Finnian Burnett

Storyteller

I was blessed to sit in on a master class by poet Emily August on journaling practices for creative writers. It was a perfect blend of academic information, details about various techniques, and writing exercises to get us started.

One of the things Dr. August had us practice was automatic writing. Though I didn’t hit anything I’d consider a trance state, I did a free-form piece where I put the pen to paper and didn’t lift it for two minutes.

We started with the word “anarm” and this is what came from my brain.

Anarm. to fit or equip a person with armor or weapons, weapons of partial destruction, the destruction of our lives or our nation our one nation under no god a god that doesn’t exist, the gods, the goddess, goddess save us from the ravages of men of the patriarchal bullshit shoved down our throats into our voices, voices long sought to be silences, long silences, always silenced until we rage and open our mouths in an unending scream.

One great thing I took away from this workshop is that journaling is not there to give me great creative pieces. It’s separate from my daily writing *work* – instead, journaling is more like brain hygiene, a daily chore like brushing your teeth that you do because it’s good for you. I’ve been trying to keep to journaling daily but I have to admit I do skip sometimes. Maybe instead of week-long writer’s retreat, we should have month-long writer’s habit developing retreats. I feel if I got to spend a month with Emily August, waking up every day and journaling before breakfast, the habit would be instilled in my life.

This piece came from one of the excellent workshops I took with author Grace Palmer.

The Price of Cookies

The boy wandered the aisles of the shop and the clerk watched him. She didn’t watch closely; her feet hurt after seven hours on shift, and she didn’t want to go to the trouble of leaving the counter. But she watched him as he moved into view and out of view and she saw the moment when he slipped the cookies—oatmeal raisin—into his pocket.

The boy’s hollow cheeks, the dark circles under his eyes and the hand-me-down clothes that hung from his slender frame gave him a waifish appearance and the clerk wanted to give him the cookies, pay for them herself, offer an apple maybe or a granola bar to go along with them. He looked kind of like her Bobby before he enlisted, all knees and elbows. A kid like that needed more to eat than cookies.

But the security cameras might have seen cookie theft and it wasn’t worth the clerk’s job to let a kid, even a hungry-looking kid like that, walk away with a buck ninety-nine worth of stolen merchandise.

The boy, Kelvin, approached the counter and veered to the left, waving a hand at the clerk with what he hoped was an air of “Just looking. Didn’t find what I wanted” but the clerk called him back and instead of running, Kelvin emptied his pockets onto the counter, unearthing a wallet containing a driver’s license and a love letter from someone who’d died years before, several rubber bands, a pocketknife, a cool rock he’d found in the park earlier, and the package of cookies at the heart of the clerk’s distress.

They both shifted uncomfortably, debating perhaps. Kelvin debating whether there was still time to grab his things and run. The clerk debating whether it was worth the shit pay she made at this job to deal with trying to have a hungry teenager arrested.

The stared at each other for a few moments. Neither knew the other was hanging on just this side of starting to cry.

The clerk sighed, shoved everything back across the counter and said, “Don’t come back here.”

Kelvin left, knowing he’d have to find a new store, further away, leaving his mother alone longer than he wanted. And he walked back through the park, back to the hospital. He tried to eat one of the cookies, but he could barely choke it down his throat.

I took a workshop through the Bath Flash Fiction Festival last month and wrote this during one of the sessions. I generally try to shy away from light-hearted subjects in my flash for some reason, but we had prompts and this came out.

The Kale of the Wilde

Petals float from the invitation and land on Willow’s desk. Thick ink scrolls over the page. The emerging queen of the Hamptons social scene has touched this paper. Willow’s fingers trace the curves of each letter until her skin tingles.

Verdant Spenné requests Willow Wilde’s presence at the season opening of our garden. 

Guests to dress as one’s favourite plant.

Willow’s stepfather, Ralph, owns the landscape company that designed the Spenné gardens.

Willow stomps through Ralph’s greenhouses. Azaleas, White-Edged Hostas, Purple Lupin. Willow doesn’t have a favourite. And though she may dream of Verdant’s radiant face, seeing it at a rich person’s party is more of a nightmare.

Their tenuous connection stems from one chance meeting at the Spenné mansion after Ralph cajoled Willow into spending her coveted summer vacation doing grunt work for a fair wage.

Ivy league schools were expensive, even for scholarship kids, and Willow couldn’t afford to say no.

Willow, sulkily carting a wheelbarrow of compost through the garden had run smack into Verdant and dumped a hefty pile of manure on her feet.

“Oh shit,” Willow yelped.

Verdant, who managed to look regal standing in a pile of compost, grinned. “We go to school together.”

“I’ve seen you.” Willow’s heart thumped madly. “We don’t hang with the same people.”

“We should rectify that.” Verdant disappeared, presumably to wash poop off her Prada slingbacks.

But this party. Ralph tries to help. “It’ll be nice to meet other young people.” He sews bushy fabric leaves onto her I heart New York t-shirt.

