Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Monuments of Words: Sculpting a Biography in 10 Steps

By Carole Boston Weatherford


I was a college student in Washington, D.C., as the nation’s bicentennial approached. Not yet gentrified, D.C. was still a Chocolate City. In those days before Metro opened, I did not own a car. So, I relied on buses to navigate. 

The D.C. traffic circles that unnerved me as a driver set me off as a bus rider. I had never seen so many statues of white men. Surely, they weren’t the only historical figures worthy of immortalizing. Enraged, I imagined the statues toppled by a coming revolution. 

As I noted in the picture book Gordon Parks: How the Photographer Captured Black and White America, the young photographer had a similar attitude on his first assignment. “He passes statues, monuments, and memorials to mighty heroes. But there are enough photos of white men carved in marble and granite.”

Last year, the racial reckoning over the police killing of George Floyd actually did bring some statues down. By then, I had forgotten my earlier visions and had begun erecting monuments myself. Not of granite or marble, but with words. Words honoring African Americans who had been omitted from, or given short shrift in, textbooks and children’s books. For me, documenting Black culture and heritage is a political act.

I am no Michelangelo, but I do consider myself a sculptor of sorts. So, allow me this extended analogy as I share 10 steps to crafting biographies. 

1. With subject in mind, go to the riverside for clay. Dig deep, filling bucket after bucket and then returning for more. Better too much to work with than not enough. 

2. With hunks of clays, or stacks of books, in hand, envision a pose, a style, that lends a unique perspective or approach. 

3. Wedge the clay to rid it of air bubbles—trivia, unknowns, or unverifiable tidbits—that could cause weaknesses in your story.

4. Mold the clay. Shape your character and their story from inside out—molding not only their exterior, as a sculptor would, but also their interior life. 

5. Keep the clay moist and malleable. View the work from different angles to see what’s missing or off. Stay open and loose early on.

6. For the sake of coherence and style, use transitions and golden threads the way sculptors use slip—a clay and water mixture to join component parts. 

7. Send the work to the kiln, only when the subject is so life-like that it gives you the nod. Then the biography, your monument of words, is almost ready to pitch.

8. After firing, paint or glaze the sculpture. Yes: more editing and revising. 

9. Keep your pitch brief but distinctive, like an inscription on a statue’s pedestal.

10. Imagine your masterpiece cast in stone or bronze for future generations to behold.

 

ACTIVITY

In 25-50 words, write the inscription for the pedestal of statue of your biographical subject.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Carole Boston Weatherford, author of Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre, has over 50 books, including three Caldecott Honor winners: Freedom in Congo Square, Voice of Freedom: Fannie Lou Hamer, and Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom. Recent releases include Beauty Mark: A Verse Novel of Marilyn Monroe, BOX: Henry Brown Mails Himself to Freedom, By and By: Charles Albert Tindley, The Father of Gospel Music, R-E-S-P-E-C-T: Aretha Franklin, The Queen of Soul, and The Roots of Rap: 16 Bars on the 4 Pillars of Hip Hop. She teaches at Fayetteville State University in North Carolina.


 

Facebook personal: @carole.weatherford
Facebook fan page: @poetweatherford
Twitter: @poetweatherford
Instagram: @caroleweatherford  

75 comments:

  1. Wow, what a powerful post. As someone who loves to work with clay, and has taught clay to children for years, the line of getting rid of air bubbles that "cause weaknesses in your story" stopped me in my tracks. It's so true. Reading and revising is taking out little bits that make it flimsy & unstable.

    My biographical pedestal subject inscription (38 words)
    Ilhan Omar was the first woman of color to represent Minnesota in the United States Congress. She was encouraged not to run for public office by her own community, but she stood up anyway and you should too.

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  2. Charles Carroll of Carrollton: outlived all other signers of the Declaration of Independence, influenced other early change-makers, and rebel with a cause.

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  3. Great tips and great activity! Thanks, Carole!

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  4. Thanks for the great tips and insightful activity! Reminds me of when I did a pottery class.

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  5. Thank you for a very inspiring post Carole. Here's my inscription:
    Edward Adrian Wilson sought to understand and share God’s magnificent creation through scientific study and his artist’s palette. Curiosity and commitment led him to Antarctica twice with Robert Falcon Scott’s team of explorers. A light to others, even to the end, Edward perished returning from the South Pole in 1912.

