In her beautiful book Flyway Sarah Ens tells her Mennonite grandmother Anni’s story in the form of a long poem. We begin in Ukraine during the period between 1929 and 1945. Anni’s little sister dies, the churches close and Anni’s father is arrested and taken away. Famine comes.
Hunger taught us to wake slowly, to lift, as if from water. If you did not starve, hunger taught you
to watch and wait. If you did not starve, the stone of your stomach turned traitor.
Anni does housework and childcare for her younger siblings while attending school and then graduates just as the Germans invade Ukraine. Amid the war Anni’s brother Peter drowns.
Where is God my mother said. I saw his body blue beneath a smooth skin of water
After a time of German occupation the Red Army approaches and
evacuees crawled the road…….. 35,000 stumbling through the murk. You…
“Well, now,” I said to myself, “I sometimes do interviews with other writers. Why not do one with me? An auto-interview?”
So here it is, with inspiration from interview subjects near and far, young and old, Catholic and Mennonite…
What drew you to this contest?
That is an excellent question. You are not only handsome but wise. Okay, here’s what Dappled Things say about the content they seek for the periodical.
That appealed to my sense of loftiness. Of aiming high. So that’s what I did — with the story and with the submission.
Were you, a Mennonite, concerned by the fact that the publication and the J.F. Powers contest are sponsored by an organization that is “Wholeheartedly Catholic?” Did this fact change your approach to the story?
Not concerned, as much as intrigued. In my experience in South Eastern Manitoba where disparate small towns dot the farmland, there are many predominantly Mennonite, Lutheran, Catholic, and Ukrainian places. Despite coming from distinctly homogenous communities, each with its own dominant religion, people somehow always end up mingling. Whether it is through work, play, school or — inevitably — romance, intersections are created and blending results. Not right away, but over time. I saw this many times in my own family and beyond.
In this way, my story about a mixed Catholic and Mennonite family with a close sibling relationship between two of the children seemed to be a natural fit for the ethos of Dappled Things and the J.F. Powers Prize.
Did it change my approach? No. In fact, the merging of two, I would say, strong faiths, plus the fact that the early “Mennists” grew out of the Catholic religion makes the religious undercurrent in the story a strengthening factor and one that adds an interesting complexity.
Does religion play a major role in your story?
No. Religion is there, the same way the Manitoba prairie is there, to offer context and grounding. In fact, I can’t see how the story could have “got out of its own way” if religion would have been the central theme. I wanted the characters’ inner humanity and the always present tension between our selfish desires and our innate generosity and compassion towards others to be the core conflict. Describing where that generosity comes from is not part of my authorial responsibility. I’m just there to tell a clear story and let the reader find in it what they may.
So… you have a chance?
Nah. Like a platter of Niejoahsch’kuake1 in the church basement on Christmas Eve, I will be long gone after the first wave. The writers in this prize are the Iowa Writers’ Workshop types, The Paris Review essayists, the ones who put the “Masters” in MFA.
Yes, and yet if I read my story, I know there is always hope.
1 New Year fritters. Deep-fried, dusted with icing sugar, sinfully good.
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One of the true pleasures of being an everyday struggling writer—emerging, submerging, and maybe even re-emerging—is meeting others who are in the battle with you.
One such person is Brian Hughes of Winnipeg. I first encountered Brian during one of the Manitoba Writers’ Guild open mic critique sessions. I liked his stories and his slightly offbeat delivery, which I thought added a lot. (Hint: Faulkner is in the house!)
Brian and I ended up in the same writing group, the “Write Clicks,” with members from Winnipeg (some alumni from Carolyn Gray’s WPL Critique group) and Lac du Bonnet, with ex-pats from Donna Besel’s former group. I enjoy his readings and his succinct critiques.
Here’s the interview:
How, when, and why did you start writing?
I stole a typewriter out of a garage at a vacant house when I was twelve and I mark the start of my moral descent from there. The stories from that time have a certain naively tentative eroticism and an undercurrent of self-pity. I never showed them to anyone. When I was fifteen and a little drunk I declared that I wanted to be a seminal genius. I was mocked unmercifully for that and I’ve been hesitant to proclaim my ambitions ever since. I started writing stories with a view to public consumption when I was in my early twenties. There are stories from that time that I’m not ashamed of now.
Can you speak both broadly and specifically about influences?
I was passionate about movies and novels from early on. I read 1984 and tried to read Joyce’s Ulysses at thirteen and read Lolita at fifteen. I would take a novelist I found resonant and try to read all their works, including Nabokov, Joyce Cary, V.S. Naipaul, L.P. Hartley, Margaret Laurence and Joseph Conrad.
