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Personal Essays

A Writer by Any Other Name

Describing a character over 300 pages is one thing—reducing yourself to three lines is another. One man struggles with a writer’s greatest challenge: the byline.

“We need a short bio of yourself to accompany the story, just some background for readers. Thanks.”

I spent two hours staring at the screen.

I’m a professional writer, or at least that’s what I say to people. I ought to be able to come up with a short paragraph about myself. It should only take a moment to write.

My first effort is automatic:

“Giles Turnbull is a freelance writer based in Bradford on Avon, England. He has a website at”

Well, it’s accurate, you can give it that. But there’s not much spark, is there? Not much of me. Where’s the humor? Where’s the person? Where, in particular, is the biography? These two sentences are just statements of fact, things my mother could tell you—but also things anyone who’s vaguely heard of me could tell you. We need some added value, here, something that lives. Some biology for the biography.

“Giles Turnbull is a freelance writer based in Bradford on Avon, England. He has a website at He has written for the BBC, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, MacUser, O’Reilly Publishing, and many others.”

Oh, please. “And many others?” Who am I trying to fool with that sort of weasely rubbish? Of course there have been others, but not many, and most of them were years ago. Some of them have gone bust. A lot of the stuff I wrote in the past is stuff I would rather forget. Just as your photographic technique improves with experience, so your writing improves over time, and you look back on your earlier work and wince—physically, recoil—when you see how bad it is. You wonder how you ever made it this far.

“Giles Turnbull lives in Bradford on Avon, England. It’s a small town where everyone knows everyone else, and he likes the community feel.”

It feels right to mention where I grew up, because the town shaped me, much like Kirkcaldy shaped Gordon Brown.Bradford straddles a hillside, sprawling out into the valley below where 18th- and 19th-century entrepreneurs built a canal and a railway line. Once it was rich, a small industrial town thick with smoke; but industry outgrew the confines of the valley and moved away, and now all that’s left is the architecture, the narrow streets, and the tourists.

Just last weekend, while doing a hasty climb up and down Glastonbury Tor, I fell into conversation with an architect. We discussed Bradford and our respective reasons for moving there, and it turned out our reasons were identical: we both wanted to live somewhere that offered freedom from the tyranny of the car. This town has most things you need for daily life, all of them within walking distance no matter where you are. The train line to Bath—and in the other direction to Salisbury, then to London—offers everything that Bradford can’t provide.

It’s anything but a sophisticated place. Do I want people to know about it? Does my living there—and mentioning so in my self-summary—give anyone any further insight into me and my professional career? And anyway, why should I be giving away my location? It’s almost as if I want to be stalked.

“Giles Turnbull is a writer who lacks ambition and will go out of his way to make people like him. He avoids confrontation, is hopeless with numbers—”

Wait. Stop. This is not supposed to be therapy.

They want a “short bio”, that’s what they said. What’s a biography? A story of a life. They want a short story of my life.

Not everyone seems to have as much trouble with this. Our Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, gets the luxury of 19 paragraphs. His bio opens with: “Born in 1951, Gordon Brown is the second of three sons. He grew up in the town of Kirkcaldy, an industrial centre famed for its linoleum and mining industries.”

I could use that as a template, perhaps:

“Born in 1970, Giles Turnbull is the second of two sons. He grew up in the town of Folkestone, a coastal town in decline, no longer famous as a fishing port, holiday destination, or for anything else really.”

Accurate, but a little unfair. Folkestone is a town like most others: As a teenager, I couldn’t wait to get away from it. As an adult, I have a soft spot for its elegant architecture and the beauty of its beaches, even if they do get covered in genuine flotsam and jetsam from the busy sealanes of the English Channel. It feels right to mention where I grew up, because the town shaped me, much like Kirkcaldy shaped Mr. Brown. Perhaps, though, the emphasis should remain on writing:

“Giles Turnbull was raised by his mother in a coastal town. He attended a good school but didn’t really excel at anything except writing, which might go some way to explaining how he ended up writing third-person biographies of himself on a rainy January morning.”

Too clever by half. Too much up its own backside. There’s more bio in there, but it’s a self-obsessed sort of bio. What we need is something with a little more humility.

“Giles Turnbull’s pitiful scratches have been earning him a meagre living for a while now, and it’s a wonder his family puts up with it.”

Too much humility.

“Giles Turnbull started writing at school and is still at it. You’d think someone would have told him it was break time by now.”

Too much stupid. I need some more inspiration. Hold on, while I grab some paperbacks from the bookshelf.

Inside the front cover of his science fiction black comedy Making History, comedian and actor (and author) Stephen Fry (and geek, let’s not forget that) writes of himself:

“Stephen Fry was born in 1957, and after a year or so of comparative silence, began to talk coherently in 1960. His first written work, “Mummy” was awarded the Sunnyvale Primary School Gold Star for Neatness in 1961.”

JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye has no biography at all, not even a blurb on the back cover. There’s nothing on Doctor Zivago either.

Another sci-fi author, Iain M. Banks, writes this inside the front cover of Look to Windward:

“Iain Banks came to controversial public notice with the publication of his first novel, The Wasp Factory, in 1984. Consider Phlebas, his first science fiction novel, was published under the name Iain M. Banks in 1987. He is now widely acclaimed as one of the most powerful, innovative, and exciting writers of his generation. Iain M. Banks lives in Fife, Scotland.”

Already, I’ve spent longer writing the bio than I did writing the article it is supposed to sit alongside. I must never admit this in public.Did he really write that, or was it his agent? If it was his agent, was he embarrassed by the superlatives? Did he blush or argue, or consider re-writing the paragraph so that at least it didn’t repeat the syllables “public” twice, and so close to one another, in the first sentence?

“Giles Turnbull’s first published article was a wedding report in the local weekly newspaper. He got the names of both bride and groom correct.”

Yes, I got my first wedding report right, but some of the later ones wrong. I always thought this was a strange task to give to an intern. The wedding captions are a popular part of any newspaper—popular for the newlyweds and their families, of course. The journalists hate writing them. Once you’ve written 20 dull-as-hell captions about Sarah and Matt and how they met through their mutual friend Debbie, and are so in love and looking forward to their honeymoon in Florida, you’ve written them all.

I can understand never wanting to write another ever again; I can’t understand asking the spotty 19-year-old intern to do them. One error, you see, and you get the entire family on the phone.

“You spelt Matty wrong!” they yell, all of them.

“It’s M-A-T-T-Y, not Matt!” they cry, quite justifiably. My 19-year-old self cringes and wilts under the onslaught of outrage, wanting above all to avoid the confrontation (see?). But it’s “Matt” in the newspaper, now. The error is in danger of becoming fact. Decades from now, other journalists might be wanting to track down Matty—once he’s been arrested for triple murder, perhaps—and my mis-typed copy (yes, typed, on a typewriter, not a computer) found in a library will throw them off the scent. Perhaps Matty’s family will thank me then.

They’ll be able to find me, of course, because the net will be littered with short bios about me. Short, terrible bios.

“Giles Turnbull has made many errors in his professional career and begs your forgiveness if you have been slandered or libeled by any of them.”

Let’s not invite litigation, shall we?

“Giles Turnbull writes words for money. He is married and has a child. He lives in a house.”

Actually I quite like that one. It’s a bit clinical, though.

“Giles Turnbull finds it hard to write a meaningful bio, despite being a professional writer for some 15 years now. That’s horrifying. It’s frightening.”

Yes, it is. Already, I’ve spent longer writing the bio than I did writing the article it is supposed to sit alongside. I must never admit this in public. Imagine the ridicule.

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