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Friday, September 6, 2013

What Writers Wear


On the night that my writing group shows up, usually once a month, I scurry around dusting and vacuuming. I make sure the kitchen counters are clean, the floor washed, and the tea things laid out neatly. By this I only mean hot water, tea bags, and mugs. I have known these women for twenty years, and we’re comfortable with each other.

All this came to mind recently when I heard someone make a remark that I had heard before, some years ago. At the end of a small conference showcasing successful women, one of the participants said in an aside to another, Why do the writers dress so badly?

Really? We dress badly? Who knew? I hadn’t thought about it, so I decided to think about it.

The only comparisons I had were from the 1970s and 1980s, a few from the early 2000s. I scoured my memory and came up with what I regarded as evidence. I ran the mental film of a national conference, in Chicago, of women who were mostly well-to-do involved in the social services on the patron level. In a word, philanthropists. They not only dressed well, they had cases and cases of computers that traveled with them—this in the 1980s. They had money and it showed. Another conference, this one of academic professionals, was minus the computers in the 1980s but well-tailored suits and evening outfits ranked high on the style chart. A Boston conference of writers in all categories in the 1980s brought together a crew of such disparate styles and outfits that even I noticed how badly dressed some of them were.

Okay, I concede that most of the writers I know have as little interest in fashion as a Lap heading out for a seal hunt. But is there a reason for it? I decided to think about it. And the only answer I could come up with is this. I am lazy.

I have finite resources to dedicate to making choices and decisions, let alone money, at the early hours of the day. If I spend my time thinking about what I will pull out of the closet, I’m likely to wear out my brain and sit in front of my computer all day unable to write anything at all—except perhaps what the character is wearing. For those who are stylish in dungarees, this may not matter. But I don’t wear dungarees. I’m a New Englander and I wear khakis. Those are my default wardrobe. Needless to say, I have several pairs.

There’s a serious side to all this. I don’t like thinking about what I’m going to wear, when I’m going to clean, what to make for dinner, because all these decisions, which don’t have to do with writing, wear me out. This is a real phenomenon called decision fatigue. In a study conducted in Israel, the investigators found that a person applying for parole had a much higher chance of getting parole if he or she appeared before the board early in the morning; by late in the afternoon, a prisoner’s chances of parole had slid way down. The members of the parole Board were simply tired, whether they knew it or not. They had run out of mental energy to make a good decision.

President Obama is said to have solved some of the risk of energy depletion by having suits in only two colors—black and navy. (My kind of wardrobe!) He doesn’t use up his quota of mental decision-making energy before he has even left the family suite and made it to his office.

This phenomenon may be one reason writers are thought to dress badly. Another might be that we are so concerned with issues of life below the surface, perfect or otherwise, that we can’t bring ourselves to spend a whole lot of time on appearances—our own. I think my writer friends dress just fine. But I have to admit that as well turned out as they appear to me, they wouldn’t make it into the lobby of that hotel given over to the national conference of women philanthropists. Those women would know in a nanosecond that I shopped at thrift stores (and not very upscale ones either), couldn’t find the makeup counter in a mall, and had no idea what the current fashionable colors were. On the other hand, I can dress my characters any way I want, with no fear of running out of money or fashion.

I offer this little meandering as comfort to those who think writing is all about taking control of your time and computer, and still struggle to compose a decent story. Success in writing seems to be dependent on intangibles no one ever considered. I doubt MFA courses include a section on storing up ego energy for the long haul.

If you’re interested in reading more, see below.

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/08/21/magazine/do-you-suffer-from-decision-fatigue.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

18 comments:

Jan Christensen said...

Susan, I love this line: "I hadn’t thought about it, so I decided to think about it." I hope you didn't wear yourself out so much that you had trouble writing afterward. LOL Great post--I love thinking about such things. And, as an aside, I have never been able to decide if I dress "well" or not. I wear what I like.

Karen McCullough said...

Interesting post! I was at a Mystery Writers's conference (Killer Nashville) a couple of weeks ago, and this came up at a panel I was doing. We were three women and one man on the panel, and we all agreed that we generally tried to dress professionally for conferences. There was, however, a lot of variation in what I saw people wearing there - both men and women!

Alice Duncan said...

Interesting! The only thing I care about besides dogs and writing is cooking, 'cause I like to cook. As for what I wear, it's t-shirts and jeans or shorts. I don't care, and the dogs certainly don't! If I ever have enough money to attend another conference, I'll try to tidy up :-)

Terrie Farley Moran said...

For my first career I had to wear suits, heels and make-up. When I left, I vowed never again.
I do try to look presentable at conferences (no ripped jeans, no tee shirts with a hole at the neck.) But the rest of the time . . .

Jacqueline Seewald said...

I always heard the same remark about teachers, that as a group we didn't dress well. When I went to school, teachers dressed very professionally and the same was true when I started to teach. Then came the huge cultural change and everyone became a lot more casual. Regular business people still dress very well. But I have to admit to wearing suits and dresses these days only when I'm presenting to a group or attending a wedding or funeral. Since we freelance writers work mainly at a home computer and tend to be solitary rather than working in an office, it's natural to want to dress comfortably.

Susan said...