I’ve been reading a lot of short stories recently. William Maxwell, William Trevor, Alice Munro, V.S. Pritchett and others.
Cinema 3 in Winnipeg showed a lot of new wave movies, in my teens I was addicted to them. Nous Doux, Get Out Your Handkerchiefs, The 400 Blows, Shoot the Piano Player, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Alfie, Satyricon, 8 1/2, and The Go-Between all stand out in my memory.
Lately, I’m becoming addicted to Netflix. I find the works of the Coen brothers and Vince Gilligan really resonates and their storytelling techniques seem to keep showing up in my writing.
What drives you to write?
One of my favourite quotes is from The Simpsons’ Krusty the Clown – “Do you have a hole in your self-esteem that can only be filled with applause?” – that is part of it and also striving for importance and immortality; to have built a platform that others will stand on to build theirs.
In what other ways do you create?
I studied drawing, painting, printmaking and sculpture. I still try to keep my hand in it.
I’ve taken to building furniture. I’ve always had a strong desire to be self-reliant and I like to take a tree, mill the wood and build a table.
What kinds of writing do you focus on and why?
I seek resonance more than anything else. It can’t be defined but I know when it’s there.
What artistic challenges do you face?
Other people, which is to be expected if you think that others should come to you instead of you reaching out to them. It’s like Greek tragedy; hubris leads to downfall. Ultimately it is my own delusions that I fight with.
Brian Hughes was born in South Africa and came to Canada with his family as a young child. He has lived in Manitoba ever since.
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Big Zeus of a wind. Surface-frozen skim of slush on top of the ice, bright sun. Blue and blue and blue. Hauling ass at 40Kph with my iffy knee suggesting discretion on the port tack and my young blood–so it claims, drunk on endorphins or some other pop science–saying, “screw that!”
I am of the privileged few.
Plus, summer’s coming. A whole new set of physical laws. Wet, bumpy, sticky until you’re planing and the foil lifts you clear of the surface and the volume goes to mute and ravens tumble from above in comical one-upping nose dives.
In my black wetsuit, I must look like an extremely odd, hideous relative. Flightless, except for the clumsy board and sail. Enormous. No feathers and only a dusting of white hair. White, not black. WTF? I’d mock me too, if I was a master flier and fearless freep with a sharp, pointy beak.
Thinking about infinity in a place where it’s always windy.
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“But words are things, and a small drop of ink, Falling like dew, upon a thought, Produces that which makes thousands, perhaps millions, think.”
—Lord Byron (1788-1824)
Note: some of the images and statistical details in this article contain sensitive content.
While preparing a study session article for my writing group (the Write Clicks) about “Writing the Other” with my focus on older adult characters, I take a break. I slurp up a bowl of plain yogurt mixed with turmeric, organic blueberries, and hemp seeds. It’s a snack few people below a certain age—I’m unsure of what that age is, precisely—would eat. Pretty sure I would not have eaten this slop in 1974.
I pause, mid-antioxidant, in front of the TV where a 25-year-old woman discusses how she feels isolated because of her age. She feels old. Oh?
There it is. “Age” in all of its imprecise, vague, fluid, and ambiguous glory.
The woman, one many would readily term a younger woman, is a U.S. Olympic figure skater and her presence on the team is, in statistical terms, an anomaly. The 25-year-old figure skater feels “old,” even though only days later a 35-year-old woman wins gold in speed skating.
Context is everything.
For our writing then, how DO we define the terms: Old, Older, Older Adults (AP and other style guides’ preferred term), Older Persons (another benign choice), Elder, Elderly, Aged, Senior, etc.? I’m not sure if any clear-cut definitions can be applied.
While definitions are tricky and may not be necessary, it’s important to use words that describe individuals and groups accurately and without bias or inference.
To be honest, I began this process—researching and preparing an essay on age and ageism in writing—with a sense that I was a part of the stigmatized cohort and therefore had an intuitive, insider perspective. I am a 66-year-old emerging writer and I have experienced many of the negative situations older people commonly endure. I find examples on “writer Twitter” that are demeaning towards older emerging writers.
While all that is true, it’s also true that there are many others who suffer far more than me. Those who are older than me (not all but some); those who struggle financially, older adults with serious mental or physical health challenges, those who live alone or reside in remote locations or those in regions where exploitation, neglect, abuse, and violence towards older men and women is endemic—all these tolerate more than I. And what of older individuals who also are part of other marginalized, stigmatized, or mistreated groups?
