A Mennonite Imposter’s Discursive Rhapsody

Okay, it’s a great title. I’ll say that.

However, this popular post — and by popular, I mean 28 reads, so you know, not exactly biblical circulation — was looking a little raggedy. I took it down, feeling like it was kind of too scattershot, even for me, and likely was in need of a vitriol change.

So stand back and stand by… OOPS! I mean, well, I don’t mean THAT, I mean hold on and let me get back to you with a retuned version of original mixed-metaphor symphony. (See what I did there?)

Crib Notes:

😦 I’m just not wild about the whole RAPTURE thing. It seems like a Monty Python sketch or a far-out graphic novel that somehow turned into the end game for a worldwide religion. Where is SKELETOR? I keep asking myself.

😦 Why is it that so many evangelicals are big C conservatives in Canada and Republicans-slash-radicalized zealots in the loud, twangy country on our southern flank? When I read the Bible, it occurs to me — it occurs to me in GIANT FLASHING NEON LIGHTS — that every Christian today would undoubtedly be a Bernie Saunders Dem or an NDPer. RIGHT? Like, Jesus was way more Robin Hood than Sherriff of Nottingham. Tell me I’m wrong.

😦 When did JC and DJT (#45) become best buds? I did not see that one coming. It’s like Rocky and Bullwinkle, but you know… more Game of Thronesy and hate-filled and fundamentally disturbing. Also, would DJT really be seen hanging out with a long-haired, pacifist Jew? A sandal wearing POC? A wandering sometimes-carpenter, lay-minister of no fixed address? Right, cuz that’s zactly the kinda dude ol’ Donnie hangs with…

😦 How did so many average folks go from twittering red-cheeked at The Dating Game in the Sixties to outright pipe-bomb-making Twitter hatred of any and all LGBTQ individuals? (What’s it to ya, anyway, ya bunch of Tim Horton silo-dwellers?) And to all the nice, even-tempered, well-behaved Grannies who love the shit out of their gay grandchild or the level-headed, up-and-coming young CIS male fella who openly respects his Aunt for coming out… God bless you and keep you.

😦 Why are ANY Canadian Mennonites nativists? Remember: Russian Mennos (including my G-G-Opa) moved into the shiny, brand new place called Manitoba in 1874 and then promptly gave the orbstewel to a bunch of minding their own beeswax, pre-existing residents of the place. Then these new land-owner Mennos started acting holier-than-the-Catholic-church until today these great-grandkids of the 1874ers (and subsequent waves) don’t want to let some of the latest batch of refugees and opportunity seekers in. Huh? What? You snooze you lose? Are all traces of emigration and diaspora erased after three washings — or three generations — like a pair of the tight jeans you wear to rave in? At church? In the front row, arms waving like amber waves of (red fife) grain?

Okay. Wait a minute… this is getting all ranty and kill-zone prose on me, so I’ll hold off. Phew! Caught myself just in time.

allfornow,
Mitchell (the slob previously know as Mitch) Toews

Print Catalogue

As this rabid cannibal of a year winds down, I wonder about my writerly struggle and the artistic return on investment for me as a writer, 2015-2020.

ROI, baby.

Aside from all the “hard work is its own reward,” kind of sentiment, to which I subscribe and to whose driving power I owe one of the best periods of my redheaded life (apart from the baby powder tinged, little league coaching, proud dad/granddad parts), I wondered about how much of an imprint I’ve been given/achieved so far.

What is my gravitas quotient, or lack of same?

Am I #futility or do I stand a chance? There’s no punter (in the UK slang sense) who knows how to handicap me, there’s no Vegas line on my puny literary squirming, like the last water bug of the season making a tiny ripple that no one else notices.

An editor commented recently that I had a unique voice worth publishing. I fought back the urge to argue with her, and in that moment of cessation, found a glimmer. A glimmer not of hope — that sworl of Van Gogh luminant turbulence is still light years away — but a lifeline thrown out to me in the cold, deep water by a compassionate friend.

When I look at my C-V, I see a lot of online acceptances, a lot of out-of-province markets, and several repeat markets. This is telling of the state of the world of fiction, my preferences, my ability, my relative reputation in a world of water bugs, and my inclination to spend the years on the far side of three score with friends and heroes, not the miserable and the banal.

