Coming to Terms with Trying to Make Your Name by Sarah Leavesley

or the Anguish of Author Biographies

As a writer, one of my least favourite tasks is writing my author biography. To be honest, I’d rather be writing about one of my characters than myself. These biographies do, however, have to be done. But what to put in them?

If you’re after a quick fix for the perfect author biography, I’m afraid I don’t have definitive answers, more, questions and considerations.

Back in 2011, just after my first poetry collection, Into The Yell (Circaidy Gregory Press, 2010), I read an article by  Sam Riviere, Unlike’: Forms of Refusal in Poetry on the Internet’. I’d not thought much about poet personality, commodification and author-branding until this point.

The article isn’t about author biographies but for me it does highlight why they may be important, whether or not as authors we like them. Also, how social media especially, like performance, can make ‘the poet’ (and by extension their author biographies, online profiles and personality) part and parcel of their poem(s).

If I had my way, I’d prefer poems to speak for themselves, with me hovering somewhere very distantly in the background, watching. But the truth is most poems, or mine at least, aren’t naturally easy about summing themselves up or chatting away on social media, they’d prefer to simply be. To know them, you have to read them. (But do check out my The Blue Nib article on photo-poems . if you’re interested in visual possibilities for poetry on social media.)

Sarah Leavesley, The Write Life, biography

My preoccupation with author biographies was re-ignited recently by a social media post about someone’s legitimate dislike of the word ‘prize-winning’. I’ve often used the word in my own biographies – I am very proud of my competition successes, not least because they’re inevitably in the minority compared to my entries that get nowhere. Yet, I understand the unease that may come with the term.

For me, it’s partly that while competitions can foster quality writing, they don’t necessarily fit with the sense of poetry community. Then, there’s the consideration that all competitions are not equal. Winning the National Poetry Competition might register very differently compared to winning a smaller local competition. And how can the whole range of constantly changing contests out there be ranked in any meaningfully definitive way?

This isn’t to say that competitions don’t have uses. Personally, I love the anonymity of most individual poem competitions, which brings poems closer to being considered in their own right, with minimal poet personality involved. Competitions appeal to introvert parts of my nature too by removing some of the social anxiety that comes with submission letters. (And yes, I do tend towards being an optimiser – aiming for that impossible ‘perfect poem’ and more easily reaching a ‘finished’ point through external recognition, rather than a ‘satisfier’ who may be able to successfully let go of a piece when they feel it’s ‘good enough’ to meet audience requirements and/or what they set out to do.)

That said, when it comes to competition, some magazines/publishers have such high volumes of submissions that publication might mean being chosen from a larger pool of poems than entered in some contests. This is perhaps why some places longlist and shortlist submissions, though not all writers may like this ‘competitive’ terminology here.

I’ve digressed from my main focus Sarah Leavesley is another poet who often strays off-topic… But for more on this side of writing, try poet, writer and literature activist Jonathan Davidson’s blogpost ‘The Poetry-Industrial Complex’ here.

Returning to biographies, alternatives to ‘prize-winning’ might be leaving out prizes all together or selecting the most important examples, if word-count allows. But what about other potential biography shortcuts like ‘popular’, ‘bestseller’, ‘(internationally) renowned’ or ‘critically acclaimed’?

They sound good, yet what exactly do they mean? ‘Popular’ could be loved by mum and friends or sells hundreds of books and regularly performs at sell-out gigs. (But even that isn’t straight-forward. Selling out a gig at Wembley Arena would be different to a sell-out event at the local pub.)

‘Bestseller’ is another highly subjective/comparative term. One possibility might be to state instead the number of books sold. But how many sales are needed to sound impressive? As readership varies too from genre to genre, how are great sales for a poetry collection made to sound good to an audience that, for example, is more used to the sales figures for a ‘popular’ ‘bestseller’ in supermarket fiction markets?

What then might (internationally) renowned signify? I guess it could vary from being (internationally) published once to selling thousands of books, sell-out audiences, regularly invited onto the television or radio, interviewed by top magazines, commissioned by the best places (there again, whatever those might be), stopped in the street by strangers…

Similarly, critically acclaimed might be (regularly) reviewed by The Times Literary Supplement, The New Yorker, The Poetry Review, [whatever an individual writer or reader’s most-dreamed-of review publication happens to be]…or it could be reviewed once, somewhere. In fact, even simply being published once potentially falls under this wording.

So, where does that leave me? Sarah Leavesley is a poet who can’t cope with terminology…

My illustrations are exaggerated. But they do highlight how hard it can be to make an author biography feel meaningful. (And, yes, hand up, I haven’t mastered this art.)

One difficulty with the terms I’ve considered is their potential vagueness. This returns me to something applied elsewhere in writing: that specifics potentially create a more immediately vivid picture than abstracts. But specifics often require more words, and most author biographies tend to have very tight word-counts, so we have to use short-cut terms.

Sarah Leavesley, lines of love

Sarah Leavesley’s latest poetry projects are a multimedia hypertext disability narrative > Room and Lines of Love – a light-hearted interactive online quiz to matchmake the reader’s ideal love poem.

The latest publication or writing project is one specific that’s a fairly established biography staple, free marketing hopeful of extra attention. But most creatives are, well, creative, so everyone has a latest book or project. Meanwhile, our lives are increasingly busy. Do such biography details gain much traction with those who don’t already know the writer and/or project? Does even doing a  full ‘meta’ and, say, writing an article about writing biographies actually add anything likely to increase engagement?

Like me, you may have sighed over how much simpler it could be if writers didn’t need author biographies. Simpler, maybe. But the truth is that for most of us, other people’s biographies are fascinating in the way a name alone isn’t. Writer personality does interest us, though this may be as much for the human interest glimpses behind the writing face.

Cue to enter stage left: Sarah Leavesley fits life around writing, writing around life…

[Yes, fun repetition but this too is actually vague in a different way.]

Or from stage right, a hopefully appealingly quirky: Sarah Leavesley’s stranger claims to 5-mins of fame include her poetry translated into Russian, a film version of a poem screened at a Bulgarian film festival and poems shared in the American classroom.

[And you’re telling me this because?]

sarah leavesley, writing biographies, The Write Life

Meanwhile, in the wings: Sarah Leavesley is an incurable wonderer, whose middle name is irony…

[Stop trying to be clever – it doesn’t suit you, and it doesn’t work!]

(Image: Reflecting on a palimpsest of myself)

Am I confident that any of these would appeal to all/any readers? No. Do I feel these capture me or my work? No. Do I cringe every time I see or hear my own author biography? Yes.

I sometimes wonder about multiple-choice author biographies allowing readers to choose which part of an author’s personality/work they’d like to know about. But that, of course, would mean writing even more versions of me. Did I say that the author biography is one of my least favourite writing tasks? Sarah Leavesley another tongue-in-cheek writer who hates writing bios…

If you are interested in finding out more about writing an effective author biography, read about 10 important factors to consider here

About the contributor

Sarah Leavesley's latest published books include a poetry pamphlet How to Grow Matches (Against The Grain Press) shortlisted in the International Rubery Book Awards 2018 and a novella Always Another Twist (Mantle Lane Press, 2018). This is a sequel or companion novella to her novella Kaleidoscope, published by Mantle Lane Press in March 2017.

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