The Old Year's gone away To nothingness and night: We cannot find him all the day Nor hear him in the night: He left no footstep, mark or place In either shade or sun: The last year he'd a neighbour's face, In this he's known by none.
And welcome to the New Year!
I am reminded of what T.S. Elliot once said, that last year’s words belong to last year’s language. And next year’s words are yet to be written. You might be expecting some words of wisdom, but – alas! – I have none. I’m just glad I made through the last year.
So now we have an opportunity to begin a new story. A blank page is in front of me, and I’m still trying to figure out my first line. It’s intimating, writing that first line. An argument can be made that the beginning of the story is the most important. First impressions and all. In fact Jacob Appel suggests in his article, 10 Ways to Start Your Story Better, that the fate of most literary endeavors is sealed within the initial paragraph, “and that the seeds of that triumph or defeat are usually sown by the end of the very first sentence.”
“In writing, as in dating and business, initial reactions matter. You don’t get a second chance, as mouthwash commercials often remind us, to make a first impression.”
Consider these iconic first lines:
Jane Austin, Pride and Prejudice (1813): It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.
Herman Melville, Moby Dick (1851): Call me Ishmael.
George Orwell, 1984 (1949): It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
Charles Dickens, Tale of Two Cities (1859) : It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.
Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1850): Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451(1953): It was a pleasure to burn.
Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar (1953): It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York.
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937): Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.
So I wrote my first line, to my new story. It reads:
To see the elephant: an American expression popular in the 19th century. It means to gain experience, overcome unexpected dangers and face the miseries of life, but at an extraordinary cost.
At last it is time to do the dance of joy and celebrate. Yippeeeeee, Hallelujah! My new book Buried Lives: The Enslaved People of George Washington’s Mount Vernon(Holiday House Books) will be released in a few days-on December 18, 2018.
Released December 18. New from Holiday House. STARRED review in Booklist. Enter the book giveaway at the end of this post for a chance to win a copy of Buried Lives: The Enslaved People of George Washington's Mount Vernon.
It has been five years in the making. Now that I think about it, it has been closer to five and a half years since the first idea for this book planted itself firmly in my mind--and more importantly in my heart. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, when I take on a topic for a book, I live with the people I write about for the rest of my life.
The people from Buried Lives I’ll carry with me along life’s bumpy road are William Lee (Washington’s valet), Christopher Sheels (the young man who took over as valet), Caroline Branham (housemaid), Peter Hardiman (Caroline’s husband who ran Washington’s mule breeding operation), Oney Judge (Martha Washington’s lady’s maid), and Hercules (chief cook at President’s House in Philadelphia). Along with these six people, their families join me too. For some of them, I know their mothers, their grandmothers, their aunts, their uncles, their spouse, their sons, and their daughters.
While I’m researching and writing the book, the subjects of my book are never far from my mind. I think about them as I figure out how to bring their true-life stories to readers in a way that is accurate and entertaining. I think through the details of their experiences. I ponder over them. I put myself in their shoes so to speak-at least as much as possible. The people I write about must be real to me. If they aren’t real to me, they will never feel real to my readers--even though they were real people.
I want my readers to find out what happens to the six people I highlight in my book. But that’s not all—I want them to feel the hoe in Christopher’s hand when he was a child. I want them to feel the cold as Caroline lights the fires in the house during the winter. I want them to smell the delicious meals Hercules cooked on the hearth. I want my readers to see them as real flesh and blood people who had every emotion we have today. And I want my readers to remember that someone else owned these six people. In this case, their master was the President of the United States.
Along the way of telling about the lives of these six individuals who were enslaved at Mount Vernon, I weave in Washington’s changing views of slavery through the years. By 1799, 317 enslaved people lived at Mount Vernon. Washington owned 123 of them, he rented 41, and 153 individuals were owned by Martha’s dower estate. Near the end of his life, Washington wrote a will that would freed the 123 people he owned. But neither he nor Martha could free the 153 people that were part of her estate. This sets up a devastating separation of some families after the deaths of George and Martha Washington. Readers will find out which of the six were freed and which remained enslaved.
Also part of Buried Lives is the ongoing archaeological dig in the cemetery for the enslaved people of Mount Vernon. The graves, which are unmarked, are slowly being located and counted—while none of the remains are disturbed.
In a few days, Buried Lives: The Enslaved People of George Washington’s Mount Vernon will leave my protection. It will be released into the world to stand on its own. It is my hope that the book I’ve written will allow six, specific enslaved people from Mount Vernon to step out of the fog of history and stand in the bright light of recognition. I want my readers to like them as much as I do.
Carla Killough McClafferty
Readers, to enter our drawing for a chance to win an autographed copy of Buried Lives: The Enslaved People of George Washington's Mount Vernon, written by Carla Killough use the Rafflecopter widget below. You may enter via 1, 2, or all 3 options.
If you choose option 2, you MUST leave a comment on TODAY'S blog post below or on our TeachingAuthors Facebook page. If you haven't already "liked" our Facebook page, please do so today! In your comment, tell us what you'd do with the book if you win our giveaway--keep it for yourself or give it to a young reader?
(If you prefer, you may submit your comment via email to: teachingauthors [at] gmail [dot] com.)
Email subscribers: if you received this post via email, you can click on the Rafflecopter link at the end of this message to access the entry form.
Note: if you submit your comments via email or Facebook, YOU MUST STILL ENTER THE DRAWING VIA THE WIDGET BELOW. The giveaway ends December 21, 2018 and is open to U.S. residents only.
