Keeping You A-Prized

2nd Runner-up: ‘All our Swains Commend Her’ by Mitchell J Toews

“What I thought the most while reading this one for the first time was: ‘This must have taken so long to write!’ Every sentence is packed with detail and not a word is spared. A highly skilled piece of writing with a lot to say about the way we live and how we treat one another. Can’t believe such a short piece of writing left me with such memorable characters and so much to think about!” — Raven Contest Judge Leo X Robertson

Part of my writing routine is to enter literary contests. It’s an imperfect venue but offers some advantages in the immense ocean of strung-together words that English-speaking creative writing is today, in the internet age. Plus, there are unique benefits to prizes, like… well, prizes!

Before I began publically calling myself a writer (and changed my signature from Mitch to Mitchell because it sounded sooo much more writerly) I had a hot streak going. I entered every “Send us a 100-word essay on what makes our spindrift calibrators the best in the market and win a free JUICER!” contest: that kind of thing. My pinnacle was winning a new Animal wristwatch when my piece about losing my last Animal watch in Jessica Lake took top honours.

Another unique benefit of story contests is the vanity aspect. Self-confidence, joh? Just like getting your essay pinned up on the bulletin board by Miss Hildebrand in Grade Four (see my C-V for details), I find an undeniable allure in “grabbing some podium.” (A phrase which sounds like something you’d get thrown out of a strip bar for doing.)

Anyway, as the universe’s lone marketing advocate for Mitchell J. Toews, Writer and Animal Watch Loser, I hereby announce that the aforementioned writer, MJT, has grabbed some PULP podium. (Again, I admit there’s something off about that would-be idiom. I’ll workshop it with the gang down at Animal.)

The podium—corvid podium, no less—is as follows:

The PULP Literature 2023 Raven Short Story Contest

Catriona Sandilands with ‘Revolutions’ WINNER
Alison Stevenson with ‘Foam’ 1st RUNNER UP
Mitchell Toews with ‘All Our Swains Commend Her’ 2nd RUNNER UP
Kevin Sandefur with ‘Marty’ Honourable Mention

Still here? You must be procrastinating about something. (I am one who knows.) Well, to enable your delay tactics, here is a list of my Greatest Hits from the literary contest and prize bandstand:

“So Are They All” — short story, Second Place in the Adult Fiction category of the Write on the Lake Contest, (Ca) 2016 ISSN: 1710-1239

“Fall from Grace” — short story, Honourable Mention in The Writers’ Workshop of Asheville Memoirs Contest, (US) 2016

“The Phage Match” — short story, Finalist in Broken Pencil’s (Ca) annual Deathmatch Contest, 2016

“Cave on a Cul-de-sac” — short story, Winner in The Hayward Fault LineDoorknobs & Bodypaint Issue 93 Triannual Themed Flash Contest, (US) 2018 

“I am Otter” — short story, CommuterLit (Ca), Runner-up in for Flash Fiction Feature, 2018

“Sweet Caporal at Dawn” — short story, nominated by Blank Spaces for a PUSHCART PRIZE, 2019

“Piece of My Heart” — a 750-word or less flash fiction was named “Editors’ Choice” in the 2020 Bumblebee Flash Fiction Contest from Pulp Literature Press (Ca)

“The Margin of the River” — short story, nominated by Blank Spaces for a PUSHCART PRIZE, 2020

“Fetch” — short story, one of 11 finalists in a national field of over 800 entries: The Writers’ Union of Canada’s Short Prose Competition for Emerging Writers, (Ca), 2021

“Sweet Caporal” has been nominated by Rivanna Review, Charlottesville, Va. for a PUSHCART PRIZE, 2021

“The Rabid,” finalist in the 2022 PULP Literature Bumblebee Flash Fiction Contest, (Ca)

The 2022 J. F. Powers Prize for Short Fiction (US). This open competition drew over 400 submissions from around the world from writers in all stages of career development. “The Spring Kid,” was one of 28 longlist finalists and later advanced to the shortlist.

