger beneath the words
has led me to a life of writing books for people of all ages, books meant to be read slowly, to be savored. My love for looking deeply
and closely at the world, for putting my whole self into it,
and by doing so, seeing the many, many
possibilities of a narrative, turned out to be a gift, because taking my sweet time taught me everything
I needed to know about writing. And writing taught me everything
I needed to know about creating worlds where people could be seen and heard, where their experiences
could be legitimized, and where my story,
read or heard by another person, inspired something in them
that became a connection between us, a conversation. And isn’t that what this is all about — finding a way, at the end of the day,
to not feel alone in this world, and a way to feel like
we’ve changed it before we leave? Stone to hammer, man to mummy, idea to story —
and all of it, remembered. Sometimes we read
to understand the future. Sometimes we read to understand the past. We read to get lost, to forget
the hard times we’re living in, and we read to remember
those who came before us, who lived through something harder. I write for those same reasons. Before coming to Brooklyn, my family
lived in Greenville, South Carolina, in a segregated neighborhood
called Nicholtown. All of us there were
the descendants of a people who had not been allowed
to learn to read or write. Imagine that: the danger of understanding
how letters form words, the danger of words themselves, the danger of a literate people
and their stories. But against this backdrop
of being threatened with death for holding onto a narrative, our stories didn’t die, because there is yet another story
beneath that one. And this is how it has always worked. For as long as we’ve been communicating, there’s been the layering
to the narrative, the stories beneath the stories
and the ones beneath those. This is how story has and will
continue to survive. As I began to connect the dots
that connected the way I learned to write and the way I learned to read to an almost silenced people, I realized that my story was bigger
and older and deeper than I would ever be. And because of that, it will continue. Among these almost-silenced people there were the ones
who never learned to read. Their descendants, now generations
out of enslavement, if well-off enough, had gone on to college,
grad school, beyond. Some, like my grandmother and my siblings,
seemed to be born reading, as though history
stepped out of their way. Some, like my mother, hitched onto
the Great Migration wagon — which was not actually a wagon — and kissed the South goodbye. But here is the story within that story: those who left and those who stayed carried with them
the history of a narrative, knew deeply that writing it down wasn’t
the only way they could hold on to it, knew they could sit on their porches
or their stoops at the end of a long day and spin a slow tale for their children. They knew they could sing their stories
through the thick heat of picking cotton and harvesting tobacco, knew they could preach their stories
and sew them into quilts, turn the most painful ones
into something laughable, and through that laughter,
exhale the history a country that tried again and again and again to steal their bodies, their spirit and their story. So as a child, I learned
to imagine an invisible finger taking me from word to word, from sentence to sentence, from ignorance to understanding. So as technology continues to speed ahead, I continue to read slowly, knowing that I am respecting
the author’s work and the story’s lasting power. And I read slowly to drown out the noise and remember those who came before me, who were probably the first people
who finally learned to control fire and circled their new power of flame and light and heat. And I read slowly to remember
the Selfish Giant, how he finally tore that wall down and let the children run free
through his garden. And I read slowly to pay homage
to my ancestors, who were not allowed to read at all. They, too, must have circled fires, speaking softly of their dreams, their hopes, their futures. Each time we read, write or tell a story, we step inside their circle, and it remains unbroken. And the power of story lives on. Thank you. (Applause)

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