Photo credit: Julia Forsman
THE WRITING PROCESS
The first thing that struck me about it was the noise. No neat tapping of keys – this was a new auditory experience of writing. I could not only feel, but also hear the way the pencil cuts into the paper, scratches, and gradually wears down to a comfortable point.
I never liked pencils when I was in school. They felt messy (the writing would smudge, and the sharpening always left curls and graphite dust in my backpack pockets), and they were far too time consuming. I could be convinced to use mechanical pencils when I needed the reassurance provided by easy erasure, but a traditional wooden pencil was out of the question.
My disdain for this instrument made it an interesting place to start. I thought I would feel like a child again holding a pencil in my hand. But it didn’t feel like a connection with my past, it felt like a connection with the past, and I found myself appreciating the power of a writing technology that has held up so effectively for so long.
I think of a letter or words as existing or not existing: it’s either on the page (or screen), or it isn’t. But a pencil doesn’t write like that – there are quite literally different shades of existence and meaning. I could feel the full power of sharp darkness – available for emphatic words, sharp outlines, or when I was really enjoying myself, especially when relishing a newly-sharpened point. But my nervousness and tentativeness became visual as well. When I tiptoed my way around the words and through the story, I could see this lightness of touch on the page. My own confidence in my choice of language was made visible to me in a way I never see in ink or on a computer.
Similarly, in this palette of shades, I discovered the power of ‘ghost letters’. Nothing erased truly disappears. The words leave a strange, half-visible after image, and while you can build the foundation on top you can see evidence of where the earth was previously disturbed. Rereading my work, I found myself looking at these passages with extra scrutiny. This is language with a past – it may be buried, but it’s never truly gone. I could say that the frequency with which I crossed out rather than erased is a holdover from my habits with a pen, but I think it’s more likely tied to my faint uneasiness about the lurking Shades of these discarded words.
The messiness stemming from the ever-changing continuum of grey inherent to a pencil was perhaps made up for by the regimented order of the graph paper, which filtered into my thinking in a way I would never have anticipated. In a peculiar way, mirroring the bricks in the wall of the photo, I found myself sketching as I gathered my thoughts.
Picturing of the stage, I saw this pattern on the page taking shape as the set, a grid of four squares that each represent something different in the speaker’s life. Yet once I had the concept of this rigid structure, I found my writing defying it, moving outside the boxes into new directions narratively and geographically. Graph paper gives you many more lines than we are used to, but this didn’t feel like a constriction, it was more like a playground. I could comfortably and clearly write across the paper in any direction I chose, writing down the page initially, and across it later, going on to divide the paper up into whatever sections felt appropriate to the writing at the time.
On one of my favourite pages, as the shape of the piece became clear to me, I felt compelled to leave a big empty space, leaving room for the writing to come, as I hastily jotted down an outline of the next scenes down the side. I had intended to fill it back in later, but when the time came, the symbol of this space seemed so much more compelling. Plus, I wanted the luxury of a fresh page.
It was both a luxury and a challenge to experience the enforced breaks that writing with a pencil introduces to the regimen. When I was a child, my impatience was pricked by the need to wait for the sharpening. For this exercise, I found the action of turning the pencil round and round a welcoming ritual, a pause for thought…until I didn’t.
About three quarters of the way through the writing, I could finally see the path cleared to the end of the piece. I wanted to have the luxury to write at the speed my mind was moving and flesh out my hastily noted outline in complete sentences. I yielded to this frustration and decided to move to the computer, and it was a delicious feeling – the words flowed so freely and neatly. It felt like a release after the labour of a pencil.
And yet. The quality of the writing changed. I noticed that my sections grew longer – without the discipline of the physical writing the words were spilling out in longer, uninterrupted streams. It was changing the quality of the text, and not necessarily for the better. Chastened, I returned to my graph paper and pencil, and in spite of the extra effort it took to organize and note my thoughts, it felt like a welcome return.
I feel I should note this pencil was a originally a present from a loved one. It had been sitting on my desk for nearly ten years. I always liked it but as an ornament rather than a tool. It was satisfying to finally put it to use.
It was clear to me from the start this play was meant to be a monologue. From the photo, I had such a clear sense of the singularity and isolation of this little character. While there are other people around, this person is alone.
Sometimes people’s behavior shows us the child hiding in the adult. In this photo, I felt like I could see the adult within the child, with an expression that went beyond the years. I saw a burden in these eyes, and I thought about the burdens we carry as adult men or women. How do we trace this pattern, within our individual journeys and between generations? How do our ideas about ourselves, our hopes, and our monsters change as we grow, and even become responsible for our own children?
When I was writing, I found myself toggling back and forth between an English and American setting and voice – and while I eventually settled on an American voice, the hybridization is still present in this draft.