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  6. It seems my comment disappeared. Powerful and poetic. This is one I’ve paused and reread at several points while applying to my current WIP. Thank you so much. I’m printing this out as a guide.

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  7. I love this metaphor and I love your books, Carole. I have someone in mind for a bio and needed a boost to get going on it. Thank you for the inspiration.

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  8. Checking the "slip" in my new manuscript to make sure the transitions flow. I am keeping your clay metaphor in mind and your 10 steps nearby as I wedge, mold, and shape.

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  9. This is beautifully said! I usually take notes on each day's entry, but today I'm printing out the 10 steps so I have it word for word. I love the comparison and things make so much more sense to me when I can think this way. Thank you, Carole!

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  10. Thank you Carole for this helpful activity. Here's mine.
    Lewis Henry Douglass (1840-1908) Loyal son, brother,and devoted husband and uncle. He served as soldier, leader, newspaperman and businessman. His dedication to the betterment of his family, the Black community and American society lasted his whole life.

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  11. What a wonderful post! I feel similarly about telling the stories of women in all fields, but especially STEM ones.

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  12. Inspirational and so beautifully written. Thank you, Carole!

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  13. Carole, what an inspiring way to describe the process. I am excited to read some of the books you have sculpted, and to use your guidance to craft some of my own.

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  14. This was such a great analogy. This was very well written and thank you for your insight.

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  15. What a fabulous post and activity! Just thinking about my subject as a sculpture was illuminating. Thanks!

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  16. Thank you for this amazing post! I loved the analogy comparing writing to sculpting!

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  17. Great analogy. I especially like the image of wedging out the bubbles of half-informed "facts".

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  18. I loved your book on Gordon Parks: short, lyrical, but to the point! I also think of this work as sculpting. Some say "shitty first draft". I say a lump of clay. Thanks for the tips.

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  19. Thank you Carole for this enlightening post. I love the analogy between sculpture and our creations. The suggestion of a 25-50 word biography for subject's monument is a great reminder for my next MG biography proposal. Thank you!

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  20. Thanks for a peek into your passion and process.

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  21. As someone who has worked with clay and sculpting, I adore Carole's creating statues analogy for writing bios!

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  22. Thank you for this wonderful post! The exercise was both helpful and beautifully presented.

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  23. I love this activity idea! Thank you so much for this beautiful analogy!

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  24. Thanks for a thoughtful post and I love the activity! Will do!

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  25. Thank you for your insightful and inspiring analogy!

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  26. "10. Imagine your masterpiece cast in stone or bronze for future generations to behold." Thank you for this imagery. Inspiring!

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  27. Great analogy! I have just read and loved UNSPEAKABLE!

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  28. Hello from Wilmington, NC! This was wonderful, thank you. I sometimes feel so formulaic I forget to step back and trust the process, one step at a time. I needed words like "envision" "shape" and "imagine". Thanks for this inspiring post.

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  29. I love this post, Carole. You can't imagine how this has spoken to me. Thank you.

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  30. Talk about an amazing sculpture! Your article is a work of art. Thank you, Carole, for sharing these well-defined steps. What a beautiful way you presented them.

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  31. Oh, that I could sculpt with words the way you do! Thanks for sharing your advice is such a marvelous, helpful manner.

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  32. Thank you Carole. Your activity gave me and opportunity to practice, "make every word count." I tried to keep my inscription to twenty-five words. I'm still revising.

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  33. WOW. Carol, I love the analogy and it actually put a few of the steps into a different focus. Thank you so much! Now to work on my inscription.

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  34. Thanks, everyone. Happy sculpting.

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  35. Awesome post. I'm printing it out and hanging it up to remind me of how to craft my masterpiece.

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  36. Still thinking on the statue inscription, but had to say, what a cool metaphor! A definite keeper. I like the idea of framing it for future use.

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  37. Thank you for this inspiring post. I am working on a biography right now and this is very applicable! :)

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  38. I love your metaphor Carole! I want to share it with my ceramics students!

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  39. So powerful and poetic - thank you for such an inspiring post!

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  40. LOVE the visual of crafting biographies. Very nice.

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  41. This is an awesome post! My love of biographies started in 5th grade & I tracked down on ebay the 1st biography I ever read. Thank you!

