how i get it done

How Author Jacqueline Woodson Gets It Done

Illustration: Lauren Tamaki

Jacqueline Woodson is an author of adult and children’s literature with more than two dozen titles to her name, including Red at the Bone (2019), Another Brooklyn (2016), and Brown Girl Dreaming (2014), for which she won the National Book Award in Young People’s Literature. In May of this year, she was awarded the biggest international prize in children’s literature, the Hans Christian Andersen Award, and in October was named a 2020 MacArthur Fellow. Last year, Woodson started building Baldwin for the Arts, an artist colony based in Brewster, N.Y. for writers, composers, and visual artists of color. She currently lives between Brewster and Park Slope with her two kids and partner. The Cut spoke to Woodson about her hectic schedule and the importance of mapping out a structure for each day, especially while social distancing restrictions remain in place. Here is how she gets it done.

On her typical (COVID) morning routine:
Depending on the day, I either get up really early or I get up really late. I go downstairs, have coffee, let the dogs outside, and check my schedule to see when I’m going to have time to write during the day. Then I go hang out on the porch if the weather is nice and really start thinking about stories. Eventually, one of my kids will come down — probably my son, because he has a more structured day. He’s at the computer pretty early. He has a puppy, so I often need to chastise him about taking the puppy outside before it pees on the floor. And then he goes to do schoolwork in the office, and I find someplace to work on the property [in Brewster] while my partner is seeing patients somewhere else in the house. She’s a physician, and she’s doing a lot of remote medicine these days. Then eventually my daughter gets up — she’s a theater major in college — and she goes to the studio to work. We all find our space. In my bubble, I’m working on a book or a screenplay, going back and forth between the two. I really do try to find that sweet spot, those four or five hours a day of uninterrupted writing time.

On the importance of structuring her days:
There isn’t a lot of variety, because so much of life during the pandemic has been about trying to get structure. There’s so much we don’t know from day to day, especially as parents. Is this the day the mayor is going to decide to send the kids back to school? Is he going to decide to close the school? And if he closes the school, does the school have something in place so the kids are able to have some structure? This is the struggle: Even though each person can be someplace else in the house, it’s hard to train my kids not to come into my office or not to bother me if I have my headphones on and am staring at my computer. So needing to be clear about that has taken a lot of practice. There are still those moments of interruption, but I really do try to structure the day.

Another thing about being a writer is you get to create content and you get to change the narrative. For me, writing allows me to have some control in that way. Living in my head and imagining what the world can be like — where there can be beauty, hope, empathy, social justice, and change — is really a way to make it through every day.

On tuning out the news:
I don’t read the newspaper these days, I really try not to. I listen to podcasts. I usually have a podcast on in the morning. If I’m writing, I don’t want to have the world in my head, because I’m trying to create new worlds. There’s something about the news that can feel disempowering to someone who’s trying to create. So the news doesn’t come into play until we get to the dinner table at night. Early in the day, I am not tuned into it.

On continuing to build the residency she founded:
I started Baldwin for the Arts for BIPOC artists: visual artists, composers, writers, and poets. The inspiration came from my experiences at places like MacDowell — which I love; it’s one of the main reasons I’m the writer that I am today — and the Fine Arts Work Center. Being one of very few people of color [in these places], I sometimes had to have conversations that were exhausting. Baldwin for the Arts is a space for BIPOC artists where they don’t have to explain, where they can just come and do their art and be around people who know what the struggle is to be an artist of color here in this country especially at this moment in time. Then, in 2018, I got a prize from the Swedish government, the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award. It’s the biggest cash prize in children’s literature — I would be able to begin work. So part of my day is spent thinking about the meetings I’m having with my architect, the planning boards, and how we’re structuring this thing that we’re building. One of the buildings is already up, and the other buildings we’re renovating aren’t habitable yet. I’m working on some part of that every day. This afternoon, I’m talking to a lawyer; this evening, I’m talking to our architect; tomorrow, I’m meeting with the board. My assistant has to remind me at the end of the day what meetings I have the following day because I will forget, happily, and just write.

On winning the MacArthur:
It hasn’t changed by life yet, only that it made me very happy to hear I’d gotten it. Earlier this year, I got the Hans Christian Andersen award. It’s an international award for young people’s literature. And I think I’m probably the first American in 20 years — and the first Black person in even more years — to win it. There’s a lot of attention paid because each country chooses who they consider to be their top writer and nominates them, and then a board of people from different countries vote. That happened in March, but there was a pandemic so nobody was paying attention. Then when the MacArthur came along, people said, “You’re gonna get a lot of calls from a lot of press,” and it was pretty quiet. It’s a pandemic, so of course this is not at the top of anyone’s mind. But people have started understanding what I’m trying to do with the work I’m doing, and that feels really, really good. So it hasn’t changed my life in a big way, only that I can continue my work on Baldwin, and I’m sure people look at me differently now. If this is what people need to measure someone, then they can have that.

On her reading habits:
Usually when I’m writing, I try to read books I’ve read before. I try not to take on anything new. It’s almost like a study guide — I know the story, the structure, the characters. It’s just a matter of letting what I know wash over my brain and put me into the space that I need to be in to continue writing. When you read as a writer, you’re really engaged, looking at the language and how the author uses it to make you feel some kind of way, really learning from the text you’re reading. I can’t read careless writing, where people aren’t paying attention to language, and that’s why poetry really helps a lot. I also will try to read screenplays when I’m not writing, like when I’m going to bed at night. Sometimes ones I admire, sometimes brand-new ones that I think are doing something interesting. Like I was recently rereading Honey Boy, because it’s just an interesting structure. Or The Kids Are Alright, or Selma. Ones that really make me think about narrative.

On her current projects:
Right this second I’m going through my schedule that my assistant sent me to figure out when I have some time to exhale. Today I’m actually going to spend the day writing, which is really nice. I finished the screenplay for Red at the Bone. I’m working on a screenplay about Ida B. Wells. I finished the first episode of what’s going to be a series based on my book Behind You. And I’m just starting Another Brooklyn, working on the story pilot but not at the writing part of it just yet. And I’m working on two books, but I never talk about them until they’re done because I don’t want to jinx it.

How Author Jacqueline Woodson Gets It Done