Exile on Barkman Avenue

After Janice and I sold our manufacturing business in 1996, I ended up (after being a very bad office manager for some very good lawyers) working for a series of conservative Mennonite wood manufacturing companies as “that creative guy.” My role was to do the unseemly work of marketing and advertising. Come up with some shit. You know… imagineer. (Aiyyyeee! That word is like giving an AMC Gremlin to the head designer at Ferrari.)

Before I go on, let’s check the relative humidity here. As a “creative guy,” I’m somewhere on a scale. I am not likely to be named Artistic Director for Exile magazine; not likely to die my hair blue (both of them); not likely to get in a scrap with David Cronenberg because my ideas are, “too out there, Toews!” At the same time, my ideas were more than enough “out there” to send the sucking-up-to-the-boss running dog types scooting like scalded greyhounds for the dark corners of the break room, where they would loudly rattle their dog-collars and profess to be regular folks incapable of such wild ideas.

Anyway, today I find myself somewhere between my old scramble for existence (marketing and advertising) and my new scramble for existence (literary fiction). And no, dog-collar people, the two are NOT the same.

I am working diligently to complete my manuscript and set my collection of short stories loose on the world. There is a hurry-up-and-wait aspect to this and during the in-between times, I get restless. Something that occurred to me in a slightly Cronenbergian moment was a set of icons that offered a graphical depiction of the themes present in my made-up stories. I used my prodigious Paint.net skills to render a 4X4 grid of images.

The result is the orderly graphic collage that headlines this post. The effect appeals to my Andy Warhol gene and I like how the iconography drops hints like a visual Johnny Appleseed. I have not spent time getting the size and hue and style at a harmonic pitch, but it’s good enough for a concept. It imagineers. (Ugh.)

And that’s where I find myself—wallowing like a hungry Menno in the nether region between artistic expression and INTEGRATED MARKETING. My old prof at York (the Pepsi-Challenge guy, Alan Middleton) would be pleased but I’m pretty sure my publisher will heave a big sigh.

Anyway, that’s my sitch. I am (just barely) smart enough to listen to my publisher and ignore my fond memories of Prof. Emeritus Middleton’s old lessons (“Put lye in the Coke…” JUST KIDDING!)

But you know that inside my busy little blue head, there is a steeplechase going on with wild ideas running around like crazed dogs.

  • Bookmarks
  • Mousepads
  • Coasters
  • Product placement in Mennonite movies
  • T-shirts
  • Posters of dangling kittens wearing the T-shirts (it can’t be ALL about dogs!)
  • Fridge magnets of Menno Simons wearing one of the T-shirts (it can’t be ALL about David Cronenberg!)

So, be ready to buy the book. First 100 purchasers get a free TRAVEL MUG.*

___

*Also just kidding. Shipping extra.

My collection of short stories, “Pinching Zwieback” (At Bay Press) will launch in FALL 2023.

The Sewing Machine: The organic truth behind the fiction

A story of mine, “The Sewing Machine,” appears in the current edition of Rivanna Review. Speaking as a longtime subscriber to literary journals, I can say that RR is one of my favourites. The Editor in Chief and Publisher Robert Boucheron is an intelligent and thoughtful person—just the kind required to start up a lit journal in Charlottesville, VA after a long and distinguished career in architecture.

I am not an architect, nor do I know many of them—George Costanza of Seinfeld fame does not count—but for 16 years, they often held my fate in their hands. I owned a small manufacturing company and we did work on large commercial buildings. I found project architects to be direct, firm, and of the no-bullshit variety. Traits not uncommon in the building trade, but a regular characteristic for architects whose measure of approval is finite to two decimal points. You meet the spec or you don’t…

“The Sewing Machine” is a character study involving a man and a woman in 1931 Winnipeg who resemble my Toews Grandparents in many respects. Robert has commented that the type of writing he often finds favour with is what he calls “organic” storytelling. By this, I think he means stories that are “of the people, by the people, and for the people” to paraphrase some of Robert’s Virginia cohorts from the past.

These “organic stories” come from “the truth behind the fiction” as another friend, At Bay Press publisher, editor and author, Matt Joudrey has said. Matt’s acute observation connects to what friend and reader Edward Krahn sometimes compares to the Richard Ford school of gritty characters and circumstances. (So, I’m a purveyor of Menno Grit?)

Here are some more defining characteristics from an experienced writer-editor:

“A unique writers voice is what attracts me at first. Popular, stylistic, poetry/prose rarely captures my attention. Sometimes writing is over-learned in classes, or representative of the teacher’s or studied subject’s body of work. I like the rawness of the pure untarnished colloquial voice in the reading. Having something to say is essential to me. I’m not impressed with a great volume of rarely used words thrown together to impress the reader with the vast knowledge of the writer on command of English, tricks of writing, ancient history, or the places they’ve travelled.”

—An excerpt from an interview by writer, editor, publisher Judith Lawrence in, “Six Questions For…”

My forthcoming collection of short stories is a qualifier for these definitions. In “Pinching Zwieback: Made-up stories from the Darp” (At Bay Press) I’ll present a series of 20 stories. The pieces range from the opener, an 1873 story that takes place literally in the Bazavluk River in what is now Ukraine to a present-day ball game at Nat Bailey Stadium in Vancouver. In between, there are tales from Hartplatz, MB (a place that bears a resemblance, some might say, to a Darp with the initials Steinbach). A fictional clan called the Zehen family often takes centre stage, along with a hard-nosed friend, Lenny Gerbrandt, and the earnest and determined Jantseider Diedrich Deutsch.

While “The Sewing Machine” does not appear in “Pinching Zwieback” it is similar to many of the stories in the collection. To grab a subscription to Robert Boucheron’s entertaining and eclectic print periodical (fiction, non-fiction, reviews and poetry), Rivanna Review, visit the journal’s site at https://rivannareview.com/ While there, you can also learn how to connect to Robert’s monthly television broadcast.

Just tell him Art Vandelay sent you!

Issue 1: “Sweet Caporal” by Mitchell Toews

Issue 3: “Hundred Miles an Hour” by Mitchell Toews

Issue 6: “The Sewing Machine” by Mitchell Toews

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