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How Do I Come Home Again? — The Zena Sutherland Lecture

Once upon a time, I was a girl who wanted to write. I wanted to tell stories. I wanted to watch letters shape themselves into words on the page. I wanted to understand words and how and why they have impact. I wanted to communicate, to not be silent. I wanted, when I was older and understood the world a little bet­ter, to write toward a greater good, to create change through fic­tion somehow. The world was too crazy, and I wanted to tame it. I wanted to re-create it, and I wanted the historically invisible, his­torically poor, historically other people to win this time.

I didn’t know about awards or fame or notoriety or autograph­ing lines. I didn’t know that at the end of the rainbow there was not gold but expectation. Come to think of it, I didn’t know there was a rainbow. I knew words — their magic, their power. I knew that solitude was a balm and that each time I embraced it, I was healed. I knew the beauty of quiet, the musical caress of wind when the world fell away. This was always home  to me — that place I could get to inside myself that didn’t know my name, that had never read a book of mine, that loved me unconditionally.

* * *

At a school in Pennsylvania, chairs are moved into a circle and I sit, having lunch with a group of teachers. Lunch with teachers during an author visit isn’t about eating — it’s about teachers getting a chance to ask you lots of questions while your mouth is full of catered sandwich. It’s about having to cover up your inherent shyness lest the teachers panic about how you will perform in front of their students — where of course you’ll be fine because the young people are the people you know best. But to get to them, often, you have to have lunch with the gatekeepers. The questions roll around to my writing process.

“My writing process,” I say, “is about finding time to write while dealing with the emotional struggles of trying to raise a three­ year-old of color in a world where little colored girls still struggle over their self-image.” Some of the teachers nod — how does one do this? Because it’s not a question about Motherhood — it’s a question about teaching and learning. It’s a question about chang­ing the world. How do we walk into the world and help children understand their importance here? How do we walk and work and write against hatred and intolerance and internalized racism and classism? How do we get young people to exist on this earth, in this country, in this city, in our homes and classrooms­ — unafraid? This is my writing process — to walk through the world with my eyes wide open with the hopes of making it safer for my child and all children. But how, the teachers want to know. “I don’t know,” I say, the tuna fish going chalky in my mouth. I really don’t. Even though there are sometimes similarities, writers’ processes are as different as their fingerprints, as varied as the voices in their heads. The process of letting the stories in and out is something I don’t believe can be taught. For myself, the process is simple. “The characters come to me and they tell me stuff and I write down what they’re saying and it doesn’t always make sense but I know it will eventually.” The gatekeepers raise their eyebrows. I know they don’t understand — because I don’t understand. I could say, “I just think about something that happened to me or to someone else or something I read and then I write it down.” But that would be lying. The act of writing a novel is far more complicated. We live in a world that wants to simplify, to put in a formula and pull out a product. The only formula I know is the act of listening to the internal monologues and trusting them. It was Audre Lorde, in her memoir The Cancer Journals, who said, “We must wake up knowing we have work to do and go to bed knowing we’ve done it.” I believe my work as a writer began long before I wrote my first story. My work has always been to trust the stories — without question, without doubt. Because doubt is the most destructive element in a writer’s mind. Doubt stops the pen cold. So my writing process begins with trying to teach my daugh­ter her importance in the world so that doubt doesn’t seep in at some point and stop her. My work as a writer is to show young readers they all have stories and a right to tell those stories. If I don’t believe this, they won’t. Maybe they won’t all write that story — maybe some will photograph it or illustrate it, run it in a quarter mile, hoop it or teach it or preach it. But it is still their story, their importance in the world, their legitimacy. No, we’re not all writers, and when I walk into a room and hear a teacher say, “We have thirty young writers right here,” I have to control my wincing. What they are is more than writers — they’re young people with stories to tell, they’re young people who matter, they’re young people who can change the world. To call them all “young writers” feels painfully reductive.

