Eight Dresses

Novelist Jami Attenberg explores the writer's mind through the dresses she chooses to take with her on her book tour.

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Pack light, I whisper to myself as I stand in my closet, staring at the clothes rack. A mantra for a five-week book tour. A life in carry-on luggage. Four countries, 20 events. All those season changes, all those topographies. Pack light, even though what I'm about to do is heavy, standing in front of rooms of people, presenting my wares, my brain, my book, my self. 

I try to channel Ferrante, the invisible novel goddess, but I suspect she's tougher than I am. I think about Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, how fantastic her clothes are, her grasp of bold color inspiring, but I'm a recovering punk, a New Yorker, and I'll skew black and gray till death. Then I try to slip inside the mind of Patti Smith, who wears the same clothes over and over till they're threadbare, and then she just has some fabulous designer friend make her some more. But I'm no rock star; I'm a novelist. I want to look presentable for the people. I want them to think I'm an OK person. Look at that nice woman up there. Let's buy a book from her. 

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So I take eight dresses with me. Also one pair of jeans, a sweater, and a T-shirt and some leggings, for all the yoga I'm going to do, ha-ha-ha. I make a deal with myself that the first thing I will do upon entering every hotel room is unpack my dresses. I invent a ritual for safety. Then I pack them in the suitcase and pray for loose folds, clean lines, and literary accomplishment. 

My last book was about a morbidly obese woman, and I lost track of how many people greeted me on that tour with, "Oh, but you're not fat at all." I am sorry to report that this fucked with my head a little bit. I wrote a great book, but people only noticed my appearance. Over and over. It takes a toll. Yes, I am not fat, but I am not thin either, is what I thought to myself. A hazy kind of fee paid for success.

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On the festival circuit this time around, I notice other authors' attire, all the women looking gorgeous at the cocktail parties. The boys have it easy, I think for the millionth time in my life. They can get away with murder: a button-down and jeans, call it a day. They're presumed brilliant. Meanwhile, every day I check into another hotel, hang the dresses, brush them straight with my hand. I post another picture of myself in a hotel room on Instagram before I leave for the night. This is me, this is where I am, this is what I am wearing. Here is how I look. 

A true story: on my first book tour, ten years ago, a male bookstore owner hugged me too long after an event at his shop. "I could tell you were special by your picture," he said. I wondered if he'd even read my book.

It certainly doesn't matter what I look like when I'm in the act of writing. All I'm concerned with is transferring the contents of my head as delicately as possible to the page in front of me, as if I were conducting the most fragile of surgeries, a heart transplant, perhaps. And no one cares what their surgeon looks like. In fact, we want them to wear a mask. 

One night, early on in the tour, in a tight dress made of purple wool, I don't make it home, not to my home anyway. I have an excellent time, but I find myself not wanting to wear the dress again. My dresses are about me and my tour and being independent and strong and focused on getting to the other side of this adventure. I don't need anyone else's fingerprints on me, however invisibly. I pack it in the bottom of my bag. So now I'm down to seven.

Things are starting to feel a little heavy with the dresses a few weeks after that. I'm in a hotel in Dupont Circle when I notice I've started sighing when I hang and straighten them. I'm contemplating the dresses in a new way. This past summer, I cut off four inches from my hair because it was heavy with stress, and I felt different afterward. The dresses remind me of those inches of hair. They start to carry an energy with them, airports, air-conditioning, Xanax, red wine, tight smiles, that one thought in the morning on repeat every day: Did I say the right thing, did I charm them, did anyone even hear what I said? 

This past summer, I cut off four inches from my hair because it was heavy with stress, and I felt different afterward. The dresses remind me of those inches of hair.

It's just these dresses and me, though; we're in it together. They're the only constant in my life besides the speech I keep giving, and the Internet, and, faintly, the short story I keep hacking at on my desktop. 

Of course, three-quarters of the way through the tour, I get my period and I wish all I had brought were sweatpants. 

In New Orleans, I have a few days off, and I visit a friend's house while she packs for her own trip. It seems like she's taking everything in her closet for a one-day visit to a local city. She watches me watching her and says, "I think it's my one vestige of PTSD from Katrina. I feel like whatever I take with me is whatever I'll have for the rest of my life."

A few days later, it's my birthday. I check into a fancy hotel in Dallas. I eat an enormous cheeseburger and fries, and then I return to my room and decide to treat myself to ironing my dresses, however pointless the act. Unfamiliar with the hotel iron's settings, I singe one of the dresses. Six remain. 

Three days after that, while checking into a hotel in Austin, I realize I've left the black sequined dress behind in … Mexico City? It must have been Mexico City, but that was weeks ago. It's the only place I wore it, to a wonderful dinner out with my traveling companions there. I brought it specifically for that dinner. How did I lose the thread on it? Doesn't matter. Now I'm down to five. 

On the way to Portland, the final stop of the tour, I get bumped from a flight, and the next flight after that gets delayed. I end up traveling for 16 hours straight. An airport angel offers me a complimentary United-club-lounge pass for the day. I sit there for eight hours, snacking and watching Master of None in its entirety. It is in that lounge that I spill soup on my dress. Four dresses left. 

At the Wordstock Festival in Portland, I meet for the first time Heidi Julavits, co-editor of Women in Clothes, a wonderful compilation of women's feelings and experiences about their attire. I tell her I've been thinking about all the dresses I've been wearing. She suggests I read Joan Didion's legendary packing list, which the author kept taped inside her closet door for years. Cool, glamorous Didion, she who effortlessly straddles that line between fashion and literature. I am wary of reading this list. I mean, all hail Queen Didion, but that woman never had to control-top anything in her life. I end up quite liking it though — mainly because it includes bourbon and cigarettes. It turns out I'm not the only one who clings to my vices along with my dresses.

As I leave my final panel, a friend, writer Beth Lisick, is in the audience, and she hugs me. She tells me I looked glamorous up onstage, and I want to collapse into her forever. I can't justify to you the hypocrisy of both wanting to be noticed and not noticed at the same time. I was only relieved that she had seen me that way. All along, I thought it might be true and it was. 

Jami Attenberg is the author of five books of fiction, including The Middlesteins and, most recently, Saint Mazie (@jamiattenberg). 

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