You don’t need a Ph.D. to know some shit.
I was writing my author bio for my first syndicated writing gig and I was a little sick to my stomach imagining that my words/thoughts/ideas would, shortly thereafter, be disseminated to more people than I had considered realistically possible.
The “Yays!!!” and the “Ughs…” were having a cafeteria food fight in my brain.
***I know that this clip wasn’t really necessary, but John Belushi makes everything better. While I’m at it, I’m pretty sure I can work CaddyShack in here, too. Maybe Old School. I don’t know. I don’t know if we’ll have enough time.***
After about an hour of productive procrastination — you know, the things you convince yourself you need to get done before you can write, like tidy your space or run that load of laundry or lint roll your cat or initiate a quickie with your unsuspecting loverman/woman who is thinking, “WT actual F is happening right now? On a Tuesday???”, except when you’re done, you’re no more able to write than you were before the chores — after an hour of those things, I sat my ass back down and committed to getting this done.
The outlet had accepted my piece and was just waiting on me. “We want to publish your work. We need a bio by Friday.” Fuck me. This bio seemed way more intimidating than writing any article.
This tiny little paragraph felt like everything…like a sales pitch, except I’m a crazy shitty salesperson so that was going to be a problem. I needed to put myself “out there” and tell the world who I was and, wait…hold on…what gave me the audacity to think that anyone would give two shits about anything I have to say???
I decided to start with a zero fucks approach so my first draft read something like:
“A.J. won a local Young Authors contest in the fourth grade. She also won the fourth grade All-City spelling bee. She may have peaked in 1988 and that’s okay. She’s a single mom to four girls and has had to call poison control no less than eight times. She likes to eat cottage cheese mixed with thousand island dressing, while watching New Girl and only recently, at 38, started taking elevators (and only out of necessity). A.J. curses just enough in her writing to make her readers vaguely uncomfortable and conjure the thought, “Are all those ‘fucks’ really necessary?” She’s written zero books and has no advanced degrees. You’d be well advised to invest in a Costco-sized container of salt, the grains of which her suggestions require taking— but only vegan salt, because sometimes she pretends she’s a vegan.”
Cool. Sounds about right. Good starting place.
I’m a researcher by nature, as many of us writers are, so the next thing I did was cruise other authors’ bios.
Well, shit. I’m glad I didn’t do that first.
Ain’t nothing like comparing yourself to other people to make you feel like a real piece of shit.
The same outlet for which I was now writing was chock full of:
“Jamie Q. Rutherford’s 52nd title, “Cursing is a Lazy Rhetorical Device: Don’t Do It”, is in its 2000th week on the New York Times Bestsellers list.”
“Paula Peterson conducts global workshops on global policy with global emphasis on the manufacturing of globes … for world peace.”
“Franky G. is a Level 72 yoga master who has transcended space and time and returned to earth to impart his wisdom to the masses.”
Aaaaaaaaand, the “Ughs” (Greg Stantons) for the win.
I know I’m being snarky and silly here, but this little information gathering experiment really fucked me up.
I was ready to call it. I have an email to my editor still sitting in my draft folder, telling her that I had changed my mind and that I wasn’t going to do the thing that had wanted to do for so long, after all.
“But thanks for the opportunity! I’m going to go throw it in the trash now because my fear of failure and not being good enough can’t possibly pass up a chance to sabotage me. Old dogs and new tricks and all that jazz.”
I mean, I had no quantifiable expertise and no external recommendations. I had spent the previous 16 years raising kids and little else. Where the hell did the idea that I could share my writing come from?
I did not send that reply.
My sister is an accomplished lady. She is a mere year older than me, has a law degree, is an executive at a white shoe law firm in NYC, and has written a weekly column for a Top Five most circulated newspaper in the U.S…among other things.
She and I enjoy really entertaining banter. While texting the other day, amidst this little witty exchange…
Sister: “Maine is the shizz. It’s so beautiful and simple.”
A.J.: “Like Anna Nicole Smith?