I also found myself picking up themes from two of my other short plays, ‘Quatre Chambers’ (memory and space) and ‘Through&Out’ (emotional inheritance, masculinity), though I was mining this terrain for something different in this new iteration of these ideas.
At the time of writing, it felt quite important to me to keep each of the interlocking stories spoken the present tense. These experiences are layered on top of each other, rather than one being the reality and the rest simply memories. I’d need to see this performed to decide how well this choice works.
At the beginning of the play (and writing process) I created lots of stage directions to indicate how the man is moving between the squares, as I continued on, I found myself using these less and less. My guess is that after seeing the play worked on with a director in the rehearsal room, I’d discover I need hardly any at all.
I’m not sure where this play needs to develop after it has a chance to breathe. Clarity is key – can we follow the shifts in each of the four stories, and is this differentiation understandable in the text? I don’t feel I yet fully understand this character’s journey, and think there’s a choice to be made about whether it’s more effective to present snapshots of different moments in this life, without worrying as much about how it joins up, or trying to connect the dots to show the evolution. The first feels lazy, the second overly prescriptive – I suspect the answer lays somewhere in the middle.
THE SCRIPT – FIRST DRAFT
a short stage play by A.C. Smith
MAN – a male performer, old enough to be a father
The playing space should be subdivided into four equal sections joined together in a giant square:
Each of these spaces represents a different time in the man’s life (in reverse chronological order):
SQUARE 1: Fatherhood
SQUARE 2: Adulthood
SQUARE 3: Teens
SQUARE 4: Childhood
In the text they will be referred to by their numbers, but these numbers should not appear on the stage.
The man should be standing in the square indicated in the header of each section of text. Some of these transitions are indicated in the stage directions, but the majority are left to the creativity of the director and performer.
A man is standing in the center of the square, at the place the four corners meet. He is spinning, watching the squares whizz by as he turns.
Suddenly, he stops, and steps into the square in front of him: #1.
“There are dragons in the garden, Daddy.”
No, there aren’t, what are you talking about?
“There are dragons, come and see!”
He pulls me through the garden, close to the wall. An old pile of bricks.
I know there’s no such things as dragons, but my heart starts to pound.
(He spins himself around into Square #2.)
There’s two ways to live in this world:
Eat, or be eaten.
Kill, or be killed.
There’s no weakness that can’t be overcome with the mind.
(And the right pharmaceuticals.)
Every man has to choose for himself which side he wants to be on.
I’ll give you a hint:
There’s only one right choice.
(Steps into Square #3.)
He’s dying, that much is obvious.
Even though he seems far too young.
He says it’s his lungs.
Black. Too many years. Too much smoke.
He’s always asking me to hand him things:
“Boy, I need some water.”
“Boy, where’s the remote?”
“Boy, get me my cigarettes.”
My father sits there, hunched over in his chair.
Puffing away and coughing.
The smoke slowly curling out of his nostrils.
(He steps one foot into Square #4 – straddling the line – then pulls it back out. It’s too dangerous.)
(Back in the center, he spins again.)
You practically have to show them how to put their pants on, the new hires.
These days, boys are growing up to be pussies.
No sense of how to take control.
No killer instinct for how to make the sale.
Mr. Dekker is old school. He’s too important to be concerned with guys like me, but he and I have a special relationship.
He particularly asks me to keep an eye out for the young ones.
Teach them a thing or two.
Those medicines aren’t going to sell themselves.
He makes jokes about it. Says it isn’t that bad of a way to go.
His own father spent his whole life underground. Sweating away in caves, covered in that toxic black dust.
My Dad laughs, at least as best he can manage, until his breath catches. Says he at least got to pick his poison.
The TV stays on late, until it was the only light left on in the house. It’s the only way he could sleep.
I sit up with him some nights. We fight over what to watch but he always wins, even as sick as he is. He puts on these old monster movies, grinning as some huge lizard enjoyed an entire city. “That’s the life,” he’d say, watching all the people die, watching me squirm.
(The man steps into the fourth square, with both feet this time. But he can’t take it. He jumps back to the center.)
(He steps gratefully back into the first square.)
He’s a kid who notices things, and a kid who likes to get himself into danger.
He’s the kid who finds the broken toy with the sharp edge, and manages to cut himself on it. Who runs into the street without looking, to play in the rainbows of an oil leak. The kid who touches a hot stove just because he’s curious. And the kid who will study the evolving gruesomeness of his blistered burn for hours, in complete wonderment.
His mother keeps trying to put him in a helmet. Not just on his bike, but all the time. But I say no, he’s got to be able to experience things. Even though I wonder how he’ll survive the world.
Mr. Dekker’s a man who says what he thinks.
I like that about him. Most of the time.
This one day, he calls me into his office,
To tell me what he thinks of me.
“You’re stupid. You’re slow. Your team is worthless.”
The walls are thin. I know everyone can hear.
I want to punch him in the face,
But I need this job.