Anyway… I noticed that the attention of the curator for a certain specific geschichte writer list is focused solely on PRINT. I accept that. There’s so much online writing that it makes sense to begin your list with those in print. Not that I’m not proud (and more than a little) of many of my online publications, but, you know — I get it.

So here fellow water bugs, punters, friends, heroes, banal high-horsers out for a romp among the plebs… is my 2015-2020 Print Catalogue, based on about 100 distinct flash fictions and short stories sent out in over 400 submissions all over the English language literary world.

Ca — “A Fisherman’s Story” Rhubarb Magazine Issue 39 2016
Ca — “So Are They All” Voices Vol 16 No.2 2016 Anthology
India — “I am Otter” The Machinery – A Literary Collection 2017
UK — “Nothing to Lose” The Best of Fiction on the Web 1996-2017 2017 Anthology
Ca — “Sweet Caporal at Dawn” Blank Spaces Magazine 2018 Pushcart Prize Nomination
Ca — “Away Game” Pulp Literature Issue 20 2018
Ca — “Sweet Caporal at Dawn” Just Words, Volume 2 2018 Anthology
US — “Groota Pieter” River Poets Journal Special Themed Edition: “The Immigrants” 2018 Anthology
US — “Peacemongers” The MOON magazine: “Out of This World” The Best Short Stories from the MOON Volume 1 2019 Anthology
Australia/US — “Groota Pieter” Pact Press “We Refugees” 2019 Anthology
Ca — “Fast and Steep” Riddle Fence Issue 34 2019
US — “The Log Boom” River Poets Journal Special Themed Edition: “A Fork in the Road” 2020 Anthology
Ca — “My Life as a Corkscrew” (CNF) Blank Spaces Magazine 2020
Ca — Piece of My Heart” Pulp Literature Issue 27 2020 Winner of the Editors’ Choice in the 2020 Bumblebee Flash Fiction Contest
US — “Away Game” Quail Bell Magazine 2020
Ca — “My Life as a Corkscrew” (CNF) Just Words Volume 4 2020 Anthology
US — “The Sunshine Girl” Cowboy Jamboree Magazine John Prine Tribute Issue 2020
Ca — “The Margin of the River” Blank Spaces Magazine 2020 Pushcart Prize Nomination

(Updated 12.4.20)

A few of these are printed on a rolling basis and so may not be out in the wild yet.

I also have 65 stories in various online publications in the US, the UK, and Canada.

What Leda Knows

This thought has been irritating me, like a pebble in my shoe — a squarish pebble lodged where it cannot be reached. It has bothered me all day and the only way to get rid of it is to jot this down. Barefoot, maybe. Toes wiggling.

Whether it is Irish writing or Jewish writing or Indigenous writing… or even if it is Mennonite writing, I think the full complement needs to be part of the accounting. All constituents must be consulted to speak their unquiet peace. Not only the praise-makers, the honouring, the apologists, the happy-talkers, and the yammering wholly satisfied but most importantly perhaps, all of the others.

All the others.

Who would best know the naked truths and speak freely about what they know? Do the rich paint their discontent on the subway walls? How many fat cats walk a beat on city streets, risking rubber bullets or worse? No, They cause resentment, they don’t suffer from it.

Go ask these: The fallen. The betrayed and the shunned. The aggrieved. The marginalized, the disavowed, the once-close — now distant. The ambivalent who hang suspended still from the ties that bind, but who would cut them if need be… if they had no other choice.

In W.B. Yeats’s dark masterpiece, Leda and the Swan, we are told that Leda could feel the swan’s strange heart beating, “where it lies,” as if it was somehow disembodied, no longer a part of the bestial being.

Does this mean that to capture the truth, we don’t go to the apparent source? Go rather to those who offered up a sacrifice and received aggression in return. Or something sadly “indifferent” as the poet suggests.

The presence of indifference might reveal more than all the rest combined.

 

 

The Sacrifice Fly

If you play enough baseball, you get to a point where you can produce certain outcomes with regularity. This is most true in fielding where extraordinary plays become almost routine. Predictable outcomes are less common in pitching and batting.

At the plate, it’s often the role of the batter to hit a flyball far enough into the outfield to score the runner from third base. The pitcher knows it and throws high riseballs and drops to keep the hitter on the ground or pop her up. But a decent player can often deliver that lazy SAC fly.

