How to get dressed (and be novel)

There are at least 200 ways to dress a novel. I’m quite sure the one I’m currently writing already exists as a fully-formed, gorgeous thing glittering in the ether – yet not glittering, more shimmering, catching the light as it moves, that’s all – and my writing of it is one of many ever-changing, fallible potential attempts to grasp some grounding down of it. It’s a hot air balloon whipping around in the wind, deafening me with its mechanisms and about to leap away at any moment, but utterly mesmerising and I want to jump fully in and sail away with it, even risking a shudderous drop down into the canopy of a hardwood tree, if it comes to that. It is already a thing quite happily, thanks very much (my novel would say, if Platonic Forms could speak). As a papery manifestation it might not exist yet, but the novel in the purest sense is already exactly its own self, complete and self-satisfied (though I like to believe it needs me) and my bringing it down to earth through fingertips and the sensations (being drip-fed its relative epiphanies – but who is the character thinking of and what is the sound of their voice? But what exactly is at stake for the protagonist and what exactly do they fear?) is only the experience of leaning closer and closer in.

Percolation. The shimmering thing, which I picture hovering playfully about the air above me, now free of its weighty balloon paraphernalia but magic and light as air itself, glowing, sometimes close by, perhaps in a field I’m walking through, other times more majestically, a cosmically colourful thing in a dark universal, star-lit sky, allows itself to be revealed by a heady mix of me concentrating very hard on it and forgetting about it completely. Each new idea about how exactly to rein it down into earthly laptop-spun tangibility comes one after the other, slowly and instantly, sometimes with a sharp intake of breath on my part, and other times with possible impatience on the novel’s (it probably knows the exact number of drafts I’m going to take over it, and shimmies flirtatiously, pleased with itself and generous in its patience, remaining true all along). I could tell the story from so many points of view and with different voices within those. I know what the novel feels like and what it wants to achieve. It is having great fun, I think, teasing me with itself. Whatever novel I end up with – the final draft – is only ever going to be one of many ways it could be told and so never fully final or complete in reality (the shadow is never the same as the Form), but my job is to have patience and listen for the best possible way I can clothe it (in words, circumstances and plot points), and to let it fly even while my hands are on its strings.

At a painting workshop recently, I raced against the clock producing painting after painting on canvas and paper, all skies and seas, and the dress I was wearing was complimented. ‘Thanks,’ I said. ‘It’s two decades old.’ For someone who owns over 200 dresses (I know because I counted – after clearing some out), it’s probably surprising that I actually shop relatively infrequently (I do sometimes buy from charity shops and markets when in different countries, though, and semi-expensive jewellery is another matter because I have zero self control there), and that I still wear things I bought when I was 12. As someone who doesn’t throw clothes away very often because they’re all totally fine thanks very much, and who almost never wears jeans because they just don’t really flow, do they (I literally haven’t bothered to move any into my new cottage and have lived here a month already), I have never been interested in fashion. I like the artistry and novelty and expression of it, but ultimately have always ignored any notion of being told how to feel and what to do. Colours, I can understand and love, though (almost pathologically in fact), and I dress for mood, not season. Slightly relatedly, did you know that you can dye clothes with red cabbage? I watched a youtube vid the other day of someone doing just that. Cooked red cabbage is something of a germanic tradition in my family (my Mum learned it to please my Dad) and it has taken me around 30 years to appreciate the taste (I am a tryer if nothing else), but now I love the sharpness in the way it’s done.

After discovering an abandoned clothing factory in Cambodia, brilliant image-maker Von Wong recently created a campaign about the production of clothes, and how abhorrent and polluting it all is, especially when you take into account the plastic fibres that are seemingly omniprescent. It makes me feel even more inclined to believe that I could never buy another thing again and be very very happy (if it weren’t for my love of novelty…). He’s turned clothes into trees, waterfalls and a tornado. Transformation while going back and rediscovering what I already have (when I get dressed in the mornings) is fun and I could never wear the same thing every day, like he does, though I fully believe it is liberating for its own reasons. Even if the real me is only ever out there in the ether, shimmering and utterly pure while I open my wardrobe door and reach in, running my finger along the colours as they flit from red to violet and from dark to light, I am choosing a new way in which to tell a story.

(You can also dye with: turmeric, onion apparently, plums, beetroot, coffee and tea. I don’t know why I don’t own a beetroot and tea dress. I have one white dress, a solid member of my ‘backpacking uniform’, worn all over the world for the last 14 years because of how well it hangs and keeps me cool without effort, but sadly I am unable to sustain a stain-free existence for this period of time and so it has now been designated for keep-itude until that magical time at which I will be in the right part of India for the colour-throwing Holi Festival, until which date it might be in danger of some dabblings with carrots and alkanet root.)

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