By Eric Olsen
One of the nice things about writing is that it’s a private act, and so you can usually wear whatever you damn well please while you do it. For me, that usually means blue jeans and a T-shirt, plus a sweater or two since my office is an unheated outbuilding behind my house. I think the tendency among writers, given that they can wear what they want, is to wear whatever’s comfortable. John Cheever reportedly did a lot of writing in his underwear. No doubt his office had heat.
I know there are some writers who wear particular outfits when they write, or sometimes just a single accessory such as that “lucky” black-and-red checkered scarf, as if this might in some way aid their writing or make them more “creative.” When I write, I always sport a black New Zealand rugby team cap, backwards. But it’s not as if I think the cap helps me write, or that if I were to turn the bill around, say, or wear an Oakland A’s cap instead, the words would stop coming. Really. The hat just keeps my head warm. I’m not superstitious, OK?
But in the April 3 New York Times, there was an article by Sandra Blakeslee about how clothing impacts how our minds work, which got me thinking about what writers wear, or should wear. The title of the piece is “Mind Games: Sometimes a White Coat Isn’t Just a White Coat.”
In the article, Blakeslee tells us about the “growing scientific field called embodied cognition.” We think not only with our brains, she reports, but with our bodies. Our thought processes “are based on physical experiences that set off associated abstract concepts. Now it appears that those experiences include the clothes we wear.”
She then reports on the findings of one Adam D. Galinsky of the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. Galinsky’s been studying white coats and their impact on the mind.
In one of his studies, 58 undergraduates were randomly selected to wear a white lab coat or street clothes while they took a test for selective attention. Those who wore the white lab coats made about half as many errors as those who wore regular clothes. The kids in the white coats paid more attention.
In another study, 74 students were randomly assigned to one of three options: wearing what they were told was a doctor’s white coat, wearing a painter’s white coat (identical to the doctor’s coat), or simply seeing a white doctor’s coat. Then they took the test for attention. Those who wore the doctors’ coats had “acquired heightened attention,” compared with those who wore the painters’ coats or merely saw a doctor’s coat.
“Clothes invade the body and brain,” Galinsky says, “putting the wearer into a different psychological state.”
If that’s so, then is there some particular item of clothing, with the cultural significance of the doctor’s white coat for example, which might put the writer into a different psychological state? A state in which the words flow and they’re all brilliant words and the writer finishes the novel and it gets a glowing review on the front page of the New York Times Book Review?
A beret, for instance?
I guess if I’ve ever thought about what a “real writer” might look like, I always picture some guy sitting in a Paris café smoking a Galois and drinking coffee out of a little bitty white cup and wearing a beret, which is how writers always seemed to be portrayed in New Yorker cartoons, many, many years ago.
Thus I’ve always refused to wear a beret—too French. My black New Zealand rugby team cap is most definitely not French. But now I may have to rethink my headwear.
My buddy Jeffrey Abrahams wears a beret, though. He’s a poet, so I don’t hold it against him. But he says he wears his beret mainly to keep his head warm; he’s even more bald than I am.
Jeffrey was responding to a query I’d sent out to all my writer friends immediately after reading Blakeslee’s article. In the query, I asked folks if they wear anything special when they write, and if it helps them write. Naturally, I offered bonus points to anyone who writes in the nude.
“I don’t wear anything special,” Jane Smiley replied, “but I usually wear something.”
“As for what I wear while writing,” said novelist Allan Gurganus, “with that query you risk becoming the Rex Reed of the Workshop. Remember he published a whole book of his interviews with Hollywood stars titled after his fave question: ‘Do You Sleep in the Nude?’ I ain’t telling because truly nobody wants to know, dawg.”
“I remember in the third rewrite of One Great Game, under the gun with 42 days to cut 180 pages from a 500 page second draft,” says Don Wallace, “that I took to rolling out of bed and going to work in my boxer shorts and a T-shirt, standing up, all day. And how on some afternoons with the hot sun pouring into our Chelsea apartment the door would click and I wouldn’t quite register what it meant, and then our son and a half dozen friends would come in and see me standing there. And nothing would be said. It was a man thing. That’s a fiction/narrative writer for you. Mindy and I once were neighbors with a genuine MacArthur-winning poet, Doug Crase, who wouldn’t pick up a pen until he’d dressed in a suit and tie. But that’s a poet for you.”
“I don’t have any quirks that way,” says poet Joy Harjo. “I just have my preferences: no prints—they distract me. (They do!)”
Novelist Geri Lipschultz says she doesn’t write in the nude. “I use clothing the way I use crystals and jewelry and baths/showers/exercise,” she says. “For more than the obvious, for the ritual, I suppose you’d call it. There’s a dress, for example, that I wore when I did my one-woman show. And the dress is full of holes. I’m perpetually sewing it back together—but I wear this dress sometimes when I’m going to write. I like to dress up. I like to think of writing in a way as consecration…there’s a spiritual component. I’m asking for water to come from a rock. I’m asking for water to turn into wine. I’m asking to fly. I’m asking to leave my body. I’m asking for light. This is as much spiritual work as anything under the sun. Yes, I will dress for the occasion.”
Jennie Fields, whose fourth novel, The Age of Desire, will be released by Viking on August 6, tells us she doesn’t write in the nude. “That would be too distracting. Sticking to the chair. Not conducive to free thinking. The answer for me is anything that is so comfortable I can forget I have a body and float off into the life of the mind. I wear comfy clothes. Right now those clothes are yoga pants, a bright un-patterned t-shirt and sneakers. Why bright? So when I walk Violet, cars avoid me. And when I look down while writing, I’m subconsciously put in a happy frame of mind.”
What’s in your closet? Does it help? Do you have favorite threads for creative endeavors other than writing?