I also need to confess that deeply embedded habits and preconceptions still live on in me despite my recognition of my own ageing and despite my best intentions. My personal age bias persists. Check your own—I’d be surprised if you didn’t find that you too have nested beliefs and problematic word choices in your vocabulary. Our society has entrenched a vernacular of systemic bias towards older populations.
That’s the point, isn’t it? To become aware of the insidious microaggression of “slings and arrows1” and to stop their proliferation in literature. Ideally, we will embrace better choices and enact our own individual programs to stop the underlying mindset that gives permission to ageism.
I.Acceptability. “Is that okay to say?“
An Uncomfortable Sag
There are certain phrases and once socially acceptable sayings that cause most people today to experience feelings… Feelings that extend beyond the superficial message in the statement. Take for example, “that’s women’s work.” Say it aloud to yourself. Feel it? An uncomfortable sag in your mood? Depending on your point of view, your feelings may run from “So what?” to “How the eff could that have been acceptable?” For most, I believe, this obsolete, misogynist phrase causes that uncomfortable sag. It was insidious and powerful in its time and those who used it as a verbal weapon knew what they were doing. What they were really saying had to do with their view of order: “Males are superior; females are inferior.”
Now, what about age and ageism, today? My observation is that demeaning stereotypical statements concerning older adults are not only common but are often given tacit permission and validity by tepid or nonexistent rebuttals. Where is that “uncomfortable sag” when we hear a person described as “just an old fool?” This slur implies that most older adults suffer from dementia, or what used to be called “senility.” And, while we’re on the topic, the etymology of the word “senility” is derived from an ageist source:
Like gender bias, age bias has many false comforts built into the language; into the mindset. Our society still stubbornly accepts most ageist stereotypes as truth. We are conditioned to allow this.
“He’s just having a senior moment…” Stereotyping: seniors lack mental acuity.
“Well, I think it’s just ADORABLE to see her try to waterski!” Condescension or belittling behaviour: treating older adults as if they were children. Another example, one that takes sharp aim at appearance and our enslavement to youth is the title of Editor/Contributor Rona Altrows’ collection of essays, short stories, and poetry, You Look Good For Your Age. Discussing the original idea for her book, Ms. Altrows writes:
“Blue Hairs… Porcelain Hips… Silverbacks.” Caricaturing: Using insulting names like these or “geezer,” “old fart,” “old bag” to let an attribute or broadly applied characterization represent an entire group of people.
Even more deplorable are these two aces in the caricature deck: “Angry Old Man” and “Crazy Old Lady.” These two pejoratives herd all ages and personalities into a single, stigmatic “type” that is at once degrading and handily gender specific. These objectional phrases in fact draw few actual objections.
Then there is the everyday salad bar of feckless labels… a plethora of crudities, code-words, and depricating blanket descriptors:
stingy, creepy, smelly, unpleasant, needy
baffled by technology, slow-witted, simple, demented, senile, incompetent
weak, slow-moving, unfit, has-been, stuck in the past, indifferent, uninformed, uncool
sexually inactive, unattractive or perverse (take your pick or choose column C:  All of the Above)
Had enough? Me too.
Society has made progress towards de-normalizing negative language and attitudes towards women, and increasingly, towards other groups for whom a history of bias and discrimination exists: look at race, religion, sexual nature… So why is it seemingly still OKAY to malign older individuals?
Furthermore, how can we reduce the importance of age in our assessment of older people, without disregarding the positive aspects of age? How can we properly and appropriately recognize age and approach older adults as equals, albeit ones with a differing set of circumstances, experiences, and background references, among other things?
Once again we must ask, “who—exactly—are ‘the old?’” Finding one definition seems improbable. We need to incorporate individual, circumstantial factors.
Without fail and throughout our lives, every one of us is viewed as if through a constantly shifting kaleidoscope of age: Seen simultaneously by some as “old” and by others as “young.”
II. Diminishing Harm; Normalizing Ageism
Is ageism really that big of a problem? Does ageism compare to racism or misogyny or other societal bias and discrimination? If you really, really love your grandmother, for example, how could you possibly harbour ageist thoughts or sympathies?
Like me, I suspect many of you will start out with a “no-no-no way” self-assessment. Part of what is entrenched in systemic ageism are diminishing arguments that seek to uphold what we’ve come to see as norms. So, please be wary of blinders you may have in place and take a hard look.
If we don’t honestly confront our own embedded ageism we won’t be able to keep it out of our writing.
