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.
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