“The Mighty Hartski”: 2022 longlist for the Humber Literary Review/Creative Nonfiction Collective Society (CNFC) Canada-wide CNF contest

“Winter in the Sandilands” was named to the longlist for the 2022 PULP Literature Hummingbird Flash Fiction Contest, (Ca) Mitchell’s story, “Luck!” was on the shortlist in this same contest.

Several of these award-winners (highlighted in the list above) will be part of the forthcoming 2023 short story collection from At Bay Press, “Pinching Zwieback: Made-up stories from the Darp”

Editing

Editing is difficult but rewarding.

Difficult because you are erasing what you have created. You are subtracting from or changing the very thing that got you in the publishing game! Feels risky.

Rewarding because your changes create something new, all over again. Plus, the editor is your ally and a trusted source that comes to you from a place other than the rocky mass between your (my) ears. Thank God for that.

I am preparing 24 stories for publication in the spring. Several folks are weighing in on my work and each day there’s a knot in my shoulders and that night’s dreams are peppered with flickering replays of scenes from the collection. I wake up, make notes, fall back asleep and then laugh at my scribbled nonsense in the morning.

Here is a segment, edited recently. I offer it as a fast in situ peek at the crime scene. It is from the story, “The Peacemongers” and the topic is Canadian Mennonites during the wars, WW2 in this case, who deigned to be officially named “Conscientious Objectors.” This meant they would work in labour camps in Canada rather than serving in the military.

I thought of Corky’s uncle John who worked at Loeb’s lumberyard. He wore a red vest and a plaid shirt and stood behind the counter at the lumber desk. He was a big man with very white teeth and he would stand there smiling and writing down what you wanted to buy. My dad would always order lumber from him and it always started out the same way. Dad would say, “I need some two-by-fours,” and John would say, “how many and how long do you need ’em?” Dad would reply “twenty pieces and forever!” Same joke every time. Then John would yell for one of the yard boys to come and load the order into our truck, his pencil poised above the order form, looking at my dad over his glasses. “Twelve-footers,” or whatever length he needed, was the answer, served with a slanted smile.

Dad said John had been in a C.O. camp during the war. He told my dad stories about it and how he made lifelong friends there. “Some were in the camp for other reasons, but most were there to follow the Word. That meant something to us and it was like our battle, to stay true to what we had been taught and to what we would teach our children.” I heard him talk about this to my dad and other men at the lumberyard. He stood straight up and looked into the eyes of the person he to spoke to. His voice was firm and he was not trying to convince anyone—he was just telling it. I was too young to understand everything, but thought he was telling the truth, exactly as he knew it and believed it.

.

I sometimes felt as though John and many others like him in our town believed, maybe secretly, that God was the biggest, toughest, most bad-ass Mennonite of them all. As if God would do all the fighting for us, and He would take no prisoners. I’m not sure that made our desire to live a life of pacifism any better. Possibly worse. It made God seem to me like a kind of bully—forever smiting Old Testament armies and kings that He didn’t like and constantly fighting with the Devil. Like Archie and Don, who fought almost every day after school at the corner of Hannover and Kroeker, accomplishing nothing but scuffed chins and bloody knuckles.[MT1]


 [MT1] Added 22-09-10 in a moment of random inspiration.

—Considered but not promised, for “Pinching Zwieback” At Bay Press

Dappled Thoughts

Image: James Farl Powers, 1917-1999

Dappled Things has announced the finalists for its 2022 J.F. Powers Prize for Fiction, and I am one of the 28 authors selected.

“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.

“People fascinate us; sin bores us. Beauty amazes us; surface concerns leave us cold. Experience intoxicates us; world-weariness makes us yawn.”

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.

And yet?

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.

The Morning After Nothing

Image: Cover, “Strange Weather” Becky Hagenston Press 53

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.)

“Dee-dee-dee!”

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.

