MFA Grads and Former Acrobats: Approaches to the Author Bio

February 10, 2011 | 7 books mentioned 37 5 min read

cover The other day, I got my paws on an advance copy of Zazen by Vanessa Veselka, which will be released this May by Red Lemonade, an imprint of Cursor, Richard Nash‘s start-up publishing community. I loved the cover, which reminds me of some of Ed Ruscha‘s paintings, and a sentence early on pleased me greatly: “He always orders a Tofu Scramble and makes me write a fucking essay to the cook.” Oh how I love an ornery waitress!

Then I turned to the back cover, and read Veselka’s bio:

Vanessa Veselka (Portland, OR) has been, at various times, a teenage runaway, a sex-worker, a union organizer, a student of paleontology, an expatriate, an independent record label owner, a train-hopper, a waitress and a mother. Her work has appeared in Arthur, Bust, Maximum Rock ‘N’ Roll, Tin House, and elsewhere. Zazen is her first novel.

Sex-worker? Train hopper? Wow, I thought, I need to get out more. I suppose if I’d had such a dramatic and compelling past, I might include those facts in my own bio. But would I? I tend to prefer only a listing one’s writing-related achievements, however, I recognize this might be closed-minded and uptight of me. My preference of author bio favors academic and publication history over life and work experience, though one could argue–and do so convincingly–that that isn’t necessarily what matters most. Why should one kind of bio be any more relevant than another?

Still, I can’t help but feel a tinge of annoyance when I read that John Brandon wrote his second novel Citrus County while working “at a Frito-Lay warehouse and a Sysco warehouse.” How cute. I admit, I did laugh at this next line: “During another part of the writing of this book he was unemployed,” and I felt relieved to learn that during the novel’s revision, he’d received a fellowship from the University of Mississippi.

coverAnd there’s Benjamin Hale, author of the debut novel The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore. From his bio we learn not only that he’s a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but also that he’s been “a night shift baker, a trompe l’oeil painter, a cartoonist, an illustrator and a technical writer.” Oh. I see.

And there’s my friend Joseph Mattson, author of the novel Empty the Sun. The last line of his bio reads:

An epical rambler–miles under him include work as a farmer, dishwasher, getaway driver, and in healthcare for the clinically mentally insane–his home base is Los Angeles.

I have to wonder why Joseph didn’t include his years-long tenure at Book Soup, where he’s the man behind the beautiful signage. (It could be his mention of the “clinically mentally insane” is a veiled reference to that job…) Is graphic design too stable and predictable an occupation for the author of a novel as whiskey-soaked as Empty The Sun? Probably. For when it comes down to it, this is just a question of branding.

cover Most of the time, the choice to include non-writing information suggests that the author is an outsider, or wants to be considered one. Donald Ray Pollack, for instance, worked 32 years in a paper mill before the publication of his short story collection Knockemstiff. This implies that his worldview has been honed by far more than reading, writing, and teaching writing; he has an MFA, but he’s not like the rest of those MFA-grads (yawn) who have debut story collections! And his bio works: I’m interested in his distinct point of view, and also, I don’t see why he shouldn’t include an activity that was a decades-long career. Readers are concerned with authenticity, even when what they’re reading is fiction.

The thing is, a bio that focuses on the author’s non-writing jobs bothers me in the same way those new Levi’s ads bother me; “All work is equally important” the billboards read, the text paired with black-and-white photographs of beautiful be-denimed men, usually standing in fields. Am I really supposed to believe these guys are farmers? Please. As Americans, we romanticize manual and/or blue collar labor, even as we ignore the real people who do these jobs today–or are losing these jobs either to technology or to a cheaper workforce overseas. A walk through the men’s department at Macy’s proves the current obsession with the working class: a $200 flannel, anyone? Last week in Brooklyn, I saw hordes of men in work boots, plaid shirts, and the hats of longshoremen–and I’ll let you in on a little secret: these men weren’t headed for the docks. Levi’s knows that people who can afford designer jeans do not want to see themselves as administrative assistants, or worse: creative writing teachers. Maybe Doubleday knows this as well; I get the feeling that Pollack’s bio stuns anyone who has not worked in a factory.