* * *

As a child, growing up with limited access to television, I watched the world. And from a very young age, the world terrified me. It didn’t help that I grew up Jehovah’s Witness, where we learned early on about the world coming to an end. But I think I was less frightened of Armageddon than I was of the everyday. I grew up  in Bushwick before it became East Williamsburg — what it’s called now that white people are moving there. I went to Public School 106 — and loved it. I adored the smell of the hallways and the smoothness of my desk. I started longingly out my classroom window, watching the seasons change and always feeling a certain sadness with the changes. I adored my teachers, who were always white and so foreign to me they seemed almost otherworldly. I had no idea where they went when they left PS 106. I knew where I went — around the corner to Madison Street, where my grandmother always had a snack waiting and the table cleared so that my siblings and I could sit down and do our homework.

My teachers had never walked into this world. They didn’t know the smell of our kitchen, that my grandmother always wore the same faded apron while she cooked, that my siblings and I made faces at one another behind her back, that my older, far brighter sister leaned over me, her hair gracing the side of my face, to help me struggle through math or science or history. They didn’t know about our limited access to television, that we had Bible studies three nights a week, that we did not eat pork because our Muslim uncle had explained to us how unhealthy it was — or rather, had scared the lights out of us by telling us the iridescence on sliced ham was the part of the pig they couldn’t kill. When I returned to school the next morning with my chewed-up pages of homework, eraser marks from top to bottom, my teachers didn’t know that my grandmother had turned from the stove when my sister said I wasn’t listening and said, “You’ll sit there until it’s right.” This was my world. And already the message was seeping in: “The way you live, Jacqueline, is not the right way.”

* * *

So the years passed. I grew older. I kept writing. I read all the time — but slowly. Slowly at first, because reading was a challenge and the stories overwhelmed me. Later, I read slowly because I was reading as an engaged reader, slowly picking the elements of the story apart — dialogue, setting, character development. When I cried, I went back trying to find the exact words the author used to evoke such sadness. When I laughed, I went back — was the character in the story laughing, too? I didn’t want to be a passive reader, reading just to hear a good story. l wanted to be a part of that story — right up in it with the author and the characters and the moment. I had no language for any of this, and looking back I think having a language for it would have made me too conscious of my process. A writer should never be too conscious of the process. I don’t think about my reader w1til I am way deep in my novel. I think  about the people in the story constantly — what’s going to happen to them? I never outline, never know where a story is going, never know how it’s going to get there. I work hard on not having doubt. Once the voice of a character is in my head, my hope is that it will continue until the story is on the page. If I’m writing from a male perspective, I don’t think, “But Jackie, you’ve never been a male,” because that would open the door to doubt. I do think about what I have in common with my protagonist, what I would like about this character if he and I were friends. By the end of the book, I want to love my characters, because I know if I love them, the reader will love them.

* * *

When I was in third grade, my teacher, Ms. Moskowitz, read “The Little Match Girl” to our class. I found myself tearing up and then beginning to out-and-out bawl. Afterward, to comfort me, she said, “It’s just  a story — it  didn’t really happen.” But it had really happened. In my brain, each moment of that book —  from the cold seeping into her bones to her lying down to die as the last match burnt out — was as real to me as that third-grade classroom. As John Gardner writes in On Becoming a Novelist, I was in the “dream of fiction.” And what is supposed to happen is that the dream becomes broken once the book is closed. But as with  so many stories from that point on, the dream stayed with me. That afternoon, I told my mom about it all, and she  threatened to go up to school and tell that teacher not to ever read something like that again. But I stopped her, telling her that I wanted to hear it again. I wanted to hear it a hundred times. I even took the book out of our neighborhood library. And later, when the same teacher read “The Selfish Giant” to us, I had a similar reaction. When the little boy said to the giant, “These are the wounds of Love,” I began to cry. “You let me play once in your garden,” the boy said. “And today you must come with me to my garden, which is Paradise.” As the giant fell down dead, I began to sob. I had no idea what was going on here — the whole boy-as-Christ thing was foreign to me; Oscar Wilde’s history was foreign to me. I was a skinny nin e- year-old girl who was in the dream, and that’s all that mattered.