Cal Rhinehart. Big and mean. Damaged goods and all about the booze and the dope. Everyone else’s fault but his. Maybe his dad beat the shit out of him or maybe one fight too many or maybe he just had bad chemicals in his head; got dealt a rotten hand, Fiona thought, sad and furious and terrified all at once. Maybe understanding too well. Maybe even feeling a sort of mongrel kinship. But she shook that thought away. Positive thinking, Doctor Tracewski always says.

—Main Character, Fiona Hewel, in “Four Baths, Great View, Bank Owned Mountain Home”

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.

“What in the world? Look at that!” Joe said, straightening his back and shifting his attention to the road ahead. A red SUV accelerated along the merge lane of an intersection. Behind the speeding car, a tattooed, bareback man ran in a dead sprint.

“Is he chasing them?” Fiona said.

Tall and broad shouldered, the man had an athletic build and long dirty blonde hair. The white drawstrings of his grey sweatpants fluttered and snapped behind him like kite tails as he ran after the vehicle. His bare feet pounded on the gravel strewn pavement.

The bizarre drama played on and Joe slowed the car as they closed on it. A white, flatdeck truck, “Rhinehart Well Drilling” in bold letters along the side, sat parked at a cockeyed angle near the intersection—driver door open, blinker on.

The running man slowed and hopped a few strides on one leg, then staggered to a lame halt. He bent at the waist to inspect his foot. The SUV sped away on the highway.

—”Four Baths, Great View, Bank Owned Mountain Home”

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.

Ageism in Literature. An Analysis Kit for Teachers and Librarians.

The title of this essay is the actual name of a research and analysis paper written by Anita F. Dodson and Judith H. Hauser. The paper was sponsored by the U.S. Dept. of Education and the publication was released in 1981.

https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED211411

I discovered this document online when searching for resources about the improvements made in modern literature in respect of ageism, embedded bias, and systemic elder malignment. Like you, perhaps, I assumed that progress has been made in this area; that certain antiquated and demeaning stereotypes had been scrubbed out of literature by a watchful literary vanguard of editors, publishers, librarians, teachers, readers and right-minded people in general.

“We should all be concerned about the future because we will have to spend the rest of our lives there.”

I believed, like American industrialist Charles F. Kettering must have (quoted above), that age bias is the product of an illogical mind and that it would, especially in today’s atmosphere of rapid, broad communication and ultra-scrutiny be all but eradicated. While discrimination over race, religion, gender, or sexuality continues to plague society, open hate-speak and flagrant animosity have been essentially banned in world literature. The same should be true for ageism, yes?

Well… “Hey, BOOMER!” No.

Here are the some of the findings of the Dodson/Hauser paper. Their research included visits to, “public, college, and school libraries, as well as bookstores. Approximately eight hundred books from the kindergarten through adult levels were investigated.” The authors reason that what readers absorb through reading—particularly the young—will influence their opinions and beliefs. How true.

In summary, the authors concluded the following:

[…] “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.

Literature conveys writers’ and society’s stereotypic and negative images when:

  1. Authors consistently use adjectives such as “old,” “poor,” “little,” “sad,” and “wise” to refer to the elderly.
  2. Older men are depicted with wrinkles, white hair, and canes, while older women are portrayed as fat or skinny, with their hair in “buns” and wearing aprons.
  3. Senility is considered to be synonomous with old age.
  4. The aged are pictured as sitting in rocking chairs or engaged in passive roles, such as storytelling, fishing, or housekeeping.
  5. Personality is characterized in two forms—crotchety or unfailingly pleasant.

1-5, above, are the faults present in a certain cross-section of American literature at the time the study was done forty years ago.

The authors identified important categories as a way to break down and better analyze a piece of literature in respect of its treatment of elders.

