Full nakedness! All my joys are due to thee;
As souls unbodied, bodies unclothed must be,
To taste whole joys.
–John Donne, “Elegy XX: To His Mistress Going ”
I used to scrub the bathtub naked. As much as I would love for you to believe otherwise, there neither is nor was anything sexually alluring about my nudity. Scrubbing naked was merely practical and efficient. I ruined fewer shirts with bleach stains if there was no shirt to ruin, and after scrubbing, I could wash both the sweat from my body and the cleanser from the walls in one turn of the faucet. My body served as a stark contrast to advertisements featuring the woman’s body that sexualize even domestic work, for instance the ad picturing a woman fixing a kitchen sink, her daisy dukes slung low by her tool belt, her flannel shirt knotted at midriff to display a flat, tanned belly. Her work, staged and lit and photographed, was a portrait of male desire.
Mine was disturbingly less so. Things jiggled that should not jiggle, and even the things that should jiggle jiggled more than is becoming. My belly, cross-hatched with the stretch marks that chronicled two pregnancies, glowed fish white because I would no sooner expose myself to public view than I would arm wrestle a snake. For me, nakedness has always felt like exposure, not exhibition.
My body is a private and practical thing—something yielded to the production of children and the scrubbing of a bathtub, but not something I would find either pleasure or pride in offering to the public. And yet, here I am, sitting in front of a computer, offering its naked portrait to the public gaze because, as a writer, my job is to be publicly naked.
I’m far from the first writer to draw the comparison between writing and nakedness[i]. For male poets, such as Ginsberg and Whitman, the naked body is powerful. With phalluses dangling, they are free to sound barbaric yawps over the rooftops of the world, shouting their hopes for democracy and art and America. Their nakedness is a bold response to the social convention that dictates that we should cover our bodies. These poets eat from the tree of knowledge with an utter lack of shame. Like a boy responding to a triple dog dare, the male poet summons his bravado and exposes himself publicly to speak on behalf of all those clothed in our own silence.
For female writers, nakedness often reveals vulnerability. According to convention, our bodies are conceived to be soft and rape-able. As we see in John Donne’s “To His Mistress Going to Bed” (quoted in the epigraph) and so many other words, both ancient and contemporary, the naked female body is an object of pleasure, not a subject of strength. Nakedness may grant us temporary control over male attention, but it distracts from the quality of our ideas rather than punctuating our statements with the boldness and bravado that male nakedness affords.
Take the story of Lady Godiva, in which ideas of nakedness, privacy, and social responsibility come into collision. According to legend, the townspeople, suffering under the weight of heavy taxes, turn to Godiva to appeal to her husband, who responds with a dare of his own. If she is willing to ride naked through the center of town, he will grant her request. Godiva, thus prompted, unclothes herself and rides a white horse through the town’s square, thus gaining the wish of the people and improving their wellbeing.
While Lady Godiva appears to gain power through her unclothed body, it is a false power. Ultimately, only her husband can lower the taxes, not Godiva herself. Like the writer, Godiva performs a social function only by allowing herself to be utterly exposed, sexualized, vulnerable. Since then, Godiva has arisen in many a female writer’s work. But am I another Godiva simply because I tell you I scrub the bathtub naked? Do vulnerability and self-exposure always perform a social function, or am I more like a flasher, opening my trench coat only to titillate? Sex sells, my students tell me in essay after essay. I am not sure that I can write my body innocent of that old truism.
My daughter was born twelve days before the start of my PhD program in creative writing. Perhaps there is nothing that makes a writer—the female writer in particular—so aware of both her own body as a practical thing and of the selfishness of creative writing as the birth of a child. For months, I worked on the dissertation that years and revisions later would become my first novel, my daughter in the next room, not quite neglected, not quite mothered. One afternoon, she cried the kind of cry that let me know that she wanted me. I hastily finished the sentence so that I could comfort her. I held her for a while, allowing her to feel loved, but nonetheless constantly aware of the siren call of the blinking cursor, the unwritten words waiting for me to write them. I put her in her play saucer and returned to my work, trying to find the words but again constantly aware of the child who needed me. There was no way to serve one while not neglecting the other.
Never before had I been so aware of the pure egotism of my desire to write. As a mother, I wanted to put my child’s needs before every other concern, but to do so seemed like giving up on the aspiration I had been working so hard and sacrificed so much to achieve. Between my teaching assistantship and my husband’s paltry adjunct pay, we were as broke as we had ever been. Daycare was a luxury we couldn’t afford. One of us taught while the other tried to watch the baby, grade papers, and prep classes. We handed her off, often literally, driving her to campus so we could pass her like a living relay baton. Even so, the slender paychecks never stretched far enough. How could I justify writing a novel—a pure flight of fancy—when doing so required the time and attention I might have reserved for my daughter? I asked myself the question daily, felt it voiced in the glances of colleagues, and heard it from family members.
