It’s remarkable when you can see so much of yourself in a person who initially seems so different from you. Jacqueline Woodson was born in Ohio and grew up in Greenville, South Carolina after her mom left her dad. She moved to Brooklyn with her family when she was seven to escape Jim Crow. She has two older siblings and one younger, and her middle child syndrome was confirmed when she realized no one could remember what time she was born. Her family was both practicing Jehovah’s Witnesses and Muslims, and she saw so much crossover that she never understood how they were different.
I was born in Haverhill, Massachusetts, and my parents moved our family to a small town in New Hampshire so I could go to a better school system. I was with the same group of kids from first through twelfth grade, and my town is over 90 percent white. I’m an only child, and I was born at 12:35am. My parents only ever introduced me to Catholicism when I was growing up, and they sent me to Sunday school until I was confirmed in tenth grade.
Woodson and I are undeniably different; that’s to be expected when comparing an award-winning, African American author and a white college sophomore who’s still working on completing her English major. However, our love stories with reading and writing are remarkably similar. Woodson served as the final speaker in the Fall 2018 installment of Lehigh’s Notations Series at Zoellner Arts Center, and it was in listening to her presentation that I realized she’s everything I hope to be one day.
Woodson knew she wanted to be a writer when she was only seven years old–I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was eight. English was her favorite subject in school, although she loved anything that let her write. She was a slow reader, but not for the reasons that you’d assume. In her talk, she detailed how she would consider every word and every sentence carefully, so as to figure out just how the author put the story together. If something made her sad or angry or feel love, she wanted to know why. Her teachers didn’t understand this, and they thought her poor performance on those awful speed reading tests was evidence that she was ‘behind.’ It took until they saw her passion and skill in writing for them to realize their mistake. After this, they made writing her reward. So long as she completed all her other work, she had the freedom to write. Woodson described this as the moment her teachers finally saw her, and she thrived.
I was admittedly stunned in the audience because she had basically described my entire elementary school experience. I’d always hated those reading tests because I never felt like I could enjoy the story, and I didn’t let myself slow down because I was scared that not doing well meant all the good books would be taken away. My teachers also realized where my true passions were. They knew I would always jump at the chance to write, and they gave me as many opportunities as they could. Just like Woodson, I felt like I could really and truly see myself on the page, and I hoped others would, too.
One of Woodson’s most powerful points was the fact that you have to be able to see yourself in your own writing; it’s through this that you can feel empowered. Even if your story isn’t autobiographical, it’ll always be “emotionally biographical.” She defined this as the idea that a little bit of you will be in every character you create, and a little bit of that character will always stay with you. After hearing this, I thought about every character I’ve ever created—she was right. Intentional or not, each one of them remains true to me and to my life in some way. Writing consistently allows you to both learn and create from yourself; the hardest part is knowing where to start.
Woodson writes everything from poetry to picture books to young adult fiction to adult novels. She never settles on one genre because she doesn’t want to get bored, and she takes “writer’s block” as a sign to write something else. Because what’s the point in creating a story if it’s not the one you’re supposed to be writing?
There’ve been times when I’ve questioned if writing is what I’m meant to do; Woodson faced a similar experience when her family insisted she was going to be a teacher or a lawyer or anything but a writer. But, she followed her passion. She now lives in Brooklyn with her family, has traveled all over the world, and writes for a living. That’s the life I want, and I wasn’t expecting to see it on the stage in front of me that night. I didn’t even know if it was possible, but Woodson’s words dissipated all my doubts. I believed her. My faith didn’t come from her credibility as a nationally recognized author; it came from the passion emanating from her every word.
That passion was Woodson’s key for achieving brilliance: “brilliance is your passion recognized.”
*Feature image courtesy of Woodson’s public social media profile*