By: Noelle Sterne
“If I waited for a proper occasion to get dressed up I’d never wear half of these clothes. Put on the clothes and you make things happen to match them. It doesn’t work the other way around.” ―
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 shocked me. When I called and whined, as usual, expecting the instantaneous dash to the coffee shop, she announced, “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.
A few weeks later, when Lynn 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 viewing 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. Like everyone else, I chose to wear a suit. I noticed how good I felt in that outfit. 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 sweats.”
I laughed, pleading guilty as well.
Clothes Make the Man – And the Writer?
“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 presentable, 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.
Properly Prepared and Positioned at the Keyboard
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 holey jersey 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 drooping-pockets fishing shorts, you may be reluctant to change your costume.
Of course, clothes don’t make the writer. But consider this: when you wear certain clothes, you’re giving yourself a particular message. Click To Tweet
What are you saying about yourself and your writing when you plunk down at the desk in an old robe, 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 to wear anything stiff, uncomfortable, or ultra-formal. But better dressing, 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.
1. Inside: Do the mental work first—positive self-talk, inspirational readings, visualization, meditation, prayer.
2. Outside: Start with action first. Clean up and dress 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).
Outside – In
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 job-hunting classic What Color Is Your Parachute? (latest edition 2019) says that both men and women significantly increase their chances of landing a job by showing up for the interview well-dressed well and well-groomed. They’re telling everyone how much of an asset they would be to any organization, and incidentally transmitting their self-respect.
Writing is the Job
This counsel is obviously meant for those seeking an outside “job,” but it also offers writers a valuable perspective. The job we want? A consistent, steady 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.
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:
- 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.
- Dressing better becomes part of your writing ritual.
Runners and other athletes know well the value of ritual. A serious runner friend runs many marathons in excellent times. To prepare effectively, he gets up at 4:00 a.m. to train for two hours before going to work. Sitting on the side of the bed in a headache fog, he’s often tempted to fall right back in.
To reduce 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 small 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.
Inside – Out
I know the ritual works. For years, despite the never-waning drive, the 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 last ditch—in my torn bathrobe or the 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 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 of 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:
- 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, and a few minutes of writing will do nothing for us.
But when you keep your lamps lit, you can:
- Keep your mind on the light instead of the dark
- Remain focused on your goals and projects
- 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, with earrings (or your personal equivalent). When we “act as if” we’re professional writers, the actuality follows.
Now, please excuse me. It’s time to work on my book, and I must get out of my tattered t-shirt and put my earrings on.
Bio: Noelle Sterne
Author, editor, writing coach, writing and meditation workshop leader, spiritual counselor, Noelle has published over 600 writing craft articles, spiritual pieces, essays, short stories, and occasional poems.
Author Magazine, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Chicken Soup for the Soul, Children’s Book Insider, Funds for Writers, Inside Higher Ed, New Age Journal, Pen & Prosper, Ruminate, Thesis Whisperer, Transformation Coaching, The Write Place At the Write Time, Unity Magazine, Writer’s Journal, Writing in a Woman’s Voice, The Writer, and Writer’s Digest.
Academic mentor, editor and coach, with the Ph.D. from Columbia University, Noelle helps doctoral students wrestling with their dissertations and publishes articles for dissertation writers. She is a regular contributor to Abstract, the blog of the Textbook and Academic Authors Association (TAA). In July and August 2018, Noelle was one of six webinar presenters for TAA’s “Writing Gym.” Her topic: “Get Started, Continue Your Draft, and Finish.”
- Eons ago, she published a children’s book of original (groanworthy) dinosaur riddles, Tyrannosaurus Wrecks (What do you get when dinosaurs crash their cars?). Her riddles appear in several elementary school language arts texts, and the book was featured on PBS’s Reading Rainbow.
- A Chicken Soup for the Soul podcast (May 16, 2017) featured her story “Time to Say Goodbye” from a 2013 volume: https://chickensoup.podbean.com/e/tip-tuesday-why-you-should-remove-toxic-people-from-your-life-and-how-to-do-it/_
- Noelle’s book Trust Your Life: Forgive Yourself and Go After Your Dreams (Unity Books, 2011) contains examples from her practice, writing, and other aspects of life to help readers release regrets, relabel their past, and reach lifelong yearnings.
- Her book Challenges in Writing Your Dissertation: Coping With the Emotional, Interpersonal, and Spiritual Struggles (Rowman & Littlefield Education, 2015) is an invaluable resource for doctoral candidates.
As part of pursuing her writing dream, Noelle’s mission is to help other writers reach theirs and create the lives they truly desire.
Taking her own advice (hard as it may be), she recently completed her first novel and is inching through her second.
- Website: www.trustyourlifenow.com
- Columnist: Textbook and Academic Authors Association
- Columnist: Two Drops of Ink
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