Purple Poodle Skirt
I loved wearing skirts as a girl. My very favorite was a purple poodle skirt. It even had an actual poodle on it, and I would spin and spin and spin until I dropped to the ground from the spool of purple magic, the skirt the catalyst to unleashing my imagination. My precious purple, poodle skirt.
I remember walking up the giant staircase of my elementary school, sunlight streaming down on me. I imagined I was walking into the clouds. The stairs seemed majestic at the time, covered in mauve linoleum, a 1980s dream. Up and up and up I climbed. Life was good and simple, imagination coloring my days.
But clumsy feet tangled, and I tripped. I fell two steps down to the landing, poodle skirt over head, a lilac cocoon, my underpants exposed for all to see. Time stopped; laughter—mostly from the boys—filled the stairs. In a matter of seconds I went from being carefree and confident to uncomfortable in my skin. My classmates could see my tights and parts of my body they weren’t meant to see.
The teacher helped me to my feet. She asked me if I was okay and I nodded, but all I wanted to do was shrink down and hide. By lunch, the entire fourth grade knew about my fumble. Mortified, I smiled through the rest of the day, the bruise on my tiny tush paling in comparison to my bruised ego. The bruise eventually healed, and in time so did the sting of the story amidst my peers. But the sting of vulnerability lingered on. I’m sure there are small details in this story I’ve gotten wrong, like how I tripped or the words the teacher said, but the sting of exposure I remember vividly. The moment stands out to me. At nine years old, in my perfect poodle skirt, I’d already begun to fear people’s reactions before they’d even had the chance to react.
* * *
Thirty years later, writing fiction is a huge part of my life, bringing me back to that little girl spinning and spinning and spinning in her purple poodle skirt, creating make-believe from a carefree place deep in her soul, affording me the colorful imagination my nine-year-old-self revelled in every day. Currently enrolled in a graduate program for creative writing, the make-believe takes up ninety percent of my life. I love it that way, the cloak of anonymity that fiction provides; I can say and feel and think anything I want and no one will (really) ever know what belongs to my characters and what is all mine.
And still, in my writing, I was creating distance between my characters and their own vulnerability. Recently, I’ve been trying to understand this distance I’d felt compelled to create. In my current work in progress, my main character is struggling with trauma from childhood sexual abuse in her adult life. I want her to be seen as the strong woman she is, but in my quest to demonstrate her strength, I am hiding the effects of her trauma. I wrote lines like, “she never thought about him,” when clearly her assailant was creeping into her mind through PTSD or in her nightmares. In my mind, I thought vulnerable statements like that only proved the protagonist’s strength. But it’s been highlighting my character’s vulnerability that has brought her to life in ways I couldn’t have imagined.
I write nonfiction too, like this blog, which is wonderful and scary; like flying, like fingertips touching the clouds, like being mortal and yet immortal, too. But to accomplish writing honestly in creative non-fiction, I have to be vulnerable beyond a fictional world. There are no protagonists to hide behind, no anonymity to create a veil. This makes me feel like my skirt is over my head, but this time somewhere with mass exposure, like in the middle of Times Square or Regent Street.
* * *
From nine year-old me to current-me there is a trail of experience. This trail has been my life. When pain inevitably showed up, the purple poodle skirt cocooned around me again, shrouding my magic. I even let it cover over my character’s magic, too. But there is no true art without exposure, without vulnerability. I want to say that vulnerability is this divine enchantment, but to be vulnerable on the page—lilac skirt over head, underpants in the breeze—is quite another. It means I have to willingly pull back the curtain and expose the ugly parts of me. The part that ugly cries in my car, the part that stokes my deepest darkest fears, the me I work hard not to let the world see. And maybe I just feel ugly in those moments, weak and bare revealing the parts I don’t want seen, because then I’d have to truly admit they’re mine. I’m supposed to turn a cheek to those hurtful moments, to prove how strong a woman I am in the face of pain.
Recently I read Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay. In the memoir, Gay details the history of her body, and how that history shaped her life, shaped her body. “Writing this book is a confession. These are the ugliest, weakest, barest parts of me,” Gay writes. Her words are powerful because they’re real. They’re real because they’re vulnerable. Reading these words transformed my writing. Vulnerable writing can delineate good writing from great writing. As I read Gay’s words in all their vulnerability in Hunger, I realized I, too, need to be bold, brave, and to throw the damn purple poodle skirt over my own head. Take back the control and choose vulnerability. And then I thought: I can’t be the only one who experiences this because pain is pain is pain, right?
I decided pushing through the uncomfortable moments, like tripping up the stairs, skirt over head, was a vulnerable moment that could actually set me free as a writer. Instead of embarrassment in the face of moments like these, I’ll stand tall, fix my skirt, and take back what has always been mine—my magic. I must allow magic back into my creativity knowing full well that I’ll be scared some days, I’ll want to fear people’s reactions, and I’ll (always) resist the urge to hide when I ugly cry. It’s high time I bring back my purple poodle skirt.