Each month, we ask one distinguished author or illustrator to write an original post that reveals insights about their process and craft. Enjoy!
“Glasses, Mothering, and Meth”
By Jacqueline Woodson
Author photo © Marty Umans
I’ve worn glasses since childhood. I really wanted them. I considered them an accessory rather than an albatross. I remember holding the huge black letter “E” in the wrong direction in the optometrist’s office, even though I could see the vision chart clearly. The doctor must have seen right through this ploy because my first pair of glasses did little to change my nearly perfect vision. Still, for the first week or so, I wore them religiously, glad to come into my third grade classroom appearing a little different than I had just days before.
But after the pixie dust of newness wore off, I tried to dump my cat’s-eye glasses—leaving them in a classroom closet, on another student’s desk, and once, in the wastebasket. It was the 1970s—a time when New York City schools were so overcrowded that the Board of Education resorted to half-day shifts. Still, even with students moving in and out of the building all day, my glasses always made it back to me. The custodian, the morning students, my classmates—someone always found them. I was made to put them back on again and again, until they became a part of me. A part I snatched off on picture day and the minute I left the classroom.
Ms. Moskowitz’s class. I’m in the center wearing a green bow.
By the time I reached 7th grade, glasses were no longer optional. Without them, the world grew gray and fuzzy at its edges. Without them, friends at a distance went unrecognized, and words on the blackboard faded into each other. My once clear and known world became unfamiliar.
My shadowy vision was one of the first memories I brought to Beneath a Meth Moon (Penguin, 2012), a novel about a young girl’s plummet into drug addiction and her journey back from it. For Laurel Daneau, there was the absolute clarity she had known before Hurricane Katrina destroyed her town of Pass Christian, MS. And there was that gray, fuzzy world she would live in for a long time afterward.
Laurel wanted something new, something different, something that would change her. As my glasses had turned to a necessity, Laurel’s desire, too, was replaced by a need—in her case, a haunting, destructive one.
In writing this book, I returned to my 8-year-old self, and then, as quickly as it seemed to arrive back then, to a 13-year-old, and a year of transition and doubt. But more importantly, that was the age I discovered Go Ask Alice (Prentice-Hall, 1971), a book about a drug-addicted teen. As Vietnam vets returned to my Brooklyn, NY, neighborhood, drug sick from the heroin they’d discovered to ease their pain, I read the book greedily, terrified.
As I began to create Laurel, I remembered the impact of Alice—the fear it instilled in me, the matter-of-fact-ness of the story, and the fluidity of the writing. I remembered Vietnam and the mothers of the addicted veterans. I delved deeper into Laurel’s character and lived with her in her drug-induced abyss, coming out of it at 3pm to change back into “Mom” before my children arrived home from school.
Kids arriving home from school.
I thought about the juxtaposition between mothering and writing. As parents, we juggle our lives and bend around our children to be good and thoughtful and clear caregivers. As writers, we juggle our thoughts and bend our characters around so that they emerge good and thoughtful and clear.
I thought about my own mom, who died suddenly months before I started writing Beneath a Meth Moon. Like Laurel’s mom, mine worked full-time, so my grandmother moved up from South Carolina to help her. Like Laurel, I was pretty much raised by my grandmother. As I wrote my book, I thought back to half-days at school before my grandmother joined us—picking up my younger brother at 11:30, the end of the kindergarten shift, walking him to the babysitter’s, and then rushing to get into my seat in Mrs. Moskowitz’s third grade class by noon. I gave Laurel a younger brother she loved dearly. And thought—she can never leave him completely. I won’t let this happen. And I didn’t.
Me with my younger brother, Roman.
After my kids had gone to bed, after I’d read Rukhsana Khan’s Big Red Lollipop, and Ella Burfoot’s Bear and Me, and Cynthia Rylant’s The Relatives Came to my three-year-old son for the hundredth time, after wrestling one of J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” titles from my nine-year-old daughter’s hands, after the dog was walked and the cat was fed, the kitchen straightened up and tomorrow’s lunches made, after my partner went back to unfinished patient notes and reading Annals of Internal Medicine, I returned to Laurel’s world, writing her story late into the night, looking up only to ask about addiction, the physiological impact of various drugs, the history of meth addiction in the United States. Laurel became a character I wanted to save. Her life became a life I felt I was watching from a distance, a train wreck that I couldn’t stop.
But I could stop it. That’s the beauty of being a writer. I could create her world, and I could recreate it. I could sprinkle hopeful moments throughout the story and, ultimately, I could give it a happy ending.
I could make the experience of being addicted to meth change her…but not break her.
Because this is what life does to all of us—young and old. It shakes us and spins us around. It delivers huge shoves and dares us to fall. It puts questions in front of us with answers we don’t yet have. And eventually, it gives us what we need to answer those questions. What Laurel Daneau discovered, is what I continue to realize—that Life cradles us, sheds light on what we have, gives us hope, and ultimately, shows us how to keep on moving.
– An original article by Jacqueline Woodson
This material may not be used without the express written consent of Jacqueline Woodson. Photos courtesy of Jacqueline Woodson.
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