I feel myself turning red.
I tell him leave it with me.
I’ll fix the numbers.
He says, “you’d better.”
“Is the yellow eye coming tonight?”
“No, it’s not coming tonight.”
“Is the yellow eye coming tonight?”
“No, it’s not coming tonight.”
“Is the yellow eye coming tonight?”
“Shut up and go to sleep.”
So I try.
I close my eyes.
But just when it’s the darkest part of the night,
I see it through my window.
The yellow eye, looking for me.
I should just pretend to be asleep. Play dead.
But I can’t help it, I have to check.
I look deep into the darkness…
It’s third period English when I get called into the Assistant Principal’s office.
I sit there sweating, sure I’m in trouble.
Even though I’m too skinny to be noticed, and too shy to get in trouble.
“I’m so sorry,” she says.
At first, I don’t understand.
Then I realize.
I look down and see my hands are shaking.
I have this funny feeling in my chest.
I look deep into the darkness.
But it’s a mistake.
The black part of the eye gets bigger.
It’s hungry. It’s excited. It’s angry.
The dragons have found me.
Like they do in my dreams every night.
I wake up screaming.
She pushes a box of tissues towards me.
I stare at them.
“At least he’s not in pain.”
I slap the tissue box and send it flying.
She looks terrified.
I realize this is what my Dad meant.
This is power.
I walk out of the office and slam the door behind me.
My Dad would be proud. I was acting like a man.
So I get this kid in my chair.
Fresh out of college. Needs a haircut.
And I hear words coming out of my mouth.
I feel fire.
It makes Mr. Dekker’s chat look like a pep talk.
The kid doesn’t react. He just looks up at me, curiously.
So I shout louder.
And he looks even more confused.
Finally, I get right up in his face and yell at him.
“Where is your killer instinct?”
And he just looks at me, calm as can be, and shrugs.
“That’s not me,” he says.
And I see myself through his eyes: this mad, sweating maniac.
I don’t feel like the powerful one anymore.
“That’s not me.”
I don’t know who’s in control of my body, or more words anymore.
I start to wonder, “when did this become me?”
(The man is spinning. He seems out of control, he almost can’t stop.)
(Finally he stumbles desperately into Square #4.)
We’re out in the garden.
My mitt is so new it won’t bend and stinks of oil.
My father is trying to teach me to play catch,
But every time he throws the ball, I duck.
It makes him angry.
“Don’t be afraid of the ball,” he shouts.
But his shouting makes me even more scared.
I keep telling myself the next time I won’t duck. I’ll catch it.
Or at least I’ll try.
But my Daddy has a strong arm, and when that ball comes whizzing, I duck.
Each time it happens, it makes him madder.
Finally, he lobs it straight at me.
There’s not time to duck.
Through some combination of instinct and desperation, I raise my mitt.
I catch the ball.
Daddy is thrilled.
He puts his arm around me, but I start crying.
The shock of it all, the pain in my hand, it’s too much.
His smile drops.
“Why are you crying?” he yells.
I don’t know why.
“Where is your killer instinct?”
I don’t know what to make him stop yelling.
He looks at me with an expression of pure disgust.
He yanks the mitt off my little hand.
He leaves me sobbing in the garden.
I know I’ll never be strong like him.
I’ll never be one of the big boys.
Finally I stop crying.
I watch the ants until it gets dark.
I don’t want to go inside, but I have to.
At night, the dragons come.
My son puts his little hand in mine.
So warm. So small.
The lawn needs mowing. It tickles my ankles.
I think about the dragons.
My mouth is dry.
He pulls me over to a spot in the crumbling wall where a brick has fallen out, leaving a gap. Almost like a small sort of cave.
Only it’s empty.
The world is just as I knew it to be. No dragons.
There’s nothing there, except his imagination.
“Where did they go?”
His voice trembles with the betrayal.
I tell him Sometimes dragons only exist in our minds.
“No, they’re real. They were here!”
I can see tears of fury and frustration welling in his little eyes.
For a strange second, I get a horrible urge to slap him.
But I don’t.
I pull him in close, and hold him.
I can smell his skin. He needs a bath.
“Look, Daddy!” He is pointing over my shoulder. “Dragons!”
I look. And there they are. Dragonflies.
My son looks at my face, concerned.
“Are they safe?” he asks.
Yes, I tell him. This kind are safe.
They catch the afternoon sunlight. They are beautiful.
EDIT: PHOTOGRAPHER’S RESPONSE
The following image is a reaction to the play, continuing the dialogue between forms.
This photo is striking in its communication the power of light and dark. You get the sense of the piece of identity hidden in shadow, the parts cut off or hidden, the curiosity. Even the grid of the stage, mirrored in the tiles behind the child.
There are far more layers to this visual that elude words. Regardless, it speaks powerfully to the emotional engine of the text.
On to the next.
Photo: A.C. Smith