How many of us have toiled painfully at the task of writing a bio? To condense ourselves into a paragraph, let a lone a sentence, is a resounding task of discomfort. What’s key? What’s irrelevant? What’s interesting (as interesting to others as it is, or is not, to ourselves)? Essentially, how to say more with less?
The well-worn saying ‘I would have written a shorter letter, but I didn’t have the time’, rings truer now in our time-stricken lives, than it did when the French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal first penned it in 1657. Combine that with the contemporary mandate to brand oneself in a way that is enticing, cohesive, as well as succinct, and today’s individuals are confronted with an increasingly difficult task. It’s a political task that can make or break the work that will come our way. It is scarily influential in how one’s career may unfold – no matter how much we believe in its performativity, or not.
These circumstances and my uncomfortable personal experiences at the task (particularly in the context of publishing a book and ‘positioning’ oneself as a writer) had me immediately intrigued by a slim, practical guide that promised to hold one’s hand through the process. That guide was On The Subject Of, an e-book by editor and writer Grace Ebert to help creatives form their biographies. I followed the book’s simple steps to find myself not only getting closer to what I wanted to say, but enjoying the experience of telling my story. Finding such success via On The Subject Of‘s easy exercises, tips, and tricks, I reached out to Grace to ask her some questions about the work, why she decided to create it, and what the biography means today in our cultural landscape – especially in the moment of the Covid-19 pandemic. Here is our conversation.
Hi Grace, could you please introduce yourself? Where are you based, what’s your background, and what do you do for work today?
Hello! Yes, of course. I’m Grace Ebert, and I’m a Chicago-based writer and editor. Currently, I work full-time as the managing editor of Colossal, which is a global visual culture site. My days mostly include writing articles about contemporary art and design and managing freelancers to keep everything running. On the side, I review books and help Trap Door Theatre, which is a small storefront in the city, with marketing and press relations.
I have a professional background in journalism and worked for the USA TODAY Network as a producer for a few years prior to Colossal. That role included copy editing and social media for local newspapers, so I focused on city government and small-town life rather than national issues. I continued with that job while I went to graduate school at Loyola University Chicago to get my master’s degree in English Literature. I have that formal education, as well.
You recently released your free e-book On The Subject Of, which is a short practical manual on how to write a bio or artist statement. What spurred you to create it?
On The Subject Of was inspired by a couple of different things actually. I was approached by the team at The Wing Chicago to host a writing workshop for other members. The subject was my choice, but they asked for something related to personal or professional development. This happened just a few months after I joined Colossal and was parsing through bios and artist statements every day in order to write about creatives’ projects. I realized just how much we all struggle to write about our own work clearly and concisely and wanted to make a guide to help. I decided to use that desire to shape my workshop, and because I knew I would need to draft an entirely new lesson plan to teach from, I thought it would be easy enough to make a standalone workbook. So, On The Subject Of was born from the two coinciding events and my wish to make this kind of personal writing easier for people.
What’s the thinking and strategy motivating your desire to create something and put it out into the world for free?
This is something I really struggle with. I often advocate for paying for creative work. I have subscriptions to publications I love and respect and always am willing to pay for work I find valuable. With OTSO, though, there were a couple of factors at play. Originally, I had planned to distribute physical copies at the workshop I mentioned. Because there would have been barriers to entry—attendees would have been Wing members—I wanted to offer the work to those who don’t have the economic, geographical, or other privileges to attend the opportunity to engage with the work.
When the world began shutting down, though, I decided creatives might find themselves with extra time for administrative tasks (like updating a personal website) and without the income they had previously. I decided to offer the workbook for free on my website because I wanted to help in any way I could during this ridiculously difficult time.
But this is a point of tension for me, and I’ve been thinking a lot about this Twitter thread from writer Haley Nahman on the topic. One of the best ways we can all show that we value creative work is to pay for it and support the person, people, or organization behind it. Because we, societally, have come to expect that news and resources will be free online, we don’t always pay for the labor that goes into creating. We need to be more conscious about doing so, though. Otherwise, we’ll continue to strengthen this expectation that everything we consume online should be free, which certainly won’t increase the very minimal pay for this kind of work. I should say, too, I do have an option on my download page to make a donation to support OTSO and pay for the labor and knowledge that went into it.
Why is the biography so essential in the landscape of creative work today?
So many of us are multi-hyphenates! Creatives today often have diverse income streams and spend time on multiple projects that can’t be summed up in a single job title. For example, if I described myself as a writer only, I would leave out the entire knowledge base I have as an editor and critic. Overall, I think the biography, even if it’s only one line long, has replaced the job title.
For creatives today, and especially for freelancers, this piece of writing is also important to show why we’re the right person to cover a topic, speak on a panel, or collaborate on a new project. Bios help to convey specialties and interests, in addition to prior experience. They’re important for situating ourselves within certain contexts and intellectual conversations, and while this isn’t specific necessarily to the current moment, they’re a piece of what separates our work from everyone else’s. As creative professions continue to move toward freelancing rather than full-time employment and we’re required to advocate for ourselves as the best fit for an article, commission, or project, they’ll only become more important.