“It seems to me that this determination by the non-elderly is a consequence of the death-denying culture in which we live, where youth is overvalued, the middle-aged control the world, and the old are perceived as useless, and therefore, better dead.”
—Sharon Butala (Officer of the Order of Canada) in “This Strange Visible Air – Essays on Aging and the Writing Life”
Butala is not alone in her unflinching appraisal. The Gerontological Society of America sees ageism as having its roots in a kind of hateful miasma, utilizing violent terms like “Coffin Dodger” and “Boomer Remover.” They see a condition in which,
“The rhetoric of disposability underscores age discrimination on a broader scale, with blame toward an age cohort considered to have lived past its usefulness for society and to have enriched itself at the expense of future generations.”
The grief of older people and their plight in our society is greatly undervalued.
Older adults are unfailingly “young adjacent.” There is no escaping to a separate place where ageism is non-existent. Older adults must operate in the presence of, with, and sometimes in spite of those younger adults who do not care to interact with us.
Ageists are not confined to a small group of outliers. For a present-day, real-world indicator of the state of ageism and its potential for negative influence, consider the Covid experience, worldwide.
“Whether it’s the impacts on their own health or losing their jobs or the isolation or exclusion from treatments [COVID-19] has really shone a light on ageism,”
While older adults (statistically, slightly more men than women) are always going to lead the Covid mortality percentages over more youthful cohorts—age is a strong predictor of death rates—older Canadians exhibit a statistical abnormality in Covid: an extramargin of death. In 2020:
Total number of deaths (all causes): 309,912
Total number of “expected deaths” (from all causes): 295,379 est.
Total number of “excess deaths” (more than expected): 14,533 est.
Total number of deaths in older adults (from all causes, age 65 and +): 249,278
Number of “excess deaths” in older adults (65 and +): 11,386 est.
Most (78%) of the “excess death” was in the 65 and + category. Covid has revealed a tear in our social fabric and it is chilling to consider.
Older adults are dying at a rate much higher than expected even when co-morbidity and other risk factors are calculated in.
We also have to acknowledge that an undeniable nexus exists between older adult housing facilities and significantly higher infection and death rates.
Unchecked ageism obviously does nothing to help older adults in group homes, and may actually, at its worst, put older adults at a higher risk of death.
Author Butala identifies a correlation: she sees a link between the number of older adults with lesser resources or uncaring or unable families, who are dying needlessly because of the places in which they live: “Elder warehouses,” some staffed by underpaid, undertrained and underskilled employees. Profit-driven group homes with questionable diet, health, and medical care. It’s a long, ugly systemic trail that ends with group housing being the frequent epicentre for concentrations of Covid deaths.
Furthermore, for the many older adults who also overlap certain other marginalized populations (experiencing the effect of intersectionality), there may be an even greater and more shocking comparative “excess” death rate. John Okrent’s moving verse touches on this and offers inspiration to us as writers.
Last, we would do well to remember that older adults represent a significant portion of the Canadian “patchwork quilt.” In Canada today, StatsCan estimates, “Almost one in five (18.5%) Canadians are now aged 65 and older.” This segment is growing—if we assess the number of older characters in Canadian literature today, will it reach 18.5%?
Moreover, Saskatchewan Seniors Mechanism reports in Ageism and Media in Saskatchewan, that: “By the year 2050, it is predicted that the number of older adults will exceed the number of younger persons to reach approximately 22% of the world’s population”
—Abdullah and Wolbring 2013; Nosowska, McKee, and Dahlberg 2014
That’s an important consideration but wait a minute… While older adults are predicted to grow in percentage, the full effect of Covid has yet to be reckoned. As a poet friend of mine—one who’s also good at math and stats—pointed out, Covid’s disproportionate effect on older populations may skew results and cause a reformulation of the growth curve of older cohort percentiles. This deadly reformulation happened while we were home watching Netflix and some were grousing about restrictions on “freedom.”
Death has the ultimate effect on freedom.
This situation cries out for our attention. It begs our activism as citizens first, but also as writers and communicators because we can so effectively lead by example, help to inform public opinion and drive change in popular culture.
“Ageism can operate both consciously (explicitly) and unconsciously (implicitly), and it can be expressed at three different levels: micro-level (individual), meso-level (social networks) and macro-level (institutional and cultural).”
—Determinants of Ageism against Older Adults: A Systematic Review
III. There are Many Negatives—What are the POSITIVES?
Negative media and gut-turning examples abound (see the images below, if you still doubt that) but we need some positive input to balance the scales and keep us from smashing all the dishware.
