Tangent Talk with Jacqueline Woodson

We were so lucky to have Allison Augustyn, Seattle writer and editor (and former SAL staff member!), join us for our recent event with Jacqueline Woodson. Allison is a writer of young adult fiction, and she has also written for the Chicago Sun-TimesSeattle Times, and the Field Museum. We are delighted to have a special guest blog post about what it was like to meet one of her literary heroes and hear her “Woodson-worthy observations.” 

By Allison Augustyn

You might know Jacqueline Woodson from the National Book Award-winning Brown Girl Dreaming, though she’s written over 30 (!) other books, won many other awards, and was named the Poetry Foundation’s Young People’s Poet Laureate in 2015. So get back to work, all you other writers!

After you read this, of course. It’s all right to go off on tangents, as long as you find your way home. “New Yorkers go on tangents, but we come back,” Woodson said with a laugh. “Have faith in the New Yorker in front of you to get back to the point eventually.”

We do have faith. Woodson’s stories – on page or stage – take us to new places once rarely visited in literature for young people, filled with characters who become real, perspectives that broaden our own. Woodson’s stories bring us back to ourselves.

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“I realized the more specific the story, the more universal it becomes,” Woodson said. “Finding your voice is a journey, finding what you’re passionate about. I’m still finding my voice, even now. When they talk about ‘brilliance,’ it’s passion recognized and celebrated, and we all have that in some way.”

Right now she’s celebrating “James Baldwin, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Mildred Taylor, Saeed Jones, just everyone,” including her family, who she talked about extensively. And it was the process of writing about family in Brown Girl Dreaming that helped her find a sense of who she was as a writer and person who grew up in South Carolina, and then Brooklyn as a member of the Great Migration. “Who came before me, and who was I?” she asked.

She started to remember. She wanted to write in a narrative, but realized she was fighting the form. “Memory comes with all this white space around it. I had to figure out how it worked on the page. And poetry is memory – it also comes in small moments with white space around it.”

Revelations about writing and life come when you remain open. “If you don’t live in the world in a deep and nuanced way, you won’t write a deep and nuanced book,” she said. She talked about how she often removes her glasses at home, to avoid taking in more of the world, because, “Writers are people in the world with their skin pulled back.”

Here are some other Woodson-worthy observations that add up to a writing life worth reading and emulating. So pull back your skin, put on your glasses, and consider the following, with special attention to Beyoncé and basketball:

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TANGENT TALK

YOUNG ADULT vs. ADULT. “When writing for adults, you can pull back the lens a little; with YA, there is an immediacy. In the world of YA, librarians and teachers and people love you. In the adult world, you are reviewed by someone you broke up with…badly.”

ON MAKING TIME TO WRITE. “If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be a good mother, partner, friend. I write to stay sane, to get the characters out of my head and onto the page.”

PARTNERS OF WRITERS. “Getting a book out is a long journey. Partners of writers should get applause. We’re not easy. But the reward is phenomenal!” [big laugh from audience = TRUTH]

It’s healthy not to know where your writing is coming from. You never want it to be self-conscious or didactic.”

WRITER’S BLOCK. “Doubt comes from an outward gaze, worrying what will others think. Writer’s block is fear. I have fear, but it’s not connected to writing.”

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WRITING DIVERSITY. “Adrienne Rich said, ‘How can I tell my story when you’re standing on my throat?’ Writers have a responsibility to tell stories that are respectful when writing across gender, race, but also aren’t someone else’s stories. We Need Diverse Books is about that change.”

BEYONCE and “FORMATION.” “I can watch that video three times a day.” [silence from the audience] “It’s Beyoncé, you guys!”

MORE ON “FORMATION” AND “BAMA.” “[African Americans] worked until we died. We made other people who died, and that was the history of enslavement. But we didn’t die. We became doctors and lawyers and presidents.”

ON PUBLISHING “THE PAIN OF THE WATERMELON JOKE” in THE NEW YORK TIMES. “No, I didn’t read the comments section – this is not a dialogue.”

JACKIE as FIRST-STRING. “I’ve been a writer since I was 10 years old,” she said. “What would I have been if not a writer? I would have played for the Knicks.”

 

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Allison Augustyn writes nonfiction and young adult fiction. She was a music columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times, an exhibits writer at The Field Museum, a nonprofit consultant in Africa, and published an award-winning book on geology for the University of Chicago. Her fiction has appeared in The Master’s Review, Whole Terrain, and Doll Hospital, among others. 

 

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