Cover photo credit: Julia Forsman
MacBook Pro Laptop (2009 model)
THE WRITING PROCESS
They say that necessity is the mother of invention. I’d started this project largely to get away from my computer and reconnect with the physical process of writing. But during this week of the challenge, I found myself traveling to visit my sister, and under deadline.
So I took my laptop with me. And in the process, I ended up discovering how even familiar materials can feel new under altered circumstances.
I wrote this week’s response in the wee, small hours of the morning, tucked up in a chair while my sister was sleeping in bed in a strange hotel room. The room was quiet and dark, except for the tap of the keys and the glow of the laptop screen.
(These photos were taken the morning after – to avoid disturbing her any more than absolutely necessary.)
My prime writing time is often between the hours of 9pm and 3am. I like it when the world goes quiet and the shadows climb. This is when my imagination is most alive. This also means I am also someone who typically writes at home.
There’s a different focus that comes with writing in an unfamiliar space. (Especially since this was quite a nice hotel room, which made it a pleasant place to be.) There’s a wider sense of possibility. I’m not surrounded by my own things, with their associated memories and meanings. All I have with me is what will fit in a bag for a few days of travel. The settings are unfamiliar, neutral, blank. There is nothing pulling at my mind or attention except the writing.
And of course guilt. It’s not particularly pleasant to sleep with someone typing a few feet from your head. I’ve put my immeasurably patient family members in positions where they must sleep while I stay up working into the wee hours more times than I can count. I don’t take for granted the kindness that leads them to cheer me on without complaint. I’m aware when I write during these night hours that my work is, in some space, keeping that space awake. I feel bad about this – but clearly not bad enough to stop.
It was enjoyable to have a familiar tool become unfamiliar in new surroundings. My fingers still knew their way across the keys, but I was acutely aware of the computer as a tool, rather than thinking of it as an extension of my own brain – a dangerously easy habit to fall into if you’re a touch typist.
In the end, exhausted and bedraggled, I climbed into a bed much nicer than the I had at home. But as I fell asleep, my fingers were still twitching with the words that wanted to come out.
I imagine the three of us in triptych – the speaker of this play, the woman in this photo, and me. Each of us looking out of windows in foreign cities.
This week I started to wonder if all these plays would turn out to be monologues, or if dialogue would reenter the scene at some point. A solo voice captures the essence of this photo to me – a woman alone with her thoughts. Is this an evolution in style, or just a quirk or coincidence? We’ll have to wait and see.
Choice of tense (present tense vs past tense) is one of the greatest challenges in constructing a dramatic monologue, I find. There’s something deliciously fresh about keeping it present tense and making it all happen in the moment. This is where I prefer to situate things. Drama is designed to allow us to watch things in present tense. This is the fundamental difference between drama and storytelling – storytelling is recaping an emotional journey that has already been made, and drama is letting us ride along with the character moment by moment, enabling these transitions as present tense revelation.
It can be very exciting when these rules get broken, but often when I do it during the writing process, it’s the result of a messy explosion of ideas that hasn’t yet been cleaned up rather than a deliberate choice. Most often, the problem is not knowing when my story truly starts – when are we entering the story with the character? When does setup become life experience? When does the protagonist enter a state of experiencing their emotions instead of describing them?
These questions aren’t usually an issue for dramatists – but seem to me unavoidable when writing for a single performer.
It’s hard to escape the realm of past tense, particularly in the beginning of a piece. Is this due to the necessity of setup or an internalised habit from reading fiction, which is usually encountered in a past tense voice?
My next step in developing this piece would be teasing out this question – are we here and now, or is this is a recalled story? Is it possible to switch between them? If so, when and how do these shifts occur? And, most importantly, what does that tell us about the character?
THE SCRIPT – FIRST DRAFT
a dramatic monologue for solo female performer
by A.C. Smith
Annie – female performer of the age to have a teenage daughter
My sister reads the gossip magazines.
I don’t really have time for that. I have things to do, you know?
And she’s fascinated with that Angelina Jolie. Even in spite of the Brad thing and what happened to poor Jennifer Aniston and everything. I may not read the magazines, but I don’t live under a rock.
Mum died, oh, twenty years ago. It’ll be the anniversary this winter. Far too young. That’s what got Lizzie all in a twist about it. “You’ve got to get tested, you’ve got to get tested!”
And I said, no thank you, I don’t know what those letters stand for and I don’t know what they mean, and I’m not interested in making problems where there are none.
But Lizzie knows how to get under your skin. Little sisters do that. No matter how old they get.