Strive for Positive Words
Avoiding negative communication is half the battle.
As artists, we must strive for positive words and phrasing. There is much to be admired in older adults and also in the uplifting canon of writing about elderly individuals. I cite John Okrent above and Old Man and the Sea a bit further on. Here are several other exemplars from my own bookshelf:
—The older characters in The Grapes of Wrath. Steinbeck’s characters, by the way, were drawn literally from real life. He embedded as a documentary journalist with a large group of migrants heading west and his The Grapes of Wrath characterizations were hybrids of the behaviour he witnessed first hand.
—Fight Night, Miriam Toews’ shining, unafraid story of an older woman living out the last joyful but complicated months of her life and the descriptions of her loving—but often fractious—family relationships is a superlative guide. It is an insightful, true depiction of a singular character who, more than anything, “wanted to be in the thick of things!” She did not allow systemic ageism or the social stigma of age or her physical challenges stop her.
—Moonlight Graham is one of my favourite literary characters. W.P. Kinsella brings the character to life in the novel Shoeless Joe. It’s a rich and complex template for writing about an older adult character.
[…] “That’s what I wish for. Chance to squint at a sky so blue that it hurts your eyes just to look at it. To feel the tingling in your arm as you connect with the ball. To run the bases – stretch a double into a triple, and flop face-first into third, wrap your arms around the bag. That’s my wish,”
—Moonlight Graham, in Shoeless Joe, discussing his dream to have an at-bat in a big league ball game
The Graham character expresses his wish, not in terms bound by time or constrained by a stereotypical view of an older person’s body, but rather from the viewpoint of a strong ballplayer, ready to take on the mental and physical challenges that create a definition of who he is. It’s how he sees himself and how we see him too.
—And yet, age is not imagined. Our bodies change and that can include our mental and emotional state as well. There’s no need to sugar-coat this or pretend that an end to life is not real. This must be faced for what it is. Who better than a poet to take this on?
[…] “You live a while and then time happens…
his knobbly hands lying on the white sheet blue almost grey ridges of blood running across his hand’s map his thin arms the pale blue top nurses tied in bows at his back his brown eyes you could see through if you weren’t afraid…“
—Patrick Friesen, The Shunning
—Here’s another moving example: an adult son considering his father’s later-life adversity. It is written with respect and honesty. An excerpt from Ralph Friesen’s lovely memoir, Dad, God, and Me.
[…] “(Mom) called the next morning to say that Dad had died…I hung up the phone, went to the living room, and picked out a Peter, Paul, and Mary LP from the stack on the table…The trio of voices, so harmonious, celebrated Stewball, the legendary racehorse: ‘Oh way up yonder / Ahead of them all / Came a prancin’ and a dancin’ / the noble Stewball.’Tears started in my eyes; I did not know why. Today I think of the song as an ode to my father, who had always put himself second, who abjured dancing, who was humble and slow-moving. Now, released from his pain-body, he was a beautiful thoroughbred, dancing proudly, crossing the finish line first.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hXdQB-mR4tg
IV. If Only There Was a Style Guide.
In Gregory Younging’s brilliant, Elements of Indigenous Style – A Guide for Writing By and About Indigenous Peoples, the author covers the full spectrum of do’s and don’ts and (in my estimation) a few “Hell, NOs!” Older adults and those who write about/depict them could take some pages, literally, from Younging’s book.
Elements of Indigenous Style outlines 22 principles of Indigenous style. The author goes into detail and these tenets are specifically Indigenous, not “cookie-cutter.” It’s worth noting too that in Elements of Indigenous Style the seventh Principle is “Elders.”
“Indigenous style recognizes the significance of Elders in the cultural integrity of Indigenous Peoples and as authentic sources of Indigenous cultural information… Indigenous style follows Protocols to observe respect for Elders.”
Page 100-101, “Elements of Indigenous Style – A Guide for Writing By and About Indigenous Peoples,” Appendix A. Brush Education Inc. 2018.
Younging’s work concerning Elders, in particular, could be seen as a trailblazer and inspirational matter, and writers depicting older adults of all “race, creed, colour, and religions” can draw substance from this work.
A similar groundwork—an “Older Adult Style Guide” perhaps—is needed. Something with Elements of Indigenous Style‘s comprehensive nature; a Strunkian Elements of Older Adult Style.
Happily, such a guide DOES exist! In fact, more than ONE!
An excellent publication from nearby Saskatchewan is Words are Powerful. A link to the PDF and the website is included and I’m sure readers will find this to be an excellent source.