Or is my annoyance at the non-standard bio about something else? With the authors who have held a dozen, motley jobs, I worry that book writing is just a hobby for them, a one-off thing, another occupation in a long line of them. God damn the dilettantes multi-talented! Or is it because such a bio suggests that writing, and the devotion to that pursuit, isn’t worthy enough for its own three-line biography? Maybe it’s that tired idea that writers are lame, sheltered wimps who haven’t really lived. “Please!” these bios call out. “I’m more than just a writer! I am worthy of your admiration and respect!”

I’m sure this is all stemming from my own insecurities. Part of me is embarrassed by the fact that I’ve pursued writing since I was a kid, that I did not have a long and colorful life before I put pen to paper. I’m probably just envious. I can’t blame the writers whose bios spotlight a different kind of life, a different part of life. As I said, it’s all branding, in the end. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

The truth is, every published writer has been faced with summing themselves up in just a few sentences. It’s not easy, and a bio isn’t a fixed thing–or at least not until you’re dead. Until then, it (hopefully) evolves with each new publication, each year lived. The decision of what to include and exclude persists throughout one’s career.

The real question, then, is: What makes a writer? Unfortunately, a few sentences cannot answer that. A writer is made by writing, and by reading, and by living: going to work, and eating, and being bored, being loved and being hurt, being held by your mother (or not), by sleeping, by waking up from bad dreams, by erasing one sentence, and rewriting it, erasing it again. All that, you see, cannot be summed up in a jacket flap.

Maybe these other writers are onto something. Maybe I should revise my bio approach. How does this sound:

Before Edan Lepucki published her first novel, she was an independent bookseller, a cheesemonger, a team member at Jamba Juice, a bored salesgirl at an art gallery gift shop, a law firm receptionist, a file clerk, and a model for children’s exercise wear. She had her first kiss when she was twelve, but didn’t lose her virginity until college, where she was a member of a hip-hop dance group and lived in a house with a broken heating system. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but the MFA program at Syracuse had been her first choice, but they rejected her ass. Her parents didn’t graduate from college, and neither did her older sister, so, you know, she’s not some stuffy professorial type. Please buy her book, which–let the record show–did not glide easily into publication, despite her quote-unquote literary pedigree.

Now please, kind reader, buy my novel. I’ll let you know when it’s out.

Image credit: Unsplash/Giorgio Trovato.

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.


  1. Nice! You capture all the swimming ambivalence involved in reading other writers’ notes. Your proposed bio at the close is by far the best I’ve read in ages. I’m looking forward to your book.

    Personally, I’ve always liked reading colorful author notes (I think I needed to believe these writers had done SOMETHING I hadn’t in order to earn the success I wanted but hadn’t found). On the other hand, to me, a bio that goes all Jack London (listing pearl-diving and gold panning, etc.) is clearly trying too hard. I feel like I’m at a wedding reception where some single person is making a loud and drunken effort to be the life of the party. After I read your essay, i went back and reread my own bio line, which I just sent in a few months ago. It was boring and simple. But I remember now what I finally decided, which was that the book jacket was like the handshake hello with the reader, and you shouldn’t try to tell your whole life story when you first shake hands. This was dating advice I got from somewhere: have some modesty. Or mystery. Something.

  2. The paragraph: “The real question, then, is: What makes a writer? Unfortunately, a few sentences cannot answer that. A writer is made by writing, and by reading, and by living: going to work, and eating, and being bored, being loved and being hurt, being held by your mother (or not), by sleeping, by waking up from bad dreams, by erasing one sentence, and rewriting it, erasing it again. All that, you see, cannot be summed up in a jacket flap,” may be the finest definition of a writer I have ever read. I will be sure to use it in my composition and literature courses.

    Well Done, Edan!

