Here’s a fun little screenplay sketch I wrote in honor of all the times I said, “I wish I was the English voice on the metro” while living in Nanjing, China.
Trigger Warning: body horror, mention of cutting skin
It wasn’t noticeable. Not at first, anyway, compared to the climate devastation around us.
It grew out of her shoulder, you see. When I first noticed it, it just looked like bumps beneath her black and grey tattoo. “Oh, I think I have some rash,” she had said. “Some weird infection of some kind. I’m sure some cream will knock it right out.”
Instead, the bumps turned to raised lines turned to a stem growing out of her turned to the petals protruding through her skin. It was no longer drawn, no longer art, but a living sunflower, its petals the color of her pale skin and gradient grey, set against the backdrop of wildfire smoke.
Soon, she realized she wasn’t alone. Others with flower and plant tattoos experienced the same. Thorns and roses grew to reality, the thorns piercing through skin a lot easier than a simple sunflower stem. My friend suffered more, I think, from the dull scratching stem yearning for oxygen rather than immediate thorned pain of the rose tattoos.
First, it was the plants, but slowly those with animals inked on their bodies saw actual birds attempting to break free of the arm’s skin, or the lion roaring its way to life. Bodies contorted, weight fluctuated, and soon those who could no longer move were overtaken by their life-sized tattoos that grew bigger and bigger. As humans bent to the will of nature, the wildfire smoke vanished bit by bit. Then, the factories were abandoned. Finally, the plants and animals tore the pipelines up. The process to return to green and blue and nature’s other colors was underway.
For those of us without tattoos, though, all we could do was watch.
I had never wanted tattoos. I couldn’t understand the permanency behind it, the commitment. After all, what would happen if I hated what I inked onto my skin? What if my idea wasn’t good enough or meant I would be laughed at? I was never one for conviction.
I watched my friend’s sunflower grow so tall that her arm collapsed under the weight and she could no longer move. Her fingers twitched, then one hand reached for the ground while the other stretched toward me. With shimmering eyes, she said, “You can join us.”
It was both her voice and not. Then, my stomach swooped, and I shook my head wildly. “Wh-what the hell?!”
“I’m joining Them,” she said. “I am Them. It’s time you did the same.” As she said so, her tattooed arm sunk itself deeper into the soil. I imagined her fingers moving through the dirt before settling, still and calm, roots firm in their place. “Won’t you?”
Looking back, I should have joined. I should have taken her offer as good will, not as something sinister. Instead, I revolted and smacked her hand away. “What the hellis wrong with people like you?!” And I ran as her sunflower reared its head toward the sun, as she closed her eyes and succumbed to whoever “Them” were.
Now I may never know. I sit here, on a planet bursting with new life and plants, where tattooed bodies were the first to rejoin the Earth, where those humans left have made their new communities in conjunction with the tattooed plants and animals, where I am alone, legs curled, arms encircling, rocking back and forth. I refused my friend, I refused others, and now I am alone.
“Them” don’t want me, not anymore. I’ve made my case, and I made the wrong one. My self-deprecating talk won’t get me anywhere either. Even trying to carve a nature tattoo into my skin did nothing: there is something else that everyone else did that I didn’t. They committed to a new world, even when the change felt frightening, even if it meant sacrifice. I never found the courage to do so. Even when they waited for me, I abandoned Them.
Today, as I gasp for breath, tongue heavy and eyes drooping, I think about her. My friend the sunflower. I drag myself over to the last place I remember her. My eyes widen slightly at the sight of her: she has no body anymore, but her skeleton is bent to the will of the flower itself. Her skull submerged, her ribs pricking into the ground, her knees digging into the dirt. I collapse and force my head up, using all my energy, to see the miles-high sunflower above me. Has it just sapped her energy, and will it sap mine? Does it feed on humanity?
The sunflower turns its head downward. Though it has no eyes, its gaze prickles my skin. “Are you… her?” I whisper.
It says nothing. The wind blows in, softly, and the sunflower sways in spite of its grounded stance. It waits.
I bite my lip. “I messed up. I should have listened the first time. But I’m here now. I know you may not forgive me, but… but I want to know.”
The silence grows like a vine between us. Its chokehold knocks the air out of me, even as I will my body to breathe. I am done for, finished—
As I fall to the ground, I go fingers first. With my remaining strength, I heave a breath and force my arm into the dampened earth. I wince, but when my gaze travels up to the sunflower’s face, it is hidden by the sun. Only its silhouette remains, encouraging me on.
I chuckle. “I deserved that.”
When I turn my head into the earth, closing my eyes, I sigh. The tension leaves my body as my arm submerges itself fully. I reach—can I still reach her—
Our roots grasp together. We unite, and though I can’t see her, the ground trembles so slightly. She has my strength. The light of the sun nourishes her and in turn myself, through our clasped hands. I squeeze a little tighter. I’m here, I swear—this time I mean it.
