Guest Post: The Author Portrait by Rachel Linn

Photo credit: María Garrido on Flickr
Be honest, when you sit down at your computer to compose your magnum opus, there’s a lot of knee-jiggling, nail-biting, and an alarming amount of palm-sweating. You want to experience the joy of putting words on the page, but the weight of actually writing things down keeps you poised on the edge of creation-- sometimes for months. This chronic paralysis develops because you’ve conflated who you are with what you create. It won’t resolve until you understand you are not The Author.

Margaret Atwood felt “the act of writing comes weighted with a burden of anxieties. The written word is so much like evidence—like something that can be used against you later.” And she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale for goodness sake! If anyone has a body of evidence to show off, it’s Atwood.

But the woman who wrote that quote in 2002 isn’t the same woman who wrote The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985. Yet she’s expected to be THE AUTHOR OF THE HANDMAID’S TALE all the time. While eating lunch. While brushing her teeth. While meeting rabid fans. Another Atwood gem applies here: “Wanting to meet an author because you like his work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like pâte.”

You can’t meet The Author because that person doesn’t exist. The person sitting there watering the keyboard with overmoist palms is not The Author. But it becomes impossible to separate yourself from the looming mythos you’ve create when you believe every sentence is a piece of your soul. So instead of getting anything done, you wait for The Author to show up and do it right. Aaaaany day now.

To cope with this paralysis, I’ve borrowed (stolen) Michel Foucault’s concept of the author function. Since “author function” sounds like a car part, I call it the author portrait instead. The author portrait’s not a person, but a curated accumulation of writing/performance that happens to be attached to a person. Namely you. It’s both an invention and a reflection: your ever evolving professional portrait. So your current draft doesn’t have to be profound any more than your grocery list does. They are just things you write down. When looking through your draft, don’t ask “Will readers like me?” Ask “Does this work enhance the author portrait I’m painting?” When critique partners criticize your work, realize they are critiquing your author portrait, not you as a person.

It’s dangerous to imagine you and your work are one entity, because your writing is meant to be consumed by others while you most certainly are not. Sometimes we fill ourselves with beautiful books and forget what we see is someone else’s author portrait. Behind that finished pâte was a grisly process where a person sweated over a keyboard (or quill pen) until they got over their own mythos and wrote. You and your author portrait are not the same, (and thank goodness) because you are so much more than The Author.

What do you think?

Rachel Linn is a dramaturg/librarian/writer in Atlanta who is passionate about novels, manga, gaming, and fan studies. She has a PhD in Interdisciplinary Arts and and MA in Theatre specializing in critique and critical analysis. On the side she writes a blog with her filmmaker husband called

Twitter-sized bite:
On Margaret Atwood, the Author Portrait, and more, @Married2tAuthor shares her guest post on @Ava_Jae's blog. (Click to tweet)

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