For this resource and more, please see Other Reading, below.
V. A Style Guide for Older Adult Characters, Scenesand Stories
[…] “analysis of past and present literature shows that the aged have been stereotyped and portrayed negatively. By not assigning them a full range of human behaviours, emotions, and roles, authors have categorized them, resulting in ‘ageism’—discrimination against the elderly.”
—Anita F. Dodson and Judith H. Hauser, “Ageism in Literature. An Analysis Kit for Teachers and Librarians.” 1981 (Sponsored by U.S. Dept. of Education.)
It’s cogent to note that the conditions found in the 1981 study cited above have not changed much. For me, this status quo suggests that if there are no rules, the lowest common denominator will continue to prevail for older adults in literature. (The biggest bully wins… well-known to schoolteachers, bartenders, and parliamentarians.) So, as a point of embarkation, here are a few basic ground rules for those writing about older adults as “the other:”
1. Examine your reasons: exactly why is it necessary for you to write for or about someone outside of your own experience, in this particular situation? Could this better be left for older adultauthors to take on? #ownstory
Confession: I’m in the camp of wanting lots of writers to write about the other; about older adults. The more often older characters appear, central to the plot and treated as equals, the better.
2. Recognize and avoid “young saviour” syndrome.
3. Do your homework. Know the issues. Read older adult authors. Go to their places, meet with older adults, listen, observe, participate. Ask.
4. Review your draft with older adults. Consult with accredited individuals or those recognized by peers. (You might have to pay them.)
5. Assign older characters to main character roles and place them in a diverse range of occupations and settings.
6. Older adults do not necessarily see themselves as “OLD,”or at least, not entirely.Writers must capture this aspect of self-identification when they write older characters.
Sidebar: The Cojimar fisher upon whom Hemingway based the Santiago character was late forties-early fifties. So “old” as a definitive description is assailed once again.P.S. — JUSTIN TRUDEAU is 50.
7. “Older Adults” is not a homogenous or coherent group*—it is as diverse as any younger group in all categories including AGE.Recognize and avoid cliched older adult tropes
8. Older people may not always want to be judged by “young” standards. Older adults are not “failed*” or “under-performing” young people, THEY ARE THEIR OWN DISTINCT COHORT. Furthermore, like other groups who are made invisible by prevailing bias and discrimination, older adults want to be seen as individuals and not just as an interchangeable part of a group or category.
9. Attack your own bias. Seeing, revealing, and dismantling your own personal prejudices will unlock a sense of honesty in others. (And free your writing from a disingenuous constraint.)
10. WHAT IS MISSING FROM THIS LIST?
1. Ageism is unique and distinct from other similar social problems. At the same time, the approaches used successfully by other systemically marginalized groups can be considered and may be adapted to combat ageism.
2. Ageism is no less serious than other forms of discrimination or bigotry.
3. It is within the scope of art, including all kinds of writing, to uplift older adults and address ageism directly and at the source.
1Treatment of the Elderly in Shakespeare Shakiya Snipes Denison University
One Last Thought…I’ve made over 500 submissions to literary markets in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. since 2015. In my experience, I’ve never seen a submission guideline that prohibits ageism by name. (If you find one, please place a link in the comments!)
More positively, here are the formal submission guidelines from one of the largest circulation literary periodicals of the past three decades, Tin House. “Publisher of award-winning books of literary fiction, nonfiction, and poetry; home to a renowned workshop and seminar series; and partner of a critically acclaimed podcast, Tin House champions writing that is artful, dynamic, and original.”
Tin House addresses its prospective authors with care, inclusiveness, and specificity. This is the submission guidelines boilerplate I’d like to see used by every literary periodical, anthology, prize, and publisher!
“In particular, we are looking to engage with work by writers from historically underrepresented communities, including—but not limited to—those who are Black, Indigenous, POC, disabled, neurodivergent, trans and LGBTQIA+, debuting after 40, and without an MFA.”
A Canadian literary periodical that is noteworthy is Agnes and True, which “celebrates the achievement of women…” and also states, “In addition, we are particularly interested in discovering and publishing the work of emerging older writers.”
Most mornings… in fact, most mornings as long as I can remember, I wake up happy. It’s a trait I would not trade. I am a cheerful morning person with a positive outlook. However, I must admit that some mornings are more of a poutlook. Soo gohne daut; so goes it.
Pouty mornings I sometimes call, “The Morning After Nothing.” A kind of bitter hollowness, apropos of nothing, with nothing left to lose, and nothing is more true than that you still have to get up and make the bed and get going. There is no cancel button for this illness.
