What Reading Slowly Taught Me About Writing: Jacqueline Woodson (Transcript)

Jacqueline Woodson – TED Talk TRANSCRIPT

A long time ago, there lived a Giant, a Selfish Giant, whose stunning garden was the most beautiful in all the land.

One evening, this Giant came home and found all these children playing in his garden, and he became enraged. “My own garden is my own garden!” the Giant said.

And he built this high wall around it. The author Oscar Wilde wrote the story of “The Selfish Giant” in 1888.

Almost a hundred years later, that Giant moved into my Brooklyn childhood and never left. I was raised in a religious family, and I grew up reading both the Bible and the Quran. The hours of reading, both religious and recreational, far outnumbered the hours of television-watching.

Now, on any given day, you could find my siblings and I curled up in some part of our apartment reading, sometimes unhappily, because on summer days in New York City, the fire hydrant blasted, and to our immense jealousy, we could hear our friends down there playing in the gushing water, their absolute joy making its way up through our open windows.

But I learned that the deeper I went into my books, the more time I took with each sentence, the less I heard the noise of the outside world.

And so, unlike my siblings, who were racing through books, I read slowly — very, very slowly. I was that child with her finger running beneath the words, until I was untaught to do this; told big kids don’t use their fingers.

In third grade, we were made to sit with our hands folded on our desk, unclasping them only to turn the pages, then returning them to that position.

Our teacher wasn’t being cruel. It was the 1970s, and her goal was to get us reading not just on grade level but far above it. And we were always being pushed to read faster.

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But in the quiet of my apartment, outside of my teacher’s gaze, I let my finger run beneath those words. And that Selfish Giant again told me his story, how he had felt betrayed by the kids sneaking into his garden, how he had built this high wall, and it did keep the children out, but a grey winter fell over his garden and just stayed and stayed.

With each rereading, I learned something new about the hard stones of the roads that the kids were forced to play on when they got expelled from the garden, about the gentleness of a small boy that appeared one day, and even about the Giant himself.

Maybe his words weren’t rageful after all. Maybe they were a plea for empathy, for understanding.

“My own garden is my own garden.”

Years later, I would learn of a writer named John Gardner who referred to this as the “fictive dream,” or the “dream of fiction,” and I would realize that this was where I was inside that book, spending time with the characters and the world that the author had created and invited me into.

As a child, I knew that stories were meant to be savored, that stories wanted to be slow, and that some author had spent months, maybe years, writing them.

And my job as the reader — especially as the reader who wanted to one day become a writer — was to respect that narrative.

Long before there was cable or the Internet or even the telephone, there were people sharing ideas and information and memory through story. It’s one of our earliest forms of connective technology.

It was the story of something better down the Nile that sent the Egyptians moving along it, the story of a better way to preserve the dead that brought King Tut’s remains into the 21st century.

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And more than 2 million years ago, when the first humans began making tools from stone, someone must have said, “What if?” And someone else remembered the story.

And whether they told it through words or gestures or drawings, it was passed down; remembered: hit a hammer and hear its story.

The world is getting noisier. We’ve gone from boomboxes to Walkmen to portable CD players to iPods to any song we want, whenever we want it. We’ve gone from the four television channels of my childhood to the seeming infinity of cable and streaming.

As technology moves us faster and faster through time and space, it seems to feel like story is getting pushed out of the way, I mean, literally pushed out of the narrative.

But even as our engagement with stories change, or the trappings around it morph from book to audio to Instagram to Snapchat, we must remember our finger beneath the words.

Remember that story, regardless of the format, has always taken us to places we never thought we’d go, introduced us to people we never thought we’d meet and shown us worlds that we might have missed.

So as technology keeps moving faster and faster, I am good with something slower. My finger beneath the words has led me to a life of writing books for people of all ages, books meant to be read slowly, to be savored.

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