Jacqueline Woodson compares the writing process to pregnancy: A story seeds, gestates and takes form in the author’s psyche before being delivered onto the page. And if you stick with the well-known “birth a book” metaphor, you could say Woodson has a rather large family: In the last 25 years, she has become the proud parent of more than 30 works of fiction, poetry and nonfiction for children and young adults. The prolific author, who usually works on two or three books at a time, crafts vivid prose and poetry that have won many awards, including the Margaret A. Edwards Award for Lifetime Achievement. After publishing the memoir Brown Girl Dreaming last fall, Woodson decided to take a rare break from the work.
“While writing the book, I became conscious of all these connections to many of the other books I’ve written,” she says. “I realized Coming On Home Soon came from the time my mom went to New York and left us with our grandparents so she could find a place to live, and that Locomotion was connected to the moment in fifth grade when I realized my dream of becoming a writer would become a reality. I decided to stop writing until I could start again from a place where I wasn’t too aware of where the story was coming from.”
Brown Girl Dreaming is made up of short poems that tell of Woodson’s growing up in the American North and South during the ’60s and ’70s when the legacy of Jim Crow gave rise to the civil rights movement. The memoir, which Woodson describes as “a book of memories of my childhood,” explores the separations and losses in her family, along with the triumphs and moments of tenderness.
“There isn’t much precedence for the kind of writing Jackie does,” says author Veronica Chambers, who reviewed Brown Girl Dreaming for The New York Times. “There are the mega books – the Harry Potter series, the Roald Dahls, books that become movies – but in terms of literary fiction that is also accessible and offers thoughtful writing for children, there isn’t a huge group of people doing this, especially in terms of sharing the same gender and skin color. When Virginia Hamilton won the first MacArthur Fellowship for writing children’s fiction, my first thought was, ‘Great, that means one day Jacqueline Woodson is going to get one.’”
Brown Girl Dreaming also recounts Woodson’s journey of self-discovery through storytelling. In the segment “Composition Notebook,” she writes:
I don’t know how my first composition notebook ended up in my hands, long before I could really write someone must have known that this was all I needed.
Woodson used her first notebook to learn to write letters, her name and, eventually, stories.
“Writing was the outlet,” she says. “I always had story inside me but didn’t know what it was. I got into trouble for telling stories because people said I was lying, which was confusing. I didn’t know I could take what was happening in my head and shape it into this thing called writing. I didn’t know I could put it down on paper and be calmer. I write because I need to get it out of me.”
As a girl, Woodson read Judy Blume, Hans Christian Andersen and other popular children’s authors but missed seeing characters that looked like her in the books’ pages. When she began writing, one of her primary goals was to populate her stories with diverse casts of characters. Woodson cites inspiration from children’s literature scholar and professor emerita of education at Ohio State University Rudine Sims Bishop, who suggested that reading provides windows into other worlds and mirrors as reflections of the self.
“Kids of color have not had the mirrors to see reflections of themselves in literature,” Woodson says. “They have looked through windows into white worlds but the reverse has not been true.”
Maggie Hanelt, assistant director and youth services librarian at the Truro Library on Cape Cod in Massachusetts, invited Woodson to read at the library last summer because she wanted to present an author who could speak to issues of diversity. Each year, Hanelt offers books as gifts to graduating sixth graders from the Truro Central School and, in 2014, those books were Woodson’s Feathers and Miracle’s Boys.
“On the Cape, there isn’t as much diversity as in the city,” Hanelt says. “I wanted to show the sixth graders there are different writers and experiences. Jacqueline was so well-received that one mother said she planned on reading Brown Girl Dreaming to all three of her children.”
On the craft
Part of Woodson’s appeal is her expert way of telling a good story: deeply defined characters and a sense of place and meaning. She advises writers not to get too caught up in plotting during the early stages of the process and instead to begin with character.
“I start with one character, then another character comes along,” she says. “Each one has his or her own life, whether they’re on a stoop in Queens or in prison in upstate New York or in a school in Manhattan. I start writing those scenes, then put them together, which gets me moving toward something. Often, I don’t know where I’m going until I get there.”
Woodson uses these initial sketches of scene and dialogue to figure out who her characters are and what their journey will be. Because she never outlines, she rarely knows where her stories are headed. Discovery is what she loves about process.
“I have a character’s voice in my head, and I start writing down what he or she says,” Woodson explains. “This helps me figure out where my characters have been, how they will get where they are going and who is going to be there to help them.”
These first steps also help Woodson craft dialogue that simultaneously reflects her characters’ complexity and youth-centered outlook. What also helps is memory.