  3. I used to think the best bios were the ones that said: “So and so is a writer living in (wherever).” Now, I feel like if they just stick to the publication history, that’s usually all right. But I’ve struggled with this, myself, and not just for books, but for the ends of articles, too. Short always seems better to me (like 2-3 sentences?). But who knows? I agree that I don’t need to know if an author was a waiter at Johnny Rocket’s for 6 months in the mid-’90s. Lately, I also have to admit I’m drawn to fake bios, like the ones comedians use on their books. The whole bio thing, in general, makes me feel like the actual writing can get overshadowed with an author’s self-importance or “image.” I think it’s a delicate balance that needs to be struck.

  4. Thank you for saying what I’ve been thinking for years–these bios that list every working class job a writer has had are simply annoying and make the writer look like he or she is trying too hard. One interesting comment about writing the book is the only cleverness the bio needs to sell it.

  5. I’ve always been drawn to the enigmatic author bio. Probably because I imprinted on “Thomas Pynchon divides his time between New York City and California” early on. (That’s a paraphrase, the old paperback of Gravity’s Rainbow (or was it Vineland?) has crumbled to dust, so I can’t check.)

  6. I agree with some of what you are saying about biographical summaries but, speaking as person who works in the field of writing and mental health regarding Joseph Mattson’s biography, using the term “mentally insane” is same as calling an African American person the N word.

    Try something new, it’s called emotional honesty. There comes a point where a ‘sense of humor’ in a biography just looks like a sad attempt at pseudo-intellectual humor. Not everyone has to like you….just your writing.

  7. So, what do you suggest for a writer who is just getting started and doesn’t have a list of pubs to include in a bio, or one who does not have an M.F.A.?

  8. Edan, thanks for your engaging treatment of this most serious subject. I feel like people are embarrassed to say that what they do is a) something (probably boring) to put food on the table and b) this really effete and potentially embarrassing other thing (that is, writing). Thus they emphasize and/or fluff up the former, often with ludicrous results and always at the expense of the latter.

    What really makes you, the writer, interesting is that you are a writer, and not a welder or a clown masseuse or whatever. If you are writing non-fiction, than your CV becomes more relevant, I think.

    I’m really, really crotchety, so I’m probably not representative of a large enough sample for it to matter, but I have got to say that the “epical rambler” bio would be enough to prevent me from reading almost any book it was attached to.

  9. I, too, like that definition of a writer. However, I am one who thinks that the bio should read as more than a condensed CV. I think that one reason that non-writer readers read the bio is to feel like they have something in common with the author. If it’s all prizes and publications and workshops, then they may not feel that connection. Whereas if it includes where you grew up, attended school, worked, failed, loved, traveled, etc, then the reach of who identifies with you will be broader. Honestly, I think many younger readers want to feel a connection more than they want to learn credentials. But that’s just my two cents.

    Also would be curious how y’all feel about author bios that are strangely similar to the main character of the novel. Does it behoove the reader to know how similar the writer is to the character? Does that detract from the value of the writing?

    In sum: Brava, Edan!

  10. Great essay! I’ve always erred on the side of short and sweet where author bios are concerned; I’ll sometimes mention that I graduated from The School of Toronto Dance Theatre, but I’m honestly not sure if I do this to make myself seem more interesting (hey everybody, I used to be a professional dancer!) or because that’s, well, practically my entire educational history (the backstory’s boring and convoluted, but I have no MFA, BA, or, um, high school diploma.)

    I hope it’s the latter, because non-standard bios generally annoy me too; sometimes the non-standard bio is really sparkling and interesting, but more often I just feel like “okay, I get it, you’re more interesting than I am, but all I really care about is whether your writing’s good.”

  11. There’s an Alice Munro story where the narrator’s ex-husband, who’s been an academic for like thirty years, has an author bio that goes (something like), “has worked as a lumberjack, truck driver, electric line worker . . .”

    Yours is a nice take on the whole sordid business.