She just kept after me. Started trying to spin it as a girl’s night – “It’ll be fun! We can go out for cocktails afterwards!” I mean honestly.
She’d already done hers. Already had her results, but she wouldn’t tell me. She refused to say a word about it until I went myself.
Finally she gave up and just cried. “Annie, it’s really important to me. Please. Just get the blood test.”
So I did.
I’m not sure in the end whether it was guilt or curiosity that got the better of me. Because I may not have wanted to know for myself, but I certainly wanted to know what she got. And the thought of her ending up like my mum…
Well, we can’t control these things, can we?
The woman was very nice. But not one to mince words. I barely had my bum down in the chair when she said, “it’s not good news, I’m afraid.” Alright, alright. Let me at least take my coat off.
It felt like a wave of paperwork and percentages. I couldn’t take in the half of it. I didn’t ask anyone to come with me, because I hadn’t believed there would anything wrong. Not truly. And I didn’t tell my sister when I was getting the results, because I didn’t want to deal with the phone calls. Plus, it seemed like a nice bit of payback for her own bit of blackmail.
As it turns out, I am like Angelina Jolie. Not a good thing, in this case. Something’s gone wrong in my DNA to make me… sensitive in my lady areas. A ticking time bomb, just waiting to explode with cancer.
I bought chicken to cook for dinner. That was a mistake. I realise it as soon as I’m in the kitchen.
These huge, fleshy breasts. Staring up at me through the plastic. I cut the package open and take one out. And I’m holding the cold, squishy thing in one hand, with the knife in the other. And just looking back and forth between them like a lunatic. Knife. Breast. Knife. Breast. Is cutting up chicken for stir fry what it feels like when a surgeon makes the –
Then my daughter comes into the kitchen. Catches me. “What are you doing?” She says. “Nothing,” I say. Carina is trendy. Cool. However they like to put it these days. “Aren’t you making dinner? I’m hungry.”
She’s hungry. Of course she is. It’s nearly eight o’clock. How long have I been standing here with the knife in my hand? Surely not long enough the chicken’s gone off. I try to give it a surreptitious sniff.
“Is it alright?” Carina asks. She had a bit of trouble with her eating a few years back and it’s so easy to put her off her dinner.
“Of course it’s fine. It’s fresh, it’ll be delicious.” And I’m looking at my daughter, this beautiful girl, and wondering about her. Is she going to end up standing in the kitchen one day, wondering about a pack of chicken?
“Why are you staring at my boobs?” She says.
“What? I’m not!”
“Yes, you are. Fine then, is there something on my shirt?”
“No, no, I’m just… I need to finish the stir fry.”
She adjusts her bra and skulks back to the telly. And I turn back to the chicken, but I still can’t bear to cut it.
I just dump the sauce on top and bake it instead. And when we sit down to eat and Carina asks me why, I tell her it was faster. Which makes no sense. She doesn’t bother to ask me why I’m lying, but I see her glancing up at me between bites, with a little worried wrinkle between her eyebrows.
That night, I stare at myself in the mirror for an hour before I climb into bed. I’ve never been the kind of person who believes in exposing unnecessarily large amounts of skin. And I don’t ever… when I shower, or get dressed, I mostly just get on with it. I don’t stop and look. I don’t think about about it. This is my body, and here I am.
I don’t wear things that are sexy. It never really felt like me. Except for a brief period in my youth when it was all so new. Sixteen, seventeen years old – you should have seen what I tried to get away with then.
But now, I look at myself. Standing there in my bra – gooseflesh rising on my arms – I get this vivid flash of memories. I remember being twelve years old and looking at myself in the mirror, wondering if my body would ever change. Terrified that it would.
And now I’m moving backwards. Pondering the reversal of that puberty. Back to a little girl. Back to uncertainty. Possibly, back to flat.
Because the practical thing to do – I can tell this already, even though I’ve yet to have the slew of appointments they’re making with surgeons and nurses and whatnot – the practical thing to do is to remove the offending bits. Because according to the tests it’s only a matter of time until they’ll have to be removed anyway. And far better to do it without the chemo and radiation and all that. Better to be proactive.
I’m very good about NOT going on the internet for medical things. I know it’s not a good idea. I’ve seen the dangers with my sister Lizzie. She can convince herself a spider bite is the second coming of the plague. I always speak directly to my doctor, and don’t rely on whatever quackery might be lurking out there. But I can’t sleep. I’m curious. So I take out the computer. And oh my word.