“People tend to block out what was unpleasant about their childhoods, but I don’t,” Woodson says. “I never left the mind of a young person, and I remember who I was and what I wanted as a child. I remember how I spoke so when I write I pay attention to cadence and what’s left unsaid. Along with memory, authors writing for young people need to know and care about the world their characters live in so they can see the meaning in young people’s dialogue no matter how staccato or hesitant it is, or how few words they use. There’s no magic formula for that.”
When it comes to craft, however, magic may be part of the mix.
“What’s easy to take for granted in Jackie’s writing is the close-up magic at work in it, the sleight-of-hand,” says Chambers. “There’s magic you do from the stage, like Ringling Brothers might do with big sets. That’s the kind of magic a lot of big writers do. Then there’s close-up magic. The magician has a deck of cards, or she’s making things disappear into handkerchiefs. Jackie’s work is like close-up magic. It looks easy, but it’s actually really hard.”
The magic starts with silence.
Woodson’s “organic” process requires complete solitude and stillness. After her partner Juliet Widoff, who is a physician, and their daughter Toshi, 12, and son Jackson-Leroi, 6, leave for the day, Woodson closes the door to her office on the top floor of the family’s Brooklyn brownstone so she can be alone with her work. Even Toffee, the dog, must stay outside so as not to disturb her concentration. Though she works on several stories at a time, one story eventually captivates her attention more than the others and narrows her focus. The stories themselves develop through character, but the structure of her books always depends on the audience.
“For middle grade, you have to be in the moment,” she says. “You can go in the past a little, but middle graders have no future sense of the world yet because they haven’t lived it. With young adults, you can be a little more daring and talk about things on a deeper level, but you’re still confined to a certain amount of years. With adult fiction, you can be all over the place. You have the present, past and future.”
Woodson cautions aspiring authors not to believe the misconception that children’s and young adult fiction is easy to write because the books are short and the readers young.
“Anyone who believes writing for this age group is easy will be sorely disappointed,” she says. “The story and characters need to be authentic. If your book isn’t authentic, it’s not going to get published, and if it does get published, it’s not going to get read.”
For Woodson, the most important requirement for writing authentically for youth is respect for the audience.
“You have to respect young people and believe they have something to say,” Woodson explains. “You have to believe they’re valid in the world, and their thoughts are not just children’s thoughts.”
Woodson also advises aspiring authors not to think of the genre as a means to educate or instruct young people on their developmental paths.
“I always say I write to learn, not to teach, and if I wanted to teach I’d write textbooks,” she says with a laugh. “Adults don’t turn to literature to learn. We turn to literature to have great experiences, to meet great people, to have a window into a world we may not have otherwise experienced and to see some of ourselves. Young people go to literature for the same reasons.”
Woodson tackles difficult issues in her books – teen pregnancy, substance abuse, death – and never shies away from delving into the ways race and class shape lives. But by grounding her stories in character, Woodson avoids writing the kind of heavy-handed prose that often bogs down writers too caught up in “teaching” young readers.
“Some writers get confused by how much they have to ‘say,’” she explains. “I wouldn’t suggest those writers let go of their ideas but rather ask themselves: What do I really want to say, how am I going to say it and, most importantly, why does it matter to the rest of the world?”
Part of Woodson’s mastery of the craft is her ability to explore these weighty issues while still managing to tell a story that holds her young audience’s interest. At a time when popular wisdom suggests the gap in understanding between generations has never been wider, writing for young people seems particularly challenging. How does Woodson bridge the gap?
“You have to understand a young person’s mind and be engaging,” she says about the many demands on young people’s attention. “They have more things they can do instead of reading. But they’re still engaged. They still want to belong and fit in. They still think their family is strange. It’s part of becoming an adult. I go to the heart of that when I’m writing.”
With so many parameters placed around youth fiction, Woodson continues to choose to write for young people instead of adults. “Young people are just more interesting to me,” she says.
Be funny and fearless
In the midst of family life, Woodson has maintained consistent writing goals, though she has had to find new ways to manage her time. For instance, when Toshi was an infant, Woodson nursed her with one hand and wrote with the other. The children may be responsible for another significant difference in Woodson’s writing life, she says: She’s funnier.
“As she gets older, my daughter tells me she likes books that are funnier than mine and says I need to start writing funny books,” Woodson says. “The humor in my writing now is a result of being a mom and knowing when I sit down with my kids, I want to laugh, and I want them to laugh.”
Despite her long career and more than a decade of raising children, Woodson has never suffered writers’ block, but she has advice for writers who think they have.
“What people identify as writers’ block, I see as fear,” she says. “The first step to getting over it is recognizing what you’re afraid of: Are you afraid to reveal something about yourself, are you afraid your story will fail, are you afraid someone will judge you? Whatever is keeping you silent is the thing you need to look at deeply and move beyond.”