  12. I used to try and write clever bios and then I got old. I agree with the Polllock thing- he had a very lengthy other job – that’s defining. Louis Begley was an investment banker for 20 years or so. But listing things I did- like most young people- here and there, throughout my 20s or whatever….I no longer do that.

  13. I love your revised biography, Edan. I recently revised mine because I moved, and I successfully avoided those pathos-inducing autobiographical details.

    And thanks for the link to the Gerry Howard essay, Peter!

  14. As long as you don’t “divide your time” between several coastal cities as well as a few resort towns, I’m okay if you once worked at Jamba Juice. Also, I would like to know more about that broken heating system.

  15. Thanks, everyone, for your comments!

    Emily P., you make excellent points. I agree that readers want to connect with the writers, and a professional CV may not be the best way to do that. I always wonder about those writers who are just like their protagonists: it goes back to that idea of authenticity. If a writer is covering what they know, is it more valuable?

    Kate, I like a short bio for the new writers–or for all writers, really. Even just a list of where one lives, and maybe, “This is her first published short story” is nice for a new writer…

    I feel I must defend Joseph Mattson, Lydia! Don’t let the bio keep you away from the fun of his book.

    Peter, thanks for the Gerry Howard link–looking forward to reading it.

    Emily M, I always liked your ballet history because I myself dance (though never ever professionally or seriously), so it interests me–it’s me relating to the author, as Emily Pullen pointed out.

    Thanks to everyone else! Thanks for reading…

  16. Two reasons for the odd-jobs of the writer:

    1) can’t pay the rent on writing alone.

    2) experiences, travel, jobs, and the people one meets, all act as material for the writer. I think Hemingway taught me that.

  17. I did not attend the School of Toronto Dance Theatre, but my kindergarten teacher was a former intelligence agent. (That year, I wore a wire on the playground for extra credit.)

  18. Edan,
    Hey there. Your ol’ pal Joseph Mattson here. Thanks for the engaged discussion on the author bio, bravo!

    While I understand all angles you’re approaching this from, issues of “branding” are complex. When a publishing company takes a gamble by printing up 5000 copies of your book—especially offset, actual pay-it-all-in-advance old school printing and not POD or digital runs—there are a few things that the author can do for the publisher to help sell books while not compromising their own integrity. While, yes, writing fiction can be seen as charity work financially speaking, the cold fact remains that publishing books is a business and those books need to sell. Blurbs brand people just as much as author bios do. And these brandings, for good or ill on all levels, work. While you or I might sit around and philosophize about the good or evil of it, I can tell you that from working at Book Soup that the general reading population is quite receptive to such things—that, for them to put down their $20 on one book over another, the varied past or romantic notions of the writer is exciting, even if the only damn thing that should matter whatsoever is the text itself. SO, a long way of saying, I’m very appreciative of my publishers, each and every one, and if an “exciting” (for lack of a better word) author bio helps them recoup their costs and be able to continue to put out books—especially mine, ho ho!—and that everything in the bio remains true to me, hell, even the “character” of me, then their ain’t no sin, sister.

    Now, that out of the way, I would hope that whatever is put in someone’s author bio, especially if it has some flair, informs the book in some way. For some novels, being a prostitute or train-hopper in “real life” might be way more relevant to the text than other things—literally or otherwise. There seems to be two hardened roads in published fiction writing: MFA or hard knocks, and a little of each in many instances—some authors I know did not get much out of their MFA programs and nix it from their bios; others I know hide their past except for the MFA because for their publishers, THAT is the persuasive selling point—for all of the same reasons listed above.

    In my first book, Eat Hell, my bio was very simple: that I live in Los Angeles and that Empty the Sun was forthcoming. For Empty the Sun, Book Soup was actually in that original list of personal history in the bio but was axed not because my time there has been mundane in anyway whatsoever, but because the owner had recently died and I had no idea what the fate of the store would be—there were many a kook topside interested in buying the store and there was a looming reality that my time there would soon be over and the place would compost itself to shit all but in name. It was a very touchy time by immediacy, and I, let alone Book Soup, needed a little distance from the place while dealing with the loss and uncertainty of the time. So, yeah, the absence of Book Soup was an issue of timing. My current author bio simply states that I’m the author of these two books and lists the three books forthcoming/under contract and that’s that, so get ready to be satisfied with my new bio when you get those!

