One of my best friends, also a writer, taught me an important lesson about writing. Lynn and I phoned each other at least twice a week, confessed to mutual massive blocks, and ran out to meet at the neighborhood café. All afternoon we commiserated, consumed endless cups of strong coffee and multiple pastries, dreamt about having the full-time writing life, and railed against the authors of the trashy “bestsmellers,” as we called them. We parted feeling bloated but righteous in our validated self-pity and carefully ignored the fact that we’d wasted another day not writing.
But one day, Lynn pulled a switch. When I called and whined as usual, expecting the instantaneous dash to the coffee shop, she announced with cold-water shock, “I can’t talk now. I’m working.”
Stung, I ran out to the local deli and bought a large takeout coffee and three danishes.
This guest post is by Noelle Sterne. Author, editor, dissertation and writing coach, and spiritual counselor, Sterne has published more than 300 pieces in print and online venues, including Author Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Funds For Writers, Graduate Schools Magazine, GradShare, InnerSelf, Inspire Me Today, Pen & Prosper, Romance Writers Report, Textbook and Academic Authors Association, Transformation Magazine, Unity Magazine, Women in Higher Education, Women on Writing, Writer’s Digest, and The Writer. She has also published pieces in anthologies, has contributed several columns to writing publications, and is a volunteer judge for Rate Your Story. With a Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle has for 30 years assisted doctoral candidates to complete their dissertations (finally). Based on her practice, her handbook addressing dissertation writers’ overlooked but very important nonacademic difficulties will be published in September 2015 by Rowman & Littlefield Education. The title: Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping with the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles. In Noelle`s previous book, Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011), she draws examples from her academic consulting and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach their lifelong yearnings. Visit Noelle at her website: trustyourlifenow.com.
A few weeks later, when she agreed to take a break, we met for lunch. She apologized for her brusqueness and added, “I saw how much time we were wasting. Then I realized I wasn’t taking my writing like a job. It was something haphazard, like throwing on my old wrinkled plaid shirt.”
I asked, “What made you realize that?”
“A few days before, at work I had to go to the six-month meeting with the company president. I got dressed up, like everyone does. And I noticed how good I felt in my suit. So I started thinking about what I wore to write.”
At my quizzical look, she continued, “I stagger to my desk, eyes barely open, hair uncombed, groping for my best friend—my oldest, cuddliest sweatshirt.”
I laughed, pleading guilty as well.
“Maybe others can write well this way,” she said, “but that meeting day made me realize I was dishonoring my writing self. Now when I get ready for my writing session, I find clean clothes that look halfway decent, even sometimes matching them. And I put my earrings on!”
“Do you really feel different?” I asked.
“Absolutely! I walk straighter and taller. Ideas start coming even before I sit down, and I feel, well, like a real writer.”
Writers write in underwear, jeans, jumpsuits, and birthday suits. Many say their juices can only bubble in the most casual and comfortable clothing. This may be true, but often such clothes are so casual and comfortable (read: sloppy) that we avoid writing altogether.
Yes, it can be delicious to tumble from bed to desk in sleep sweatshirt or your favorite raggy bathrobe. You feel like you’ve joined the venerable company of writers who’ve made it. But with sleep-mouth and sandy eyes you often cannot do your best work.
And yes, you can close a multimillion-dollar book deal in t-shirt and jeans, and you can succeed at a job interview without wearing a designer suit. If you’re on your fourth novel, and the other three were written in your snuggly pjs or lucky torn fishing shorts, fine. I’m sure Hemingway didn’t write in a crisp white shirt.
When you wear certain clothes, you give yourself a certain message. What are you saying—about yourself and your writing—when you plunk down at the desk in old bathrobe, yesterday’s underwear, hair disheveled, and morning mouth?
What are you telling yourself when you wash your face, brush your teeth, and put on clean clothes? You don’t have wear something stiff, uncomfortable, or ultra-formal. But getting dressed better, as Lynn discovered, does make a difference.
How you dress is important not from the standpoint of trendiness, vanity, or piled-up laundry, but because of its positive effect on you. Choosing to wear decent clothes symbolizes a major principle of success. You’re acting “as if.”
You can start from the inside or the outside.
- Inside: Before you act, do the mental work first—positive self-talk, inspirational readings, visualization, meditation, prayer.
- Outside: Start with action first. Act “as if” until you become what you desire—in our case, dressing decently.
Starting with the outside is often easier. Business consultant David Allen observed, “It is easier to act yourself into a better way of feeling than to feel yourself into a better way of action” (Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity, p. 85). Psychologist and spiritual guru Wayne Dyer encourages us to “begin acting as if what you would like to become is already your reality. This is a wonderful way to set into motion the forces that will collaborate with you to make your dreams come true” (Dr. Wayne Dyer’s 10 Secrets for Success and Inner Peace, p. 119).
