Confession: I Write With My Pants On

“I’m a writer because I can go to work with no pants.”

Ha! No pants. Pantsless. Sans pantalon.

Cue laugh track. Classic.

We’ve all heard this one. The joke’s been around for ages but has gained popular cachet in the age of bloggers, tekkies and work-from-home culture. What used to strike us as figurative truth (that writers pick their own uniform) has taken a hairpin turn into literality: In all likelihood that co-worker you’re emailing or chatting with is, most probably, in their boxers right now.

The gag’s especially caught on with the new generation of tech-connected writers – the wordsmiths-cum-webmasters – who fuse the worlds of tech and fiction. Chuck Wendig’s the most notable when it comes to outright revelry about pants-burning, though I’ve heard it from others. Women writers tend to substitute the more modest “please don’t think about me in my underwear” term pajamas, but the joke functions the same way – being a writer means not having to dress for the job. Being your own boss. Asserting your independence.

But here’s the thing: I always wear pants while writing, and you might want to consider it too.

For hygiene’s sake at least. Especially if you have a cloth chair. I mean, c’mon, even nudist colonies ask you to put down a towel. Jesus, this place smells like a hippo enclosure.

But the main reason I wear pants – apart from minimizing my Scotch Guard budget – is that getting dressed reminds me I’m here, at my desk, to work.

Next week marks my first anniversary writing full-time. It’s been an astonishing experience, but like any new endeavor, the first year has been as much about learning as it was about marking accomplishments. And one of the biggest things I learned was that I very badly need a separation between my work life and my home life. You hear this all the time from writers who talk about writing space and designing your environment, but in my experience personal grooming plays a big part in that.

Maybe it’s because I started my working life at decidedly white-collar law firms and research companies. Maybe it’s because I come from a buttoned-up family. Whatever the case, I can’t just roll out of bed and hit the keyboard. If I do, my writing comes out unfocused and inattentive. Slouching in a rumpled T-shirt and pajama bottoms tells my brain, “weekend” even when it’s Tuesday and I’ve got a deadline.

But throw me in a shower, scrape me with a razor, and put me in a nice clean shirt and pants? I’m golden. That mental switch flips. I’m at work, it says, Time to write some words.

It’s a ritual, and we all do it. Some workers brew that first mug of coffee. Others listen to psych-up music on their commute. I’ve need to put on work clothes. Sure, sometimes they’re the most lax work clothes on the planet, but even if it’s a T-shirt and shorts they’re at least clean and new. It’s the act of putting them on that works magic, not the clothes themselves. The ritual’s the thing – I can’t just wake up and type words in the same way the Catholic Church can’t just pass out crackers and wine. The act loses its meaning when you don’t remember why you’re doing it.

This ain’t grape juice, it’s the Blood of Christ. This ain’t wacky-slacky-watch-latest-Moviebob-time, it’s work time.

When you embrace them, clothes can be a powerful tool in your writing life. I used to wear a big felt Stetson when I had a hard time focusing. I called it The Writing Hat. The rule was that if the hat was on, I had to be writing. No checking Facebook. No outlining. I was only allowed to put words on the screen. I’ve also used wardrobe changes as a re-focusing technique. Oh, you can’t seem to buckle down on that article this morning, eh? Out of the Tees and jorts, buddy, into the khakis and button-down. It’s grindstone time.

The truth is that clothes serve a psychological purpose. While they marginally control how others see us, they also regulate our self-image and mental state. Soldiers don uniforms to leave the civilian world and adopt military values. Brides wear dresses to help them feel more beautiful than they ever have before. Vestments remind priests that they represent a higher power. We all do it, in our own way, when we get dressed up for a night out. Sure, we want to look good, but it’s more important that we feel good.

Which is why I’m a pants-on writer. I may be an office of one, but yeah, I have a dress code. It glitches my brain into work mode, which is exactly what dress codes are supposed to do.

Will it work for you the same way? No idea. Maybe you’re more productive when you’re über-comfortable in your boxers. For me, comfort’s a progress-killer. An external spur keeps me on track.

Because being your own boss also means being your own employee – and seriously, you gotta watch that guy, because he will slack right the hell off if you give him the chance. Let him come to work sans pantalon and soon he’ll be taking two-hour lunch breaks and spend his afternoon looking at Tumblr photos of cats caught in venetian blinds.

And no one likes to be that boss, but sometimes you have to be. Sometimes you need to drop by and say: Seriously buddy, go home and put on some pants. Come back when you’re ready to work.

Next time, it’s a write-up.

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