    As far as your reader’s (“A writer,” whoever that is) comment about equating “mentally insane” with the vulgar racial slur “nigger”—it is she/he who is loading “mentally insane” with a negative connotation by making such a crude assumption. I’ve worked in one way or another with developmentally disabled or whatever PC moniker this person would prefer (should we call diabetics “sugar-challenged”—is it coming to that?) way longer than I’ve worked at Book Soup, the only difference is that for years now I volunteer my services for free whereas a decade ago I also made my living/money that way. I would never call these people crazy—that’s reserved for the rest of us. By saying “clinically mentally ill,” a fact-driven notation is made and I make absolutely no condescending or baleful injection into the phrase that your reader has assumed for themselves. Anyway, the joke is on me because the sole typo in all of Empty the Sun is in my author bio! (clinically is jumbled)

    As fiction writers, I hope we all know the difference between fact and truth. As for “farmer” and “dishwasher” and “getaway driver”—they all inform Empty the Sun, albeit more spiritually than literally, inasmuch as such duties got me along during the hardest phase of learning how to be a writer. Ditto with saying “lives in ________” that are found in 90% of author bios, even author who frequently relocate. If Los Angeles did not inform my work in such a way, would that even be necessary?

    The perfect bio, of course, is “Joseph Mattson writes fiction, amen.”

    Cheers, my friend, and to all who’ve responded—nice dialogue.

    All my best,

  19. Thanks for weighing in, Joseph, and for being such a good sport. Your bio is particularly memorable, which, in the end, is what anyone’s after. I recalled it right away when writing this piece.

    You make some terrific points here, and I was interested in your explanation about why you left out Book Soup.

    I didn’t even interact with the dude who took issue with the mentally insane thing, but I’m glad you are open to dialogue about it. Well said. And I didn’t even notice that typo in the bio!

    Thanks again, Joseph. I hope that all the authors I mention in this piece sell a copy or two (or three, or four) from my little article. The texts themselves are what matter, and the bio’s an interesting way to seduce readers to try that text.

  20. Also, real quick–I’m not saying that listing things in a bio that informs the work itself is a good OR bad thing, I’m just noting why it easily naturally happens, from both the personal dedication and the aesthetic/marketing sides of the coin…

  21. using the term “mentally insane” is same as calling an African American person the N word.

    My God, “a writer,” did you really just compare the two? That’s one of the worst analogies I’ve ever read.

  22. Loved this piece, Edan. I read it on breaks between my jobs as a firefighter, dog-walker, fast-order chef and subway singer.

    Appreciated Joseph’s POV, thanks for sharing. And believe me, I won’t fight my publisher (if I manage to get one) on bio details unless they’re flat out lies. Maybe I will somewhere down the road — after I’ve published enough novels to simply say, “Bio: (blank)”. Worked for Salinger.

    Are Levi’s considered designer jeans? I got mine for $23.99.

  23. I’ll join the quibbling: “mentally insane” is redundant, and “clinically mentally insane” more so. “Insane” is old-fashioned, with a bluntness one might miss in these PC times. It may have a misleading connotation of permanence.

