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Boxing the Octopus: all content copyright 2008 Colleen Thompson and Joni Rodgers all rights reserved.
I did not go to the nude beach. For one thing, I was in LA for a business meeting, and even I am not creative enough to spin “admission to nude beach” as a deductible expense. Also, it was quite chilly, even on the beach where I stood fully dressed, waiting to watch the sunset, when a pleasingly plump elderly couple chatted me up and in the course of conversation invited me to visit the clothing optional spot. It’s quite common for me to chat it up with people, but the nude beach proposition was a first. There was nothing kinky about it, they assured me, all good clean fun (if a tad sandy). And there’s nothing to be self-conscious about because this particular nude beach caters to overweight people.
Which leads me to my craft parable du jour:
How to Write Like a Fat Nude
The first step to fat nude writing is the acceptance and celebration of imperfection. I stood in awe of these two people on the pier; they were not thin, they were not young, and by plastic LA standards, not beautiful. But they talked about utterly enjoying living in their bodies without a trace of apology or delusion about what their bodies are.
“Perfection is an illusion,” the old man told me. “Pursuing it is futile. And false.”
“Truth is beauty,” his wife nodded, “and beauty truth.”
Authenticity – not perfection – is the quality that makes fiction feel rich and resonant. A tree struck by lightning, an angry God, a stretch-marked mother, a gut-shot young man, two bountifully fed oldsters holding hands as the sun sets on their life together. Stories are made interesting and characters beautiful by trial, by scar, by imperfection.
But then comes that terrifying nudeness. You can tell, as a reader, when a writer is shielding herself emotionally. Or when she’s trying to disguise a flabby plot with an empire waistline of clever prose. But hiding and posing wastes so much energy. I’d rather spend those calories figuring out the best way to utilize my quirky creative impulses. Fat nude writing requires that we accept the essence of what we are at this moment. Yes, we are still committed to a lifelong learning process, an unceasing effort to become better, but at this moment right now, I am who I am, and I cannot write from any other self.
One of the few genuine regrets I have about my youth is that I turned down a role in the musical Hair, singing “My Body is Walking in Space”, one of my all-time favorite songs, in the nude. I didn’t turn it down out of modesty; I turned it down out of shame, which was stupid. I thought my body was just too, too mortifyingly awful. I was young, six feet tall, a size nine! I had an awesome body! The director tried to tell me that it was my vocal and physical uniqueness that made him want to cast me. But my tall, flat-chested body was not like other girls’ petite, busty little cheerleader bodies. And different equals wrong. Right? Different is bad. Ugly. He ended up casting a coloratura soprano who weighed about 250 lbs, and the song was one of the most stunningly beautiful moments of theatre I’ve ever witnessed. That fat nude chick blew the doors off the place. The song soared; her fearlessness was mesmerizing. I have mourned missing out on that moment of tastefully lit abandon onstage, and I try to avoid that chicken-livered mistake as a writer. Different art form. Same dynamic.
An older, wiser, more zaftig woman now, I doubt that I will ever have the courage to visit the nude beach, but I aspire to bare my soul through my work. For any artist, fear is a weakness. Uniqueness – abnormality, even – is a strength. And so is regret, I suppose, because at the core of good writing – plump, juicy, fat nude writing – is the torn and mended heart of the writer. Ungirdled, unbridled, unadorned.
(Above: "La Grande Odalisque" painted in 1814 by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres.)