Award-winning poet and author Jacqueline Woodson ’16 (Hon.) spoke to Adelphi about life and the creative process.
When Jacqueline Woodson ’16 (Hon.) attended Adelphi University in the ’80s, she was the only African American student in the entire English department. Today, she’s an award-winning author, well known for her empowering and diverse characters in more than 30 skillfully crafted books.
While she’s famous for her stirring poetry, not all of her work is in verse. Woodson’s most recent book, Another Brooklyn, is prose, but still retains an elegant, almost rhythmic flow:
“For a long time, my mother wasn’t dead yet. Mine could have been a more tragic story. My father could have given in to the bottle or the needle or a woman and left my brother and me to care for ourselves—or worse, in the care of New York City Children’s Services, where, my father said, there was seldom a happy ending.”
Another Brooklyn was released in August 2016 and received incredible praise right from the get-go. It’s also a finalist for what could be Woodson’s second National Book Award. Her last book, Brown Girl Dreaming—an autobiography written entirely in verse—won the National Book Award in 2014.
Woodson was awarded an honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters in 2016, and went on to give a moving speech during Adelphi’s 2016 Commencement.
“Adelphi was there when I needed it to be there and was the catalyst for jump-starting the person that I would go out into the world to become,” Woodson said to the graduating Class of 2016.
On October 26, 2016, Woodson returned to Adelphi to give a lecture, titled “Life of a Poet,” to the Adelphi community and three visiting high schools—The Kurt Hahn Expeditionary Learning School, the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District, and the Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, & Engineering—all of which are past attendees of Adelphi’s annual Poetry Day.
“It’s hard to believe that people call me a poet,” Woodson said. “For a long time I didn’t believe that poetry was for me. I thought it was a language that a couple of dead guys knew.”
While Woodson originally felt that poetry was out of her reach, her love of and proficiency for writing and literacy were clear from the start.
“I went to Bushwick High School, which at the time was considered a failing school,” Woodson explained to the crowd in the Thomas Dixon Lovely Ballroom in the Ruth S. Harley University Center. “I ended up getting the highest score on the English Regents [Examination] in the history of the school, and I think Adelphi saw something in that.”
Woodson went on to describe how being a writer isn’t always easy. Not only can it be a financial struggle, but the creative process itself can be incredibly frustrating.
“You start writing, you have this great idea for a book, and then you get about halfway done and it’s just the worst thing you’ve ever written,” Woodson chuckled. “That’s what we call ‘the place where the book falls apart.’ For every single book you write in your life, this is going to happen.”
She stressed the importance of fighting through that frustration, because “where the book falls apart” inevitably becomes a crossroad where the writer either becomes a published author, or stays an aspiring writer.
Woodson later told a group of Adelphi English students that she revised Brown Girl Dreaming over 30 times. In the end it paid off, and Brown Girl Dreaming was awarded a National Book Award, followed by the John Newbery Medal and an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work in 2015.
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