  24. in his more verbose apprenticeship J.D. Salinger wrote a biographical note that was both critical of and of a piece with those rakish biographical notes that has a lot in common with this piece—

    “In the first place, if I owned a magazine I would never publish a column full of contributors’ biographical notes. I seldom care to know a writer’s birthplace, his children’s names, his working schedule, the date of his arrest for smuggling guns (the gallant rogue!) during the Irish Rebellion. The writer who tells you these things is also very likely to have his picture taken wearing an open-collared shirt-and he’s sure to be looking three-quarter-profile and tragic. He can also be counted on to refer to his wife as a swell gal or a grand person. I’ve written biographical notes for a few magazines, and I doubt if I ever said anything honest in them. This time, though, I think I’m a little too far out of my Emily Brontë period to work myself into a Heathcliff. (All writers-no matter how many lions they shoot, no matter how many rebellions they actively support-go to their graves half-Oliver Twist and half-Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary.) This time I’m going to make it short and go straight home. I’ve been writing seriously for over ten years. Being modest almost to a fault, I won’t say I’m a born writer, but I’m certainly a born professional. I don’t think I ever selected writing as a career. I just started to write when I was eighteen or so and never stopped. (Maybe that isn’t quite true. Maybe I did select writing as a profession. I don’t really remember-I got into it so quickly-and finally.) I was with the Fourth Division during the war. I almost always write about very young people.”

  25. wrong! I simply loathe books about writers, movies about moviemakers, songs about the recording industry. They all use a jargon that is not easily accessible to the non-writer, the non movie-maker, the non-musician. My only exception: the movie The Player. I’ll read a book about somebody who has held many jobs, but not a book about a writer! Dull!

  26. One last note on the “clinically mentally insane” tip–I simply asked my friends who are part of “that” community (whatever you dear readers wish to call it) what they preferred, and this was the consensus. My friends sometimes see themselves as outlaws. So do I, I suppose.

  27. Edan-

    Thanks for this. There is something (annoyingly) precious about the ‘let me mention something wacky’ tendency in the North American lit bio, this country where we are so often desperate to be different like everybody else. I do remember the dust jacket of Geoff Dyer’s ‘Yoga’ book having a clever line in his bio about wishing he lived in SF, but he probably got away with that because he’s English; and it also fit in with the theme of travel and displacement of the book’s essays, so it didn’t feel too desperate.

    I also wanted to mention that I enjoyed very much your story “A love to calm the body” in Avery 4.


  28. You made me smile. I like you, I’ll buy your book. That stress over writer bios sounds like the stress some people get over having an interesting life to portray on facebook.

  29. Edan,
    No need to feel embarrassed that you’ve been writing since you were a kid, or that you have not led a colorful life. As Flannery O’Connor put it, “The writer’s business is to contemplate experience, not to be merged in it.” So I, like you, am not really interested that an author has been a sex worker, an expatriate, a train-hopper and/or a fruit picker. I have been all of those things, but I never put them in an author bio because they didn’t make me a writer. Writing (and re-writing and re-re-writing) and reading made me a writer. But you already know that. Thanks for this gorgeous essay. I can’t wait to buy your novel.
    Bill Morris

  30. I have probably used the line “nobody knows I was paid to masturbate boars” in one bio too many, meaning that everybody knows it now. The experiences themselves only filled a few pages in the fourth of my eight novels, so I guess I need to retire that 20-year-old part of my bio. But how do I top it for shock value? After all, I know it got your attention. No sense in denying it. But does it make me a better writer? Probably not.

  31. Commenter Joe likes the fake bio. So do I. I wrote this one long ago:

    When Mamie Jo Hill was a young virgin, a doctor assured her she could never get pregnant. After seeing her firstborn son, she wished he’d been right. Little Michael was dumb as a brick, and he had a face that could sink 1000 ships, a face that could make a freight train take a dirt road. A quick peek at will establish that, unlike a fine wine, I have not improved with age.

    As I got older, I learned to compensate for my lack of ability by BSing my way through life. 1982 Who’s Who in American Writing. Four books published in 2002, one in 2004, another in 2005. Three EPPIE finalists. Won some Reviewer’s Choice Awards at Sime~Gen. One of Writers Digest’s Top 101 Websites For Writers. And all without a lick of talent.

    Now I work and live in Asia, where I can BS to my heart’s content. But I’m not all bad. My cat really loves me. My wife loves me too, but she doesn’t know any better because she’s Australian.

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