Like many writers, I must daily face and overcome the dread of the desk to do my work. Writing may be what I most want to do on the large scale, but on any given morning, I can list a dozen things I’d rather do than work. Add a child who needs me into the mix, and writing felt impossible and selfish. On that day, I stared at the blinking cursor for minutes on end, trying in vain to think how the plot should unfold, unable to leave the world I was in for the world I wanted to create. I told myself I could stand up, right then. I could shut the computer, walk away, never write again. I could still live a perfectly happy and satisfying life. And why not? Wasn’t that what I was supposed to do? I knew my Victorian literature and all its angels of the hearth. I’d read Sarah Stickney Ellis’s “Women of England” and understood that, for centuries, we’ve believed that women serve their country’s social good by raising children to understand both love and morality. Women’s social function was served in their domestic work. Today, we may not believe all that those long-moldering Victorians believed, but the basic presumption is still there: a good mother does not ignore her very real children to invent fictional worlds and people.
I sat there considering my maternal failures, exploring the tangled paths of thought, until I arrived at this: if my purpose was to be a mother, then what was the purpose of my daughter? Was her purpose likewise to become a mother, cede her own goals to the greater social good, and do nothing but raise morally sound children? If she had daughters of her own, what purpose did their lives serve? Where did it end? Were we to be just one long chain of woman after woman sacrificing themselves on the altar of motherhood?
It occurred to me that perhaps, as self-centered as my act of writing was, I loved my daughter best by not serving her every small desire, by showing her that a woman could be more, that it was OK to dream, that it was OK to work for an utterly selfish goal, even if it meant taking time away from her to write a novel that I wasn’t sure anyone would ever publish or read. The self is worth attending. By putting my individual needs and aspirations first, I served a social good even if my novel never saw the light of day. I write also because I want my children to see me in the act of writing, knowing I will fail and that the baby will cry and that I could put it all aside and bake casseroles, it is still important to do the work we are compelled to do.
If my goal was only to write for myself, to fulfill personal need, then this conclusion might be satisfactory enough. Might, but probably not. I’m still left with the haunting image of Godiva. The problem is this: while writing for myself might give my daughter a distant sense of freedom to achieve her own desires, I’m still left with the image of scrubbing a bathtub naked—exposure, futility, and, most importantly, the need to achieve an end. I don’t just want to write; I want to write for publication. I write myself naked in front of the eyes of any reader/stranger who happens upon my work.
Plato said that, “poets are the unacknowledged statesmen of the world,” and though I don’t believe creative writing must be political, Plato is right. Writing may be a solitary act, but writing for publication—that is, writing for the public—makes the personal political and serves social change. It’s not a sexy act. There are no low-slung Daisy Dukes and tanned midriffs, but poets and other writers, by exposing their deepest, most private, most individual and most vulnerable selves, ask us to understand the world in more intimate ways. The mind of the writer, stripped naked and riding horseback down Main Street, is an act of sacrifice and humility that contains no inherent power of its own, but calls the larger world to act with purpose and responsibility. They may close their eyes if they wish, but some Peeping Tom must surely look and be affected by the looking. Such is the writer’s contract with the community.
Male poets have long claimed the power in their nakedness. Female poets are beginning to do the same, and what I find most interesting is that many are reclaiming nakedness specifically as mothers and poets. Beth Ann Fennelly does this in Tender Hooks. The first poem, “Bite Me,” gives a graphic account of the birth of her child. Rather than idealizing the experience, she tells us that she pushed so hard she shat, that her asshole turned inside out, that the whites of her eyes were red with blood. The taboo experience of childbirth, so often clothed in stories of sweetness and light, is given to us unflinchingly, leaving Fennelly utterly naked before us. Yet rather than seeing this as weakness, Fennelly claims for herself a traditional icon of male strength, the boxer, in achieving the utterly female act of birth. Her husband may be “terror and blood spatter,” but she has fought the hard fight.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that, for women writers, motherhood provides an image of unclothed strength. After all, motherhood teaches us not only about our own dedication to writing, but also about our bodies themselves. Every mother has to learn, to some extent, how to be naked in front of others as we pull our breasts from our shirts to feed our children, in spite of public staring and shaming. We read the latest news spectacle regarding the professor who nursed her infant while teaching and know that the public is still not entirely comfortable with women who expose their bodies, especially for practical purposes.
