Interview with Clifton Taulbert

Techniques, September 1999 | Go to article overview

Interview with Clifton Taulbert


Tulsa, Okla.-based writer and lecturer Clifton Taulbert is the author of five books--Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored (1989), which was made into a feature film; The Last Train North (1993), nominated for a Pulitzer Prize; Watching Our Crops Come In (1995); Eight Habits of the Heart (1997); and the children's book Little Cliff and the Porch People, published earlier this year. A thread running throughout these "cultural memoirs" is the warmth and support that surrounded Taulbert during his boyhood in tight-knit Glen Allan, Miss., despite the injustices of segregation.

Taulbert wrote Eight Habits of the Heart to help inculcate eight positive values--nurturing attitude, dependability, responsibility, friendship, brotherhood, high expectations, courage and hope--in his readers. The book's vignettes about Taulbert's boyhood in Glen Allan bring those virtues to life, and questions and activities at the end of each chapter encourage reflection. A number of high schools--including Francis Tuttle Vocational-Technical School in Oklahoma City--have adapted the book for character-building and employability skills units.

With input from education and business, Taulbert also has produced an Eight Habits-based curriculum package designed specifically for career and technical education. In addition, the Oklahoma Department of Vocational and Technical Education is considering using Eight Habits of the Heart materials in leadership training seminars for administrators this fall and may also adapt those materials to train career-tech student organization leaders.

Techniques Contributing Editor Eric Ries spoke with Taulbert recently about how Eight Habits of the Heart connects with career and technical education, as well as what inspired his successful writing career.

Did you always want to be an author?

Early on in my childhood I had a tremendous desire to write, but never with the idea that I would be a published writer. But then my great-grandfather, whom I really loved, passed away while I was in the military. I was unable to go home to his funeral, so I wrote what I considered to be a eulogy--it was really my kind remembrances of him. I left it lying on my bed. My roommate read it and said, "Cliff, you really write well."

My roommate was a young white American who had come from a middle class background compared to mine and had been exposed to much more than I had. Yet my writing about people and life in the Mississippi Delta had held his attention. He asked me, "Why don't you write?" No one had ever asked me that before. I think that was the door that needed to be unlocked, the encouragement I needed to pursue writing.

I started writing short stories, did that for about eight to 10 years. Every single one of them was rejected! (Laughs.) But I decided I enjoyed the process of writing, so I continued to write. I wrote about 150 short stories. They later became the basis for my first book, Once Upon a Time When We Were Colored.

How did Eight Habits of the Heart evolve?

In 1994 I was invited to give a commencement address at North Shore Country Day School in Winnetka, Illinois--an affluent private high school. I wondered, "What can I tell these graduates who basically have everything?" I decided to offer them some of the same life lessons that had been given me.

I began to look at all the people who had unselfishly made contributions to my life, and the kinds of contributions they had made. I ended up with eight distinctive stacks of information and people. I started thinking, "This stack I'll call my nurturing stack. This other stack I'll call my responsibility stack." I went straight through like that till I got to the last stack, which was hope.

So I had eight "gifts," which is what I called [them] at that time. But then I read a little bit about Alexis de Tocqueville and his trip to America in 1831 [as chronicled in the French statesman's memoir Democracy in America]. …

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