The consultant had told me that most women get reconstruction. So I look at the pictures. And it seems to me they look alright. But if they make it out of your own body, well, they have to take it from somewhere. And while some ladies are a fan of a little bonus tummy tuck, I don’t really fancy getting cut up any more than I have to. And the alternative – they put the new, well, I suppose you’d have to call it a breast – they put the new breast behind the muscle wall and pump it up like a bicycle tire.
It won’t have sensation either way. I won’t feel anything. No hot or cold. No pleasure. I think it sounds horrible.
I know it’s right for some people, but to me it seems more like a prosthesis that you can’t take off.
Prosthesis. That’s the word that comes up over and over. I think of a prosthesis as something for people who’ve lost a limb or something functional. Breasts aren’t functional, not at my age anyway, and a breast prosthesis certainly isn’t. Is it?
Of course, there’s the ovaries, of course, they take those too. Just a little surgery, they say, in and out through a keyhole. Doesn’t sound that little to me. And it completely changes your hormones. But menopause, well, I’m not fussing myself over that.
Lizzie calls me. I don’t mean to lie. But it just doesn’t feel like the right time to tell her. Instead, I say there was a big backup at the clinic. Because of Angelina, you know? There’s lots of people going in now. It’s very popular. Told her I’m not the only one with a pushy sister making her go in for the tests. And she believes me.
I simply can’t handle her falling apart, because I know she will, on top of what I have to do for myself. A right drama queen.
I know I’ll have to tell her eventually. And I’m not ashamed. But I find, everything’s changed since she first nagged me into it.
And, shockingly, now that I know the truth, I find I actually don’t want to know her results. Because I can’t think of anything worse than knowing that she’s…
I can handle going through it for myself, of course I can. I’m tough. I had the C-section with Carina. I’ve been through surgery, and I’m not afraid of a bit of pain.
But Lizzie is a bit more excitable. Sensitive. And the thought of her going through it… It would devastate her. Even though she’s nearly as old as I am, she loves getting the girls out every now and then. I just can’t bear to know if she’s had bad news.
I tell her I don’t know when I’ll have an answer.
She hangs up, cheery and calm, ready to get on with her day.
And I’m not psychic, but I know she hasn’t got the mutation. I know she’s fine. As much as we’re alike, we’re opposites in some ways. When she has bad news, she can’t keep it to herself. The whole world knows. And me, well…
I meet with the surgeon. Her hands are very cold. She tells me it would be a mistake to wait I’d be taking my chances. I think of my mum, in the hospital bed. I think of Carina without her mother. And I tell the surgeon I’m looking forward to getting it all sorted.
I get a letter with the date. This is an incredibly personal thing to tell you, but my nipples tingle when it happens. It’s like they know their days are numbered.
I stop looking at myself in the mirror.
One night, when I can’t sleep again, they’re doing a marathon of old movies. All of a sudden it’s Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell, and they have those bodies and these dresses, and they’re doing the most extraordinary kind of wiggle. I’m like a teenage boy. I can’t stop staring at them, the extreme, gorgeous, womanliness of them.
And then next up it’s Sophia Loren. And that woman. The most beautiful creature who’s ever lived. There’s this energy that just oozes out of her. Confidence. Or power. Or maybe, it’s just sex. Because they know how to do it in Italy. The women know how to love their curves. They know how to be sexy.
And that’s when I think, I’m going to Italy.
I tell Carina the next morning. She nearly spits out her Wheetabix. “What are you going to Italy for?” I tell her I fancy a painting holiday. Because actually I did used to paint, before she was born and everything got so busy.
She’s enraged. “You’re going to Italy without ME?” I tell her she can come along if she likes.
“When are we going?” She asks.
“Next week,” I say. That time she does actually spit her cereal. I fetch her the paper towels. “I have a geography exam next week. And it’s Christine’s birthday.” I tell her it’s up to her. I’ll call her in sick to school if she wants, but I’m going. I expect her to look happy, but she just turns back to the cereal.
The sunshine in Italy is wonderful. It warms you right down to the bones. I feel fifteen years younger, easily. Maybe twenty.
And the men. Real men.
I’m under no illusion. I know sneaking a peek at the Italian boys was probably Carina’s main motivation in tagging along. But she’s not the only one getting an eyeful.
I’ve packed my normal holiday togs – some sensible light trousers, a loose, bright top. Comfortable, practical, cool. It doesn’t make sense spending loads of money on new clothes that probably won’t fit me in a week’s time, anyway. After the surgery.
But on our second day, Carina and I are walking past a shop, and I see this dress. It’s fitted. It’s beautiful. Even on the mannequin it looks sexy beyond imagining. It looks like something Angelina Jolie would wear.
I walk inside, before I even know what I’m doing. And I put it on. And it feels… amazing.
