Editors really must keep cuteness out of biographical notes.
– NZ author David Hill in a review of Sport 39
My first reaction is: oh, come now, David Hill. We’re talking about New Zealand. Everyone knows everyone. If we’re honest, the biographical note isn’t even really necessary. It’s just an opportunity to make things up.
But then I think: it’s David Hill. We have to listen.
David Hill came to visit my primary school once. This was back in ’94 or so. Having read Seeya, Simon, I was a huge fan. He showed us a draft of a story he’d written, littered with crossings-out and long trains of rewriting, and then the typed version on computer paper. Everyone gasped. He read aloud a story he’d written for the School Journal – it was a funny story, about a kid who got his muesli bar mixed up with a scary biker dude’s muesli bar – and everyone laughed. But after he’d read it, the visit took a serious turn.
“I was paid about $600 for that story,” he told us. “Now, that might sound like a lot of money, but after you’ve paid the power bill and done your grocery shopping, it’s all gone.” He was a tall, bearded, beige-trousered man with grey-flecked hair and a deep, stentorian voice. Like a principal without a school. But there was something wonderful about him. He was a writer. I hadn’t seriously considered writing as a fulltime job before. If it was possible, I didn’t care about the groceries. My teacher, Miss Irvine, told me to stand up. “This student has had a poem published in the School Journal,” she announced. David Hill looked me in the eye and said, “Well, you keep at it!”
Over a decade later David Hill came to visit a class I was doing at Victoria University to tell us about the life of a writer. He’d been very prolific since last I’d seen him, publishing about a dozen more young adult novels, winning various prizes, and working as a reviewer and columnist alongside. He looked the same as I remembered, with the addition of stone-washed jeans. “Writing is a job like any other,” he told us. “I sit down at my desk at 9 o’clock in the morning. I have my coffee break at 11 o’clock …” With that same school-hall-filling voice he told us what it was like out there. It was hard. He’d been doing it for years. He loved it, of course, but it didn’t get easier. The bills. The groceries. He told us all to keep at it.
A few years after that, I found myself working at the publisher of the School Journal, editing a short nonfiction manuscript David Hill had written. Nothing about this situation was right. The manuscript was all about things you find in the sky – airplanes, hot-air balloons, satellites. Looking Up, it was called. To my inexperienced eye, the manuscript seemed like something that had been written in a rush, but who was I to question David Hill? I remembered the ravaged piece of paper he’d showed my class back in ’94, and thought about the work that must surely have gone into this piece of writing. Eventually, the job was farmed out to another editor when it became clear that I was incapable of editing anything written by David Hill. I was too flaky to do justice to the steady, steam-rollering workmanship of David Hill.
David Hill is my constant. Doesn’t everyone have one? A person whose life trajectory reminds you that to get things done, you have to get things done? For many of us, it’s more knightly figures. A man I work with is partial to Edmund Hillary. On his whiteboard is scribbled: Edmund Hillary climbed Mount Everest one step at a time.* (I am supposed to find this inspiring, yet I feel daunted, like Frodo looking upon Mount Doom.) To me, David Hill symbolises hard work. That’s how you pay the bills. What you don’t do is mess around with your biographical note, because it’s not about you. It’s about the work.
David Hill’s byline in that Sport 39 review is a model of restraint: “David Hill is a Taranaki writer.” For David Hill, the biographical note is not a comfort stop on the way up the mountain of literary achievement – it’s a quick glance over his shoulder at the dependable landscape below as he continues to climb. Compare and contrast:
- Joh Bloomberg lives in Christchurch. When she grows up she would like to be Edward Gorey.
- Lindsay Pope paints roofs to get closer to the sky.
- Marty Smith realises how much she loves teaching, having returned to the rich world of Taradale High School.
- Emily Dobson now finds herself a beekeeper’s wife high in the hills of rural Hawkes Bay.
