Editor’s Note: See Jane Write now publishes personal essays by writers who identify as women, non-binary folks, and our allies. Learn more here.
By Katie Matthews
“You’re either from Scotland or America,” she guessed as I passed around the after-school snacks. I was the newest employee of the daycare program, hired primarily because I had a valid driver’s license and a clear background check. Even though my entire driving career had taken place on the opposite side of the road up to that point, I found myself piloting a bus of a dozen young kids through roundabouts and past kangaroo crossing signs to the daycare center each day.
When I moved to Perth, Australia, two things became immediately clear: few Aussies knew where my home state was, and fewer understood me when I used my most beloved pronoun, Y’all. I switched cold turkey to “You guys” and learned to identify Alabama as being “just above Florida.” I figured most people pictured Georgia by this description but decided that was close enough.
My short time in Australia helped me better contextualize my identity as a Southerner. They weren’t very familiar with the state, much less the stigmas associated with it. It was freeing for me not to have to follow up where I’m from with an immediate qualifier. “I’m from Alabama and yes we have shoes and running water.” I roll my eyes at the stereotypes, but still, I have never been particularly proud to be from the South.
When I began my writing career, it was a skeleton in my closet.
Every writer needs a bio, a blurb, a sweet and succinct self-description. I presume there exist some writers who enjoy crafting their own, but I hate it. For kindred writers, it can bring even the most prolific among us to a crippling halt. We can write novels, sagas, chronicles! We can craft sweepingly stunning poetry. We can deliver interesting articles for days. But when it comes to one hundred words about ourselves, forget it. Cue the writer’s block turned procrastination turned despair.
Those of us who struggle with our bios shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. A writer’s bio is valuable real estate on our content. It’s our chance to connect readers with our real lives. We want our bio to reflect our true and best selves in a way that strengthens our work and complements our professional reputations. That’s a lot of pressure to put on three-to-five sentences.
And that’s exactly why I used to leave my location out of mine.
Let Your Bio Prove That Regions Aren’t Monoliths
Aside from my stint in Perth, I’ve lived in Birmingham, Alabama my whole life. While stigmas exist around every state, Alabama might top the list as the ultimate butt of the joke. I was convinced my hometown was uncool at best and an invitation for ridicule at worst.
My fears aren’t all in my head. Even though the South is home to over 30% of the nation’s LGBTQ+ population, the trope of a homophobic and close-minded South is alive and well. And while the 2020 census confirmed that rural America is becoming increasingly racially diverse, we all likely share homogenous caricatures of the rural American. I’d even venture to guess that the majority of those caricatures are Alabamians.
When these cultural assumptions are paired with problematic ideologies represented in a region’s policies and politics, a dangerous narrative arises. Those from without and within assume that the policies reflect the population. Outsiders write us off and insiders feel like we are lone outliers to the regional status quo.
In other words, we can all fall into the fallacy of assuming regions are monoliths. But writers can help change this. Whatever our niche, we can use our work to paint a different picture of the South. One as varied, complex, and unique as the region we call home.
We don’t have to devote our work to this goal. (Unless that’s your mission, in which case go and be blessed!) We can continue to write from our hearts, our loves, and our passions, and simply own our location as we do. So, when someone reads your flash fiction, personal essay, or pop culture review and then skims your bio, their assumptions about the South start to shift.
Your writing, whatever its focus, is enough to disrupt the narrative.
Your Bio Can Inspire Other Southern and Small Town Writers
Take a look at any social media accounts for writers, and you’ll primarily see big city location pins. While population density and professional concentration in those cities are important contributing factors, that’s hard to keep in perspective when all you see are successful writers living in cities that dwarf your own. If you’re like me, you see those pins and think, “Yeesh, I should keep my town to myself if I want to get anywhere with my writing.”
It’s understandable to view where we’re from as a hindrance or even a liability that comes with the risk of not being taken seriously. But while the stigmas may linger, our locations no longer dictate our ability to spread our message, speak our truth, and follow our passions.
So, go ahead. Drop your pin in Chattanooga. Tallahassee. Little Rock. Let us see you. Let us see where your inspiring, important, entertaining words are coming from.
Then, perhaps when another Southern writer sees your hometown, they’ll be inspired to rep’ their own. Or maybe an urbanite will come across your work and broaden their understanding of small town complexities.
My location used to be a well-kept secret in my writing. Now I see it as an opportunity to influence cultural conversations and increase visibility. Readers need to find common ground with and hear big ideas from regions they have long written off. Aspiring small town writers need to see other little hometowns gracing the bylines of their dream publications.
I want to change the conversation around what it means to live in the South while I write in my niche. Whatever you write about, remind us that there’s always more to the story than where someone is from. But it’s still a good place to start.
I’m a writer from Birmingham, Alabama. (It’s above Florida.) How about y’all?
Katie Matthews is a freelance writer from Birmingham, Alabama. She writes about mental health and wellness through the lens of sensitivity and introversion. She’s convinced there’s so much to honor and celebrate in both and she’s here to make room for it all. She writes personal essays on Medium and you can also find her facing her fear of social media on Twitter.