How I Write
By G. Bruce Boyer
Every once in a while I get asked, particularly if I’m talking to young people interested in becoming fashion writers, how I actually write. I think there are three ways to approach an answer to this question. There’s the purely physical process (where, when), and there’s the psychological process (how, why), and there’s the technical process (research, genre, style).
My favorite forms of writing are the essay and the maxim, both short excursions for a writer. Confessionally, these are my favorites because of my own limitations, I can’t keep the intricacies of longer genres in my mind. I don’t know how novelists do it, juggling all those balls at the same time. It’s easiest to explain that some writers hew their work from a Mount Rushmore, while others are miniaturists delicately carving peach pits. For maxims (of which there is a short selection in True Style), it only need be said except that the form began in the salons of the French aristocracy during the reign of Louis XIV and was brought to popularity by the publication of the collected maxims of the Duc de La Rochefoucauld in 1665.
Essays come in two forms, the personal and the impersonal. George Orwell tried to, in his own word, “efface” his own personality when writing his essays, while the originator of the form, Michel de Montaigne stated explicitly that he was writing about one individual: himself. Today almost all essays seem to be of the personal type, with the writer as the center and subject of the work. These things go in trends.
My books of essays, of which True Style is the third in a series, seem to fall betwixt and between. My subject is men’s clothes past and present, with ancillary dips into grooming and travel. I try to do the necessary research and keep my presence to a minimum in these short flights. I started off reminding myself of the way I was first taught in school: make a list, structure the ideas, make an outline of the argument. But I soon found that I came to more interesting conclusions by a more stream of consciousness in my thinking, that if you dropped the reins the horse would find its way home by itself.
And this is what I do. I let my mind wander over the subject and see what connections occur to me, what memories and experiences and past readings bubble up. I want my own ideas to come first, then I’ll consider what others have said. I’m not abnormally anal-retentive, so I don’t really care where I begin or end, as long as the ideas flow along easily enough and make sense. Sometimes beginnings and endings come naturally, as the shape of the article grows inside itself, and I’m no longer frightened by the thought that I don’t know where I’ll end up. I don’t try to go beneath the surface, but sometimes surprise myself by finding I might have. When I get stuck, it’s almost always because I don’t understand the subject well enough.
So this latest collection was comprised, as were the other two volumes, from essays in magazines I’d written most recently, with a few new thoughts thrown in. The form of them is loose and lightly structured, discursive, with hopeful snippets of humor, autobiography, quotations, and references. I try not to speculate, particularly about the future; I feel much more comfortable making predictions about the past. If I can understand the road taken I’m usually satisfied, and willing to leave the road not yet taken to others.
In the end, these pieces are all unfinished. When I think about these subjects again, I find I have my own questions. What I hope is that they will spur some interest and that others may take the ideas further, and so these pieces will form a small part of the flowing stream. As Montaigne put it, je peins le passage [“I paint transience”].
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Bruce Boyer has been a noted men’s fashion writer and editor for more than forty years. He was associated with Town & Country magazine as Men's Fashion Editor for eighteen years. His feature articles have also appeared in Esquire, Harper’s Bazaar, Forbes, The New York Times, The New Yorker, Departures, Plaza Uomo, Men’s Precious, and The Rake among other national and international magazines. He was the first American fashion journalist to write for the noted Italian fashion magazine L’Uomo Vogue .
He is the author of three books on the history and direction of men's fashion: Elegance (W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1985); Eminently Suitable (W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1990); and True Style: The History and Principles of Classic Menswear (Basic Books, 2016).