Today my sister and I hit the shopping centers to look for jeans. My sister is visiting from Philly. She wears smart clothes and expensive shoes and isn’t afraid of price tags or designer brands. She marched me through various departments, fingering material and commenting on cut and style, and within minutes my arms were piled high with pants, skirts and a beige dress I was sure I wouldn’t look good in and my sister was sure that I would (she was right).
I’m not a fashion follower, which is probably why I live in Alaska, which holds the distinction of being named worst fashion state in the country. I love that most of us don’t follow the crowd, that we dress for weather conditions and comfort, that we turn up our noses at pretensions and titles. Alaskans may dress like crap but we have our hearts in the right place.
But sometimes, damn it, I want to wear jeans that don’t bag in the butt.
So I bought a pair of jeans with the legs so narrow that when I shimmy them over my hips, they scare me. I look sleek and fashionable. I don’t look like myself at all.
After I returned home, I started thinking that while clothes might temporarily transform us, in reality it’s an illusion: We are who we are regardless of what we’re wearing.
And I realized that writing can be like that, too, and that I sometimes write skinny words, phrases and words showing off how clever I am, how witty, how wise or wonderful or sympathetic, words not written to strengthen a story or poem so much as strengthen my own self-concept.
I often cringe when reading over my own skinny words. It’s embarrassing to confront this need of mine for acceptance and approval, it’s similar to witnessing a private or intimate act. It’s fascinating yet terribly sad.
I think we all do this as we write, we all reach areas in our books, stories and poems where we feel afraid or insecure, or we suddenly look up and think, with wonder and great fear: I’m writing this for an audience! Other people will read this! And so we pull back, cower beneath our own wit or cleverness or defenses, and we write out-of-character or out-of-voice or out-of-context as a means of separating ourselves from our own truths.
I find this occurring in the memoir I’m currently reading, I’m No Saint by Elizabeth Hyat. The writing and pace flows along until wham!, Hyat throws in an awkward scene that elevates her or sexualizes her or makes her sound tougher or therefore changes the mood, and I want to call her up and say, “Honey, you don’t have to pretend to be sexier or more daring than you are. It’s okay to just be yourself. Really.”
Last night I trashed over three pages of my novel, pages I had sweated over for more than a week, due to skinny words. I fought to keep them, too, fought because those sections made me sound smart and worldly when in reality, I’m neither.
I don’t think I’ll ever completely stop writing skinny words, and I know I won’t stop wearing skinny jeans, at least for the time being, but I am trying to become more aware that no matter how I look or write on the outside, nuances and meanings will resonate below the surface. In the end, those are the ones that truly matter.