Have you seen its role change in the situation of the pandemic?
I’m not sure if I’ve noticed its role changing exactly, but I do think this is an opportunity to clarify our goals and pinpoint what’s really important moving forward. Even if you don’t have the privilege to be pass on a job that isn’t ideal right now, you still can work on figuring out what you do and don’t want.
To relate that to bios, I think this means cutting out irrelevant experiences and interests and writing about yourself in a way that’s forward-looking. Like I delve into in On The Subject Of, just because we think of this kind of personal writing as focusing on our past experiences doesn’t mean they can’t help us reach our next goals. How can work our goals into how we describe our current situation? That’s something we all can be thinking about right now.
From your experience, what are the most common mistakes you see people make when writing about themselves?
From a content point of view, people frequently get trapped in jargon and don’t explain themselves well enough. Unless you’re writing for a niche market that has a very similar knowledge base—and I’d advise anyone to put a piece of writing in this category sparingly—think about explaining your work or experience to someone who isn’t in your field. If your draft would be too confusing for those groups to understand, then consider revising.
Similar to that is the desire to elevate your language unnecessarily, and this is sometimes where jargon comes in in the first place. Especially when you’re writing about a project you know really well, it’s easy to get trapped inside of it and have trouble explaining it. Using more complex language isn’t always necessary. Speak plainly and simply when you can.
And lastly, everyone needs an editor. Don’t expect yourself to know every grammatical rule or to be able to spot a confusing phrase instantly. Ask someone else to read your work and give honest feedback.
Do you have tips on adjusting the summary of one’s self and work for different outlets? (Instagram, Twitter, personal website, book jacket, etc.)
Unless you’re writing for a specialized account or niche audience that wouldn’t care about your other experience or interests, a lot of your information for various platforms will stay the same. When you’re trying to adapt your biography, think about voice. On social, it’s important to be conversational. Twitter and Instagram are places for some serious conversation, but it’s also where memes and jokes are shared widely. Be lighthearted. And if you’re okay sharing more personal details or behind-the-scenes information, this is the spot to do so.
Fo personal websites or book jackets, you want to think about your audience. Who’s going to be reading this? And how long will they be reading it? Because book jackets are physical objects, you want to think of the longevity of your language. You probably don’t want to do use any of-the-moment phrases or slang that won’t hold up for a few years if you don’t need to. And be as clear as possible because you have limited space.
There’s a lot more freedom on personal sites, and I think that’s one of the best places to try out different options. If you want to write a lot, that’s fine. Publish a lengthy bio and see the response you get. Try changing your style or introductory line. It’s a great place to play around and see what works best for you.
No matter where you’re writing, though, make sure to sound like you. If you wouldn’t say it out loud, don’t write it. People who read your bios want to know more about you and your work. Don’t forgo your own voice.
What are the risks and opportunities of narrowing down a description of a creative practice, person, or work/way of working?
I try to frame it as an opportunity as much as I can, although I think as in any instance, putting an idea into words has the potential to be limiting if we’re not careful. Writing is an aesthetic practice. The language and voice you use mold how others perceive you, and with that, you have a great opportunity to help get your ideas across and to convey the intricacies that maybe aren’t obvious at first glance. On the other hand, though, there’s the potential that with inaccurate language, you’ll confuse your readers or lead them down a path that doesn’t quite fit.
That’s why with OTSO, I begin by asking readers to dig into the larger questions around their work. What do you do and why? What led you to the position you’re in? What values inspire your work? When you really understanding yourself and your motivations, it’s easier to refine your language and be intentional about what you’re saying. Ultimately, I think narrowing down a description of a creative practice is helpful because it’s easier for others to engage with your work and clears up any potential misconceptions about your motivations, interventions, and the work you’re interested in. Because intentionality is backing this approach, I hesitate to say that there are many risks.
The only thing I would advise people to be aware of is the need to update your words. A bio or artist statement generally isn’t something you write once and don’t touch again.
Could you share with us some of your favourite bios or links to those who are exemplary in how they articulate themselves and their work? What is it that you like about their style and approach?
I recently wrote about Zai Divecha’s work for an article on Colossal and immediately appreciated how clear and concise both her bio and artist statement are. She explains her intellectual history, creative process, and uses plain, yet descriptive, language. I only had to read it once to understand the themes within her work and create a visual picture of the actual object in my mind, which always is a good sign.
Seher writes a really informative and in-depth bio about her work and understanding of the world. The way she weaves in her personal and professional life is brilliant, and the bullet points are fun and conversational.
Another I really appreciate is Ann Friedman’s. She’s a multi-hyphenate and articulates well her daily tasks and intellectual interests. I also love that she includes short, medium, and long versions of her bios on her site. Even if you don’t make those public, they’re great to have on hand for when you need them.