  • Significance. In Canada today, StatsCan estimates, “Almost one in five (18.5%) Canadians are now aged 65 and older, and the number of centenarians rose 1,100 year over year to 12,822 as of July 1, 2021.” https://www150.statcan.gc.ca/n1/daily-quotidien/210929/dq210929d-eng.htm Simply put, are one in five contemporary literary characters age 65 or older? What systemic initiatives (funding, grants, contests, mandates, education) exist to promote the significance of elders in modern literature?
  • Ethnic and Racial Composition. The study contends that, in 1981,

“When older characters appear in literature, the vast majority are white. Ethnic and racial minorities tend to be stereotyped to an even greater degree, assuming roles that are even more typecast than whites. While some behaviors are not inaccurate, they are shown in exclusion to others. For example, Asian-Americans operate laundries or gift shops or participate in dragon festivals, while Blacks appear in servile roles.”

  • Character Role. To what degree are elders depicted as main characters?
  • Occupational Role. Are elders, “shown in a diversity of meaningful occupations and employment settings?” The study found that:

The majority of older characters are placed in indeterminate occupational roles or those that require only passive participation… When there is obvious employment, the positions require little mental acuity or are outside the experiences of the average student. Women’s roles are repetitive… generally engaged in housework or gardening.

  • Behavioral Characteristics. Elder characters found by the 1981 study usually created problems Today, are they depicted solving problems too? Are behavioural characteristics stereotypical? A somewhat recent example is Canada’s “Corner Gas” television show. The ensemble cast includes two prominent elder roles, a husband and wife. The show often elevates the female elder to a person of agency, responsibility, strong character and otherwise gives her a role equal to younger characters, although she seems to me too often petulant and vengeful and her role in the home and the community are based on typecast models. Her husband is a comical dumping ground of grouchy old man tropes, spun out relentlessly, episode after episode, giving authority for other writers to continue down the caricature trail, unabated; angry old white man… Difficult old lady.
  • Physical Traits. In 1981, “Older characters are rarely given fully developed physical descriptions. Instead, they are described by three adjectives–“old,” “little,” and “ancient.” “Old” is used approximately seventy-five percent of the time. No other generation is completely described by the use of one word.”
  • Personality Traits. Do older characters express, “a full range of emotions with the opportunity for continued growth?”

~ ~ ~

The sample size is small. It’s a review of predominantly American literature and may not be representative of the Canadian reality—then or now—particularly in respect of Indigenous characters, for which significant differences exist between American and Canadian cohorts. (Example: Métis peoples are seldom represented in American culture or literature.)

Despite these shortfalls and potential inaccuracies, when I read the findings and conclusions, I can’t help but see a description of many parts of modern day Canadian literary content. Few elder characters are drawn in the same way as their younger counterparts and many suffer from the same endemic flaws as those highlighted in 1981.

What, if anything, has changed? Is this unalterable? Will literary and genre fiction remain forever bound by and within these “old” tropes and lazy caricatures?

A few nights ago, the doddering, heavily made-up character portrayed by “Saturday Night Live’s” Mikey Day, fell headlong and without reserve into almost every insulting, belittling device cited by Dodson & Hauser. When in doubt, slander the elderly and grab a cheap laugh! This recent example from one of the big-audience icons of Western pop culture suggests that elder discrimination is still openly permitted. The zeitgeist has spoken.

~ ~ ~

On the plus side, and I’m sure there are many, I was impressed with Ralph Benmergui, author of

I THOUGHT HE WAS DEAD: A SPIRITUAL MEMOIR

during his CBC radio interview from Winnipeg yesterday. Author-broadcaster-spiritualist (and likely much more), Mr. Benmergui is, like me, a 1955 product and I thought his take on elder invisibility was a direct hit. BOOM! He later added a positive tone to his comments, pointing out many of the things that have changed and are changing concerning the role of seniors in Canadian society. I’m sure his book will contribute to the dialogue.