I think this is true across a broad spectrum. An average sales professional can renew a long-time account… a basketball player can hit the open J… a practiced politician can deflect uncomfortable questions and provide a safe non-answer without mussing her hair.

However, artists who reach the safety zone are drawn to go beyond. Dylan went electric… Vincent rendered his 200th (500th?) sunflower and looked to the heavens for a new challenge… “Finnegan’s Wake” came out and slapped a lot of people in the face. Art, to reach its potential, needs—at some point—to venture out into uncharted territory and put the artist at risk. “To boldly go where no one has gone before,” as a small Canadian actor with good hair, dimples and a cute little paunch used to say in the opening voice-over, weekdays at 5:00 p.m. in our house on Sunrise Bay.

One of my artistic heroes, Winslow Homer, wrote that one must “experiment boldly.” I agree and even though I still need to hone basic skills (a lot) I feel it’s also time for me to leave my own friendly confines and be bold.

Trouble is, unlike the master, I am not endowed with a limitless amount of talent and a universally loved body of work. But no matter, the feeling of being alone, friendless and at risk is, like landing head-oeuvre-heels in the deep-end… “good for ya!”

Lately, I’ve been on this bold mission. I’ve let myself be led by my Writing Circle and by the greats who went before. Becky Hagenston, Flannery O’Connor, and even Jean Luc Picard—my doppelganger with a Shakespearean accent. (My accent is more East Reserve, with a side order of Simon Biester coarse Mennonite brogue.)

Image result for brogue shoe

Over the last few days, I’ve gone down swinging a few times as I sought the fences. Reviewers and critiquers have sent me packing, without so much as a foul tip. They did give me tips, though—“Bet heavy—sleep on the streets” or messages of that ilk.

Yesterday, a small breakthrough. An acceptance for one of my Nina, Pinta, and hail Santa Marias. From a wonderful band of editors who know the stench of a book bonfire and are not afraid to toss ugly trash into it, but also take a dim view of too easily barbequing writers whose work takes the path less travelled. (They’re not wild about the above confusing potpourri of images, but, hey—this is just a blog, so edges may be rough.)

Speaking of rough edges, “I am a series of small victories,” comes to mind. This quote from Charles Bukowski, an experimenter if ever one there was. NO, I don’t defend his misogyny or off-handed violence, alcoholism, or other missteps and ignoble romps. I like a lot of what he wrote and respect his boundary-crossing as a part of his artistic journey.

Writers must stray. We must, “dance with the Devil in the pale moonlight,” from time to time. Must we not? Not to become a part of that world, but to know how to avoid falling into it.

Anyway, I’m excited to be doing what I’m doing and hope I can come out on the other side, better for the whippings I will take along the way.

allfornow,
Mitch

News on this story in May, when it is due to hit the internet.

“Penguin, if you’re out there—I hope you’re listening…”

A web beacon (or a pixel tag) is a small, invisible piece of text or image on a website that is used to monitor traffic on a website. In order to do this, various data about each site visitor is stored using web beacons.”

So what? Why should a writer care about this arcane bit of programmerease? Are the rules of grammar or the strength of one’s imagination not more important to a writer?

Of course. Except…

In the new world of Traditional Publishing vs. Self-Publish vs. Indy Publishing, the most marketable skills may not be the inky variety so much as the slinky variety.

Let me ‘splain you: I live 90 minutes from the Winnipeg Floodway. My location is a bit remote, and in terms of population density, it ain’t Brooklyn. However, my Android phone has, in its logarithmic digital wisdom identified Bloodvein First Nation as my nearest population hub.

bloodvein

Hilarious. BFN is a small place. It’s far away. There are dozens of towns that are closer and larger, and yet, this is what Samsung gives me as my location. My point is not to cast shade on Bloodvein but to illustrate the level of technical advancement available to me as an average citizen. It’s pretty sad.

Sure, I can scrape a little basic data from Facebook, Twitter, and WordPress analytics, but it’s meagre at best.

Now go back up to the web beacon description in the lede. See the potential difference? A big-arse publishing house can hire brainy types who love math, puzzles, and Star Trek to pin-point all the Whos in all the Whovilles across the globe! They can ID the entire population of Romantic Space-Fantasy Adventure Horror aficionados to within a pixel point of accuracy, plus or minus one redhead.