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  42. thank you, Carole. What an inspirational post! The analogy and the activity are amazing. Go forth and write those masterpieces!

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  43. Love your beautiful analogy. Thank you!

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  44. Thank you Carole for the inspiring post.

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  45. I absolutely love your analogy, Carole. I also think of the many stages of writing through analogies of other art forms. I'm not sure the world realizes how much writers do mold, chisel, and glaze with words. Thanks for this.

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  46. Thank you for wisdom that added the heart to creating non-fiction. As a Native writer I “sculpt” as a political and social activist as no child should feel invisible or unimportant. I also just received UNSPEAKABLE and already it is a mentor text. Congratulations on your masterpiece!

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  47. Beautiful analogy! Thank you.

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  48. Thank you, Carole, for the analogy. You've given me building blocks of words to help me craft my story.

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  49. Love the clay analogy! Especially the idea of keeping the clay moist and supple by viewing your project from different perspectives.

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  50. Thanks for the helpful tips and fun activity today.

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  51. Thank you, Carole, for sharing a beautiful analogy on how to write beautiful biographies.

    Suzy Leopold

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  52. Thanks for this handy list, Carole!

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  53. I love and appreciate the pottery analogy. I visited a local potter recently so that struck well!

    On the other hand, I was bothered by the reference to anger at so many statues of white men. As authors, particularly nonfiction authors, we should value history and preserving it, as you do with your beautiful books. If someone had made a similar comment about taking down black statues, it would not have been at all allowed here. It's unfortunate that the same respect can't be shown for all. The violence that brought that about should not be celebrated.

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  54. I like your analogy between writing and sculpting. Yes, let's value every person in our history and preserve them all. Let's celebrate that we all matter and we all contribute to our history's richness.

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  55. Carole, such poetry and truth in these words. And yes, you have erected monuments of words to honor so many. Ty.

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  56. A powerful post, Carole. Thank you! It brings home the importance (and the joy!) in our PROCESS!

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  57. Wonderful comparison of using clay as the material to create stories. And the "firing" process can take that work in unpredictable directions. Thanks for sharing!

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  58. I love how you used the analogy of working with clay and how the same techniques apply to writing principles. I'm in AWE of all of the amazing NF books you have written! Thank you for sharing a bit of your background with us!

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  59. What a fabulous analogy! I especially love the idea of "slip" helping smooth out the piece. And thanks for an interesting assignment. I've got a biography that's currently on sub, so I'll do it for that. OR, I could do this for my current WIP, which isn't a bio. Maybe, just for fun, I'll write the text for its monument.

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  60. Hmmm..., kind of stuck on this activity in choosing a biographical subject, as I want it to be a family member--ancestor! Will work on this over time as I question, interview, research, etc. the individual and/or the family group itself.

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  61. I have worked with clay and love your analogy. Thanks for creating so many wonderfully, informative picture books. I have learned so much from you.

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  62. Carole - wonderful post and glad to have spent time with you at the SCBWI/Smithsonian Conference!

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  63. I love this activity - a great way to figure out what is truly important about a person.

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  64. Step 4 is where I really need to work on my subjects' stories to bring them to life. And your activity is a wonderful way to find that essence I want to convey.

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  65. Thanks so much for this metaphor about writing biographies. The exercise about the inscription on the pedestal equalling a pitch is smart!

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  66. Thank you for the inspiring and helpful metaphor. I think I can, I think I can.....

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  67. Thank you so much for this - what a great way to think of writing.

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  68. Thank you for demonstrating the ten steps with a clay analogy. Very clever and hands on.

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  69. Carole,
    i think your second step is the crucial one for me:2. With hunks of clays, or stacks of books, in hand, envision a pose, a style, that lends a unique perspective or approach.

    I'll keep working on that.
    sue

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  70. I'm not sure why, but this got me teary. It's so beautiful. I hope and pray someday my subject "gives me the nod." Thank you so much for this post!

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  71. Carole, this post is exemplary of your work--precise and passionate. Thank you for sharing your poetic expertise with us.

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  72. You transported me back to the art room where i spent many happy hours up to my elbows in clay. Great memory and useful to apply to today's creative pursuits.

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  73. Carole, what a beautiful analogy! Creating a written piece of art is very much like sculpting it into existence.

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