All in the image

I received an e-mail from a friend the other day who offered me an interesting piece of advice.

I had been telling her about a summer program in creative writing I’m participating in, and had expressed my anxiety about standing out in the crowd as the juvenile writer à la My Girl in a class of mature students.

My friend suggested the best way to calm my nerves would be to make sure to look the part.

“You need to wear baggy clothing and put ink stains all over your hands, have unruly hair and look pensive,” she suggested.

I’ll admit, I laughed. This whimsy wild-haired, inky-fingered image she’d conjured up in my mind is exactly what I think of when imagining The Writer. But after a moment, this got me thinking—surely not all authors look like this.

Just like any other stereotype, maybe it persists because enough people fit the mould for the wider public to feel comfortable making a generalization.

I rationalized that maybe people and their chosen careers are more like dogs and their owners.

There’s that age-old maxim that tells us dogs often resemble their owners. Could there be some truth to the idea that working people look like their careers? And worse—as students, can we be pigeonholed so easily that we look the part of our chosen major?

Let’s consider this for a moment. Our university majors aren’t completely unlike our dogs: we spend time with them and learn to love them. Although a major in math or history or chemical engineering may not be man’s best friend—especially during exam season—we make room in our lives for them. We walk around and show them off on the sleeves of Queen’s jackets rather than on the end of leashes, and soon enough they become a way to define ourselves.

On one hand, it seems to me that students of a common program do share some visible similarities. If you meet an art history major, chances are she’s edgy, into scarves, and up on Michelangelo. You can bet that most English majors you stop on University Ave. like colourful pens and can tell you something about gender roles in a Margaret Atwood novel.

But beyond these chance surface details, it’s true there’s so much about us that our chosen programs can’t explain. Just because my major-mates are writerly bookworms intimately familiar with the fourth-floor stacks in Stauffer and fond of the proper use of commas doesn’t mean we don’t differ in a hundred other ways.

It has occurred to me that it’s possible things get worse when we hit middle age. Maybe our appearances start to slowly coalesce into career-defined groups: the nurses will don their Crocs while the poets opt for natural leather shoes.

Maybe it’s only a ticking time bomb, where we can pretend to be cliché resistant while we’re young and in our prime.

For now, I’ve decided I can brush my hair and wear normal pants and still be a writer. At least, I hope so.

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