This post was originally published on the now-retired Make & Meaning blog on March 13th, 2010.

On Twitter a few days ago, Kirsty Hall (who’s written some great guests posts here on Make and Meaning) shared a link to a blog post by a woman named Patty K who recently wore pajamas to a conference. And it wasn’t a conference of sleepwear designers.

Go read it. It’s funny and friendly and comforting and inspiring.

And it made me think.

When I was younger, I would sometimes become paralyzed by self-consciousness. I didn’t wear the right clothes, my hair was a disaster, and of course most adolescents think this combination leads to inevitable alienation and ridicule. (I experienced only a tiny bit of either, though I didn’t notice my luck at the time.)

As a young adult I began to recognize my occasional paralysis as a problem I should do something about, and I set about trying to get over it. I’m not entirely sure how I did it, but my bouts of self-consciousness now barely register as a sit-down, let alone a paralysis.

I did develop one concrete thing to do, though: I learned to develop a shtick. By recognizing my anxiety in advance and by accepting that I can’t just make it go away, I set myself up not to become stymied by it.

Like, say I’m going somewhere where I won’t know anyone or I’m generally intimidated by the social scene. I’ll figure out some sort of shtick, and it will force me to behave how I’d want to behave if I weren’t so tied up by my own broken psychology. And it almost always works.

Once I went to a Crochet Guild of America conference where I only knew a few people. I was there to promote, so being a timid wallflower wasn’t going to cut it. The shtick I brought with me was a strategy: 1) smile at people (that’s not really a shtick, it’s just good sense but it’s sometimes hard to do) and 2) wear black. I like wearing black. And I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a CGOA event, but black ain’t exactly the uniform of choice. It’s not so much that I wanted to stand out, but I certainly didn’t want to feel like I had to conform. I wasn’t feeling rebellious, I was just feeling like I need to be me, you know? Anyway, I knew that if I didn’t force myself to be myself, which would involve standing out a little, a wee wallflower I’d become and I’d have wasted my chance to promote my website.

This is Humphrey. I took him with me to meet dozens and dozens of people on a book tour. One of our stops was in New York City, where we visited Rockefeller Center.

By putting only a couple of black outfits in my suitcase, I forced myself not to have any choice but to dress like me. And the smiling worked, too. After I agreed to walk in the fashion show when I was invited to participate, I ended up being approached by a magazine editor who, in response to my wardrobe, was all, “Who are you?” And then I wrote a column for her for a year. I was never shy at a crochet event again. WIN.

I’m far more comfortable with my personal style now, even though only a few years have passed. So I don’t often use a costume as my shtick like Patty K did. I do, however, love to bring an ugly doll with me when I travel (sometimes I bring a cute one, but that’s not as much fun). It’s an instant conversation piece, and it’s fun to take photos of the little dudes. I still have a hard time striking up a conversation when I’m with people I don’t know, so I rely on my shtick to start conversations for me. Ugly dolls are very good for this.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but crafting in public, though we usually don’t do it as a deliberate shtick, is a great conversation starter, too. I never mind it when strangers start chatting with me (unless I’m on an airplane, which is why I usually bury myself in a book until the people around me fall asleep, and then I take out my knitting).

Over the years I’ve grown to rely less and less on having a shtick strategy, mostly because I’ve come to spend most of my time in gatherings of my tribe and you people aren’t scary at all. But whenever I’m intimidated, I know just the thing to chill myself out. I may not wear pajamas to a conference, but if you see me toting a hideous doll around, come say hi. I’m really going to appreciate it.

So, what’s your shtick?

Unfortunately, all comments were lost when Make & Meaning was taken down. Don’t hesitate to repeat yourself here, or to join in on the new conversation!

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Patty K

Thanks for re-posting this…and for the kind words. I'm still “doing the pajama thing” – for a while it felt a bit like wearing a confidence costume, it made being around people much, much easier. I'm now at the point where I don't think I really need to do it anymore…but…I'm keeping the shtick anyhow. I'm getting a positive response…and I get to be comfortable. Wins all around.

Steph Ivy Whiteside

Thanks for posting this! I love this–I only wish I had read it before I went to an event to promote my project! (Yeah–combine being shy with your project being a pinup calendar. 'Cause that won't lead to awkward or anything.)

I think I need a better shtick.

Ingrid Murnane

You know what? I think I read this just at the right time.

Like you, I’m pretty at ease with my own personal style. However, I’ve been umm-ing and ahh-ing for the past week about getting an outfit together for a vintage event that I’m going to for work at the weekend. I don’t have any vintage clothes to wear, don’t suit the styles that would be needed and in my mind, reckon that this will make me an outcast (‘ZOMG I just won’t look good enough for *them* and they won’t talk to me’). Yup.

But you know what? After reading this, I’m going to go as me, in my own weird little style and not worry about them. They’ll talk to me if they want to. I don’t need to wear vintage to talk about knitting it!

Thanks so much for writing this, Kim :)

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