His is another book for me to buy and it may find a place on the shelf right next to Sharon Butala, and her wonderful book of essays,

THIS STRANGE VISIBLE AIR: ESSAYS ON AGING AND THE WRITING LIFE

~ ~ ~

Please accept my apologies for being on a bit of a birthday-induced rant about all of this, but as Kettering pointed out, it is in our best interests—and that of generations to come—to grapple with issues of ageism now and with permanence.

Treasures small and LARGE

[Image Caption: Re-purposements… a 1960 fishing plug used as the pull-chain fob on the Toews’ living room ceiling fan.]

Trigger Warning: This article contains a lot of sexy plumbing talk.

Almost every day as I ramble around our home in the north woods I am always struck, like a proud curator, by how many treasures I have around here. Things we have bought (meh…) that have served well, but more so stuff Jan and I have thought up, designed and built. Ahh, endorphin rush sting me with thine euphoric prick.

Sorry, that last line didn’t come out quite right, but time is money and there’s no money for editing this month.

To continue about treasures… I get a thrill from the various objects that we have built, mended, replaced, and re-purposed. That last one, re-purposed, is an awkward but useful word that has not yet achieved hyphenless status, even though “hyphenless” has, according to Grammarly and WordPress. I particularly treasure those items that have had their purpose re-defined and radically so, such as the 2001patio door leaves that have become fixed windows in my writing room by the lake; the 1950 fir windows that now grace the She-Shed gazebo-screen porch down by the shore; the old Mistral windsurf board that hangs as a thematic outdoor light fixture above the garage door (can you picture that?) and other detritus of eras past and patents not applied for.

But the Mona Lisa of my collection is the 1950s-era child’s fishing rod that now is a a flexible actuator-whacker for the start-stop switch on our water pump. It’s obvious this needs further scientific/theological description, like the definition of the Holy Ghost, so here goes: The switch has lost its fine-tuning. If you set it so that it starts the pump when needed (like during the rinse-cycle of a shower) it won’t shut-off when the demand is satisfied. Arggh. Conversely, if I literally crawl into the crawlspace beneath the cottage where the pump and its harem of 10-trillion spiders live, and re-adjust the switch so it will shut-off, it then becomes obstinate about STARTING. Yoma leid etj sei! That is, it will shut-off just fine but will not for love nor Lubriplate, start-up! Doh! and double-doh! There is no middle-ground, only a crawly, dusty, oneiric no-man’s-land where spiders wear octa-legged harem pants and thick mascara and the potentate pump grins sardonically, as pumps and potentates are wont to do, damn their O-ring eyes!

Anyway… I note in my curse-filled administrations that a light tap with my screwdriver allows the pump to overcome its refusal to start. (Freudian?) Aha! A clue to the solution? So, what if… I set the actuator switch to always automatically shut-off without fail — thus eliminating the danger of a pump run-on that would burn out the dry-running guts — and then I came up with a way to manually give it a light tap to get it to start-up. Hmm. The trouble is, the only way to tap it is to crawl under the cottage. This crawling is a big ask for me, a guy with joints made of goat-cheese and ossified bone as pitted and porous as Manitoba limestone. How then, to tap without crawling down into that dim spidery hellspace?

I eye the kitchen floor above the pump, Makita drill in hand. “Ey-yi-yi,” Janice says with a you-gotta-be-kidding pump-grin, “Can’t you come up with another approach? We can’t have a hole in the middle of the floor! For the love of Cloaca Maxima!” she says, with a callous reference to the God of Plumbing. (We have a shrine to her in our garage.)

“But the crawling, the T-A-P-P-I-N-G… ” I whine like our truck in reverse.

“Figure something else out.” Her final edict. Inalterable. She hath spake.

Alive and filled with mother-of-invention impetus, I rake through the junk on the junk-shelf, next to the shrine.

“What are you looking for?” Cloaca Maxima asks. (Gods are so nosy!)