Writer’s Note: Thank you for reading! This story was inspired by a prompt I saw for a submissions call I ended up never submitting for, as well as my own flower tattoo haha. If you enjoyed it, give it a like please!
I agonize over this as anyone with existential anxiety does, but especially so as a creator. What does it mean to make a difference in the world? Why are so many of us determined to leave our marks? Who are the people who have reconciled with the marks they will make versus won’t/once wished to?
For me, I always wanted to be a part of something greater. I had dreams of becoming a full-time writer and theatre artist while at the same time dreaming I could use those disciplines to “make a difference.” Now, I question what that thought of “make a difference” actually means.
Art is world-changing, if we sit still long enough and listen to it. Art–in all its forms–can bring people together, encourage communication and healing, and bring light to dire situations and causes. Those of us who do art maybe do not realize how much of an impact it can have, even if we don’t see our art as being “peace-building” or “world-changing” or “activism.” Sometimes, the art speaks for itself, and it speaks to every consumer differently than it may even speak to the artist. Whether you mean it to or not, your art says something; it is as inherent as what appears in your subconscious as you dream.
Some strive to make the biggest differences they can, and I commend them for that. In some ways, as they strive for it–as I once wanted to strive for it–I also wondered if maybe it was too cutthroat. Yes, even in an environment where everyone wants to do as much good as possible, you still must fight tooth and nail for recognition, for status, for what will define you as the go-to person for that specific cause or specific art medium or whatever. In reality, creation should never be cutthroat.
Growing up, I felt as though I must always be doing more, for nothing is ever enough, and nothing I do is ever enough. While this can be true, however, this is also some toxic thinking. What if, instead, I had sat with my thoughts and feelings and artistic process more? What if I had acknowledged that my process was ever-evolving, never perfect, always reaching new heights and sights? What if my desire to help change the world could be rooted in something as simple as writing stories that are seemingly fantasy worlds, creating theatre to bring myself closer to others, to pursue endlessly even if I end up failing? What if I acknowledged that while I may never do enough, I must still keep going and trying and learning and unlearning and being? What if everything did indeed have a purpose and–even if it didn’t–why does it matter if it doesn’t?
There is intention and then there is force. By forcing myself to do things that I’m not meant to do, was I hindering myself from my artistic process? Forcing myself to “leave a mark” and “be worthy” rather than sitting with myself, worthy as I already am, for I was born into this world?
We all bring something into this world. Some of us cultivate that something, and others don’t. Some of us are content to consume that something and share it and love it rather than create it. Some of us use that something to bring about more change. I think all can be valid. What do you think?
I’m not discouraged, but I now realize I’m in a place where I need to stop seeking validation.
This is something I’ve been working through in my own life and somewhat in therapy, but I believe it’s time I put it fully to practice. For that reason, I’ve decided I’m going to stop submitting and pitching my writing for a while.
The reason for this is twofold: firstly, I developed a bad habit of obsessing over submissions throughout last winter, spring, and throughout the summer. I would look up any and all opportunities to submit/pitch my writing, without ever feeling confident in said writing itself. Then, I would receive rejections. Normally rejections don’t bother me too much, as it is part of being a writer who wants to share their work. I’ve even got some of the kindest rejections, where they say they enjoyed my work and ideas but couldn’t find a place for it (those are the best rejections to get, the almost ones). Lately, though, I’ve questioned why I am so eager to submit my writing to certain publications. Is it because I truly want to share it in that publication? Is it because it fits the publication’s theme or call for pitches? Or is it because I want the validation of a publication credit? Honestly, it could be all of the above. That said, I do know that I haven’t been writing as much since last winter/spring.
Last winter, I began rewriting a novel idea that’s been brewing for years, a novel idea I’ve been meaning to rework since I finished its draft when I was 18. Then, in February, I got stuck. But no matter, because I was working on adapting my stage play into a radio play, which was an incredibly awesome and rewarding experience. I love the director/sound designer and the cast; I’m also so grateful to the festivals we’ve presented at virtually.
(Here’s a selfish plug to go listen to Happy Pills the radio play adaptation at Atlanta Fringe Audio 2021 now, also available on Spotify and wherever else you get your podcasts! It will be up and available until June 2022.)
In spring 2021 I also wrote a novella for an online contest, which I won’t share here due to it being written under my pen name, but I enjoyed it immensely. It helped me come to terms with parts of my identity that I have not shared publicly and am not sure I will at this time or maybe ever. I have plans to lengthen it to be a longer novella or potentially novel-length because the cast of characters and the world is one I feel can be rich.
