Finnian Burnett

Storyteller

I was in a workshop and our exercise was just to write some words based on a strange painting of crows, horses, and bees.

A horse is a horse until it’s not of course.

A crow could be a raven when it’s wearing a hat.

Bees don’t buzz if they’re dipped in red paint, but they leave angry streaks on the walls.

A horse can do math up to 168 and can learn their letters up to a, b, c, d.

Crows become penguins with the right colour beak. Their bodies grow and shrink and shriek and flow.

Bees are flowers if you can’t see their wings, a stinging criticism of your inability to perceive what’s real and not.

Horses don’t eat crow, even when they’re ashamed, but crows will eat horse if someone else does the cooking.

Bees are only bees until they become a poem and you are only you if you write it yourself.

I had such an amazing time giving a flash fiction workshop to the members of the Herstry Journal. We did some generative writing, talked about some flash analysis, and looked at ways to revise a flash piece. The participants asked a lot of phenomenal questions and that generated a lot of questions.

One question we discussed, and did not come up with a definitive answer, was “What is a story?” What is a story? Who gets to decide? Is it a piece with a full narrative? In flash, that’s not necessarily true. After all, flash pieces are often about a moment in time and some of them leave enough ambiguity at the end, the reader has to figure out what really happened.

A story is as simple as a retelling of events. It’s a snapshot of a moment. It doesn’t necessarily have to have a tidily wrapped up ending, but it should have closure of some sort. If you read a lot of flash fiction, you’ll begin to find story arcs in even the smallest pieces, even if the arc doesn’t seem to be there at first.

So is that the answer? A story is a narrative about events that carries an arc?

I think we could debate about the definition of a story. For me, I want to know what makes a powerful story? What makes you stop at the end of a piece and think about it after?

I remember the first time I read Margaret Atwood’s Stone Mattress collection. The first time I read it, I just devoured it. But the second time, I had to stop after each story and appreciate the nuances.

The first story in Gaynor Jones’ book “Among These Animals” was so good I had to pause for a moment after I finished it, read it again, and just think about it for a few minutes before I went on.

What is the quality that makes a story give an emotional sucker punch? It’s different for every person and it’s probably more undefinable than the overall concept of what defines a story. To me, a quality story is one that doesn’t give me everything. It makes me work for it. It makes me fill in the lines and determine what I believe happens outside of what is said.

Maybe that’s why I love flash fiction so much. It can’t reveal everything because it doesn’t have the space to do so. Flash fiction forces authors to choose their words carefully and to leave the reader wanting just a little more.

Sometimes, you start a story in a workshop and you keep telling yourself you’ll go back to it and finish it, but you never get around to it. This is one of those pieces. It was based of the art and I just never finished it, though I like the beginning.

File:Henryk Weyssenhoff - Przeczucie 1893.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Premonition Henryk Weyssenhoff 1893

The dogs are baying again. I part the curtain with shaking fingers and peer into the gloaming. My husband’s hunting hounds flank a shadow in the courtyard, howling and shivering. There’s nothing there, but the skin on my neck crawls and something makes me reach for my husband’s shotgun. Frozen by conflicting needs to both open the door and call in the dogs and to bar the door against whatever might be coming, I stand still, my hands wrapped around Henry’s gun, the one he used time and again to bring us food for the coming winters. One of the hounds, maybe Butter, yelps, breaking my paralysis. I rush the door and yank it open, holding the shotgun level.

“Butter. Franklin. Get in here now.”

The dogs rush the door, and barrel past me, hair standing up on their ruffs. I slam the door the moment they’re in and fumble for the locks, clasping all of them, even the extra wide metal bar Henry installed last year after the O’Malley place across the valley got ransacked and Mrs. O’Malley raped and killed while the Mr. was out on a hunting trip. I have to put down the shotgun to wrestle it into place; it weighs almost as much as I do.

This is another first draft of an Ekphrastic piece.

https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/393908

The Apparition, James Tissot (French, Nantes 1836–1902 Chenecey-Buillon), Mezzotint on wove paper; second state of two

The Apparition James Tissot 1885

My father’s hands reach for me from the darkness. His fingers nearly brush my ankle and I shrink away, pulling my legs tighter against my body.

My mother holds a light, her face leans in my direction. “Trust us, baby.” Her soft voice, deceptively kind draws me in, but I harden my heart. Their soft whispers as I skulked around their bed at night spoke of sacrifice, of killing their only child. My hands ache to touch the tears cascading down my mother’s face, the tears that belie her desire to murder me in my bed.

My father gropes for me again, blindly fumbling on the bedclothes. He passes a candle in front of him, casting light across the clean, unrumpled bedsheets. I stare at him as he mumbles again, invoking the sweet Anubis to come for my soul.

“It’s for the best,” my mother whispers. She reaches out and for a moment, I can almost feel her hand on my head. A surge of memory, my mother wiping my fevered brow, my father crying, the doctor shaking his head.

Against my will, my hands reach for my mother and pass through her. Something else grabs for me, strong hands, not my father’s, nor my mother and for a moment, I struggle and try to cry out, but the hands grow warm, alive, and my fingers barely brush my mother’s face before I relax into the grasping hands.

I truly enjoyed the Ekphrastic workshop with Lorette C. Luzajic of the Ekphrastic Review. She combines excellent, thought-provoking pieces of art with writing exercises and I have left both workshops with several stories. One was recently published on the site. If you’re looking for a new and fun writing workshop, I highly recommend these. I’ll be taking another in January.

https://www.ekphrastic.net/ekphrastic-journal/colours-of-a-life-by-finnian-burnett