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Authors Jade Chang and Jacqueline Woodson on how they prep mentally to write a book

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

This summer, we've invited writers to talk with each other about what shapes their writing and their writing process, from gardening to basketball - today, two writers with two very different approaches to getting words on the page. The challenge for Jacqueline Woodson is how to quiet her mind. Her books include, "The Day You Begin," "Brown Girl Dreaming" and "Red At The Bone." Jade Chang starts us off, reflecting on what it felt like once her first novel, "The Wangs Vs. The World," was published.

JADE CHANG: It was like the inside of my brain was just a kind of like calm, dark, empty place (laughter). And I needed to refill it with things. I needed to input so much before I could actually start writing another book. And yeah, do feel like that? And when you do, what do you input it with? What do you put in there?

JACQUELINE WOODSON: I think the process is a little different for me because I'm always inputting (laughter), right? I just feel like there's so much stuff in my head - from, like, lyrics to bad '70s TV commercials, to, you know, bits and pieces about what's happening in the world, to things my kids have said, to parts of books I've read, and it's just all garbled in there and comes out at different points. And I try to - so - and there are also all the stories I want to tell are in there. And trying to figure out what that story is and breaking through all the detritus to get (laughter) to it is hard. And I think one thing that I started doing during the pandemic was walking.

CHANG: Oh (inaudible).

WOODSON: And I would walk four to six miles a day and got into the habit of that and just kind of clearing my head. If I was stuck, not able to write, I would go to some place like Target and just walk around and touch stuff and not buy anything, but just, like, just get something really bland into my head (laughter), like a red-and-white bull's-eye or something. And that got rid of all the other stuff. But finding that story inside all of that, I think we share that. It's like, where is that story when there's either the empty space that's the relief of having finished a book (laughter) or the garbled space that just has too much stuff to find the story hidden under the couch or something?

CHANG: Does a piece of art or a piece of music or something like that ever lead directly to something else?

WOODSON: So I have a playlist that - it rotates a little bit depending on the era that I'm writing in, but I definitely need music. And I'll definitely be walking through the world and hear a song and think, this is sparking something. This is something I need to go home and investigate. That's such an interesting question. Is that happening for you now?

CHANG: In a way - even more than an actual work of art, an actual piece of music - it's like a little snap of emotion that I - that either I feel when I'm taking something in or that I see depicted in a way that, like, I hadn't experienced before, you know? So...

WOODSON: Give me an example.

CHANG: This is a very weird example, but (laughter) a couple years ago I ended up at Disneyland on a hundred degree day, and it was the middle of the week, so there was almost nobody there. So then, because of that, I went on my favorite roller coaster, Space Mountain, three times in a row - just got on, did it, got off, walked all the way back around, went out again. And by the third time, I felt, honestly, kind of transcendence. Like, it felt like I had been on some long meditation retreat on a mountaintop. Like, it just felt like my brain got to be in a whole different space.

And I had never thought about the possibility of reaching that feeling in that kind of way. And I think it made me think about when people are reaching for a kind of transcendence that usually comes with meditation. You know, what is it that they're really searching for? And then that is something that really comes into play in this new book that I'm writing, but I don't think I would have thought of it in that way if not for that experience.

WOODSON: So that's wild. I've never been on Space Mountain, so I don't know...

CHANG: Oh.

WOODSON: ...What that is like. But I can - listening to you talk about it, I can totally imagine how that can be a transformative experience. Everything from the heat, to Disneyland without its people, to this ride that you just let yourself go on and let go on is so...

CHANG: Yeah.

WOODSON: ...Amazing. I've never thought of that. Maybe I should try the Cyclone (laughter).

CHANG: You should because I do think people are always - I mean, part of making art is always looking for a way to let go, right? Like, you've taken in so much, and then you just want to let go. And how do you find that?

WOODSON: And the fact that fear is the thing that stops so many people, you know? And there's such a letting go of fear to even do something like get on that roller coaster (laughter), which is what keeps me from getting on it. And I think a lot about fear because I think I go out...

CHANG: Yeah.

WOODSON: ...Into the world, and I see it when people talk about writing. I mean, I think as writers we have to have a certain kind of fearlessness (laughter), for lack of a better word...

CHANG: Yeah.

WOODSON: ...Like the ways the world is constantly telling people - the way you see the world is not the right way, the way you see the world...

CHANG: Yeah.

WOODSON: ...Is not true...

CHANG: Yeah, yeah.

WOODSON: ...And, you know, your ideas that you have have no relevance to anything. And, you know, historically, it's worse for us as people of color. We've been told that, and that's been represented in our literature...

CHANG: Right - yeah.

WOODSON: ...Or the lack of literature in the world.

CHANG: Like, for you, how did you kind of come into your fearlessness?

WOODSON: Audacity - you know (laughter)? It was kind of...

CHANG: Yeah.

WOODSON: ...I think for me, it was people saying you can't. And I don't like when - I don't like to hear no. I don't like to hear people say you can't. And I think growing up in a family where I was told often how amazing I was, and then to go out into the world and not see myself in it and think, wait, what's broken out there, and how can I fix it so that I'm there? But I did also have the foundational literature, right? I did have James Baldwin. And I did have Audre Lorde. And I did have Rosa (inaudible). I did have Toni Morrison. I did have Langston Hughes. And I did have all these people kind of telling me something different from what the world was trying to show me. I know that helped.

CHANG: Yeah, that's so important. And, you know, I also am very lucky to have a family that always told me (laughter) that I was amazing. I think - as I get older, I realize that that's not the most common thing in the world. I think one of the things that I truly loved the most about being on book tour and talking to people is talking to people who said that reading the book made them feel seen in some way and, you know, made them feel like the lives that they had led were on the page. And I think just the kind of real gift of them telling me that felt like such a gift - you know? - and is so - you know, what else do we have but, like, a small connection between people? That's kind of it.

SUMMERS: Jade Chang wrote, "The Wangs Vs. The World," speaking with Jacqueline Woodson. Her most recent book is, "The World Belonged To Us."

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.