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Does This Bio Make My Ass Look Fat?

September 2, 2013

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I agonize over every aspect of my submissions to literary journals. Even my bio becomes a fretful source of writerly angst. You might think of a biography as a straightforward collection of facts. But it can be tricky. It’s especially tricky if you think about it with a paranoid writer’s brain sick with a steady diet of rejection. Maybe you’ve been getting the standard “Unfortunately, we’re passing on your work” because you mention being from Boager, Arizona in your bio. Maybe editors read that and think, “Hey, this guy’s from Booger!” Perhaps their inability to imagine you as anything other than a giant doofus from a gross-sounding town prevents them from appreciating the majesty of your work.

I see the bio as an opportunity to showcase your skills as a writer. It is a tiny writing sample. Another step in the application process for the job of published writer. For that reason, I often find myself worrying over my biography’s tenor and tone, testing it for both content and implication.

Never simply the place where you say who you are, where you’re from, and what you’ve done, the bio is a minefield of politics encased in an enigma. It’s a house haunted with ghosts of shady origins and ambition. Yeah, it’s all that. It’s also just a few sentences about yourself. See what I mean? Tricky.

So, let’s pause for a moment in order to diffuse a few of the explosions that the seemingly trivial biography ignites.

First, let’s clarify the general template for a good bio. It ought to include your name in the third person and some information about where you’ve published before. If you don’t have prior publications, here the intrigue begins. If you don’t know what your name would be in the third person, your uphill climb will be even steeper. If you don’t have a full name, you’re in luck. You’re a writer. Make one up.

After those basics, things get complicated. What other information should you add? The state or city you live in? The name of your dog? The fact that you write with your left hand yet buff the skulls from your roadkill collection with your right? Not all of these gems about the *real* you will be welcomed by editors or readers. This is a time to be selective.

One golden rule of writing for publications (other than the obvious like adverbs and handwritten cards to editors with revealing selfies inside) is that you should always scout out the publication you’re trying to get into. Check to see if there is a house style not just for the poetry or fiction but for bios. I’ve done this on a number of occasions and have been pleasantly surprised by the range. Some magazines  want only the vital statistics of your writing life. Others prefer it when you make up weird, impossible things about yourself.

Either way, there’s one sure-fire bio theme that I’ve noticed to be nearly universal. Whether you are trying to get published in Tin House or The Story Shack, Pure Slush or The Puritan, you can always talk about where you’re from in a bio. Matters of origin are as blissfully neutral in author bios as small talk about the weather. It’s Type O blood and you should be ready to donate generously.

How about some examples. Here is one of my first bios to focus on place.

Michael Chaney tries hard to be less of a simile and more of metaphor, and so he is not like an academic, nor as a writer, and never so much a Clevelander living in Vermont.

That journal likes wackier stuff. I decided to present facts about myself in a new way, stating things in the negative. Another aim in writing it this way was more delicate and more serious. I wanted to provide yet one more shred of compelling evidence that I was a writer editors ought to publish.

Here’s another place-themed bio. This one was for a venue that seldom allows writers to include that annoying string of publications. I decided to play with some of the odd facts concerning my geography instead.

Michael Chaney is a native Clevelander, an academic in New Hampshire, a writer in Vermont, and a walker of a dog named Vegas. When less spatially confused, he works diligently on a novel about the absurdities of the pharmaceutical industry.

I’ve played the geography card a number of different ways. Here’s one for a journal that wanted a select list of pub credits.

Hailing from Cleveland, where even the flowers are grey, Michael Chaney has planted verdant things in NANO Fiction, Hobart, Coe Review, The Madhatters’ Review, and other fields where verbal poppies grow. He currently lives in Vermont, where even the clouds are green.

And here’s the latest version of the quirky place bio, from some prose poems I’m happy to have in Whiskey Paper:

Michael Chaney is from Cleveland, the source for the quip “if you don’t like the weather, wait a second” — but he waited many seconds and ended up in Vermont, where if you don’t like the weather you can just stand there and freeze with disappointment for all we care. When warmed over, he blogs at michaelalexanderchaney.com.