Me? I could spend most of the Toews fortune* on marketing and end up with a garage full of UNSOLD, shabbily printed grit-lit, collecting dust and angst.

*Such as it is, we are mostly invested in books, windsurfing equipment, and sewing machines & sewing machine accessories…

And it need not mean that dust-gathering library of Prose by Toews is second-rate—that is not my point. (In fact, I’m hoping you’ll take the opposite inference here.) The point is that FEW in the grit-lit-identity-seeking-Menno-odd-syntax-unusual-language-and-extremely-long-hyphenated-word cohort of worldwide readers will know that my awesome book even exists. The Whos in Whoville will remain drearily unaware. Toewsproseless.

So, it is by definition, existential. Dude. If I want to exist as a published writer, I must not only write good, gooder, goodest—but I have to shout it from the digital mountaintops too. Or aim to be the best-selling author in Bloodvein? (That may be tougher than I think…)

Here’s an interesting related post by Poet-Author Elizabeth Estochen:

https://www.estocheneditorial.com/post/publishing-journey

What’s it all about, Alfie?

An outdated song-movie reference, but truly, what IS it all about?

Followers. Friends. Connections.

I have them, I value many… some not so much. I’ve made new friends via twitter and Facebook. It is a time-consumer, the internet is, that’s for sure but I’ll gladly put in the time if there is a pay-off.

And if the pay-off is simply getting to know a few more cool people on the planet? I’m in.

But…

What do the figures mean? What is helpful to a writer? What does an editor or a literary agent or a publisher really care about beyond the story?

Build your base, countless consultants with extremely white teeth and button-down collars proclaim.

I’d be glad to know about the Malcolm points that magically tip things in my favour and take my story from “promising” to “compelling” or from “not a good fit for us right now” to “we are goddamn-freaking-mind-blown to have you on board, you massive rock star in a blue plaid shirt!” Or words to that effect.

At the same time, I have my own disclaimers. I care about working with people who like me and whom I enjoy — I feel like I’ve earned that privilege and so my journey up & down the rocky, steep, and sometimes treacherous fiction trail is among friends and pleasant, fun people. Sure, they’re skilled and sharp and they gotta be smart. Hard-working and honest; of course, but they also must be just plain old nice. Share a deserted island with nice. Two-hole outhouse nice. (Okay — no one is that nice.)

Anyway, please tell me… what’s it all about?

Twitter = 4,484 followers @Mitchell_Toews (See my mapped follower results in the image above.)

Facebook = 234 friends https://www.facebook.com/mitch.toews

LinkedIn = 785 connections https://www.linkedin.com/in/mitchtoews/

Goodreads = 7 followers and 165 friends https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/18450919.Mitchell_Toews

Mitchellaneous.com blog = 148 subscribers https://mitchellaneous.com/

See Change

“Can a sixty-three-year-old aufjefollna Mennonite living next to a lake in the boreal be part of change in the worldwide artistic landscape?”

Sure. In a small way, why the Mitchell not?

I’m quite sure some of the change champions featured in this article would agree:

12 Leaders Who Are Shaping the Next Generation of Artists

http://time.com/longform/art-leaders-next-generation/

I found this piece inspiring, even for a schnuddanäse like me.

I’m four years into a smashmouth experiment — my longtime dream to write fiction. To be published and to leave something good behind. To ask some interesting questions. All that stuff that sounds like a lot of fluff and horseshit, but is in fact, as tough it comes.

Chris Jackson

Publisher and editor in chief of One World, a Penguin Random House imprint

“But his goal is not to acquire any book by a writer from a marginalized background for diversity’s sake alone. ‘The idea that the imprint is committed to diversity is kind of absurd,’ Jackson says. ‘We want to reflect the world we live in.’ The imprint allows writers to tell subversive stories in an authentic way, without what he calls ‘white filtering,’ or couching stories in ways that feel comfortable or familiar to white readers.”

This is a helpful communication for me.

I am a grizzled old white guy, writing about real life in small towns, times bygone and present day, the northern forest, basketball and baseball, bruised knuckles, and Mennonite themes. While I personally have not benefitted directly from the near past’s traditional preponderance of white men in literary fiction, I undoubtedly benefitted in many ways in other parts of my life in Canadian and American society. I have a legacy of privilege. So, I don’t feel I can or should complain—at all—about other cohorts like minorities or women who, these days, might get a small advantage for not being a white guy.