I've been honored to work with many of our finest anthologists. Today I'd like to bow deeply to a "well-loved, deeply-respected, and internationally-renown author and poetry anthologist," (and, may I add, a really fun guy), Paul B. Janeczko who just this month won NCTE's Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children.
This award, established in 1977, honors a living American poet for their aggregate work for children ages 3–13. Take a deep dive into his website and see what a remarkable writer and person Paul is.
photo of Paul B. Janezko courtesy of Candlewick Press
Thank you for all you have given us, Paul--you are deeply loved and you soooo deserve this award! ...............................................................................
In 2015, I was thrilled when Pat asked me to write a poem about San Diego Zoo for this book "(perhaps include some of its exotic species)?" So after correspondence with and phone calls to the zoo hoping to get a free behind-the-scenes tour or interview with an animal keeper (wouldn't you think?), I convinced my husband that for our wedding anniversary we needed to go on a two-hour $89/per person behind-the-scenes tour of the zoo. And so we went. (Yes, he's a keeper.)
What a fun day!
It's both exhilarating and terrifying to write for an editor. Many of my attempts are stiff, lifeless. Nonetheless, I sent Pat nine poems. One was about two pandas getting married (we saw part of a wedding at the zoo), one was from the POV of a child lost in the zoo (I was six years old), two were about an elephant getting a manicure (we saw this on the tour--it's an actual thing!), a poem titled GOD DISCOVERS THE SAN DIEGO ZOO (about the S.D. Zoo Corps program for teens), one about a surprise date at the zoo (art reflecting life), a take-off of Robert Frost's The Pasture set in the zoo ("you come, too"), a quick and quirky poem about the first female zoo director, and a more serious poem about the same director.
Pat picked the last poem. Anthologists are editors, parent figures, therapists, task masters, mentors and more. Pat is one of the most patient editors I've worked with, watering and weeding poems I didn't even know were growing inside me...and then showing me how to clean up their meter and meaning.
Over a period of months, we changed phlangers into wombats, we took zebras out of their stalls (they've never lived in stalls in the San Diego Zoo, according to the zoo's historians) and more. Here is my poem as it now appears in this marvelous (and visually delicious) collection:
Belle Benchley by April Halprin Wayland
I was the bookkeeper, that's all.
At noon I'd watch the zebras loll
I'd study wombats eating lunch
I really did not know that much
about the zoo.
I saw the llama wasn't well—
how did I know? It's hard to tell.
I pointed out a listless gnu
(for I read volumes about zoos.)
Some people swore our chief was rude—
depends upon your point of view.
(Recall he built this cageless place
which opened 1922).
It may be Dr. Wegeforth’s rage
that drove three zoo leaders away.
He marched to my desk, bent down and said:
"You try and run it—go ahead."
And so I did.
poem (c) 2018 April Halprin Wayland. All rights reserved.
We at TeachingAuthors have been writing about giving thanks, especially as it relates to writing.
Actually, I’m thankful for writing itself through the ages. As the author of nonfiction books, I base all of my research on primary source documents. I’m grateful that for hundreds of years, people have recorded details of their lives. Wealthy and poor people, famous and non famous people, generals and soldiers, mothers and fathers wrote books, letters and diaries that are gold mines of information.
Not only have people written about their lives through the years, they and their families kept their letters and diaries. When you write about history today, the details eyewitnesses record can make a nonfiction book come to life.
To show you how details from life hundreds of years ago gives life to a book, let me give you an example from my new book Buried Lives: The Enslaved People of George Washington’s Mount Vernon.
My newest book-released December 18, 2018. NEXT MONTH THIS WILL BE OUR TA BOOK GIVEAWAY.
Many years after George Washington was President and lived in the capital city of Philadelphia, his step-grandson, George Washington Parke Custis, wrote about those days. In his memoir titled Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, Custis remembered Hercules, the main cook at the President’s House-and a man who was owned and enslaved by George Washington. Custis was a child at the time and knew Hercules well. Custis later wrote about how Hercules worked to prepare the weekly state dinner. I write about Hercules in my book. I quote from Custis who described Hercules as he worked in the kitchen in Philadelphia. He wrote that while preparing state dinners Hercules:
“shone in all his splendor . . . . It was surprising the order and discipline that was observed in so bustling a scene. His underlings flew is all directions to execute his orders, while he . . . seemed to be everywhere at the same moment.”
George and Martha Washington raised her grandson, George Washington Parke Custis-who later wrote a book about his recollections of his life with Washington.
This detail about Hercules was priceless to me. I was able to write about Hercules as a gifted chef at the top of his game. With details like these and others, I hope a reader hears the clang of pots and feel the heat of the fire in the hearth as Hercules cooks. My book is filled with details from eyewitnesses who wrote about events and I could not have known them any other way. Using primary sources, I could write about Hercules and put a reader in the room with him more than 200 years later.
In this scene in Buried Lives, I want contemporary readers to catch a glimpse into the life of Hercules, an enslaved man-who happened to be owned by the President of the United States.
The written word is powerful. If used effectively, the details of kitchen long ago can be a meaningful as the sweetest verse of poetry.
Carla Killough McClafferty
ANNOUNCING THE THE WINNERS OF OUR BOOK GIVEAWAY FOR THE NEWLY REVISED
The not-so-good news: we haven't heard back from one of those winners: Lynne L.
We've sent Lynne multiple emails without a response. If we don't hear from her by 11:59 p.m., (Central time) Tuesday, November 13, we'll have to chose another winner to take her place.
So, Lynne L, if you're out there, please check your inbox and Spam folders and reply to the email we sent you. If you can't find the email, or you're not sure you're the right Lynne L, email us at TeachingAuthors [at] gmail [dot] com for more information. Happy Monday, all. Carmela