So try out my place-themed bio exercise routine. In no time at all, your profile will be looking writerly and oh so svelte. The garden gnome guarantees it.

27 Comments
  1. Reblogged this on Amanda's Words / starfire8me and commented:
    I LOVE THIS!!!!!! IT IS SO DAMN FUNNY!!!!!!

  2. Oh misery, pure misery, trying to present an accurate “presentable” self along with one’s submissions. I commiserate with you 😉

  3. Reblogged this on Sara Crawford's Writing Blog and commented:
    This is pretty hilarious!

  4. “Sarah Remy is from Spokane, WA, a city that regularly makes the national news for heinous murder, killing blizzards, and drunken boating accidents.”

  5. Yes, writing an author bio is harder than writing a novel. I like seeing all your different sides though.

  6. marsicowritesite permalink

    This is great advice with even better examples to back it up. I would have never thought of writing a bio like any of these. Thanks for the eye-opener!

  7. Great post Michael, very enjoyable read. I’ve only tried writing a bio a couple of times and failed miserably on each occasion, mainly through sending myself to sleep. Thanks for the advice that bios don’t have to be a plain old list of facts and that as creative writers, the bio is another opportunity to portray this characteristic.

  8. Awesome Michael-This was hilarious! Great Post

  9. Reblogged this on heatherzhutchinswrites and commented:
    Howdy Fictioneers:

    Check out Michael’s most excellent post about writer bios. Sadly, I’ve never taken them very seriously, but NEVER AGAIN!

  10. Reblogged this on have cake with it and commented:
    Very funny and interesting take on bios – well worth a read

  11. Clevelander? Eastsider or Westsider?

  12. jaschmehl permalink

    And for the non-geographical and as yet unpublished bio: Jill spends most of her waking hours attempting to capture the thoughts that scurry around her mind and put them to work entertaining others. You can find these thoughts most often on her blog, Mind of a Mouse, but tiptoe when you enter please, she is easily startled and probably panicking.

  13. Michael, I ate this post up without a single condiment. Sometimes your posts go over my head, but I am proud to say that I am smart enough to laugh and understand this one. hehe

    I have been sending some stuff in to lit journals here and there, and since I have never been published in a journal (though I have published journalism, and a bit of fiction in Boston altweeklies), I always treat my bios as an occasion to have some fun and to show off. My purpose, to steal a quote from you, is to “provide yet one more shred of compelling evidence that I was a writer editors ought to publish.”

  14. Leaving here with a smile on my face, thank you.

  15. Dorian permalink

    Thank you for sharing… I go now to scramble words around in every bio I’ve ever written. So much more creative potential there than I thought!

  16. Liana permalink

    you’re freakin’ brilliant, Michael 🙂

  17. Hey, great article! I’ve also wondered what to say in a bio. I used to just list previous publications, then noticed that publications will sometimes say, “Don’t just list all the places you have been published.” You must have been reading my mind, because a few times I used this as a bio,”Sara Jacobelli lives in New Orleans where she tries to avoid vampires, tourists and Bourbon Street.”
    PS: And not just for publcations, but also for public readings, they also ask for a “brief bio!” And you have to keep coming up with new ones or people will get tired of hearing it.

    • I love the vampire themed NOLA bio. That’s cool. Plus, the possibilities are infinite when it comes to playing off of notions regarding that city.

      • Yes, true. You should come here and do a reading. We have some great venues and a very eclectic writers/artists/musicians community.

      • I know. I was just there a few weeks ago. Stayed in the Monteleone and hung out at that carousel bar for while. I was amazed at all the cool artist studios there too. I don’t remember them from before Katrina. Very neat to walk in an take in the work.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. The Monday Five: Writing Life – The Author Bio (September 9) | The Daily Word
  2. Writing the dreaded “brief bio”! | Capitare a Fagiolo

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