“I’ll know when I find it,” I reply in perfectly plausible circular logic. In that instant, I strike gold. A 1950s-era three-foot long fiberglass fishing rod. My re-purposer synapses fire like George Gatling’s murderous gunpowder hydra and I SEE it in my mind: a cord running from the edge of the deck and underneath all the way to the crawlspace wall, through a tube, into the crawlspace, with its terminus at the tip of the midget fishing rod. I TWANG and release the cord and the flexy rod will snap against the actuator switch, effectively mimicking my crawling tap-tap-tap. Like humankind’s ancient forbearers, I have risen up from the crawling stage and have freed my hands to grasp tools. Vive la évolution!

There it is: a way to administer an actuating sting with my re-purposed flexible prick. (Again, not really liking the way that image plays out, but, gotta finish this post and get out there in the sunshine, so I’ll just leave it as is.) The point is (eww!) this is the kind of MacGyvering that passes for progress around here, and I, inventor son of an inventor son of an inventor, find it provides a highly endorphilic, artistic pleasure for me here in the Fifth Re-purpose Arrondissements Municipaux de Jessica Lake. Gertrude Stein would be impressed, “A prick is a prick is a prick!” she might observe.

Anyway-anyway-anyway… The real purpose of this long build-up is to say that, like my invented treasures here-about, I take an equal amount of JOY from my literary works of art. They don’t bloody my knuckles — well, not in a literal way — but they take just as much effort and like my craftwork at Jessica, they come from old objects, re-purposed. Life experiences of mine and others taken and writ large in stories and essays.

Here is one such. It’s one of my favs and I like to show it off, like one might a ’57 Chevy with “Old Fart” license plates, only my stories are re-purposed to give a different kind of a ride on a different kind of a road. The story “Fast and Steep” first appeared in the Canadian lit journal, Agnes and True.

https://www.fictionontheweb.co.uk/2021/03/fast-and-steep-by-mitchell-toews.html

And, for a little variety, here’s another — a short essay that graced rob mclennan’s blog some time ago, it is a wise-crack that let some light in, in a Leonard kind of way: http://bit.ly/mySMALLPRESSwritingdayToews

allfornow,

Mitch

What All I Don’t know

“What all I don’t know,” is a kind of Steinbach* way of describing all that I’ve not yet experienced or learned.

My what all deficit is big. This is true even though I’ve experienced a lot. (I’m kind of old and a high-miler in some ways.) Anyway, what all I don’t know is a lot. How big “a lot” is, I don’t know because, well, I don’t know what all I don’t know.

Who does know what all I don’t know? And what would I do if I did know what all I don’t know about querying and novels and short story collections and literary agents and small presses and synopses and loglines and other Cinderella story bullet points? Predictably, I don’t know.

I DO know that there are those who know what all I don’t know.

Who are these what all knowers? I believe they are a facet of Cinderellaness called MENTORS. These fabled folk, awash in knowledge and given to sharing and patience and paying back and paying forward and other characteristics that may earn them wings, or a permanent place at the ball, or other indications of grace… as the glass slipper fits.

I know they exist because they have snuck into the collection of what all I do know. I have experienced them by chance and good fortune and benefited from their abundance. They include: abiding friends who waded through early drafts. The writer friends and comrades who did likewise; who were tough but kind, honest and objective. The paid freelance editors who gave me my money’s worth and much more. Much more. The Writers in Residence who also did what they were selected to do — help writers with their craft — and took an interest; gave more than required by their mandate. The Guild and lit journal volunteer readers, editors, and website builders and etcetera specialists who work in the wille hundat** of the literary world. The family members who bit their tongues when biting was not their first inclination and cheered even when cheering seemed a little “Toews sinks a lay-up with his team down 27 and 55 seconds left on the clock,” ish.

There is link between the two what alls: what all I don’t know and what all I do know. There must be! The link, the synapse, the causeway, the gossamer thread is this aforementioned group of virtuous MENTORS.

Where are the MENTORS that form this link? What are they doing right now? Do they herd or are they lone wolves? What or who do they prefer to mentor? What is the extent of their range and how are they best found in the wild? Are there Mentor-whisperers?

