My lovely silent retreat this week got impinged upon, by two things from opposite ends of life’s spectrum: 1) a chance for a Skype conversation with my granddaughter (whom I adore and would never miss a chance of hearing her increasingly lively vocabulary begin to lay out what’s in her heart and mind!) and 2) yet another PR-related thing to do (bio, etc.).
The bios we have to write in this world are my least favorite genre of writing. They’re presently part of the odd notion that we all have to ‘brand’ ourselves (a practice that has always seemed barbaric to me, whether for livestock or humans). For anyone who’s fine with such a thing for themselves—sizzling hot iron rod slapped to skin—I’m fine with their being fine with it, and I would never dream of judging someone in any manner for burning a tattoo of ownership in their own hide, but as for me? I can’t get over the cognitive K2 involved in the touting of my own horn: it feels uncouth, more than a little snooty, considerably demeaning, as if words and accomplishments are being turned into walls between me and everybody else in the world.
I have tried a slew of tactics to make my bios not seem off-putting: for example, setting folksy, nerdy tidbits cheek by jowl with one or two accomplishments that I care about (though I can never include the things that matter most to me, of course!). These let people who believe in hierarchies and use folksiness as a meter for lower placement on their scales feel condescending to me, though, and I’m pretty sure that’s not helping them one bit. (It does, however, let a person get way up in somebody else’s kitchen: the whole business of being condescended to for some superficial reason like language or clothing or body size: when somebody’s busy judging you and feeling superior, you almost always have a wide open door to their being. Which means you have to work much harder not to cause offense to them, because it’s not at all uncommon for them to be offended that you simply exist!) I have tried different tones, too: terse, friendly, droll, approachable. These should let people walk alongside me, but I have heard from some that it had the opposite effect. A couple, full-grown people have told me that my bios alone make them feel they have done nothing at all with their lives! Which is beyond-my-wildest-dreams-ever not the effect I would hope to have on anyone breathing. Beyond every pale and then some. So I have tried to turn bio writing into my own master class for prose: the single genre most detested is the one that must be tackled most rigorously. Nothing works. Nothing lifts my inherent distrust of this medium of communication. Bio writing at this point in time and in our celebrity-crazed and -haunted culture flat out runs counter to my most prized values: that of non-hierarchical, collaborative and compassionate connections. Bios (like academic introductions in content, except nowhere near as long, which is always so frustrating when you just want to hear what the person has to say) get read whenever you show up, too, so there it is every time: the great big ugly monster defying my core values before I even open my mouth!
Bios put me back in the throes of primary-to-secondary school: straight-A student and always heartsick over my good grades. Parents and teachers loved them, of course, but for all the wrong reasons, if you ask me, because grades never demonstrated jack siccum re: what I actually knew; I could just remember and reprise exactly whatever I’d seen, and thus didn’t have to know anything to get a perfect score. The other children would sometimes write things on pieces of paper or their hands, desperately trying to do what I could do by just closing my eyelids and reading off the backs of them, and they would get licks and zeroes for their trouble while I sailed through not just unassailed but praised (for the exact same act of cheating as theirs, except with a different instrument). Ferociously angry about the whole system, even as a very young child; trapped alone in my terrible guilt (not a soul but me knew), but knowing if I came home with anything less than an A I’d get a whipping and people would be praying for me to knuckle down and do my ‘best’ for lord only knows how long; perversely wanting good grades myself, too, and finding it hard not to blink on tests or to put down some wrong answers to even the odds some (though I later did this on tests like the GRE that were so badly unfair to people whose learning milieus were so different from mine that I just couldn’t live with myself otherwise): I understood the whole system from the outset to be rigged and wrong. Nothing about it is fair to anyone, not those of us who test well, not those who test poorly, not anyone in between.
Unfair advantages do not even help the advantaged, provided they are paying attention to the whole field. I did not—to this day still do not—want anyone else to feel less because of me or what I have done. I want people to feel good about themselves and simply walk alongside me. I’m happy for all our accomplishments and have never seen the point in competing with anyone else, since everybody needs to win sometimes, everybody needs to excel on occasion, everybody needs to feel okay in the moment, but I have never been able to find the words to express this in bios. I have to talk about me there, and that never winds up as anything but self-aggrandizement. I’d much rather talk about content, ideas, concerns, issues, plain experiences, anything that honors us all and not just one. So I hate the genre. It sucks up enormous amounts of time and energy and talent for me, and I have often wished I could pay somebody to write mine, but when that has happened, I have sounded like even more of an accomplished freak than when I do it myself! (There is a fair to middling chance, I suppose, that I’ve simply been alive so long now that there’s just too much to be recounted, which in itself sounds impressive?)
So the bio and website preparing and the selling of one’s self as a hunk of unnecessarily dead cow down at the market in order to do the work one was put here on the planet to do? Yegads. It tests all my corners of perseverance, hurts my hard head, breaks my heart. Let us all thrive is how I live and breathe. Let us all thrive. The typical bio sets me off in a sad way, too easily made to appear heroic based on the actual events of my life and my responses to them, and I come at it throwing knives of regret, slinging slingblades of fury that I cannot seem to figure out how to write one that can’t hurt anyone’s feelings. And yet I know that people genuinely are interested in the writers behind books, and so surely there is a way to do this without such angst. Surely. I just haven’t found it yet.
Talking to my granddaughter was a beautiful reprieve from silence. The new bio and website prep is not. Yet even my start on silence has been valuable, for it occurred to me late last evening—wrestling again with bio-hell so I could get back to the quiet place so needed before fall starts—that I could write a short photo essay instead, connecting images of me across the decades and sharing a stylized, but truer story of me to now than bios manage. It could be blog-like, available on the website: people could ignore or read it, as they will, take what they want or nothing, and genuinely walk alongside me (though the exchange is still uneven unless I get to hear from them, too). I can pepper it with what really mattered, too, which puts any accomplishments into sharp perspective. For example, in the year my first book was made into a movie, I can mention that this happy, unlikely event coincided with my son being diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor and nearly dying all year long. That’s the real story of my life. I have never had a great accomplishment or triumph without—immediately or sooner—having some wrenching, terrible event or happening show up. Never. At this point I no longer even hope to. When something great happens, I know to be ready for hell. The bio cannot hold such intensity: like a great deal of our PR-nessing today, it belies reality and truth.
So there it is: one more writerly task that isn’t quite the writing I have to do now. I’ll hold up on the short bio until I have the photo essay up, and then I may be able to write the bio without diving so headlong into its hell? Fortunately such tasks can be put off, for brief spells anyway, one more chance to watch deadlines I’ve set go whooshing by! So there’s time. I have a manuscript to complete first. And silence to fall into once again, for going on with. There is so much beauty in this pain-ravaged world. So much sorrow-swept wonder. So much being all about. Let me contribute my small part to that, to reaching out and touching others so that we can walk alongside one another for our time here, I ask of the silence, let me contribute to bringing this great hope better to pass: Let us all thrive.