Interesting idea. I guess I'm schizophrenic, because when I am writing (in my home office) I am comfortable. Period. Ratty shorts and tees. Ratty sweats. Ratty anything in between. Doesn't matter, because the only ones who really see me are the cats, the dog and the husband, all of whom have just about the same sense of fashion. Plus, the UPS man is innured to my more casual outfits.

However- when I'm in public, I tend to dress up - if somewhat eccentrically. I love colors, I love distinctive clothes - and don't give a flying flip about what is currently 'in fashion.' I create my own. Like for The Husband's recent hs reunion. I had to be physically restrained from wearing my 'little black dress' from Paris and my ruby necklace. He kept saying it was casual, so I finally unbent to jeweled sandals, leggins and a chiffon float over a tank top - all brightly colored. I still looked like I had escaped the Queen's Ball compared to most of the women there. Sigh.

I do wish everyone would start dressing up at least a little. Torn jeans and tees are fine in the garden, but not in public. Double sigh.

Jim Hartley said...

You should talk, considering how those 4 chicks at the top of your blog page are dressed. But seriously, there are two things here. First of all, our entire culture in moving toward casual attire. And second, except for an occasional conference, writers have no customer contact. Nobody much sees them. Sitting at your computer in shorts and t-shirt, or PJs, or even nothing, has no influence on the success of your career. So why dress up?

Susan Oleksiw said...

So, now I have even more evidence. We do dress badly! Of course, since we rarely see each other, how would I know?

I guess the consensus is, comfortable clothes, satisfy the pets (and spouse), and wear something to the door for the UPS man. Good rules--clear, consistent, doable.

I think it's interesting that some of us have heard this observation before, about writers dressing badly, and yet no one seems at all interested in changing their wardrobe. That's what I like--people who know their own minds.

Thanks for commenting, everyone. This topic is fun.

Kaye Barley said...

This topic IS fun! Now I'm going to be paying very, very close attention to what everyone is wearing at Malice next year!

Lesa said...

Actually, I've heard the same comment from a library patron, who always came to hear the authors, but was a retired professional herself, who said, why do the authors dress so badly? And, I hate to say it, but she was talking about women more than the men. One answer seems to be the travel. Hank Phillippi Ryan, as Kaye said, seems to be able to handle it beautifully. But, as someone who has gone to conferences for a week at a time, and not had to be on the road for a few weeks at a time, it's not easy getting everything you need in the one suitcase an airline will allow. Yes, I know there are ways to do it. But, honestly? It's much easier to pack one easy to wear outfit or two than to look fantastic, (and different) for every stop. Just my opinion.

Sandra Parshall said...

I have seen writers show up for major events in baggy, worn out jeans and tee shirts. I have seen writers do bookstore appearances in sweatshirts, old jeans, and filthy athletic shoes. Some writers simply don't give a damn how they look and would bristle at the very suggestion that they are showing a lack of respect for their audience and host.

Patg said...

I've never noticed at conventions or signings that writers do not make an effort. Maybe I've worked with the public too long, but it always comes down to a matter of taste in what you wear. There is no setting a norm for that.
As for me, I've worked too long for companies with a '2 strikes and you are out' rule, which included dress codes to not have learned early on and be ready in the morning with no standing there contemplating my choices.
And there are packing classes for the traveler. We should ask Hank if she ever took one. One suitcase for a 90 day cruise with elegant formals included.
Patg

Star Lawrence said...

I once went to a cattle call for writers in DC and saw people wearing earth shoes! Yuck! I don't sit here in heels (I could not walk acr the room in them anymore), but even in shorts and a tank, I have on jewelry, makeup, blend colors--I am not matchy matchy. If I look ratty I will feel ratty. About five mins ago, my sister said she had to run to the doc for an emergency and when she got here she would be in grubs. She warned me. We are both this way. Finding fun things to wear is a sport--on ebay. Pop-it beads! One-cent necklaces from China. Very relaxing.

Star Lawrence said...

PS Whe I have to go to client meetings, I wear a long skirt--skip the pantyhose. I put it on and SELL it--doesn't everyone wear a long skirt--well, live with it! And always always--makeup.

Star Lawrence said...

PPS I watched a epi of THE PITCH on AMC--two ad firms competing for the Tommy Bahama Woman acct--and the one woman was older, prob my age, and wore a crummy long gray cardigan, tights, and no makeup...GRANDMA!! They lost to some bratty males--and I wonder why. Clothes count--esp on a clothes acct.

Judy Copek said...

It's true that we generally don't gussy ourselves up too much. This is particularly true in New England where practically everyone dresses "down" if not badly.
Who has time to do endless shopping and putting together of outfits, shoes, and jewelry? Sort of exhausting to think about, and age (most writers are not in the first flush or youth) has something to do with the topic. When I was young, it was VERY important for me to have the latest styles. Now, not so much.

Star Lawrence said...

But it's not endless--it takes a second to sling on a necklace and maybe some blush. Keep clothes relatively new--if it's uniform of jeans and a top, just keep them in order and add a focal pt. Oh, well, everyone is different--but I must insist: NO BUNNY SLIPPERS. I prefer barefoot.

BDTharp said...

Love this post. I am not fashionista, but I'm comfortable. Thanks for the fun blog it made me laugh.