If you’re having trouble making time for writing and sticking to it, consider starting with the outside. The mere act of putting on something better made Lynn feel “like a real writer.”
This principle is also inherent in the time-honored career counseling advice to dress cleanly, neatly, and well as you seek a job. In the 1970s, John Molloy’s Dress for Success became gospel for advancement in the business world. And Richard Bolles in his perennial classic What Color Is Your Parachute? (latest edition 2015) says that both men and women greatly increase their chances of landing a job by dressing well and being well-groomed, showing everyone how much of an asset you would be to any organization, and incidentally transmitting your self-respect.
This counsel is obviously meant for those seeking an outside “job,” but it also offers writers a valuable perspective. The job we want? A regular, easy stream of writing. Our level of unemployment? The degree to which our blocks and stalling interfere with our real “job” of writing. Everyone else? Ourselves, our family and friends, and maybe the cat. The organization? Our writing “business” and our mission and drive to write.
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WHERE: and earrings, or your personal equivalent, whichever your gender], As Bolles and others know and Lynn experienced, When you put on clean, somewhat professional clothes you look and feel good in, you’re plentifully rewarded:
- You feel better.
- Your self-image rises a few notches.
- Your posture, mood, and outlook improve.
- You feel more ready for the day and the tasks before you.
- You take yourself and what you’re about to do more seriously.
You reap another important benefit—dressing better becomes part of the ritual of writing.
Runners and other athletes know well the value of ritual. I spoke with a serious runner who runs many marathons in excellent times. To prepare effectively, he get ups at 4:00 a.m. to train for two hours before going to work. Sitting on the side of the bed in a headachy fog, he’s often tempted to fall right back in.
To cut down this temptation, he developed a ritual. Every night, he places his running socks and shoes on the floor right next to the bed. The minute the alarm pops him up, he gropes for his socks and puts them on.
This small action signals his brain to reach for his Nikes. Finding them, he automatically stands up, picks up the shoes, stumbles to the closet to pull on his training clothes, and puts on the shoes. With each small act, he wakes up a little more until, hardly knowing it, he grabs his keys and heads out the door.
As this runner proves, the ritual of dressing works. The apparently minor act of getting dressed for real and the necessary series of physical actions bridge the transition from the sloth of sleep to the alertness needed for the day.
From such rituals, powered by resolve, finally, comes a new habit that helps you reach your goal, to log in ten miles or ten pages.
know the ritual works. For years, despite the never-waning drive, writing was always at the bottom of my list, after all the daily chores and pleasures. That’s why I had the “time” to keep dashing out with Lynn for sugar and caffeine. When I did write, it was in my nightshirt, torn bathrobe, or baggy Bermudas.
But when I followed Lynn’s example and prepared for my writing session with real clothes—and earrings, and even a little makeup—I felt transformed. I strode to my desk with zeal and determination, ready for professional production. The writing went easier and the editing quicker. New ideas surged more freely, and I felt in command.
The Deeper Implications
Beneath all these advantages, there’s a more profound aspect to getting dressed to write. It goes to the heart of our creative process and sense of deservingness and is embodied in a metaphoric New Testament verse: “Be dressed for action and have your lamps lit” (Luke 12:35).
In addition to its literal meaning, “Be dressed for action” tells you to make yourself ready to act on and from:
- your inspiration,
- your discipline,
- the ideas that have been brewing in your subconscious,
- your inner direction.
And keeping your lamps lit? A more graphic metaphor for readiness in all ways. We know when our lamps aren’t lit. Our dark inner tormentors keep telling us we have no time to write, we have to “catch up” with everything else first, a few minutes of writing will do nothing for us . . . .
But when you keep your lamps lit, you
- keep your mind on the light instead of the dark,
- keep your inner light focused on your goals and projects, and
- keep alive the light of confidence and positive anticipation.
So, be ready for action and have your lamps lit. Plan what you’re going to work on the next session. Set out your materials for immediate action, like the runner with his socks. Get dressed for your job. When we “act as if” we’re professional writers, the actuality follows.
Now, please excuse me. It’s time to go work on my book, and I must get out of my tattered t-shirt and go put my earrings on.
Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:
- Here are 4 things to consider when researching literary agents.
- What to write in the BIO section of your query letter.
- Here are 7 reasons writing a novel makes you awesome.
- New Agent Alerts: Click here to find agents who are currently seeking writers.
- Download a year's worth of writing prompts right here.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer's Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You're Having a Girl: A Dad's Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.