Before me, in a row of attention, the dolls lay. Their hair was the raw frizz of a million play dates, and their clothes oddly sagged in ways that indicated that, perhaps, they had been the focus of a gender-bent experiment with my brother’s toys in the next room. I was unimpressed, I remember, or puzzled.
At some point, these objects had had a life. Now they were a mound of plastic, dead.
At this age, I had a way of playing that didn’t seem to gel with other kids. I had grown up with ten cousins in the one city, in a range of ages spanning over ten years. We were regularly thrown together, a bundle of insta-friends, and told to entertain ourselves for hours while our parents secretly smoked, drank endless rounds of milky tea, and gossiped.
Back then, any space open to the sky was a platform for games. I remember the endless hours, when I would bully my way into playing my favourite game, ‘decide what we will play’.
The deciding was fun enough, I remember, because it would be the foundation for further decisions. The ‘game’ was like a naked barbie doll- the raw bones were there already, providing the structure to grow around. If we were in the pool, the game was ‘mermaids’. If we were on land, the game was ‘princesses’ or ‘witches’.
An elaborate world-construction would then follow-
What colour was our skin, hair, eyes, dress, tail, bra, shoes?
What animal familiar did we each have?
What was our job?
Where did we live? What did this place look like? Where was the kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, lounge?
Was I good or was I evil?
This conversation would span hours, while I interrogated each of my playmates, demanding that they define all physical and personal attributes before anything else could start.
Once I was assured of every aspect of our imaginary world, the game was a relatively solitary affair. I would potter around my invisible home, brewing a potion or talking to my familiar, or orchestrating a plan of attack on the others. Alone, I would mutter to myself the glorious story arcs of the lives that we all were living, deciding on plot points, filling in details to the sketched foundation that I had teased out of them, alive on the plot that I would direct each player in following to the finest detail, if I felt they could perform well enough.
I would tie my friends in bonds of my bossy, self-assured directions, never letting go of the strings of my game to scream in delight and run around like children.
And, once satisfied, I would smugly announce that I was ‘over’ the game- and that we could now play a different game to start it all up again.
If we were in the play room, like we were in this instance, the game was ‘Barbies’. I particularly hate Barbies, as they are too big, too unwieldy to grip, don’t move in tandem with each other and are too much to keep an eye on. Their shape was enough to unravel the tapestry of story I was trying to build. In an effort to keep it all together, I would switch to the smaller Kelly doll where I could.
Dolls are interesting in that they have all the little accessories there, so you can see your thoughts in physical form. The items inspire grander ideas and are a suitable scale to work towards.
However, dolls are awful because you are limited by the physical reality of what you do and don’t have. The pink shoes cannot magically become red boots. The dress is clearly a drop-waist 30’s flapper gown, and is 100% not a 50’s full-circle number. I felt that Barbies were stifling, but with some effort I could play with them.
But, that day, the magic was simply gone. Dolls were now uninspiring, limited things. The association between ‘creative’ and ‘toys’ was broken for me, but the desire to create was not.
I think that this is about when I became a writer.
Unfortunately, however, I am still stifled by this inability to play in the worlds I create.
Still, I grow the landscape of my scene- with the smells and the sights, and the feel of it all. Still, I define my characters, fill in back story, give them clothes, hair, eyes. Still, I write for them the bones of their story.
But, to immerse myself and play in all that? Soon, the elaborate weave of the world frays, my attention is split, my ability to keep it under discipline has crawled away from me- much like aggrieved cousins at the end of a long day.
I already know how their story will end, you see.
I wish there was a way I could hide the plot from myself. Simply sit down, write tens of thousands of words, and be surprised by the ending as much as the reader.
I think I may have to give up on my control, just a little. I think I have to re-learn how to play with dolls.
Danielle K Day