What Writers Wear When They Write at Home: John Cheever, Jane Smiley, Jennifer Egan & More

When I found out John Cheever wrote many of his short stories in his underwear, I suddenly felt a lot better about having written my debut novel, The Adults, entirely encased in flannel.

When I tell people that I spent a year in flannel, they respond with some variation of, “Wow, you are so lucky.” Who else gets to wear red and black flannel every day? Not to mention, purple gloves with the fingertips cut off, a Rugrats T-shirt I stole from my high school locker room when I forgot my gym clothes, and striped wool socks from Ecuador that are as large and baggy as Christmas stockings. I was very comfortable in this outfit. In fact, too comfortable. It induced sleep. I walked to the grocery store in it once (minus the socks). I received packages and takeout in this outfit, and when I opened the door, I could see the delivery man’s eyes scanning me as he handed me my bag of noodles. “It’s 3 p.m.,” he said once.

“I know,” I said.

Even though I published a book, not having to dress up (or even dress) for work chipped away at any kind of professional identity I so desired. I developed a strange sense of envy walking past the mid-town skyscrapers, wishing I was someone who was professionally obligated to wear high heels. The only reason I had to wear a skirt or jewelry was my own vanity, and that didn’t seem like an honorable enough reason. There is no dress code at home, no logical need to change into decent clothes, and you can start to feel like someone who was put on this earth just to wear pajamas all the time.

The idea that clothes can help us transition in and out of our different personas was something I first encountered in Jonathan Franzen’s essay, “Imperial Bedroom.” “How sweet the promenading, the seeing and being seen,” Franzen wrote. “Everybody needs a promenade sometimes—a place to go when you want to announce to the world (not the little world of friends and family but the big world, the real world) that you have a new suit, or that you’re in love, or that you suddenly realize you stand a full inch taller when you don’t hunch your shoulders.”

Perhaps this is why Suzanne Guillette, author of Much to Your Chagrin: A Memoir of Embarassment, said that she splashes herself with Passage d’enfer (a perfume) to signal to herself that it’s “work time.” Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You, said she writes better when she is wearing a certain pair of red earrings. “Since I almost never wear anything but black, this was significant to me,” she said, “and I immediately bought a red glass ring to supplement the earrings.”

At some point last year, I decided I would be a better worker if I dressed like one. I started waking up and putting on heels and collared shirts and eyeliner and earrings and when I was all ready, I clickity-clacked all the way to my “office,” a small desk from Target. For weeks, I sat at my Toshiba, dressed and ready for some important meeting I didn’t have to go to. All of this just to assure myself I was a “real person” who was “at work.” I started to feel silly, even more embarrassed when my takeout arrived, but when it was 5 p.m., I changed out of my work clothes, put on my flannel shirt, and experienced the satisfaction Franzen was talking about: “Happy the distance between public and private!” Wearing my flannel shirt felt like a reward for not wearing it all day.

But, really, there’s only so long you can go on dressing up for nobody. After a few weeks, I was back in my Ecuadorian socks and purple gloves. As I picked up the flannel shirt one morning, I wondered, was I all alone in this? Sometimes, in my apartment, it certainly felt like I was. There were no upstairs neighbors walking back and forth, no one climbing the stairs except the delivery man bringing me my lunch. Everybody was at work, I had watched them leave that morning in their suits and pencil skirts.

According to statistics, there were 2.8 million to 44 million people in 2010 who worked from home. When I’m feeling most ashamed of my work clothes, I like to imagine these 2.8 million to 44 million people in their “offices,” wearing flannel shirts, unshaven and not showered, in slippers. To assure myself that they are, I started asking authors what they wear while they write. It’s the creepiest kind of fan mail—“I love your book…what did you wear when you wrote it?”

Here are a few things I discovered, besides the fact that earrings are essential in making one feel like the day has started:

There’s a strange amount of red and black checks being worn by authors, including myself.

“I wear my husband's red and black checked flannel pajama pants and a T-shirt,” said Francine Prose, president of PEN American Center and bestselling author of the recent My New American Life.

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“Comfortable and talismanic.”

“Off-white sweatpants, sweat-reeking Hush Puppy slippers and an unbuttoned red-and-black Mackinaw coat for warmth,” said Benjamin Hale, debut author of The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore. “An ensemble that my ex-girlfriend once described as ‘the most unattractive outfit I've ever seen a man wear.’” Some authors aren’t even wearing clothes. Jane Smiley wears a robe. “I won't say though,” said the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Thousand Acres, “whether that's more or less than my normal writing garb.”Michael Showalter, author of memoir Mr. Funny Pants, and co-writer of the movie Wet Hot American Summer, doesn’t even bother with the robe. He confessed to writing naked, though, “only once in awhile.” If writers wear clothes, they are not necessarily their own.

“I usually write in a blue bathrobe, which I gave my ex-boyfriend for his birthday eight years ago, and then stole from him,” said Diana Spechler, author of Who by Fire and Skinny.

“We haven't had contact since we broke up five years ago. I don't know if my still having his robe is pathetic torch-carrying or just laziness.”

“Brooks Brothers men’s pin-striped pajamas,” said Thelma Adams, film critic for US Weekly and the New York Post, and debut author of the novel Playdate. “My son's high school football sweat pants, and a T-shirt from Colorado Christian University,” said Stephen Amidon, critically acclaimed author of six novels, including The New City and Human Capital, adding that he has never been to Colorado or practiced that religion. “No hat, but I do brush my hair just before working with my father's brown brush, which I believe he bought in the Nixon administration.”

(Let me point out that Amidon was the only person who even mentioned the act of brushing one’s hair).

Last but certainly not least there is Jennifer Egan, the recent recipient of the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize for her novel A Visit From the Goon Squad.

“Because I'm often taking the kids to school before beginning,” Egan said, “I really just wear ordinary clothes.” Egan apologized for not having a more interesting outfit to share, but I told her there was no need to be sorry. Ordinary clothes! Who would have thought? It’s a middle ground I had never considered. I have to confess, I’m not exactly sure what qualifies an article of clothing as “ordinary,” but I have a feeling the Pulitzer Prize winner is on to something.