How do I become a MENTEE?

~~~

*Steinbach: my old hometown in rural Manitoba.

** wille hundat: a Plautdietsch or Low German expression meaning, “of unknown origin or towards an unknown destination” as defined in the “Mennonite Low German Dictionary.” (Jack Thiessen, Max Kade Institute, 2003) I think of this as the hundred acres, or so, on a farm that is not yet cleared and constitutes a wild bushland of unknown native flora and fauna; an unexplored landscape of mystery and supposed, unspecific threat.

One Day on Mars

Last May (2020) I wrote this, a bit of snide comedy in response to The Mango Schiet Stain’s openly racist comments at the time. Now, a year later, we see the horrible, tragic aftermath as his repugnant legacy of racist violence lives on. And grows. I hope we speak out against would-be Canadian copycats who mimic these core hatreds, endorsed by American conservative leadership, and by extension, their evangelical yesmen.

“Queen Sensula, do you mean to tell me that the Romulans created and then spread the deadly Space Virus? (Appalled. Much Elizabethan flavour.)”

One Day on Mars

Basic Income Artists’ Commission

I was approached by an organization tasked to investigate Basic Income in Canada, with special attention to those of us in the Arts. They created a commission and invited artists from around the country to offer opinion and comment on the concept of Basic Income and how, specifically, it might affect the lives of artists.

I was invited to provide an Artist’s Testimonial and here is what I wrote:

I believe that Canada, wealthy and progressive as we are, could become a country that invests in its marginalized people by providing a guaranteed annual income for all citizens. I envision a graduated scale designed to offer a helping hand to get started or a financial safety net to mitigate financial trouble in an individual’s life and also to be there for those with obstacles to their ability as wage earners. 

Why do this? Because life is unscripted and almost everyone, even those in our large “middle class” population needs help from time to time. Furthermore, and maybe of most importance, there is widespread suffering in Canada caused by poverty. By acting proactively, we have an opportunity to reduce suffering and at the same time empower a class of Canadians who may not otherwise achieve their dreams or even, in truth, live the life that most of us take for granted. 

“The Poor” do not want to be “The Poor!” 

A guaranteed basic income would reduce hardship, support upward mobility and drive greater aspiration across all levels of financial reality. 

Plus, guaranteed basic income is in large part simply moving the dollar investment from the end of the cycle — being reactive and giving cash or services to people in desperate circumstances — to the beginning. We should spend to prevent rather than to rescue. Prevention offers a solution earlier in life, when people are in the formative process, especially concerning education and career.

Now, as to artists, specifically: Choosing the path to your dream of a career in the Arts is daunting because of the long, difficult period of education, training, and incubation. This means, with few exceptions, that those who wish to be professional artists — whatever the discipline — must expect and endure a long initial period as low-income earners.

In my personal experience, even with my parents’ financial support available as I finished college, I chose not to pursue a career in the Arts. I decided to take the safer route, financially, and “save” my art for a later date. That later date took a lifetime to arrive and while I have no complaints, I did not devote myself to my love — fiction — until age sixty. Now I am an emerging artist at age sixty-five and while I am extremely pleased with these last five years, I can’t help but wonder… “What if?”

In my case, perhaps the security of a guaranteed basic income would have given me the courage to chase my artistic dreams and not postpone or dismiss them? It’s impossible to say, but I can say for certain that our society is made more vital by the availability of choice. It’s empowering to know that your basic needs will be met even if the career path you are on will take a while to reach fully-supportive status. Furthermore, Arts Councils, armed with the underpinning of guaranteed basic income could focus all of their efforts on the many professional aspects and not worry about the artists’ core financial needs. The guaranteed basic income would take the pressure off the artists and the Arts Councils, for the betterment of both. This is true for all stakeholders in the artistic “value chain” and would breed an environment of possibility and less of a dismal “starving artist” scenario that defeats many artists before they begin.