- David Geary is a big Joni Mitchell fan. His favourite album is Blue. His favourite Joni song is Furry Sings the Blues. Joni’s cover art for the gatefold sleeve of The Hissing of Summer Lawns is some of the best ever. However, David Crosby described Joni as ‘about as humble as Mussolini’. She has described contemporary music as ‘appallingly sick, with boring chord movements and bad acting’. And slagged off Sting, Alanis Morrisette and Sheryl Crow. David Geary doesn’t think this is helping. …
All of these were (I think) written by the authors themselves – not an editor or publisher. It’s kind of odd that we uphold the convention of couching biographical notes in the third person, even when they’re written by the writer him or herself. Why not use “I”? My guess is that we like to take advantage of the distance between “I” and “s/he” – so if you have an inflated view of yourself, you can use that distance to make yourself seem bigger, make a sort of caricature of yourself. “LeBron stays humble just by being LeBron.” If you want to get philosophical, the biographical note is an opportunity to nullify those moments of extreme smallness we sometimes feel. Behold: my achievements.
High Bread by Scott Moore
Or, the opposite – you can use that distance to be coyly flippant about yourself, which is where the “cute” biographical note comes in. “In another life she was a lemur.” Doing this seems to draw attention to the fact that you know that everyone else knows it’s you writing the note, but that you’re good-sportedly following the third-person convention and also subverting it by talking about your facial tics or your cat’s facial tics as opposed to the masterpieces you have written. Everybody knows about the masterpieces anyway, and maybe they don’t want to be reminded of yet another book they haven’t read, after all.
But David Hill disapproves. This puts me in a bind. I kind of like those notes.
And then, suddenly, on the NZ Listener website, I discover THIS.
David Hill lives in New Plymouth, after some years in Auckland and overseas. He has been a fulltime author for 28 years. He writes fiction and non-fiction (often being unsure which is which) for all age groups. His novels and short stories for teenagers and younger readers have been published in eight languages and 12 countries. Every time he starts a piece of writing, he’s sure that this will be the one in which everything will finally fall apart and he won’t be able to do it any more. He enjoys writing his Listener columns largely because it gives him a chance to share his incompetence with the world.
Is this a “cute” note? Is cuteness allowed in some places and not others? Whatever it is, I am now even more confused than when I started.
It’s irresistible to note that referring to yourself in the third person is said to be a sign of psychosis, since it implies delusions of grandeur. The technical term for it is illeism, and some of the most fascinating and/or reviled characters are known for it.
They wantses us! They wantses us!
– Bob Dole
Of the 150-odd bullets aimed at us, 14 strike our vehicle. Yet — none of us is hit. May De Gaulle therefore go on pursuing his road and his vocation!
– French military leader Charles de Gaulle describing the assassination attempt on him in August 1962 in his postwar reminiscences
Illeism makes a person seem both awe-inspiring and ridiculous. Partly it’s the sense that the topic is not open for discussion: there is this institution called (for example) Ashleigh Young, and the workings of this institution are so extraordinary that they cannot be talked about in everyday rational terms; you’d be a fool to try. “Ashleigh Young is making the best business decisions for Ashleigh Young.” Everyone in the room steps back a little. The ego has become its own entity, with its own drones and pall bearers. Now, you might laugh about “Ashleigh Young” behind his or her back, but in person you’d treat “Ashleigh Young” as if handling a grenade. And that’s a very powerful thing. No wonder writers are holding on to the third-person convention in biographical notes.
by Tom Gauld
*I don’t know if it relates very well, but recently I found out that Edmund Hillary disputed that he climbed Mount Everest one step at a time. In a 1991 interview he said, “I never climbed up anything one step at a time. You read so much about how, at extreme altitudes, you take one step and then you stop and pant and puff for a while, and then take one more step. I don’t ever remember doing that. You’re much slower in higher altitudes because of the lack of oxygen, but I used to keep moving pretty steadily most of the time and I didn’t have to stop too often for panting and puffing.” Maybe the point is that you just keep moving and shuffling around a bit, or rolly-pollying if you must, and one day, with a bit of luck, you’ll look behind and see that you’ve done it. Then you can talk about it in your biographical note.