Monday, September 29, 2008

What your author biography says about you

Writing the "about the author" section of your book proposal is a bit like being asked to stand undressed in front of a three-way mirror in a harshly lit department store and describe what you see. Self-image issues slither into the scene, and for many people (myself included), it can feel so awkward. Here is a note I recently wrote to an author who was struggling with the "about" section. The author had mentioned being an outcast in high school, and it was easy enough to see a tale-within-a-tale in that deceptively simple paragraph.

"Now for the bio . . . what I heard most in your earlier versions was the echo of negative self-mythology. When we define ourselves by how popular we were or weren't in high school, we're essentially ratifying the opinion of a coven of adolescent middle-minds (whether we think we were hot stuff or not). Once I busted open those stories I told myself about who I was in school, I personally began to flourish as a much quirkier and more interesting person who no longer shadow boxed with uninteresting and largely imaginary characters from a so-called past. I also began to have different -- and equally valid -- memories about those same years that were much richer. It was as though the Big Mythology bad memories had crowded out the flowers, but once I learned to question my thoughts, they vanished. I now have an entirely different internal narrative of what school "was," and better yet, it changes all the time because I constantly question it."

The author had an interesting time learning to challenge the degree to which he bought into others' definitions of who he was from two decades earlier (he is now 38), but he also tried a trick which I heartily recommend: he asked people who like him now to write the bio for him. He didn't just ask one person, but he solicited the comments of five. Not only was he quite surprised at how seriously they took the task and what a good job they did (far from simply flattering him, they truly attempted to define why in their opinions he was an interesting author and how they perceived his history), but he ended up with a much more dimensional and truthful self-portrait, since the loving eyes of others will always see us in important ways.

Image: "Studio Self Portrait" by Boston artist Jeff Hayes.

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