“Cancel” starts with a C. What else starts with C are the things that conquer the dog-breath stench of waking up on a Morning After Nothing: coffee, chickadees, and creativity. My go-to fixes, respectively: Medium C, Little Cs, and Big C.
Coffee and the antics of our neighbour chickadee pals are self-explanatory cheer-bringers. Creativity is the third great remedy because it takes you away from the grumbly place and puts you far on the other side of Nothing. This last C takes you straight to Elsewhere: rapping at a keyboard, pushing wood through a saw, trying to learn a new move on the windsurfer. Painting something for a friend or for one of our pog grandkids. (That’s my wife Janice’s usual way out.)
Today, I found the coffee less than stimulating and the chickadees were their usual acrobatic and fearless 15-gram selves but I still had the look of the guy at the back of the longest line at the grocery store… the guy with the dripping container of ice cream.
But, C-ing is believing, as the saying goes, so I moved on to Creativity: “C’mon Creativity, papa needs a new toque!” I wound up considering a difficult short story I’ve been working on for a long time. It’s an outside-your-comfort-zone story, with nary a Mennonite in sight. The story is dark and harsh, and carries a gut-shot of implicit violence. Well, if you’re gonna write about toxic masculinity, I guess you gotta break a couple of… Uhh, scratch that—sounds too glib, and not a little.
This is the story that started up in my head after reading an incredible story by the super-pog Becky Hagenston, “Midnight, Licorice, Shadow.” I was determined to jump outside of my skin—that old, wrinkly bag of derma—and take on the many risks attendant for an older man who writes a story that contains difficult passages; violence both emotional and physical and violence against both men and women.
Violence is real. Violence towards women happens. Violence is at the heart of the topic I wanted to broach, and yet, how could I, “go there?”
Would it be best to just bail-out? Let someone else handle this topic? Did you just shout, “Hell yeah?” I understand, and yet, I have an indelible memory; something that happened to me, in real life, in the real world on the #1 Highway just west of the Bow Flats, at the feet of Big Sister, Middle Sister, and Little Sister.
As you can see, I choose to go ahead with the story. The early iterations were the cause of some “Morning after Nothing” feels, but “vann aul, dann aul,” as is said in the Plaut: “if already, then already,” or “if you’re going to do it, go all the way!”
So I did.
Ugh. The result was more than one editor, I fear, not seeing the Red Badge of Courage in my choices, but instead feeling triggered and put upon. More than one editor who might have stroked me off a list or two. For good, or longer.
Still, this the way of it, is it not? If there’s no risk, then I will stay forever in the safe-feeling place—potentially a moribund state for my writing—where I just write happy, little stories about wise Mennonites. Where grey-bearded Opas nod knowingly and open their mouths to release a dazzling, atmospheric river of axiomatic truths and cornpone savviness. Savvy like, “vann aul, dann aul.”
But… many rewrites and tough critiques later, I feel as though the story has evolved and now comes closer to the way I want it. Consider: I am a male writer, someone who grew up in times and places where even the worst acts of wanton male violence were sometimes forgiven—forgiven (or given up) even by those who suffered the violence. Forgiven by those whose job is was to police this violence: pulpit, patrol car, politician. I lived this condition, directly and indirectly. Is that not a story worth considering? Is it not important to write from a point of view that—without absolution and without friendly framing—tells a human story in all of its unsettling truth?
I vote yes.
There’s a part near the end of “Midnight, Licorice, Shadow” where the author describes something being thrown into a dumpster, “with a thud,” and your heart sinks, and you feel a bit sick to your stomach. Without that passage the story is still wonderfully strong, but when you read it… when you read, “with a thud,” you are moved in a way that will last.
That! That result is the big prize, the one worth taking some risks to attain. It’s how a story can make a difference. It’s certainly one way to beat the Morning After Nothing blues!
Besides, as some wily Mennonite Oma must have said, to some future author on some far shore: “the best way to catch fish is to keep fishing!”
So I will.
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Image: My grandparents and my uncle Ken in Steinbach, MB during the 40s; Mennonites hiding in plain sight.
As I idle down the back lanes of my brain’s daydream centre, procrastinating before my session on the rowing machine, I imagine what the logline might look like for a collection of my short stories. Note that I’m idling along the back lanes—where windmills and cobwebs exist in perfect harmony—on a brand-new, electric Ural sidecar motorcycle. Hey… if you’re gonna daydream, go carbon-friendly or go home!