Jackson’s clear call to, “…reflect the world we live in,” explains what has been a difficult and highly coded part of lit fic for me. I take this editor’s message to mean that I am not to be excluded, I just have to share. Proportionately, or even a little less, and accept the new status quo with some grace.

I believe I can do that, in fact, that’s just what I want to do. Thank you, Chris Jackson.

I also find clarity in his comment about “white filtering”. I know this too well. While I don’t “white filter”, per se, I sure as H-E-double-hockey-sticks know how to structure a story to appeal to conservatives, especially my Mennonite brethren. I also know how to pimp up a story to fit more liberal (my own true bearing) perspectives. Horses for courses, but not for literary honesty.

To engage in this posturing is specious at worst, unnecessary at best. My charge as an artist is to invest my work with honesty and courage, not to try to predict the audience reaction and pander my story. No filtering, of any colour or creed.

Sounds easy, but it ain’t. We writers want to be liked. But, again, Mr. Jackson’s leadership is helpful to me. Maybe I’ll be liked as one of the new age of subversive Mennonite authors writing, “in an authentic way” and without parsing readers by pew, rank, and political or social geist.

* * *

I hope you enjoy the article, I sure as hell did!

 

Smoking Jacket Mennonites

There’s a lively discussion current now on one of the Mennonite chat rooms online. It’s about the existence—like a newly discovered tribe of Yeti, I guess—of “Cultural Mennonites“.

Here follows a sizzling grenade I decided not to lob into that chat room (too much collateral damage) but, well, I wanted to share…

As Religious Mennonites will confirm, Mennonite is a religion. I feel it’s a good one, as these things go. The doctrine of peace & non-violence, above all, and the notable generosity and charity inherent in Mennonite churches are, indeed, “full of grace.” The Mennonite Disaster Service is the Gretzky of volunteer disaster relief in North America.

Many—myself included—feel Mennonitism also has a distinct, modern (awakened in the 1960s?) cultural derivative. It was during that turbulent period when the idea of being a Mennonite without baptism or a deep commitment to church life first began to gain acceptance. Around the same time that divorce, irrespective of the Sermon on the Mount, first started on the path to toleration within the plenary Mennonite church.

meat pudding
The basic argument against the existence of Cultural Mennonites

“Cultural”, btw, has interesting roots, for the etymologically inclined. “Tillage”, indicating to me that culture is tilled, or incorporated, into its subject – an individual, a gathering, a congregation, a population, a society. That root has a lot to do with why I believe I am part of the Cultural Mennonite phenomenon: I was born and raised—innocently so, but without my direct adult consent—in the cult of Mennonite. My childhood nuclear family did not attend church but in all other ways, my extended family and our community was as Menno as Dirk Willems.

The complex and often contradictory Mennonite culture was TILLED into me from birth and it continues to exert itself on me even as I cast aside the learned knowledge of others and depend more on my own experiences and my familiarity with the world.

My formative influences were different than those of my Religious Mennonite kin & kith but also far different from my non-Menno “import” friends.

I see the Cultural Mennonite emerging as a distinct sub-set because of their (my) “half-breed” existence, suspended between disparate worlds.

Those who disavow a stand-alone cultural variant often point instead to a kind of “Mennonite Imposter” creed. I and several of my antecedents are seen to be of this lowly pretender ilk. I tend to object, but maybe I should embrace this tag even if it is pejorative and imposed by others?

imposter
The Mennonite Imposter

I’ll propose a fourth iteration: “Smoking Jacket Mennonites“. Those who gather in a shadowy, virtual quorum and represent the interests of:

  • industry & commerce
  • finance
  • government
  • education

These subverters (a “den of thieves” according to one angry historical observer) are connected via interlocking directorate. They gather within the friendly, hallowed confines of the church’s tax-exempt status where they typically hold high rank or are able to exert influence by proxy.

smoking jacket mennonites

One SJM prerequisite is membership in the Religious Mennonite superstructure. Or just good’ol wealth and power. Ideally both.