I have a plethora of other ideas sitting unfinished, waiting for me to tend to them as well. Novels, short stories, essays, and more. But they won’t get written if I don’t write them and I’m solely focused on publications. It may be time to leave some of the older works behind and focus on what is speaking to me presently, even if those older works never get published.
That’s okay. I need to learn to be okay with it. I am not the same writer I was at 14, 18, 21, and even at 24. I have changed as the world has changed, as my life has changed, and I need to reconcile that in my writing. It doesn’t mean abandoning every idea I’ve ever had, but it does mean spending time cultivating them. Planning them. Writing them.
V.E. Schwab just had an excellent story post on Instagram recently. She spoke about how she writes out a beat sheet for the scenes she drafts for novels. The way she spoke about beats in scenes resonated with everything I’ve learned and applied in my theatre studies and productions. In playwriting, there are beats. I make sure there are beats in my playwriting, whether it’s beats I put it or it’s places where actors can find beats later on. Why should it not be the same with prose writing? It is definitely the same in poetry. In essays and nonfiction too. I like this concept a lot, and I think I may put it into practice for more than just my playwriting. It is time to hone my prose writing and pay attention to the moments of a scene. It’s no coincidence that in 2021, V.E. Schwab is one of my new favorite authors, as I’ve finally read some of her works.
I always wanted to be one of those published authors who get published in their early or mid-20s, but I’m not. I’m 26, soon to turn 27 in February 2022, and given all of the major life changes that have happened in 2021–let alone 2020–I need to give myself and my writing practice some grace.
This is mostly a reflection for me, but if you found some value in it, then thank you for reading. I’d love to hear your thoughts on your own writing practice.
I may continue blog writing more often; I may not. My dear friend Chandler (who has excellent blog posts, do go read them) said it is refreshing for him, and I find it to be as well.
Here’s to what’s ahead, whatever that may be.
Written in September 2016.
In several writing classes I have taken thus far, the idea of ‘payoff’ has been discussed thoroughly and in many different ways. In my understanding of it, it has come to mean not necessarily giving an expected ending but not deviating from the story’s innate trajectory. I find different yet similar payoffs in “A Worn Path” by Eudora Welty and “Exodus” by James Baldwin that helped me realize what kind of payoffs I want to provide not only to the reader but also to myself in my writing.
Welty’s story opens with description of the main character, Phoenix, and the beginning of her journey to town yet ends with the image of Phoenix leaving the town. Despite this vague description, a lot happens in between in terms of plot, dialogue, and description in which Phoenix is slowly built in front of the reader’s eyes before we reach the point of no return. At first glance, I found the climactic reveal of Phoenix’s grandson being dead as a complete surprise, a jolt in the story, but when I looked at it again I realized this was the payoff the story was striving toward: without this moment, Phoenix’s arc is not complete, and our knowledge of Phoenix remains incomplete also: “Yes. Swallowed lye. when was it?—January—two-three years ago—” (Welty 287) creates a depth to Phoenix that changes the way we have seen every action and utterance from her. Our slow realization mirrors Phoenix’s in realizing why she came to town at all, yet she remains unseeing of the true circumstances around her visit. For the reader, this realization comes to a head when Phoenix opens up with a big monologue of sorts:
“My little grandson, he sit up there in the house all wrapped up, waiting by himself…We is the only two left in the world. He suffer and it don’t seem to put him back at all. He got a sweet look. He going to last…I not going to forget him again, no, the whole enduring time…” (Welty 288).
This moment is the slow descent into the reader understanding that Phoenix, even how brave she has been throughout the story and her journey, is still human, has her flaw where she does not acknowledge what is perhaps the truth that everyone else knows about her grandson. The payoff in this moment is bittersweet; it does not send the reader off into Phoenix’s happy ending, but it does help us relate to her on both a sympathetic and empathetic level. Without Welty including these two specific moments, this would be a completely different story with a different or perhaps no payoff moment.
James Baldwin’s payoff in his short story “Exodus” differs in its culminating circumstances yet provides that seem bittersweet yet satisfying feeling that Welty’s “A Worn Path” does. His story is split into two parts: first with Florence reflecting on her mother’s past and second with Florence’s actual act of leaving. For the reader, throughout the whole story we understand that Florence will be leaving home, yet the unspoken words between Florence, her mother, and her brother Gabriel are what keeps us rooted to the moment and invested in Florence’s journey from her initial, formal announcement to her mother—“Ma…I’m going. I’m a-going in the morning” (Baldwin 4)—to her mother “grant[ing] Florence the victory—with a promptness which had the effect of making Florence, however dimly and unwillingly, wonder if her victory was real” (Baldwin 6). What transpires in between though, the moment of payoff, is when Florence “look[s] away from her mother…catching her breath, looking outward through the small, cracked window” where “outside, beyond the slowly rising mist, and farther off than her eyes [can] see, her life await[s] her” (Baldwin 6). This moment astronomically alters how the reader approaches the story from then on because now we as the reader have a way to connect to Florence. Even if we do not agree with her actions, this moment defines why she is leaving her mother and her brother, what draws her to the outside world is perhaps to escape but mostly to live the life she wants to live, a very human cause that is not necessarily surprising but satisfies the reader all the same.
