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← What reading slowly taught me about writing

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Showing Revision 7 created 09/12/2019 by Brian Greene.

  1. A long time ago, there lived a Giant,
  2. a Selfish Giant, whose stunning garden
    was the most beautiful in all the land.
  3. One evening, this Giant came home
  4. and found all these children
    playing in his garden,
  5. and he became enraged.
  6. "My own garden is my own garden!"
  7. the Giant said.
  8. And he built this high wall around it.
  9. The author Oscar Wilde wrote the story
    of "The Selfish Giant" in 1888.

  10. Almost a hundred years later, that Giant
    moved into my Brooklyn childhood
  11. and never left.
  12. I was raised in a religious family,
  13. and I grew up reading
    both the Bible and the Quran.
  14. The hours of reading,
    both religious and recreational,
  15. far outnumbered the hours
    of television-watching.
  16. Now, on any given day,
    you could find my siblings and I
  17. curled up in some part
    of our apartment reading,
  18. sometimes unhappily,
  19. because on summer days in New York City,
    the fire hydrant blasted,
  20. and to our immense jealousy,
    we could hear our friends down there
  21. playing in the gushing water,
  22. their absolute joy making its way up
    through our open windows.
  23. But I learned that the deeper
    I went into my books,
  24. the more time I took with each sentence,
  25. the less I heard the noise
    of the outside world.
  26. And so, unlike my siblings,
    who were racing through books,
  27. I read slowly --
  28. very, very slowly.
  29. I was that child with her finger
    running beneath the words,

  30. until I was untaught to do this;
    told big kids don't use their fingers.
  31. In third grade, we were made to sit
    with our hands folded on our desk,
  32. unclasping them only to turn the pages,
    then returning them to that position.
  33. Our teacher wasn't being cruel.
  34. It was the 1970s,
  35. and her goal was to get us reading
    not just on grade level
  36. but far above it.
  37. And we were always
    being pushed to read faster.
  38. But in the quiet of my apartment,
    outside of my teacher's gaze,
  39. I let my finger run beneath those words.
  40. And that Selfish Giant
    again told me his story,
  41. how he had felt betrayed by the kids
    sneaking into his garden,
  42. how he had built this high wall,
  43. and it did keep the children out,
  44. but a grey winter fell over his garden
  45. and just stayed and stayed.
  46. With each rereading,
    I learned something new
  47. about the hard stones of the roads
    that the kids were forced to play on
  48. when they got expelled from the garden,
  49. about the gentleness of a small boy
    that appeared one day,
  50. and even about the Giant himself.
  51. Maybe his words weren't rageful after all.
  52. Maybe they were a plea for empathy,
  53. for understanding.
  54. "My own garden is my own garden."
  55. Years later, I would learn
    of a writer named John Gardner

  56. who referred to this
    as the "fictive dream,"
  57. or the "dream of fiction,"
  58. and I would realize that this
    was where I was inside that book,
  59. spending time with the characters
    and the world that the author had created
  60. and invited me into.
  61. As a child, I knew that stories
    were meant to be savored,
  62. that stories wanted to be slow,
  63. and that some author had spent months,
    maybe years, writing them.
  64. And my job as the reader --
  65. especially as the reader who wanted
    to one day become a writer --
  66. was to respect that narrative.
  67. Long before there was cable
    or the internet or even the telephone,

  68. there were people sharing ideas
    and information and memory through story.
  69. It's one of our earliest forms
    of connective technology.
  70. It was the story of something
    better down the Nile
  71. that sent the Egyptians moving along it,
  72. the story of a better way
    to preserve the dead
  73. that brought King Tut's remains
    into the 21st century.
  74. And more than two million years ago,
  75. when the first humans
    began making tools from stone,
  76. someone must have said, "What if?"
  77. And someone else remembered the story.
  78. And whether they told it through words
    or gestures or drawings,
  79. it was passed down; remembered:
  80. hit a hammer and hear its story.
  81. The world is getting noisier.