A.J.: “ Too soon?”
Sister: “Not soon enough.”
…I said to her, “I want to you to write with me.”
Her reply was, “I don’t have meaningful things to say. My thoughts are like, “Ugh, shhhh”
“Tell me more about Maine.”
My sister has meaningful shit to say. So do I. So does your Uber driver. And your hairdresser. And your mom. And your caddy.
Don’t get me wrong. There is some bad advice out there (and right here on Medium). Like, really fucking bad. Bad writing, in general. But that doesn’t mean that those authors should not be writing. That’s when the onus falls on the reader to do their part. They get to curate the info they keep. The information is an offering.
We are not obligated to accept gifts.
The reader could offer the gift of feedback in return.
I am a staunch advocate for keeping it real in responses and that’s why I refuse to jump on the “If you don’t have anything nice to say about someone’s writing, just don’t respond” train. Because its crap.
Speak up. Challenge them. Let them challenge you back. Help them get better. Help them learn. If they aren’t open to it, that’s fine, but let them decide what to keep and what to discard. Your job is to offer.
Now, let me lay out a distinction. I believe in critique, not criticism. I’m the first to admit that I sometimes struggle to find the line, but there is indeed a line.
If someone gives bad advice and you know it, or even if you think his or her position lacks merit that could confuse or misdirect someone, it is your moral imperative to say, “Yeah. That’s not it. Here’s what it is, tho.”
But, don’t do it like this. ^^^
Common sense, people.
We all feel inadequate. That’s why some people pad their bios. Not that all bios are padded but, if the well-circulated stat is true — that 85% of people lie on their resumes — it stands to reason that author bios would be subject to similar proportions.
We all have things to say. We all have life experiences. Most of us have not been living in a basement doing nothing for the last ten years. But, if there’s someone who has, I want to hear from that guy when I’m looking for info on agoraphobia or extreme BDSM or whatever got him into that situation. That man has knowledge that is valuable to someone going through something similar. He has authority…the authority of experience. And that shit is valuable.
I think we need to collaborate with all kinds of people with varying viewpoints. We need to get all the information. And all the information includes both what the expert psychologist who has appeared on Dr. Phil has to say, and also his flight attendant who has a chronically ill mother, survived serious trauma, and has been happily married for 25 years.
Both are viewpoints have value. You get to decide which has value to you.
The important part, as writers, is that we share at that we have learned, regardless of how we have learned it.
We’ve all heard of the School of Hard Knocks. Or, “Street Smarts!” for you John Mulaney fans. (Yeah, I saw that show live — don’t be jealous.) I am such a big believer in learning the “hard way” — because I’ve done such an extensive amount of it — that I would happily be on a poster somewhere promoting the concept (although I know “the hard way” reads vaguely sexual and there would probably be some confusing and vaguely offensive blowback to deal with. Hehe…blow back.)
“Stuff I Learned From Doing the Things” — That’s a book I would buy. Hell, that’s a book I should write. When I do, maybe then I’ll have some authority in my bio.
I do sometimes forget that not everyone has the same motivations I do. Not everyone is here to learn. Some people want to be entertained. Some people want to be outraged. Some want to be turned on. Some people want to be validated at all costs. We all have needs we are trying to get met. We all want something from being here. I don’t believe that our differing motivations matter that much, though. We can all take what works for us and leave the rest. The more there is to sample, the more likely we are to find something valuable.
The bottom line for me is this: If you have something to say, say it. I don’t care if you have four Ph.D’s or never got to finish high school. Your experience has value to someone.
It doesn’t matter how many titles and awards and accolades you put into your bio. Your voice is important. My voice is important. Be important. Be Big, with a capital B.
Now sits, among the bios of indisputably more accomplished and validated authors, my bio:
“A.J. is a divorced mom of four. She likes to write and she’s not a fan of the upsell. She’s got things to say and she intends to say them. Thanks for reading.”
I’m a person in the world. That’s more than enough authority to say something.
If I want people to listen, I’d better up my game.