* * *

Sometimes, when I write, I close my eyes as my fingers fly over the keys. When my friend James saw me typing once, he said it was like The Matrix. I know this writing thing is a gift, although I don’t know why it was the gift I was given. I know it became clear the first time I heard Ms. Moskowitz read “The Little Match Girl,” when everything in me wanted to do what Andersen did, to feel again the way Andersen made me feel. Years later, I would get so many letters from young people for two of my books — I Hadn’t Meant to Tell You This and If You Come Softly. In the end of the first, two young girls walk off the page and out of the story. In the lat­ter, a young boy is killed suddenly. I know that when those young people were reading these books, they were in the dream. And although it was painful and devastating and hard to push through, it was also, and above all, cathartic. They needed to walk through that pain and get to the other side. For whatever reason — like me as a third grader — they needed to grieve.

Sometimes, at night, my daughter will just start crying — and when we ask her what she’s crying for, she’ll say something ran­dom like,”I want to play hopscotch with a blue chalk tomorrow.” And although you never want to sec your child grieve, it’s easier when you understand that the tears are a washing-away of the day and are as necessary and important as the laughter.

* * *

We live in a culture of fear these days. In New York, the mes­ sages are everywhere (“If You See Something, Say Something”): on billboards in the subway over photos of brown paper bags left unattended. Remember when we weren’t afraid of brown paper bags? Our shoes coming off at airports, our knapsacks searched on buses. For many months after 9/11, I questioned the point of my own writing, of art in general. But to live afraid is to live a half-life. And to shut down and disconnect makes the life smaller still. I believe in the power of the pen, in the voices of young people. No, I never wanted to be a writer with a capital W. I wanted to see myself and my people on the page. I wanted to use writing to make the world a bit safer. I wanted to bring readers into the dream of fiction and show them their own power inside that dream. I look back on the stories that shaped me, that changed me, and know this gift is bigger than long hours spent at my grandmother’s kitchen table, bigger than the warped messages of what was and is beautiful, bigger than my foreign teachers and “The Selfish Giant” and being asked to write about my summer vacation. Bigger than our country’s fear. Audre Lorde said it best in The Cancer Journals: “We can sit in our safe corners mute as bot­tles, and we will still be no less afraid.” So each time I sit down to write, I ask myself, “What is it I can do today to communicate? What can I do to help myself and someone else in the world be a little less invisible and a little less afraid?” And some days, no answers come. Those are terrible writing days. But some days, the characters in my head refuse to be mute as bottles — and on those days, it’s hard not to believe that a change is gonna come.

And this is what I know now — you don’t come home again, because you never leave home. Home is this place inside of me that will be remembered long after the last book has gone out of print. It is the space where the world first began for me — the open­ness, the hunger to understand, the benefit of each doubt, the desire for peace and fairness and understanding. Home is not the Newbery or the Coretta Scott King or the Caldecott but the place before the awards that gave me courage to put the first word down on paper. Home is the plane touching down and my family of ori­gin and family of choice waiting with dinner on the table. Home is as close as my own hand pressed against my heart, reminding me that it is still beating, I am still here.

Home is the voice of my grandmother: “In all your getting, Jackie, get understanding.” Home is here — this place inside of me, inside of each of us, that we curl into. The place that keeps us whole. That keeps us happy. That keeps us…on our way.

Jacqueline Woodson delivered the Zena Sutherland Lecture, from which this article is adapted, on May 5, 2006, in Chicago. Her most recent book is Feathers (Putnam), reviewed in this issue. From the March/April 2007 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Jacqueline Woodson About Jacqueline Woodson

Jacqueline Woodson is the winner of the 2015 Coretta Scott King Author Award for Brown Girl Dreaming (Paulsen/Penguin). She is the National Ambassador for Young People's Literature 2018-2019 and the 2018 Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award Laureate.

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