ArticlesBlog

What reading slowly taught me about writing | Jacqueline Woodson

What reading slowly taught me about writing | Jacqueline Woodson


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. 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. And more than two 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. My love for looking deeply
and closely at the world, for putting my whole self into it,
and by doing so, seeing the many, many
possibilities of a narrative, turned out to be a gift, because taking my sweet time taught me everything
I needed to know about writing. And writing taught me everything
I needed to know about creating worlds where people could be seen and heard, where their experiences
could be legitimized, and where my story,
read or heard by another person, inspired something in them
that became a connection between us, a conversation. And isn’t that what this is all about — finding a way, at the end of the day,
to not feel alone in this world, and a way to feel like
we’ve changed it before we leave? Stone to hammer, man to mummy, idea to story —
and all of it, remembered. Sometimes we read
to understand the future. Sometimes we read to understand the past. We read to get lost, to forget
the hard times we’re living in, and we read to remember
those who came before us, who lived through something harder. I write for those same reasons. Before coming to Brooklyn, my family
lived in Greenville, South Carolina, in a segregated neighborhood
called Nicholtown. All of us there were
the descendants of a people who had not been allowed
to learn to read or write. Imagine that: the danger of understanding
how letters form words, the danger of words themselves, the danger of a literate people
and their stories. But against this backdrop
of being threatened with death for holding onto a narrative, our stories didn’t die, because there is yet another story
beneath that one. And this is how it has always worked. For as long as we’ve been communicating, there’s been the layering
to the narrative, the stories beneath the stories
and the ones beneath those. This is how story has and will
continue to survive. As I began to connect the dots
that connected the way I learned to write and the way I learned to read to an almost silenced people, I realized that my story was bigger
and older and deeper than I would ever be. And because of that, it will continue. Among these almost-silenced people there were the ones
who never learned to read. Their descendants, now generations
out of enslavement, if well-off enough, had gone on to college,
grad school, beyond. Some, like my grandmother and my siblings,
seemed to be born reading, as though history
stepped out of their way. Some, like my mother, hitched onto
the Great Migration wagon — which was not actually a wagon — and kissed the South goodbye. But here is the story within that story: those who left and those who stayed carried with them
the history of a narrative, knew deeply that writing it down wasn’t
the only way they could hold on to it, knew they could sit on their porches
or their stoops at the end of a long day and spin a slow tale for their children. They knew they could sing their stories
through the thick heat of picking cotton and harvesting tobacco, knew they could preach their stories
and sew them into quilts, turn the most painful ones
into something laughable, and through that laughter,
exhale the history a country that tried again and again and again to steal their bodies, their spirit and their story. So as a child, I learned
to imagine an invisible finger taking me from word to word, from sentence to sentence, from ignorance to understanding. So as technology continues to speed ahead, I continue to read slowly, knowing that I am respecting
the author’s work and the story’s lasting power. And I read slowly to drown out the noise and remember those who came before me, who were probably the first people
who finally learned to control fire and circled their new power of flame and light and heat. And I read slowly to remember
the Selfish Giant, how he finally tore that wall down and let the children run free
through his garden. And I read slowly to pay homage
to my ancestors, who were not allowed to read at all. They, too, must have circled fires, speaking softly of their dreams, their hopes, their futures. Each time we read, write or tell a story, we step inside their circle, and it remains unbroken. And the power of story lives on. Thank you. (Applause)

Comments (100)

  1. I always lose focus after reading after 15min and have to come back read. What's the best way to stay focus?

  2. So Speed Reading is useless???

  3. There’s a few things I need to do daily to keep myself stable and happy emotionally. Reading is on that list, and I love it!

  4. To get lost in a different world is the gift of literature and music. But they need time. Ironically our devices meant to give us more time actually demand more. Thank you for the reminder to smell the flowers, to read slowly.