In thinking about the similarities between Welty and Baldwin’s payoffs, I cannot help but think the real reason humans desire payoff is not to have the easy ending but to have the simple ending, the ending that must transpire organically from the events of the story and the journeys of the character or characters. Payoff is not to sedate the reader or the audience in a work of fiction or a play but rather to revitalize them, to get them to think about their own humanity. We often forget, in light of our technological advances, that we are creatures too, who ultimately want the same, simple things: food, shelter, water, safety, and of course, love. Phoenix loves her grandson so much that she refuses to see him as anything but alive; Florence loves her family but understands to stay with them is to ignore her own basic needs and her own desire to go off, even if that means looking back on this moment and feeling something differently on her deathbed than when she first left. These payoffs remind us of our own individual humanity and how that fits in with the rest of our fellow humans.
In thinking about my own personal writing, I feel as though I have overlooked payoff and shrugged it off, thinking it meant something else. As I grow as a writer, I’m beginning to see that payoff means asking the difficult questions and still having the reader or the audience feel satisfied at the conclusion of the story, regardless if the story ends happily or tragically. I oftentimes go immediately for the kill—literally—with characters instead of seeing them develop to their own innate endings. More and more with my most recent writing, I feel as though I am finally allowing the story the payoff it is asking for, rather than forcing it.
November 30, 2018
(or you would write it 30 November 2018)
Dear Mr. Wilde, or whoever is reading this,
First of all, I’m 24 and definitely old enough to understand and believe that there’s not necessarily an afterlife. However, it feels only fitting to address the person in the grave.
You were not a perfect person, Mr. Wilde. Yet still the world—now, or at least parts of it—idolizes you so. I finished a year of teaching in China, and China—unsurprisingly—does not teach the truth of you. Maybe even the U.S., where I’m from, did not teach the truth of you when I was younger and first exposed to your works. It was only in my work as a dramaturg on a production of Earnest did I come to learn more.
And what is your truth? Art as beauty, as passion, as style, as truth. An exaggeration, sure, but also a beautiful truth. You used comedy as a vehicle for others to look more critically at their society and themselves.
You were not honored in your lifetime, but you are legendary in your death. I wish you could know both your fame and, still, your infamy.
I hope you have achieved some peace in death that you did not have in life. But no, isn’t it maybe a bit true what you wrote of your sister? You “are not dead, but sleepeth”?
On behalf of us all: thank you for always being yourself. You’ve never shown fear in that, at least according to us.
P.S. I didn’t get you flowers—I apologize.
P.P.S. Two beautiful humans are reading anthologies of work at your grave in Pere Lachaise Cemetery—was it beautiful to succumb in Paris, by the way? Anyway, every time a French police officer comes over to tell them not to sit near your grave, they always return to reading once he passes. Lovely people.
1. A great story should have diversity.
This includes having minority characters who play a substantial role and are not just there as a token stereotype.
2. A great story should have ambiguous characters or situations.
By ambiguous I mean that the audience should not have all the characters figured out completely, that no one is all good or all bad. There are grey areas; I believe this amplifies the stakes.
3. A great story should have the truth of the situation presented.
Though a situation might be ambiguous in how it plays out, it should stay true to the voice of the story.
4. A great story should have taken risks.
It is always worth it to take it in your instinctual direction without judging your idea. See where it takes you.
5. A great story should have moments of ups and downs.
Within the climb to the climax, there should be moments of excitement counteracted with moments of silence or a lull. I do not necessarily mean this in a dialogue sense, but rather in the action of the story.
6. A great story should have its own pace or heartbeat.
The pace can speed up or down, be irregular, etc. so long as it fits the style and truth of the piece.
7. A great story should have attention put into it.
As the writer, it is absolutely vital that you spend time with your story. You must attempt to get to know it inside and out.
8. A great story should have reader/audience investment.
Whether they love or hate it, those actively reading or watching a piece should put a part of themselves in it, or at least find it enthralling in some sense.
9. A great story should have a voice.
Sometimes this is what you have to say and sometimes it is something more than that.
10. A great story should have a human aspect.
Even in fantastical or supernatural stories, embedded in that is humanity or the human’s story. This is an essential part of all storytelling, otherwise who are we writing for?
Copyright © Alyssa Cokinis, 2016. All rights reserved.