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So, uh, what are you wearing?

By Kathleen Rooney


My friend Jen Olsen works at Random House as an ebook managing editor, and she is an excellent reccomender of films that, while not always good, are always good to see.

The other day, she pointed out that Netflix is streaming Starting Out in the Evening, a slow-paced and well-acted (if not superbly written, and somewhat tackily scored) film that can be read as an elegy not just for a certain type of writer, but for an entire type of literacy and literary culture. You could watch it and have and number of discussions about technology, the future of the book, and the declining fate of people of letters. But that’s been covered so thoroughly elsewhere that I’m not in the mood. Instead, I want to use the movie to talk about something else: outfits!

The idea that fashion is purely frivolous or at odds with poetry seems absurd, since style as it pertains to clothes seems fairly relatable to style as it pertains to literature and its composition and exhibition. Both are forms of artifice. Both have rules to be followed and broken. Both engage strategically with the expectations of an audience. Both require an attention to detail and an intention to convey a particular mode of self-presentation. Both are subjectively created and subjectively received.

Plenty of authors dress up for public appearances, and Kate Durbin and Tim Jones-Yelvington take the potential for mask and performance to delightful lengths. And Kate Zambreno, for one, has written “that writers and artists and fashion mags actually have more of a history than one might think.” Weldon Kees, a poet I love above many others, earns my affection through his poetry, but he seals the deal with his natty style.

That said, I’m less interested in talking here about what people wear when they read, and more yearning to know what people wear when they write. In Starting Out in the Evening, the retired professor and elderly novelist Leonard Schiller, played by Frank Langella, is depicted as the kind of gentleman who will not sit down in front of his typewriter unless he is clad in a crisp buttondown shirt and tie, even though he’s essentially a hermit on whom virtually no other person besides his daughter lays eyes. Meanwhile, Heather Wolfe, the ambitious grad student attempting to write Schiller’s critical biography, played by Lauren Ambrose, is shown sitting down to work on her thesis in a charmingly fug rainbow-colored flower-patterned sweater jacket.

So what I want to know is: what do you wear when you write, and why? Do you write in your pajamas? Do you dress? Do you dress up? Do you have any talismanic pieces of clothing that you especially like to wear when writing? Do you dress differently to revise? How does your external appearance affect your internal state of mind and creativity?

I have no way of knowing what Kees wore when he was composing, clothing-wise, but I can at least be pretty sure he wore his signature mustache, attached as it was to his face. Speaking of faces, on Facebook, I asked people this same question, and got a lot of witty answers like “a look of consternation that borders on skepticism” and “warm laptop, no pants.” But I also got some legit ones, like from K. Lorraine Graham who said “I wear pants, at the very least. When I wrote Terminal Humming, I usually wore a suit or some other DC would-be politico-wonk uniform, because I was always writing on lunch break or in staff meetings. In the summer, I often wear a bikini to write,” and Charlotte Safavi who said “I always wear lipstick.” Jen Olsen, for the record, wears her jammiepants when she writes. Personally, I cannot get any serious writing done in my PJs, since I feel too relaxed and unprofessional.

If you haven’t got any particular items of clothing, do you have any rituals for when you write? I read somewhere that Kafka would get a glass of beer and two sausages and set them at his desk, the inside of which he had fitted with pointy spikes to keep him from getting up or fidgeting in his seat, so he could maintain a sustained focus on the work. Do any of you do anything like this?

For what it’s worth, I wear purple terry cloth wristbands—one with a peace sign patch and the other with a star—that I won at a game at a New Year’s Eve party for the turn of 2006 into 2007. I consider them lucky. I wear them when I’m working on something tricky. I’m wearing them now. That’s why this piece is so good-looking.

Unrelated p.s. Ada Limón, I like your metaphor of thinking of “books like towns” you’ve lived in. We went over the chapter on setting in Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing in one of my classes yesterday. In it, she has a prompt that says, “Write about a place you can’t return to,” which strikes me as being perfect, since that’s almost every place, potentially: physical spaces, ages, frames of mind—a lot of those are things you can only get back to by writing about them, and then, after that, by reading what you wrote.

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Posted in Uncategorized on Friday, April 15th, 2011 by Kathleen Rooney.