The first of several posts I will write this week about my experiences at the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) goes to author Jacqueline Woodson, who handed me my most unexpected moment of the weekend.
Prior to the conference, I had heard of Jackie (as everyone called her, and since I am now one of the intimate 1000+ that sat in the room with her I suppose I can too), but hadn’t read any of her work. She talked about her writing process and philosophy a bit, but mostly she read from her own books.
She read from Locomotion, a book about an eleven-year old boy who, with the help of a caring teacher, is learning to find his voice and make sense of his troubled life through poetry. She wrote the entire story as a series of Lonnie’s poems. The words were gorgeous, but the real stunner was the Sybil-like transformation that overtook Jackie as she began reading. Her voice was Lonnie’s, her attitude was Lonnie’s, her gestures were Lonnie’s, her posture was Lonnie’s. Jackie was Lonnie and Lonnie was Jackie. At first, I found this transmutation jarring, then disorienting, then heartbreaking, then — miraculous. In that moment I learned that if you do not dig so deep into yourself that there is no meaningful differentiation between you and what you write, than you need to keep mining.
Which is not to say that all writing is autobiographical in the “life story” sense of the word. In fact, Jackie said it best. “When I write, it’s not physically autobiographical, but it’s emotionally autobiographical… You have to FEEL what’s happening.”
But then she concluded by reading a truly autobiographical book called Show Way – a Newbery Honor picture book that traces the story of her female ancestors back to her great-grandmother’s great-grandmother, a slave sold away from her parents at age seven. This little girl grows up, has a daughter who is also sold at age seven. We watch the world slowly change as the Show Way tradition – a form of quilting showing “a road” to freedom, to a better life – is passed from mother to daughter all the way to Woodson’s own daughter.
As each baby girl is born, Woodson tells us that the mother “Loved that baby up so. Yes, she loved that baby up.” Here are a few other favorite lines from the book.
“When Mathis May was seven, she got sold away. Took a star from her mama’s blanket, took a little piece of the road. Pressed it to her face when she wanted to remember back home. Held it to her heart to feel back home… And at night, she sewed stars and moons and roads — tiny patch pieces of stars and moons and roads.” Mathis May had a baby girl named Soonie, and she “Loved that Soonie up so. Yes she loved that Soonie up.”
I have never been so profoundly moved by an author reading his or her work, in part because my Em is now seven. We can all see our own children in these children. Mostly though, it was the way Jackie read that story. The reading united the past and the present. We watched and listened as if it were happening right there in that room. At the end, I couldn’t speak; I couldn’t move. My mouth went dry. I felt like I needed a nap or a drink (or both). In that moment, I knew I had just experienced the sublime alchemy that occurs when words resonate with you so deeply that they reorder the cells in your body, and BAM — you are no longer the same person.
I staggered out of the ballroom, somehow made it through my next session until I was able to fall face-down on my bed and marinate in the emotional impact of that reading.
Writing gurus often talk about “writing from the heart.” Jackie doesn’t write from the heart. She puts her living, breathing, beating, bleeding heart right there on the page. THAT is our job as writers. That is the courage that changes the world.
Since Jackie’s speech, I’ve been contemplating the following verse from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot (forgive me, but I constantly examine my life through that poem):
“And would it have been worth it, after all,
After the cups, the marmalade, the tea,
Among the porcelain, among some talk of you and me,
Would it have been worth while,
To have bitten off the matter with a smile,
To have squeezed the universe into a ball
To roll it toward some overwhelming question,
To say: “I am Lazarus, come from the dead,
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all”–
If one, settling a pillow by her head,
Should say: ‘That is not what I meant at all.
That is not it, at all.'”
Now my answer to that question is: If my writing will make even one person feel the way Jackie’s writing made me feel, then yes – it will be worth it after all.
I was very happy to get home, hug my kids and breathe in their doughy fresh-baked smell. I’m gonna love my babies up so. Yes I love those babies up.Authors, Books, Children's Books, SCBWI, Writing · Tags: Children's Books, Jacqueline Woodson, Newbery Honor, Poetry, SCBWI, T.S. Eliot, Writing