Jacqueline Woodson: “My Writing Life: A Brief History”

Jacqueline Woodson. Photo by Nick Doll.

By Kristin Taylor

The unusually cold wind whipping off the ocean may have rattled the canopies as the sun set, but it didn’t deter the audience from huddling under layered shirts and towels-turned-blankets to hear Jacqueline Woodson’s incandescent talk, “My Writing Life: A Brief History,” on the third night of the seminar. 

Acclaimed author and local bookshop owner Judy Blume introduced Woodson with affection and respect, noting Woodson’s 2020 MacArthur fellowship and adding her other awards were “too numerous to name.” Blume went on to say she and Woodson have a special connection because they share Lincoln’s birthday, Feb. 12. 

As she took the stage, Woodson reminded the audience this birthday was coming up, so there was still time to send gifts: preferably, poems.

Woodson opened her talk by saying she’d been inspired to only read from her banned books that night — “which is most of them” — as she explored her writing journey since most books being banned are about Black and brown people; books that “don’t center whiteness.” By reading from her banned books, she centered and honored these voices.

“I am grateful for Black folks every single day,” she said. “I am grateful for my melanin.” Echoing Lucille Clifton, she added, “We weren’t meant to survive, but we did.”

She began reading from Brown Girl Dreaming, her award-winning memoir in verse, starting with her birthday poem, “February 12, 1963,” and continuing with “Tobacco” and “Flag.”

Woodson mixed excerpts from the book with stories of her childhood, describing her close relationship with her mother and grandparents, being raised a Jehovah’s Witness, and finding joy in storytelling.

“Everything led to me being a writer,” she said. 

Woodson described the second book, Another Brooklyn, as a mix of nonfiction, fiction, and poetry: the nonfiction is the setting — the Bushwick of her childhood. The fiction is the story of the four girls, and the poetry lies in her  line spacing, white space, and language.

Reading a passage about the girls’ joy in their friendships during the difficult transition to becoming young women, Woodson broke into song.

“We hand-songed Down down baby, down by the roller coaster. Sweet sweet baby I’ma never let you go because we wanted to believe we were years and years away from sweet, sweet babies,” she read. “We wanted to believe we would always be connected in this way.”

As she wrapped up this portion of her talk, she paused.

“I don’t know why that book is banned,” she said, “and I’m not going to look into it.”

Woodson ended her talk with an excerpt from her 2019 novel Red at the Bone, which she recently adapted into an yet-to-be-released movie. 

Despite the growing chill, she welcomed questions from the audience, which included queries about her writing process (she uses headphones to transport her to another world), her inspiration for the character of Aubrey (a high school boyfriend who was just “a good, good guy” and a desire to write against the trope of the absent Black father), and her experiences in Hollywood (better when she had more control but still challenging). 

In a particularly poignant moment, an audience member who works with a nonprofit to support children with incarcerated parents rose to thank Woodson for her children’s book Visiting Day, saying the book validated those children’s experiences and brought them joy. 

“The greatest thing we can do is to serve our community with our gifts,” she said. “You, my queen, have done that.”

Community is central to Woodson’s work and, it seems, her being. From asking audience members to share their names when they asked a question (“I want to know you,” she sang) to reveling in the time she spent connecting with Black authors during the week, Woodson’s talk resonated with one of the most beautiful lines from Red at the Bone

“Look at us hugging. Look at us laughing. Look how we begin and end each other.”

I can think of no better way to sing America.

Kristin Taylor, a 2023 teacher and librarian scholarship recipient, is an English and journalism teacher at the Archer School for Girls in Los Angeles and she is the Scholastic Press Rights Director for JEA. Like Jacqueline Woodson and Judy Blume, Kristin was born on Feb. 12.

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