Membership to SJM, the leadership elite, is by subtle invitation. Its congregation comprises fewer women than men. Likewise, there are not many “fringe” members: those financially challenged, POC, First Nations peoples, and LGBTQ are not strongly represented cohorts. By extension, those overtly tolerant of the non-mainstream or accused of “liberal extremist” social beliefs need not apply either.

These are not hard membership rules. But like the current U.S. Cabinet, it just tends to work out that way. Gender, race, wealth and social standing (or close association to wealth and power) are predictable. Good hair, a tan, and nice teeth are increasingly helpful for videos, podcasts, and evangelizing, but those attributes are furniture, not architecture, and in the hands of a deft PR shop, could be re-framed as a weakness. “He’s almost too pretty to be taken seriously.” 

Smoking Jacket Mennonites are not the first or the best at this specious, old-boyistic full meal deal of [wealth creation] & [worship of the divine], but are starting to really get the hang of reciprocal back-scratchery. I can see a Doug Ford getting a standing “O” in the right sanctuary, at the right time. Maybe he already has.

doug ford

Hmmm.

In conclusion, I don’t believe I am a “Non-Mennonite”. Nope, that just does not fit; that thread is too coarse. I definitely feel I am a “Mennonite“. In fact, I have an undeniable, unshameable set of Menno credentials and antecedents, but I am not a member of a Mennonite church so some would keep me on the büte with those who don’t know the difference between Ditsied and Jantsied.

Seeking a finer definition, you can go right ahead and call me a Religious Mennonite (if you’re willing to accept a highly non-conformist definition) or use the Cultural Mennonite tag, or brand me as a Mennonite Imposter – I’ll accept any of those labels without complaint.

As for the arm-waving megafellas of the Smoking Jacket Mennonite elite, I don’t qualify, I don’t have the price of admission, nor do I seek entry to the club. You guys go on without me.

~ ~ ~

Two stories that grab a root and dig at these themes:

“I am Otter” in The Machinery – A Literary Collection

Literally Stories presents a satiric peek at Big Church in, “The Business of Saving Souls” 

Interview with a Mennonite Imposter

http://bit.ly/MennoTOEWSba

Writer interviews can be kinda boring. This is a little more in the Mennonite wiseguy range of the register, but still—you know—predictably boring. And great fun to do, especially with such an engaging set of questions! My thanks to Editor Erin Unger.

 

Shade

FAMILY TREES sometimes cast shade. Due to the unbending quality of light and the laws of nature, this shade falls where designated by physics, not preference. We can’t change history to suit our current disposition.

The above is the mental garden in which the following Facebook post took root:

https://www.facebook.com/mitch.toews

Macdonald, Mennonites, and Métis: these things have been ricocheting around inside my bulbous, roomy-and-well-lit cranium lately. My daughter, a woman of letters considerable and the possessor of a mind much more well-tended and well-educated than her dad’s, did some research on the goings-on of 1870-1873, part of Sir John’s tenure.

It’s worth noting too that the grandchildren she has provided own a much less homogeneous ancestry than their maternal predecessors. Her rugrats are Menno-Ukrainian-Franco-Métis. This moves the issue out of the theoretical and right into Nanna & Gramps kitchen!

Her scholarly digging turned up some unsavory evidence about how Manitoba Métis were given “scrips” for land titles along many southern waterways in the then-new province. That was in 1870, before our Toews antecedent and his Molotschnan peacenik delegation rolled in and said, “Sure, we’ll take this stoney ground off your hands for frie, ommsonst.” As the research suggests (to some), the post-1870 gov of the day appeared slow-handed in making good on the scrips and many would-be Métis land-owners left for greener pastures, tired of waiting.

Historians also wonder whether the 1873 governments (Fed + Prov) had some prejudicial racial motivation; they were all out of Scots settlers from Ontario and if they didn’t act fast and populate the prairies, they stood to lose the territory to the avaricious Yanks. These industrious, white, tabular-headed Mennos, well-schooled in the way of farming floodplains and (as it turned out) compound interest, were juuuust the ticket! Exit Métis, enter Kleine Gemeinde.

The whole issue is complex and unsettling. What did the delegates weehte and when did they weehte daut?

* * *

This whole Mennonanigan got reinitiated, for me, when I read,

Canada’s First Scapegoat 

in The Walrus. An article that was preceded by “Old Macdonald”.