I realise I’d been sad, thinking I’d never feel the touch of a man’s hand on my breast again. Sorry, I know that’s quite personal again. But with this dress, I don’t need it. The feel of the fabric. It’s like a caress.
The girl asks me if she can wrap it up, and I wave her off, because I’m wearing it out of the store. I’m never taking it off again. I am woman, hear me roar. Or something like that.
Carina doesn’t say she likes the dress, but she doesn’t say it looks bad either, and she’s a girl who likes to speak her mind. So I know the truth. I look amazing. And small wonder. I feel amazing.
That night, we go out to dinner, and stay for hours, drinking wine. Carina takes it slow, but I start to get a bit lightheaded. It’s a wonderful feeling. I’m wearing, the dress, of course. And I’ve bought shoes to go with it, none of those practical sandals for this kind of getup. I’m letting my hair down, quite literally. So when a man comes over and asks me to dance, I say yes, even though that’s never the kind of thing I would do. With a stranger? But I can’t wait to get on the dance floor. And I don’t care if my feet are killing me. I figure I’ll be off them for a while soon enough in that bloody hospital bed.
We are swirling around the floor and I’m laughing. And he says I’m beautiful. He actually asks me home with him, but I have Carina, and I don’t want to go anyway. I just want to dance, and wear my dress and feel alive. I want to feel beautiful in this body that I always thought was too imperfect to fully enjoy.
When we get back to the hotel, I’m a bit sick, and Carina is cross with me. “Why did you drink all that wine?” She asks. I don’t know. And I don’t fancy explaining myself to her.
She goes to bed, and I stay by the toilet just a little bit longer to make sure I’m done. I’m a naturally tidy person. And I do feel better once it’s up.
It’s late, and a strange mixture of streetlamps and moonlight leaks through the tiny window. I take off the dress, to make sure I don’t get anything on it. I take off everything. I look at my body, my beautiful body in the moonlight. And I start to get angry.
Who was it who told me I was too fat to be beautiful? Who told me I shouldn’t laugh so loud, that my skin wasn’t nice enough, that my thighs were too dimpled? And why on earth did I let myself believe it? It seems we can only appreciate things when we lose them. Like Mum.
Maybe it’s just the wine, but I feel tingly with my own power. I wonder, could I have felt like this for my whole life, instead of just a week? Could I have been this in love with myself? Could I have been this alive?
I think about Carina. The way she moans constantly about herself. She has a spot. Her arms jiggle. Her bottom is too big. She’s a gorgeous girl and she doesn’t see it. She doesn’t appreciate any of it, or know how lucky she is. I’m so furious, I could slap her.
I put on my nightdress and crawl into bed to watch her sleep. I feel myself melting into this puddle of tears. I hate listening to her pick herself apart. But I know where she got it from.
The next day, I dump the sensible holiday togs in the bin. I decide I’m wearing my swimsuit cover up as a dress. Because it’s beautiful. And why not?
I know it’s a bit revealing, but Carina is absolutely scandalized. “Mum, you can’t go out like that!”
She’s been oddly quiet all morning. Moody. And I’m supposed to be the one with the hangover. “You can walk across the street so you don’t have to be embarrassed of me,” I tell her. I’m done apologising. To everybody.
“You look like an idiot.”
“I don’t care.” And I don’t. Which is actually quite the surprise.
Carina is furious. Her eyes squint in a particular way when she’s really winding up for one. “Why are we on this trip anyway?”
“What do you mean?” I ask her.
“You haven’t done any painting. You’re acting like an absolute crazy person. I’m not stupid!” She says. And she starts to cry.
Watching her, I remember the way she stormed as a toddler. Tears running down her chubby little face. She looks that way now. As she looks up at me and says, “Are you dying?”
They say children notice everything.
I didn’t tell her about the tests, because I wanted to protect her. But she looks absolutely terrified. I can’t quite breathe. I have to sit down on the bed.
She waits. She watches me.
As I try to find the words, my gaze drifts up to the tree growing outside the window. The green of the leaves, and the light and the shade as the wind rustles through them. I look past the leaves and I see the twigs, and the branches. And the trunk. And it’s scarred. Marks of amputation from years of pruning. And on the trunk, a big circle, just like this, where a branch has been chopped off. But that tree is in full bloom. And it’s no less beautiful.
And I look at Carina, and now I’m crying. Because it’s finally hit me. That tree. “No. No, I’m not dying.” I close my eyes to make it real. I’m not dying. This is just a pruning.
I hold her. I brush back her hair. And I say, “listen sweetheart, have you heard about Angelina Jolie?”