"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       

A Word on Being in Plainclothes

June 30th, 2012 by

Though this is my second blog for “Plainclothes,” it seems an occasion to explain what I didn’t explain in my first post last week.

Why have I named my new blog “Plainclothes”?

I have a few reasons. First, I happen to like the sound of it. Plainclothes has a nice ring.

Second, I like what it suggests. Probably the first image it conjures is a police officer going undercover to observe, to get to essentials. It suggests someone at the scene of someting important not wanting to reveal that he or she is, in fact, a cop, a professional. He or she doesn’t want people to act out of character because an authority, or someone in a uniform, is present.

This works for me. In an age of “certification,” going in plainclothes suggests the opposite tendency to “disappearing” in the uniform. When everyone wants to be “licensed,” but that licensing means adherence to a “professional group” more than it does expertise or even competence, it suggests to me a lack of professional psychosis. In plainclothes, I just might retain an ability to identify with human frailty. It suggests someone who hasn’t pledged an allegiance quite yet. It suggests an attempt to share common ground while also paying close attention, perhaps for reasons others don’t share.

I like this.

It fits what Jack Ridl, an award winning poet and one of my favorite writing teachers, suggested is the attitude of the writer. It is to be present and observing, taking note of how others present and express themselves.

I first had the idea for this when I put the word “plainclothes” together, not with cop, but with “theologian.” In fact, I was going to name a nonfiction essay I was working on “Musings of a Plainclothes Theologian.” This seemed fitting for someone to write who has no degrees or formal training in the field, but has certain concerns and hunches, like most people, simply because he’s alive.

Plainclothes also suggests the everyday nature of life. It suggest the opposite, not only of uniforms, but also of costumes, which, as I think about it, might be fun to put on. It is fun to pretend to be someone or something else on occasion. I suppose that for a blog named “Plainclothes,” there might be occasions to get dressed up.

But for the most part, that’s what I mean by the title of my blog. Plainclothes. It is both a ruse—going undercover, for the most part, to hide in plain sight—and it is to put on no airs whatsoever, to be present without the need for a licensing body to say I can be.

I welcome the input and thoughts of others plainclothes types. May we find some common ground here.

Posted in Uncategorized| 5 Comments


Comment by Mark Young on July 1, 2012 at 4:48 pm

Interesting play on words, Tom. In police vernacular, there are two words—plainclothes and undercover—which might mean the same thing, but most often the objectives of each are very far apart. Homicide detectives, for example, work plainclothes in order to go about their business of investigation without drawing undue attention to themselves. They go from interviewing a witness to providing court testimony in a single day without having to switch wardrobes, without drawing the attention of others. Undercover, on the other hand, is really a different kind of animal. One goes undercover—along with a set of false identities and vehicles registered to bogus companies—to hide and conceal their true identity. They do not want the world to know who they truly are.
Like homicide investigators, plain clothed writers often go through life observing and recording the actions and reactions of others, putting these observations down in a manner that strives to makes sense of an event. Sometimes, I think some writers go undercover to present their own views as that of others.
You’ve made an Interesting analogy, Tom.

Comment by Thomas Allbaugh on July 1, 2012 at 7:03 pm

Mark, thanks for the clarification. I probably should have done a bit more research on this. But having a real police/detective weigh in on this is even better. I’m glad that the analogy still works to writing. Thanks, Mark.

Comment by Dan on July 1, 2012 at 10:36 pm

When one has a position of authority, it is quite easy for one’s identity to be wrapped up in the position and away from the true state of one’s soul, for want of better words. And “wrapped up” does draw upon your idea of costumes–metaphorically speaking. St. Benedict in his rule writes of the twelve degrees of humility. I don’t have the rule in front of me, but it would be enough to go to a monastery and push a monk’s buttons, in order to see how well he has taken to heart the rule he purports to live by. But since humility is the call of every christian, we can do better and examine ourselves to see how well we are doing. Plainclothes to me is not just the desire not to put on airs, but should include, or so it seems to me, the desire not to be esteemed, honored, praised or approved by others. Maybe I am taking things too far, because we humans certainly need affirmation. But perhaps the plainclothed person does not seek it out, but cherishes it when it comes. And come it should, if the plainclothed person, in being the astute observer and given to understanding at a deeper level, manifests a certain caritas. Does not God see to this process when He brings two people together as man and wife and they are blessed with childen? In the mundane and humdrum is the quiet ourworking of sanctity, or, said another way, of being plainly clothed.
Well that’s my take on your words, Tom. As a single man I don’t speak with great authority on what I have just written, but hop there is some truth therein nonetheless. — Dan

Comment by Thomas Allbaugh on July 3, 2012 at 10:18 am

Dan, you’ve hit on one of the central problems with this whole “plainclothes” premise–maybe it’s a pose or pretention: that we shouldn’t be seeking to be esteemed and honored. Your example of marriage is a good one, Dan, the place where we may be most vulnerable and real with another human being. I think I sometimes deceive myself into thinking that I am humble–er, unassuming and plain–when in fact I would drop everything for recognition. I will even become depressed if I’m not properly honored. And you are right about the monks in St. Benedict’s cloister and rules: the cloistered walk does not by itself lead to humility or virtue. We find out what we’re made of quickly enough. The most humble might be the best dressed, after all. Thanks Dan, again, for your thoughtful response.

Comment by larryforcey.com on July 3, 2012 at 11:16 am

I like it!

“Plainclothes” is great current-day analogy of incarnation. It’s succint & subtle, full of meaning.

Can’t wait for future posts.

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