  82. We've gone from boomboxes
  83. to Walkmen to portable CD players
  84. to iPods
  85. to any song we want, whenever we want it.
  86. We've gone from the four
    television channels of my childhood
  87. to the seeming infinity
    of cable and streaming.
  88. As technology moves us faster and faster
    through time and space,
  89. it seems to feel like story
    is getting pushed out of the way,
  90. I mean, literally pushed out
    of the narrative.
  91. But even as our engagement
    with stories change,
  92. or the trappings around it morph from book
    to audio to Instagram to Snapchat,
  93. we must remember our finger
    beneath the words.
  94. Remember that story,
    regardless of the format,
  95. has always taken us to places
    we never thought we'd go,
  96. introduced us to people
    we never thought we'd meet
  97. and shown us worlds
    that we might have missed.
  98. So as technology keeps moving
    faster and faster,
  99. I am good with something slower.
  100. My finger beneath the words
    has led me to a life of writing books
  101. for people of all ages,
  102. books meant to be read slowly,
  103. to be savored.
  104. My love for looking deeply
    and closely at the world,

  105. for putting my whole self into it,
    and by doing so,
  106. seeing the many, many
    possibilities of a narrative,
  107. turned out to be a gift,
  108. because taking my sweet time
  109. taught me everything
    I needed to know about writing.
  110. And writing taught me everything
    I needed to know about creating worlds
  111. where people could be seen and heard,
  112. where their experiences
    could be legitimized,
  113. and where my story,
    read or heard by another person,
  114. inspired something in them
    that became a connection between us,
  115. a conversation.
  116. And isn't that what this is all about --
  117. finding a way, at the end of the day,
    to not feel alone in this world,
  118. and a way to feel like
    we've changed it before we leave?
  119. Stone to hammer, man to mummy,
  120. idea to story --
    and all of it, remembered.
  121. Sometimes we read
    to understand the future.

  122. Sometimes we read to understand the past.
  123. We read to get lost, to forget
    the hard times we're living in,
  124. and we read to remember
    those who came before us,
  125. who lived through something harder.
  126. I write for those same reasons.
  127. Before coming to Brooklyn, my family
    lived in Greenville, South Carolina,

  128. in a segregated neighborhood
    called Nicholtown.
  129. All of us there were
    the descendants of a people
  130. who had not been allowed
    to learn to read or write.
  131. Imagine that:
  132. the danger of understanding
    how letters form words,
  133. the danger of words themselves,
  134. the danger of a literate people
    and their stories.
  135. But against this backdrop
    of being threatened with death
  136. for holding onto a narrative,
  137. our stories didn't die,
  138. because there is yet another story
    beneath that one.
  139. And this is how it has always worked.
  140. For as long as we've been communicating,
  141. there's been the layering
    to the narrative,
  142. the stories beneath the stories
    and the ones beneath those.
  143. This is how story has and will
    continue to survive.
  144. As I began to connect the dots
    that connected the way I learned to write

  145. and the way I learned to read
  146. to an almost silenced people,
  147. I realized that my story was bigger
    and older and deeper
  148. than I would ever be.
  149. And because of that, it will continue.
  150. Among these almost-silenced people

  151. there were the ones
    who never learned to read.
  152. Their descendants, now generations
    out of enslavement,
  153. if well-off enough,
  154. had gone on to college,
    grad school, beyond.
  155. Some, like my grandmother and my siblings,
    seemed to be born reading,
  156. as though history
    stepped out of their way.
  157. Some, like my mother, hitched onto
    the Great Migration wagon --
  158. which was not actually a wagon --
  159. and kissed the South goodbye.
  160. But here is the story within that story:

  161. those who left and those who stayed
  162. carried with them
    the history of a narrative,
  163. knew deeply that writing it down wasn't
    the only way they could hold on to it,
  164. knew they could sit on their porches
    or their stoops at the end of a long day
  165. and spin a slow tale for their children.
  166. They knew they could sing their stories
    through the thick heat of picking cotton
  167. and harvesting tobacco,
  168. knew they could preach their stories
    and sew them into quilts,
  169. turn the most painful ones
    into something laughable,
  170. and through that laughter,
    exhale the history a country
  171. that tried again and again and again
  172. to steal their bodies,
  173. their spirit
  174. and their story.
  175. So as a child, I learned
    to imagine an invisible finger

  176. taking me from word to word,
  177. from sentence to sentence,
  178. from ignorance to understanding.
  179. So as technology continues to speed ahead,

  180. I continue to read slowly,
  181. knowing that I am respecting
    the author's work
  182. and the story's lasting power.
  183. And I read slowly to drown out the noise
  184. and remember those who came before me,
  185. who were probably the first people
    who finally learned to control fire
  186. and circled their new power
  187. of flame and light and heat.
  188. And I read slowly to remember
    the Selfish Giant,
  189. how he finally tore that wall down
  190. and let the children run free
    through his garden.
  191. And I read slowly to pay homage
    to my ancestors,
  192. who were not allowed to read at all.
  193. They, too, must have circled fires,
  194. speaking softly of their dreams,
  195. their hopes, their futures.
  196. Each time we read, write or tell a story,
  197. we step inside their circle,
  198. and it remains unbroken.
  199. And the power of story lives on.
  200. Thank you.

  201. (Applause)