Mothers have the shared experience of having our most private parts stripped, of putting our feet in the stirrups, and exposing ourselves to a bevy of doctors and nurses, afraid we, too, might shit ourselves as we bring our sons and daughters into the world. I’ll admit, Godiva was the last thought on my mind as I put my own feet in the delivery bed’s cold metal cups, but now I can’t help but be struck by the metaphor I didn’t know I was making. I had put my feet in the stirrups.
When my novel was accepted for publication and I was in the process of its final revision, I had to remind myself that writing at its best is more than just exhibitionism, more than just selfishness. I kept thinking of Anne Bradstreet, who in her poem, “The Author to Her Book,” famously wrote about her creation as the “ill-formed offspring of [her] feeble brain.” Here, mothering a book does not feel empowering but nerve-wracking. As much as she tries to dress the little book up up, she says “nought save homespun cloth i’ th’ house I find,” and she fears that her brain-child must walk “’mongst vulgars” in this feeble clothing. The book may not be naked, but the author does not have clothes enough to protect it from those who would do it harm. As much as I wanted to feel only the naked strength of motherhood, I was consumed by the very fears and self-consciousness Bradstreet adeptly describes. And yet ironically, rather than trying to trim the book in finer attire, I found myself trying to make it all the more naked. Daily, I went on “darling hunts,” reading my manuscript for those moments of self-indulgence where I, the writer, wanted to show off, putting faith in language rather than story. I heard Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, William Faulkner, and so many writing mentors whispering to me as I read, telling me to kill all those darlings, to murder them, to let them bleed.
If the novelist is writing well, then she goes beyond nakedness and into transparency, becoming invisible to her audience. Self-indulgent prose pulls readers out of the narrative, makes us aware of the author, of the naked body and all its flaws. When writing is purely emotionally naked yet still manages to make the reader forget the author altogether, it transcends bodily limits and becomes pure story, pure art.
I’d like to go back to my initial metaphor and say that if the writer is naked enough, the reader sees only the gleaming bathtub and not the woman who made it so, but the tub now seems too mundane. I need something grander, something less domestic. I’d like an image so free of connotation that it allowed us to forget bodies and gender altogether and transcend to something sublime. All my metaphors are failing me. Ultimately, even in my best moments, I am still a body, a female body, tapping away at computer keys, sipping a coffee and needing to pee. Nothing I can think of lets me forget the basic, corporeal fact of myself.
What’s your point? I ask myself, as I struggle to conclude this essay. But then, having a point seems awfully phallic. Maybe that’s not what I’m after here. It would be truer to my purpose to spawn questions, but I’m not sure I’m doing that either. I feel like the questions I have are a kind of scab that I want to pick at. Perhaps there is blood underneath, or perhaps something is healing. Any true metaphor seems connected to bodies. I wonder if thought outside of bodily experience is even possible.
I haven’t scrubbed a bathtub naked in five years or more. I couldn’t tell you why I stopped, why even that private domestic moment began to feel too exposed. Be naked! I have charged myself, but the naked truth is that I am not sure I’m any closer to saying how I expect this nakedness to be empowering to anyone, myself included. Que sais-je? I wrote a book, I had it published, a handful of people read it, and now, I’ve written a second and am hoping to sell it, which is where the whole “brain child” metaphor for writing implodes, since I would never dream of selling my real children.
I have birthed two, one daughter and one son, in the same time that it took to write two books. Both of my children are smart and kind and independent. My son sometimes complains that I’m not fun enough, that I haven’t been fun “since [I] started writing a book”—since before he was born, that is. I know the remark has its genesis in jealousy for the hours I spend on my fictional children. I know, too, that he does get a lot of my attention and love, that we do have fun. Even so, he isn’t wrong. I have poured hours into a computer that I could have spent with family, hours that may be fruitless, whether or not this next book is picked up, and I desperately want you to approve of this though on any given day of the week, I don’t approve of it myself. Maybe this is what it looks like to tear at the social fabric, maybe this is the shape of the nakedness underneath.
[i] Kathleen Margaret Lant explores this very topic in her brilliant essay, “The Big Strip Tease: Female Bodies and Male Power in the Poetry of Sylvia Plath,” revealing how deeply gendered our conceptions of nakedness are.
Siân Griffiths lives in Ogden, Utah, where she directs the Creative Writing Program at Weber State University. Her work has appeared in The Georgia Review, Fifth Wednesday Journal, Quarterly West, Ninth Letter, and The Rumpus, among other publications. Her debut novel, Borrowed Horses (New Rivers Press), was a semi-finalist for the 2014 VCU Cabell First Novelist Award. For more information, please visit sbgriffiths.com.