Mitchell Toews’ collection of insightfulshort stories, “Pinching Zwieback – Prairie Stories,”reveals the confines of small-town life in a Mennonite community. Vivid characters demand to be heard and recognized. The book’s mixture of the iconoclastic and the nostalgic delivers reality through the little-seen lens of an outsider—but one with a deep insider pedigree. Toews’ heartfelt expression of lives lived captures the conflict and the contradictions that are unavoidable in these insular Jemeend*.
Pulling apart the clockwork of the axiomatic Mennonite profile, Toews probes for what is common to all and what is beautiful and what is problematic within faith, culture, domestic life, commerce, and interaction with the wide world beyond.
*Or Gemeinde: Communities or congregations
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I’m working a lot lately on creating stories that follow my understanding of an “impressionistic writing style.”
This is, you see, part of the Jessica Lake MFA I’m enrolled in. The internet and my writing group, the reading I do, my readers and editors are the instructors. I am definitely the coolest guy in my MFA. In fact, I’m the only guy in my MFA, but then, I always avoid giving statistics too much credence.
The overriding rules go a little like a Lightnin’ Hopkins song — there’s some improvisation involved as you go along:
Writen in the present, without reflection or authorial comment
No narrative intrusions of any kind — the story simply unfolds in the reader’s mind
Choice of words is left to “Mot juste” or a sense of using just the “right” word that contributes to the totality of the piece without undue attention to the beauty of the prose.
Scene — a reportorial flow, objective, use of understatement and simple words, clear imagery, repetition and reiteration of key words and phrases, strong description of action, use of landscape to echo emotion… the last bit suggested by author and writing instructor Lauren Carter of Winnipeg.
Character — describe traits or activities, but not physical attributes
Action — up close and participatory with reader as onlooker, cinematic: rapid (fluttering) or slow motion and may utilize a bird’s-eye view from above that is clipped and declarative
Sensation — actions are felt by the reader, be concrete and crude, be simple and realistic, work the senses
Style — author should express their individuality as a writer (untarnished), focus always on the subject and what the subject experiences, use the iceberg technique to hide the worst and only show the surface — the tip — of what is wrong, and ala Hemingway and Manitoba memoirist Donna Besel, write slow and clear about the most terrible and the most hurtful.
Note: A good deal of this came from a doctoral thesis (from a few decades ago) I found on the web and now cannot relocate to cite. Acch. Quite a bit is of my own invention so… maybe the no citation is okay here. If you recognize it, lemme know!
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[…] From Wikipedia: The Pushcart Prize is an American literary prize published by Pushcart Press that honors the best “poetry, short fiction, essays or literary whatnot” published in the small presses over the previous year. Magazine and small book press editors are invited to submit works they have featured. Anthologies of the selected works have been published annually since 1976. It is supported and staffed by volunteers.
My story, “Sweet Caporal” about a morning of fishing on Big Whiteshell Lake has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize by Editor Robert Boucheron on behalf of the quarterly literary journal, Rivanna Review, of Charlottesville, Va.
This is my third Pushcart nomination, the first from a U.S. periodical. It is the second time a version of “Sweet Caporal” has been nominated.
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I’ve assembled a collection of short stories to present to small presses in Canada. My hope is that I can attract a skilled, smart, simpatico partner to work with and publish the collection. I have several unpublished works and just over 90 published stories from which to choose.
I curated the stories into a themed collection and they are mostly those tales I have written that I consider “MennoGrit.” I define this in a sloppy way — like when you have to saw a board with your left hand:
Stories about real life. Ordinary people who encounter difficult situations and respond in a mannerincommensurate with their simple station in life. Allegedly simple.
“So, what’s your book about?” is the question that everyone from agent to publisher to the person in the line at the pharmacy, pimple cream in hand, might ask.
Good question. To better understand this I pulled up the manuscript and made a list of the themes or messages that are at the core of each story. I was surprised by what I found. Here is that Thematic Table of Contents:
Loyalty…toxic male behaviour
Women’s rights in a patriarchy
Growing up…responsibility…saying no
Friendship and its obligations
Right and wrong…courage
Toxic religion…abuse of authority
Faith…life and death
Abuse of authority
Life and death
Written as they are in the mind of my times, I can focus ice cold on these themes. They come from the lives that exist in all places, including those I know best. There is no “trending” in these familiars, where I am the son — both homegrown and prodigal — only observations scooped up and saved in a coffee can, resting placid and true on the high shelf where they have cured; some softening, some hardening.
The working title of the book is “Pinching Zwieback — Prairie Stories.”
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