Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Maryse Meijer on the Frivolity and Necessity of Clothing and Books

In the 24th in a series of posts on 2016 books entered for The Story Prize, Maryse Meijer, author of Heartbreaker (Farrar, Straus & Giroux), compares writing stories to designing clothes.

Once upon a time the fashion designer Lee Alexander McQueen filmed himself making a wedding dress out of a men’s suit. I can’t think of a better metaphor for what writers do—for what I try to do—than this. Taking something commonplace and finding within it the shape of something unexpected, discovering all the things hidden within something familiar. It’s as if the dress is a secret the suit had been hiding all along, waiting for just the right pair of scissors to reveal it.

Editing can be like this: looking at the perfectly serviceable and handsome suit you’ve just created and then slashing through to the story that is less serviceable, less handsome, until you have something wearable, but only just. The best clothes are the ones that make you hesitate—can I wear this? Should I?—and writing is like that for me, too. I like to be a little uncomfortable when I dress up, and I like to be scared when I write. I like to feel the boundaries of what I am and of what writing could be. And yet, while good clothes and stories cast you beyond yourself, they also remind you of very simple things closer to home, much the way a corset, drawn very tight, reminds you that you have lungs, a ribcage, a diaphragm. Suddenly you’re just trying to breathe, to not break anything, taking care even as you are taking no care at all, looking batshit fucking crazy while eating tacos in a wedding gown made of trouser legs slapped with white paint. You’re finding the spectacular moment in the ordinary one. You’re finding out they’re kind of the same thing.

I think, too, of the frivolity and necessity of clothing and books, the meaningless of fashion, the possible redundancy of writing—so you take some words and make more words, so what? So you take some silk and make yet another sheath dress someone will wear maybe once or twice and then abandon at the back door of a charity shop. You don’t need more than one warm outfit to survive. You don’t need to read any books at all, strictly speaking. Does anyone really need to write? To make clothes? I don’t know. Writing feels necessary to me, but I also can see beyond it, the way I can see beyond my desire to wear beautiful things. I could live without books and I could live without dresses. But I also live a lot through books, and I’ve lived my whole life through clothes. I feel that I live more when I’m writing, as I do when I am wearing my favorite things. Words bring the world to me, and clothes help me find my way in the world, and vice versa. These words put together in this way become art to some of us. This satin cut into this shape becomes a fantasy, a nightmare, a story. We do need, maybe, some art, somewhere, at some time.

When I am looking for inspiration or beauty I often go to McQueen, lately. Watching him work makes me want to work, helps me think about what I do. And wearing his clothes, or looking at pictures of his couture, helps me think about what I would like to be—helps me imagine the many bodies I have inside me, the many women waiting to be worn, the way that wedding dress waits inside its suit. From just one thing—the sky, a tree, love—comes a thousand stories. The writer has her materials, too, and she cuts her work from them, wears them, gives them to others to wear, to judge, to discard, to live in. Aren’t there some stories you never want to take off? Some you hate because they make you feel fat or cheap or stupid? Some that make you feel incredibly lucky to be a body in the world?

To make something that moves, that envelops and exposes, that reflects the body as it transforms it—that is what I would like to do as a writer. It is what McQueen did as a designer. We should be able to enter a story the way we do a demanding piece of clothing, sometimes struggling with it, sometimes made breathless or uncomfortable by it, sometimes blinded by it, the way a sweater blinds us when we pull it over our heads. But there is always a way in, always a way out. We reach for the holes, we pull ourselves through, we enter and we exit, but if the dress is beautiful enough, the story strong enough, we leave it changed creatures, wiser and more wonderful for having inhabited the skin of a ruthless imagination.