I had an incredibly bizarre dream the other night about attending a David Foster Wallace reading. He stood atop a massive pile of trash, bloated to a massive girth (were it not for his ubiquitous bandana, I wouldn’t have recognized him), and read from a new collection of short stories. I was completely overcome by the experience. His prose has wormed its way into my top ten list over the past few years, so as far as the writing was concerned, I was un-surprised. But beyond the writing, I was annoyed at everyone else in the room. They were listening, but impatient. I could tell none of them knew who he was, simply because he did not look like his author photo.
The dream went on to other strange places, but once I was awake again, the thing that still bothered me was how no one had wanted to listen to him because he simply did not look like a writer. He looked like a slob. He was wearing dirty clothes that did not fit, he had not showered in some time; in stark contrast, everyone standing around his trash podium was well-heeled and deeply skeptical. But what is a writer supposed to look like?
Often, especially when talking to strangers, people act surprised when they find out I am a writer. Their level of shock increases when I mention the publishing success I’ve been blessed with. Granted, I am pretty young to have done as well as I’m doing right now. But I don’t think age is the main factor in their surprise. My appearance is a good-sized leap away from average; I look more like a bartender than a bard. I think the strangers seem uncomfortable that I’ve done well for myself in a highly competitive and often deeply academic field because a woman in her early twenties with more than a few large visible tattoos and facial piercings isn’t someone they typically take very seriously. But that’s where my empathy for their confusion ends. Maybe this is due to my lifetime of friendship with crusty misanthropes, tattooed barflies, and other such misfits, but it really gets my goat that appearance and “refined” language are seen as requirements for a successful writer, or an intelligent person in general. Show me your stuffy, elbow-patched ideal of a poet, and I call probably show you five writers just as talented who might be mistaken for carnies. Even if you think they don’t or can’t exist, they do. And they are no less brilliant at writing because of their unconventional appearances.
I wouldn’t take such serious issue with this line of thought if it didn’t show up across the board in academia. Anyone who’s gone to college has had at least one “wacky” professor who exists beyond the norm, but for the most part, academia is pretty inhospitable to those who do not exist within that elbow-patched brainiac norm. (Not that I don’t like elbow patches, but they have certain connotations.) When I was finishing up my last semester at school, I had a few wonderful professors encouraging me to continue my studies, and a big reason I didn’t is because of judgments people made about me based on the way I look. I wish I’d handed every skeptic of my intelligence level a book by Daphne Gottlieb or Rachel McKibbens or Nick Flynn or any number of hard-swaggering, big-brained rock-n-roll poets.
When I finished college, I had a teal mohawk, a septum ring, several large (and visible) tattoos, and a serious chip on my shoulder. Anytime I spoke eloquently about literature or politics, people seemed genuinely surprised that I was not only a reasonable person, but a well-educated one fully capable of putting them in their place in spite of my somewhat-wild appearance. It made me almost as angry as people assuming that because I am a woman, I couldn’t possibly have anything interesting to say. To think that these kind of stereotypes exist when we close our eyes and picture our favorite writers makes me sick.
This disconnect between what the general public assumes writers should look like and what we actually look like isn’t only a poet’s problem. Isabel Slone writes very eloquently about why spending most of her freelancer’s day in pajamas does not disqualify her from being a worthy fashion writer:
Frankly, it doesn’t matter what I look like, as long as the work gets done. …The grand dame of fashion journalism Cathy Horyn, is also a really boring dresser. Horyn may be fashion critic for the New York Times, sitting front row at fashion shows, but she isn’t there to be seen. She is there to have an unobstructed view of the collections being presented, so she can write about them with honesty and clarity.
Unfortunately, when it comes to stereotypes about appearance, things are rarely honest or clear. The assumptions made about appearance are not only vehicles for racism, classism, and sexism; they make writing into an elite club that can only be accessed by those who “have the look.” In Sloane’s article on the homogeneous nature of street style fashion blogs for the Toronto Standard, she discusses how the sameness is really just another form of advertising:
I started blogging before Susie Bubble, before Tavi, and I have never achieved insider status or anything close to it. For example, in October 2011, FLARE.com created a slideshow with 22 bloggers wearing Canadian fashion. Picture after picture featured a blandly “fashionable” aesthetic that appeals to people with too much money, not enough taste and a charge account at Holt Renfrew. …I remained embittered that none of the creative Canadian fashion blogs that I read and love (Nice and Shiny, Pull Teeth, Calur Villade) were included either. Whoever is creating this content seems to be aiming for mass appeal over unique perspectives.
Slone’s criticism can be applied to the larger writing world, in that the day we start having expectations about what a writer should or should not look like is the day we are deaf to innovative voices simply because they do not fit our idea of what a writer needs to be. What should a writer look like? What should an artist look like? I know plenty of people who belong to both categories, and there is no one visual trend I could describe for you. Every race makes art, as well as every permutation of gender, every political background, and every level of intelligence. They all wear different clothes, listen to different music, have diverse vocabularies of both words and experiences. There is no one-size-fits-all image of an artist we can use to recognize the creative class on the street. It is not unreasonable to have expectations, but you need to be willing to question why those expectations exist. Does stature or speech pattern tell us much about the capabilities of somebody’s mind? Not even close.
David Foster Wallace came to me in a dream for a posthumous book release and I knew it was him because of his words on the page, their cadences, the thematic concerns. When a writer has found his voice, that is how he can be recognized. Not by height or weight or style of dress, but by the words he makes. That is how we know writers. Because they put words in rows on a page. That is the face of a writer that should be the one most important to their audience: the face that changes and becomes more whole with every chapter.