  5. Thanks will never be enough🌸

  6. It is true that you should read with your finger. But, reading slow is a waste of time. If it's fiction, sure, enjoy yourself, read at a comfortable Pace. To choose slow is to decide to miss life. Choosing to read fast is to rush, so life is experience in haste. Best to choose a comfortable Pace. I read to learn, I learn what I need to accomplish a goal. Why would I or anyone want to push back the goal in order to read slowly? Oh wait, this is talking about reading stuff that teaches nothing, not helping accomplish a goal. Must have a socialist life style. A life that has time to read slowly. The rest of us were trying to squeeze reading into a work schedule. Not everyone gets to collect checks. I wonder if this women knows blacks started slavery in America. Wonder if her stories tell that story? Nope, just a white man and his country trying to suppress her! Jesus. Clueless.

  7. This talk is a wish come true. I mean, everyone boasts of reading fast but really, how many are there who READ to really READ??

  8. Given how she's black she probably can't read fast anyway

  9. Terrible Ted talk. Most are but this one steals the prize. I feel dumber after listening.

  10. A very powerful perform

  11. Omg female de Aaron fox

  12. Who else thought that she was De’Aaron Fox?

  13. Selfish Giant was the favorite story of mine during my school days and my English teacher narrated it really well. It is still etched fresh in my memory. ☺️☺️

  14. Great Talk 👌👌👌👌☺️☺️☺️☺️

  15. This was beautifully enchanting… ❤️

  16. Thankful to my parents that I can read….when they were not preveleged

  17. But but but.. there are so many books on my to read list. How can I read slow when so many other books are waiting for me 🙁

  18. ancient holy books were not allowed to be touched either, a metal pointed finger on a stick was the only way to follow the words slowly…I too was forced to not use my hands to follow the page and I am still a slow reader, but can go fast if required but appreciate the slowness…thanks for sharing this

  19. Thank🙏💕 all friends
    1000 subscribe cross me
    And help you please🙏🙏💓

  20. Excellent! When I was young, I used my finger to help me read. My teacher made me stop. 😭. I think I will start it again.

  21. I read really slowly. I couldn’t read fast if I wanted to. Am I stupid?

  22. The most greatest way is fast and correct, but it is not a
    a correct answer. Someday I feel so blue, just one word can make me think one hour.

    Books always makes me think about my life.

    I think not only reading book slow, also life too.

    In korea here, we have '빨리빨리' culture, it means 'Do hurry".
    Nowadays, some people says we need "slow time"

  23. Thanks so much for your time and consideration in this fast paced world.

  24. what if I don’t know what the book is talking about?

  25. Depends on the book to me, I do love reading novels slowly and letting the words play drip over my palate until I can feel the words and draw the story in my mind. If I'm reading new topics in Non Fiction then I go slow and reread to learn, but if it's a topic I'm decently familiar with I can fly through multiple books a day and retain most of the new information. Start a lot of books, quit many books, finish the good books, and reread the great ones. The key is to read, might as well make it topics and authors you really enjoy…😁

  26. I believe the impact of reading slow or fast is negligible comparing to whether we think about the read message deeply or not. It is a personal choice whether we think about it while reading or after complete reading.

  27. I personally disagree with what was said here. But that's just my personal opinion, for me reading too slow just makes the words stagnate in my brain. therefore making me bored earlier, I have no problem being enveloped by the meaning of them while reading at a faster pace. I would liken reading too slowly to listening to that kid in high school (that can barely read properly) read something from a book out loud. It's frustrating

  28. Reading a good book is like savoring rich cuisine. It should be slowly taken in, enjoyed, experienced, and leave a moment that you can sometimes briefly go back to.

