Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Why SCBWI is like the changing room at Forever 21

My daughter got home from camp "desperate" for new clothes. And in fact, it was true: The camp decided, at the last minute, to ship her trunk back, which resulted in her having only two t-shirts and one pair of shorts until the cargo arrives. So today we made a date to go shopping at Forever 21, a store whose doors I had not previously darkened. I am not their demo: I don't like their music, I don't fit into their sizes, and I don't need a pair of black sequined track shorts. This season, anyway.

But I hadn't seen my daughter for weeks, so I couldn't think of a more happy-making way to spend a couple of hours at lunchtime today helping her find clothes and than telling her she looked adorable (she did!) and waiting in long dressing-room lines so she didn't have to.

Not a lot of people know that I was a shop-girl in another life, at the Laura Ashley that once existed on Bow Street in Covent Garden in London. I measured fabric, calculated yardage for curtaining (must take into account the drop!), hung smocklike dresses on hangers, and monitored the communal changing room.

That last was the job nobody wanted. The communal changing room, on the lower floor of the shop, was low-ceilinged, hot, and often smelly. We had to watch and abet as the women -- some sliding, some struggling-- wrangled the buttons and belts of Laura Ashley's signature Victorian-style wear. And today, sure enough, there was a beleagured (Dutch?) 20-year-old trying to keep some order in the Forever 21 dressing room, which was awash in discarded clothing.

But there is something very wonderful about a women's dressing room, especially in a place as chaotic as Forever 21 at lunch-hour, or Laura Ashley during the January sales. Women are extraordinarily generous to each other. They comment freely, and frankly, on each other's choices: Wow, what a great color on you! Or, Honestly, I think it pulls a little across the back. They zip one another's zippers. They pass garments from one person to the next. Friends make trips out onto the floor to find different sizes. And people come out of the rooms to look at themselves in the mirror in the most risky dishabille. Sometimes it's a little giddy. Brastraps are pushed down, pants are hiked up, jeans don't button, shirts are baggy or too tight. It's not sexual, it's not show-offy; it's the only way to get the job done.

Occasionally, a man braves his way in, either to try on things for himself (Forever 21 is multi-gender) or to advise on his girlfriend's efforts (brave, brave man!). And curiously, the climate in the dressing room does not change one iota when a man is around. If you're down in the trenches, Comrade, the women seem to say, you're going to fight the war with us.

And this is why the dressing room at Forever 21 today was like the 2009 Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators conference in LA last week. In attendance were eight-hundred women and one hundred-forty men. People blogged, partied, gossiped, analyzed. The women were extraordinarily supportive, telling one another, in the kindest possible way, that a certain book idea was like a skirt that made you look hippy; or brimming with praise when another was like an LBD that turned you into a siren. And the men were bemused, indulgent, engaged, and surely getting something out of the conference that the women could only guess at.

Sherman Alexie made the observation that while adult-book authors circle one another at such events with the aggression of a cannibal, teeth bared for the kill, children's book writers greet one another with only the tiniest bit of self-preserving competition, nibbling away, at worst, a little toe.

So it is at Forever 21 and the SCBWI. I left each place with toes intact, happier for the communal experience, knowing that out of the racks of tangled hangers and crumpled sketches and piled dresses and sequined query letters, almost everybody unearthed a treasure.


Yat-Yee said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Yat-Yee said...

The image of kidlit writer nibbling on toes will probably haunt me for quite a while...

And, I never thought about it, but women do tend to say supportive things to one another in dressing rooms. Except for that one woman who looked with such disdain at the rest of us, as if we looked so horrid. She most certainly was not a kidlit author.

Roxane B. Salonen said...

First, I'm envious I wasn't there. One of these years I hope to be. Second, love Sherman Alexie, and again, wish I could have been there to hear him. The toe visual is a little creepy, I'll agree. But, he's right. There's really nothing like a room full of children's book people. We are a different and delightful breed. I think the competition factor goes down because we write with the hearts of (and for) children, and children are less catty than adults (generally speaking).

brattcat said...

Toe-nibbling? Really? Perhaps a children's book writer might nervously nip her own toes. But someone else's toes?
It's all about stripping down, I think, this exchange in communal dressing rooms and SCBWI conferences. Trying to get to what really fits. Great post, Bren.

Sarah Miller said...

Would that happen to be Jordan Brown at the end of your table? I sure do miss that dude.

Haste yee back ;-) said...

See, this is what concerns me, a bit, about kid-lit. It's 90% a woman's world.

Boys wears the same grass-stained jeans for weeks, (and sometimes the same underwear), unless Mom steps in. Boys relish "gross" from investigating road kill to strange body noises.

Boys keep worms and fishing tackle in their back pockets and have some form of knife in their other pocket.

Boys bring home pollywogs and watch them grow into frogs. And carry Box Turtles in their shirt pockets.

Boys play "King of the Hill" which consists of throwing other boys down a muddy hill after a good rain, laughing hysterically all the while!

Boys generally have a great "creek life" catching small minnows and snakes and sometimes dam up the creek to make a small pond, (which expands aquatic possibilities)

Boys love sling-shots, pea-shooters, and if Mom won't freak-out... a Daisey BB gun!

A boy's *dressing room* is the space beside his bed, no mirror, zippers be damned, give me yesterday's T-shirt and out the door 'cause summer's wastin.'

And I could go on-and-on!

Yes, I know, this is most like the boy I was! And I was good at it!

Haste yee back ;-)

storyqueen said...

I was a shop girl once, too! out the dressing rooms!! I worked evenings so the day folks left most of the cleaning/rehanging clothes to me. It's funny, because I always make my teenage daughters rehang their clothes and take them out of the dressing rooms themselves.

Paying it forward and all.


Motherhood The Final Frontier said...

Love this post, so eloquently put. Would type more but on wretched iPhone..

lizzy_lyn said...

I remember those Laura Ashley dresses. And those Gunny Sax (sp?) dresses, too. Lots of bibs and ruffles. To go with the big '80's bangs.

Yeah, there really is a different vibe amongst the kidlit and adultlit writers at conferences. I wonder if it's because there's normally more money at stake with the adultliters?

Anna said...

I recently quit from being a shopgirl! Hopefully, someday in the future I get a chance to attend such a conference. It sounds so supporting and fun!

Lily Cate said...

My mother worked in a clothing store, oh, thirty years ago or more, and she is still mortified when I go shopping with her and don't put everything back on the rack it came from. (so, of course, I am a slob when I'm alone)

And I have to agree about the kidlit writers. There is a surprising sense of camaraderie and lack of envy among the ranks,as if success for one is success for all. I think we have the ability to see each other as peers and less as competition.

S3XinthePantry said...

makes me want to go to the event - and wear steel-toed boots!

Sandra said...

Mom as a writer - creative; daughter as a retail saleslady at Nordstrom- supportive; comparing dressing rooms to SCBWI as a way for the two of us to connect- priceless!

Bonnie said...

You did a fantastic job speaking on the agent panel at SCBWI. I appreciated your insight and understanding of the children's book market -especially your willingness to share it. Thank you so much and best of luck to you in your new role.

Samantha Hagar said...

I love this post! I was at the NYC SCBWI conference earlier this year and felt the same thing. Being my first conference I was nervous with not knowing what to expect, but everyone was so supportive and friendly. And the ratio of women to men was amazing. I laughed at my friends who thought it would be a good place to "meet a man"...not likely :)