Ralph married Willow’s mother ten years ago, six months before she died. Ralph stepped into his dual role with solid determination.

He pulls out a ball cap with “LONDON” across the front and plops it on her head. He hugs her briefly and pushes her out.

Willow stands in Verdant’s garden, lost in a crowd of smartly dressed people in expensive clothing. Their homage to dressing per the invitation extends to leaf printed sundresses and hand fans adorned with roses. The men wear designer Hawaiian shirts and dress sandals.

Willow feels the sneers as she presses through the crowd, conspicuous in jeans and her bushy leaf-covered shirt. She gestures at the London hat and explains to no one in general. “I’m a Kale of Two Cities.” Her voice trails off and she looks around for somewhere to hide. Heat creeps up her face.

Verdant Spenné spies the leafy green municipalities standing awkwardly near the hydrangeas. The hostess, transcendent in a deep green dendritic patterned Vera Wang smiles down at the leafy little woman. “Aren’t we a pair,” she says, her rich voice compassionate and amused. “If I don’t kale you, I’ll make you stronger.”

Willow manages not to swoon, but she can’t bring herself to speak.

Verdant touches Willow’s hand. “Ms. Wilde, are you going to ask me to tour the garden with you?”

Reason departs. Willow smiles up at the goddess before her. “Oh, Ms. Spenné, I plant on it.”

I’m in a bit of a writing mid-life crisis. Of course, when I say “a bit,” I mean I haven’t published a book since 2018 and I have no idea when the next one is coming out.

It isn’t that I’m not writing. I am. I have three completed novels, a mostly completed novel, and an in-process novel. I’ve written some great short stories and submitted a handful of them. Some have even been published.

I won a short story contest this year. One of my stories appeared in an anthology and I’ll have stories in two more anthologies coming out this year. Really, in 2021, I’ve had eight rejections, four acceptances, and there are five still pending. It’s not a complete wash. In 2020, I submitted twice. One rejection, one acceptance. So though my average was higher last year, my productivity definitely was not.

But compared to the frantic daily push to bust out words, finish a novel, revise it, and send it off to a publisher, I do struggle with feeling as if I’m not doing enough for my writing career. I promised myself when I started my doctoral program that I would give myself a break from both writing and trying to publish. And it’s valid. School is challenging. Going to school while continuing to teach is more so. I know I can’t do everything at once. Yet, time seems to be rushing away and I look at my novels, especially the contemporary ones, as aging out of publishability (trust me, it’s a word now) without being seen.

Part of it is not knowing where I fit. I don’t have a genre. One of my books is a contemporary, one is a romantic comedy, one is a fantasy novel. The half-completed one is a kind of thriller. The one I’ve outlined but not started it more of a queer love story (ish). I’m also working on a novella-in-flash. It’s not a lack of ideas that’s holding me back.

Part of it is a lack of motivation or wherewithal or emotional stamina to deal with searching for an agent or a publisher. It’s so much work. You search out one you think might be a great fit. You agonize over a query letter. You stalk their webpage, address people by name, follow all the submission guidelines. And then you wait. And wait. And most of the time, you don’t even get the courtesy of a form email saying, “Thanks, but no thanks.” I’ve heard people say they submitted to twenty or thirty publishers before finding one and the thought makes me tired. I’ve submitted to two. In THREE YEARS. I don’t think it’s a fear of rejection. Maybe it’s more of disillusionment?

But that’s not it. Not really. A lot of writers have to go through the same thing. I think I’ve just hit a stage of ennui in my writing. I want to write, but I want to do it when and how I want. I want to bust out flash fiction stories in a burst of inspiration and then write nothing for a week. I want to write a fantasy novel and then a contemporary fiction and then a romance novel all the while writing literary short stories with the occasional speculative fiction thrown in.

I want to just write and have someone else do all of the gritty work that comes after.

I want all of my work to be valued no matter how strange it is. I want to keep writing what I love even if it’s eclectic, smart, and a little hard to figure out. Just like me.

But really, I just want to be okay with the fact that maybe being a career writer isn’t in the stars for me. And maybe being a college instructor who occasionally wins short story contests or publishes in an anthology and maybe, somewhere down the road, publishes another novel is okay for me.

I don’t have the answers. But I know there are other writers like me – folks who don’t have the time or patience to look for a publisher, folks who don’t have the know-how or money to self-publish, folks who look at their novel or novels and wonder if they’ll just hang out on the computer until they die.

And maybe instead of frustrating myself trying to figure out how to fix it, I can work on just accepting things the way they are.

If you’ve had a similar experience or if you’re currently going through a writer’s midlife crisis, please leave a comment. I’d love to hear from others about their experiences.

I love these little challenges – 50 word stories, 100 word stories. Here’s a 29 word story I wrote the other day. It had to be about a road trip.

Sprawled in the passenger seat, she laughs. “A road trip? But where would we go?”

My fingers, aching to touch her face, curl around the steering wheel instead.

“Anywhere.”