One tip Woodson offers to writers struggling with blockages is a technique she practices regularly.
“I always start writing saying no one is ever going to see this,” she says. “That way, I’m freed up to put on the page what I might not if I thought someone was going to read it. Then I read it out loud so I’m able to identify what I feel safe putting into the world. That gets me to the next step.”
Though Woodson has a lengthy list of literary heroes, she cites Bastard Out of Carolina author Dorothy Allison as giving her one of the best pieces of writing advice.
“Dorothy said everyone has a story and a right to tell it,” Woodson recalls. “Until then I didn’t realize a part of me didn’t believe my stories had a place in the world. Her words unlocked me. The more I wrote and published books, the more I realized how hungry the world was for what I had to say.”
And that informs Woodson’s advice for aspiring writers: “If you want to do it, don’t question it. Just do it.”
Laura Warrell has written for Salon.com, Racialicious.com, the Boston Globe, Boston Herald and Boston Phoenix, as well as Broadsheet in Madrid, Spain. She is a contributing writer to Numero Cinq Magazine, an assistant fiction editor at Upstreet Magazine and a graduate of the Creative Writing Program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Jacqueline Woodson’s literary influences
- Virginia Hamilton was the first woman of color I read. More than anything, reading her books as a child and knowing that she was black sent a message to me that I could do this, too.
- John Steptoe, whom I mention in Brown Girl Dreaming. The voice in his book Stevie was at once so familiar and so universal – that of a child being jealous of his mother sharing her love with another child. At the same time, because Stevie was black and spoke like the people I knew and loved, Steptoe was teaching me about the importance of voice in story and how being true to one’s authentic voice is really important.
- Cornelius Eady’s You Don’t Miss Your Water is a collection of poetry I go to again and again for helping me with story. Eady is able to do and say a lot in very spare poems. When I begin to feel like I’m getting too wordy, I revisit my poets.
- Marie Howe’s What the Living Do is another book that helps me with story and minimalism.
- Nick Flynn’s memoir The Ticking Is the Bomb and his collection of poetry Some Ether are both amazing books that helped me with both the craft of the memoir and again, putting text on the page in a way that is spare yet filled with story and emotion.
- Catherine E. McKinley’s The Book of Sarahs: A Family in Parts gave me some of the early tools I needed to begin to write about family. It takes a certain bravery to take on one’s own history in the way she did in this book. Aside from being a really great read, this book made me less afraid.
Poems by Jacqueline
My Mother and Grace
It is the south that brings my mother
and my father’s mother, Grace,
Grace’s family is from Greenville, too.
So my mother
is home to her, in a way her own kids
You know how those Woodsons are, Grace says.
The Woodsons this and the North that
making Mama smile, remember
that Grace, too, was someone else before. Remember
that Grace, like my mother, wasn’t always a Woodson.
They are home to each other, Grace
to my mother is familiar
as the Greenville air.
Both know that southern way of talking
without words, remember when
the heat of summer
could melt the mouth,
so southerners stayed quiet
looked out over the land,
nodded at what seemed like nothing
but that silent nod said everything
anyone needed to hear.
Here in Ohio, my mother and Grace
of too much air between words, are happy
just for another familiar body in the room.
But the few words in my mother’s mouth
become the missing after Odell dies. Different
than either of them has ever known.
I’m sorry about your brother, Grace says.
Guess God needed him back and sent you a baby girl.
But both of them know
the hole that is the missing isn’t filled now.
Uhmm, my mother says.
Bless the dead and the living, Grace says.
Then more silence
both of them knowing
there’s nothing left to say.
The Promise Land
When my uncle gets out of jail
he isn’t just my uncle anymore, he is
Robert the Muslim and wears
a small black kufi on his head.
And even though we know
we Witnesses are the chosen ones, we listen
to the stories he tells about
a man named Muhammad
and a holy place called Mecca
and the strength of all Black people.
We sit in a circle around him, his hands
moving slow through the air, his voice
calmer and quieter than it was before
he went away.
When he pulls out a small rug to pray on
I kneel beside him, wanting to see
wanting to know the place
he calls the Promise Land.
Look with your heart and your head, he tells me
his own head bowed.
It’s out there in front of you.
You’ll know when you get there.
Poems reprinted from Brown Girl Dreaming with permission from Jacqueline Woodson © 2014, Nancy Paulsen Books/Penguin.
Laura Warrell has written for Salon.com, Racialicious.com, the Boston Globe, Boston Herald and Boston Phoenix, as well as Broadsheet in Madrid, Spain. She is a contributing writer to Numero Cinq Magazine, an assistant fiction editor at Upstreet Magazine and a graduate of the Creative Writing Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.