  29. Don't stop at slow reading. Doing everything is slight slow motion keeps you present. Present = Gift.

  30. But if you can read slowly…you can read quickly

    Sorry I couldn't contain myself haha
    Anyway, great talk, I truly enjoyed it, as an aspiring writer and struggling reader in this time of tech-addiction. Thank you

  31. So how does this make you write better?

  32. That you're illiterate?

  33. I really really really love this speech for the matter that this itself calms my mind. Just like how I feel when I read books.. I have a book "The Firm" by Duff McDonald in my lap as I watch this video. Happy reading 😊

  34. I've always been a slow reader. Not intentionally. I've always wondered if this meant I was a poor reader, maybe not very intelligent or something. But anytime I read fast I seem to lose part of the story and I don't enjoy what I'm reading as much.

  35. 💚😉 thank you for such a beautiful talk

  36. One of the SAT passages was about fast-forwarding audio books and I think she wrote it lol

  37. I agree. I was taught (and challenged) to read faster. The faster you read was supposed to translate to better focus and by default, greater intelligence. People would brag (including myself), "I read this book of 1000 pages in a day," and were very proud of it. And the distractions today such as TV, social media, work ambitions & other obligations, make it worst because we feel that we NEED to read faster, in order to get any reading done at all.
    But, I recently discovered for myself, the pleasure I receive from savoring the words; the narrative; and the deliciousness of the story. Now, I let the speed readers brag away. Me – I brag about my enjoyment of a good book, and the rediscovered love I have with a story well-told, and the side benefit (for me personally) of retaining information much better than I did before. 😊🌺🏝️❤️

  38. Wonderfull speech👏👏👏

  39. I remember my friend had a lot of trouble understanding our textbook and I noticed how fast he was reading. reading fast is hard for the brain to comprehend what we're reading. when trying to teach him to read slowly, I told him to read it out loud, and he kept tripping on his words, meaning he was reading faster than he could speak. I told him to head it at a normal speaking speed and he understood the textbook much better. I always read with an inner voice, letting me take the time to pronounce words in my head, making things easier and making novels more fun.

  40. Her voice is gorgeous!

  41. The selfish giant is still my favourite

  42. In today's hectic world, slowing down to truly savor something feels luxurious. It can also be hard to justify such luxuries, when you think you could be doing "something more important", and this thought is reinforced by the society around you. Thank you for the reminder that it's still okay to take your time to enjoy the little things in life, because it's those treasured moments which make life worth living.

  43. Well at least she made it most of the way through her talk before going full on muh slavery.

    Sorry I listened to this bigot at all.

  44. I don't get what slow reading taught her about writing

  45. Once upon a time brilliant TED talks, like Anil Seth's, came from this very stage. Good TED lectures are now a sad story from the past.

  46. One of my favorite writers growin up!! Also Walter Dean Meyers and Sharon M Draper. Some of the best young adult writers of my time.

  47. amazing!! I loved it!!

  48. So, she likes to read and write and stories are important. What exactly was the point of this Ted Talk?

  49. Watching this video is my homework :0

  50. i've always read slowly and i prefer attempting to comprehend all the different possible meanings as i do so

  51. No matter slow or fast reading 📖 just make sure you understand and can apply

  52. I always have read slow. I'm very visual. It hurt my comprehension by being forced to read very fast as a child.

  53. one of the best TED talks I've listened to

  54. I'm so glad this message is being shared. We need to slow down and look at what is really important. Love it ❤

  55. ignorant

    believes in lord tachanka

    to understanding

  56. 🎵Women shouldn't learn to read or write…🎶
    -Artie Kendall

  57. I simply can't read fast, even if I wanted to. Slow reading isn't a choice for me.

  58. I think our device’s are destroying our ability to interconnect with each other or to focus. Seems we now want what we want, when we want it and to loose ourselves into mostly nonsense and distractions. I try now to let them hijack my mind. It’s supposed to be a tool, not to capture my every waken moment. Reading slowly allows ideas and thoughts to actually come to fruition. I try to slow down and really immerse myself in the far to few moments I have.

  59. Who come here to learn English

  60. Title is misleading. The talk is about stories primarily. But its mostly empty talk. She has a great voice though. I wish if my iPad could read me stories like the way she talks.

