Best Author’s Bio Ever

medium

Recently, I’ve been reading as many of the Best American Short Stories anthologies as I can. With 20 stories by 20 different authors in each addition – edited by a different guest editor each year – they’re all excellent. I’m entertained while also learning from the various styles and techniques of these award winning authors.

I’m not reading the collections in any particular order, just reading whatever anthology I find next at my used bookstore or library. That’s how I came across the 1998 edition, guest-edited by Garrison Keiller. It includes incredible stories by Annie Proulx, Carol Anshaw, Akhil Sharma, and others, but it’s the authors’ bio sections that really caught my eye in this edition, because a short story writer named Poe Ballantine wrote the best author bio I’ve ever read.

Since it’s not available online, I’m going to retype his bio for you right here:

“I am forty-two. College dropout. Live in a motel room. I generally move every year, but I am tired of moving and I like this room so I think I will stay another year. I have had lots of odd jobs, mostly cooking. I worked at the radio antenna factory just across the tracks for a while, then sold a couple of stories, so I quit March 5, and if I live on $400 a month and this wisdom tooth coming in doesn’t knock the rest of my teeth sideways, I will be able to write until August.”

22706575

Advertisements

Write What You Don’t Know.

Teachers and professors tell young writers, “Write what you know.” And there’s a certain truth to that idea. If I try to write about a cricket match, but I don’t know anything about the game, have never played it, have never watched it, don’t know the rules, and am not sure I can name 5 countries where the sport is played, I’m not going to write an excellent scene that includes the sport.

In the same way, being a high school teacher and having a teenager myself, I recognize when “young adult” authors clearly don’t know much about teenagers and are too far removed from the personal experience to do the subject justice. Their “teenagers” – for example – never swear or only think & act in culturally competent ways.

So writing what you know is a good piece of advice. Or maybe it’s not…

Recently, an editor told me that I couldn’t have a Latino narrator in one of my stories because I wasn’t “Mexican enough.” That’s a strange thing to say in any context, but especially odd since my grandmother is Mexican and I do speak and read Spanish. But apparently – in that editor’s eyes – this piece of fiction was an example of me trying to write what I didn’t know.

I recognize that politically correct mores have permeated everything in our culture – and I’m sure that this particular editor is simply a politically correct conservative – but her command (her imperative?) made me think of the idea on a larger scale.

Should Margaret Atwood not have written the science fiction novel within The Blind Assassin?

Should Cormac McCarthy not have written John Grady’s Mexican prison scenes simply because McCarthy had never been incarcerated?

Should Toni Morrison not have any Caucasian characters or narrators in any of her novels or stories?

Again, I could go on and on.

And where would this idea stop? What would be its limit? Why would we allow for this type of censorship of creative possibilities?

So – to keep this piece short – I’d say that instead of the old “write what you know” adage, I’d say it’s fine (and good) to write what you don’t know as long as you’re willing to learn about it.

With encyclopedias, empathy, books, neighbors, friends, coffee shops, Youtube, relatives, films, traveling, and curiosity as basic starting points, what can we not learn? What can we not write about?

Dirtbagging, Climbing, And A Good Books Weekend

Lifting books weights with Willie Vlautin, PNBA Feast of Authors event

Lifting book weights with Willie Vlautin, PNBA Feast of Authors event

Grateful for five days at the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association trade show, Castle Rock State Park, and the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association “Feast Of Authors.” I learned once again that most people are wonderful. The authors were sharp and funny, humble and grateful. Booksellers were looking to promote authors and titles, and doing their work out of love for stories. And climbers are always excellent to be around.

We started the weekend in San Francisco, at the NCIBA author event, a speed-dating experience where an author pitches his book to bookseller after bookseller in fifteen-second conversations, an excellent way to get an elevator pitch down. If she likes me, I sign a book and give it to her. If I’m not what she’s looking for, she walks away. Simple and clean.

Ben Leroy, my publisher, and I went from San Francisco into Castle Rock State Park where we got to climb with locals, including the superhero John Ford, who took hours out of his climbing day to show us around and point out classic after classic.

After hiking west into the sunlight, we camped tentless in a grove of Madrones that night, sharing food and campsite with a guy we met, living the dirtbag ethic.

Then on to Portland on Monday and Tuesday. It was fun hanging out with Willie Vlautin, Tom Barbash, C.B. Bernard, Benjamin Parzybok, and Brian Juenemann from the PNBA.

A few pics:

Backpacking into Castle Rock State Park with Ben

Backpacking into Castle Rock State Park with Ben

First ascent, "Independent Witnesses", Castle Rock, CA

First ascent, “Independent Witnesses” variation, Castle Rock, CA

Camping with a good guy named Joe

Camping with Ben and a good guy named Joe

Shown around by a local, John Ford

Shown around by the local climber, John Ford

Failing Writer #40.

They changed my title.  I couldn’t even get that one.

And the new title has a cliche in it.  And I spent a long time choosing my original title.  And I was hoping for some controversy since my original title had the word “hate” in it linked to the phrase “Sherman Alexie.”

Okay, “Sherman Alexie” isn’t a phrase, he’s an author.  A famous author.

And I don’t actually hate him.  Just his writing sometimes.  Only sometimes.  And I hate the fact that his worst novel was heralded by the New York Times.  The reviewers said they loved it even though they knew it wasn’t good.

And I just noticed that there are a lot of “and”s in this post.

Hmm…

But here’s my new piece for the Huffington Post (cliche title written by the editors at HP – blame them):

Click.