  61. The title has two meanings. It clearly doesn’t have a comma. If you read it slow enough you can tell that it could say ‘ What reading, slowly taught me about writing’ and ‘what reading slowly, taught me about writing.

    Punctuation is key everybody, unless you want to hide another meaning

  62. Tim Ferris after watching this video:

    "Hold my beer."

  63. Try reading Bhagwat Gita too

  64. I read Balzac's letter to Stendahl about The Charterhouse of Parma (an action-packed romantic novel worthy of Walter Scott). He's like, "I read it the first day and found perfection in every detail (about court life). The next day I read it again." That made me so mad. I will never read fast no matter who it is bragging about speed. Balzac's novels often seem to be written unaturally fast. Perhaps he drank too much black coffee.

  65. Magnifiscent! I will teach that to the kids! I was (and still am) a slow reader and school learn me to read faster. It is awesome to learn and scientific reading. But with a story or a book that we love? Gosh "ll faut savourer !" 🙂 Thank you for the idea

  66. I've just bought some books that I wanna re-read. I will read slowly and fully absorb the meaning of words this time. Thank you for the great speech.

  67. Wow for once the comment section is a pleasure to read, with so many insightful and meaningful reflections and responses to the actual content and purposefulness of the video. Like dozens and dozens in a row even. Not sure exactly how that happened, but I'm betting the deep core patience and reflectiveness this talk was about has something to do with it.

  68. Not "slowly", but at the right pace. It depends on the text.

  69. The science shows that the faster you read the less of what you are reading you comprehend. In other words reading comprehension drops as reading speed increases.

  70. Where's Allen Littles video ❓

  71. I’m a slow reader, too.

  72. I LOVE YOU Woodson💕from Turkey😊Books are like a city. To understand them, it is not enough to drive through them like tourists, or to walk through their streets slowly once. It is necessary to wander over and over again in parts of the city that are worthy of attention . The most effective is to live in the city for a while.💕🤸🏻‍♀️

  73. ….read 'slowly', 'respecting' the time the author took putting the piece together

  74. Brilliant video ❤️🧡💛

  75. I read quite slowly but I still have trouble remembering details. I'm really impressed when I hear people recall quotes from their favorite books. I want to learn how to do that. Any advice?

  76. Jim Kwik has left the server.

  77. That was a soulful poem read aloud. Somehow the cadence of her voice was soothing. And it did help that the words mattered too. Thank you.

  78. I listened to this speaker, this writer, and her voice, her choice of words, her cadence…well, everything about her presentation shows me her love of story and storytelling. I appreciate her appreciation.

  79. i knew this garbage was gonna turn to slavery yet again

  80. Savor the words and phrases, folks. It's awesome.

    Think…it's possible, the writer wrote the words slowly; that the text was MEANT to be read slowly.

  81. I don't like to read.
    I'm a cultivated engineer though…

  82. I’ve confusion. Does reading slowly means reading word by word? Could somebody please tell?

  83. One time my mom stole my Harry Potter book while I was at school and gave it back to me that evening. She knew it was going to take me all month to get through it and didn't want to wait. I'm getting my Masters in Creative Writing now.

  84. i feel like this idea goes hand in hand with buying books. when you own that book you can read it over and over like how Jacqueline reads slower, you can grow with the book. and the act of buying a book, you respect the author's word so much, hold them so dear to you that you want to give your money to pay honor.

  85. She reminds me to read slowly. I always rush to read. Didn’t truly enjoy the words and the effort that put in by the writer.

  86. I've heard amazing things about this woman ! she seems it !

  87. This is a perfect example of saying a lot but have little to no meaning. Its like how trump speak. I keep on waiting for her to actually give her point but alas, she never did. She explain how reading slowly teach her that words can have multiple meaning, yes. But she didnt say anything about writing other than to apply multiple meaning in writing. Which in case she didnt realize is nothing new.

Comment here