Nettie a university philosophy student was spending the summer at home on her parent’s farm in Warman Saskatchewan in 1976 when she discovered that not only her family but others in the area were being approached by a provincial crown corporation to sell their farms to Eldorado Nuclear so they could build a uranium refinery in the area.
Nettie researched and discovered that uranium could be used to build nuclear weapons. Nettie was a Mennonite who believed in pacifism and so the thought of selling land to a company that might make weapons was unsettling to…
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…
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.”
the border of pastel yarrow, my footprints and the hollows made by my knees and the heels of my hands, me concentrating on staying awake while ravens oversee, soaring, violet mystique wings outstretched
Does the sky remember
glaring down on the old drunk, in his yellowed Stanfields, lying in a soaking puddle in the backyard morning, sprinkler ran all night and he drowned but didn’t know it
Does the backstop remember
me up on the mound, black socked Juan Marichal leg kick, wild as an air hose when the nozzle breaks off, baseball’s the next perfect thing after the last one blew apart
Does the kitchen floor remember
her pinwheeled on the cornflower tiles, alone and snoring, pajama top only, mustard on her pointed chin, the yellow badge of surrender, but what would I know of it?
Do the unknowing remember
all the things they can’t know when they say “Good for you…” but judge with unwrinkled eyes and tiny fists shooting venom, like Marvel halftone beams white hot with denial
Does the delivery room remember
my red moustache in an eighties flow, holding those babies so precious, waited through all the bad befores and here they are, perfect and undefinable, all worth it
Does the shy boy remember
how it felt to build the rink, leaves falling amber, nailing the boards, dragging the curved corners flat, dreaming of me yet to come, faceless, so I took his with its smiling eyes
Does the upstairs bedroom remember
her reading from Grimm’s, cover corners worn like the tongue of a boot, eyes the sagging hue of fall light but still life giving and aglow, “Who’s that walking across my bridge?” and the silver fillings glitter in the laughter of it
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Phew! Feels good to say it. This was my year to enter contests and I was getting a bit (okay, a lot) pouty faced about it. It’s not the not winning that is so bad (I’m lying, that is bad) it’s more the dreadful silence. Not a creaky cricket. Not a fractional decibel, just the buzzing silence that means, well, it means nothing.
So I did not actually win this nation-wide contest but I was recognized and their procedure is sufficiently difficult to make me crow a little. I can take it as a victory and move along.
Where and to what?
To my work-in-progress novel — thanks for asking — which is in the late stages of final edits, Beta readers, and getting down to the QUERY level. It’s a 85K-word lit fic called “Mulholland and Hardbar” and you’d describe it in a sentence as, “Fargo, with Mennonite accents.”
Next: A collection of short stories I’m querying. It’s a group of stories that run to the GRITTY end of the register and they’re about Mennonites, so, I have coined a category for it: “MennoGrit.” This short story collection includes the aforementioned most excellent story, “Fetch,” and a whole bunch of others, new and old, many that are EVEN BETTER. (Always be selling?)
Last in this trio of writing projects I have on the go is a new EKPHRASTIC ARTBOOK project, yet to begin officially, due to Covid. The Manitoba Arts Council (MAC | CAM) has funded its creation with a grant. My collaborator photographer partner Phil Hossack and I will begin soon with road trips and research on interesting Manitoba people and places. Being a Manitoba project, it will inevitably be drawn to places where there is a giant sky, lots of sunshine and the iconic great LIGHT our province is known for by photographers and artists around the world. Plus, maybe the prose can add another angle to the photography: The lightness of being? Being light-hearted? Finding the light? Can you help me out, buddy? — I’m a little light…
Anyway, back to the contest: I want to thank The Writers’ Union of Canada — a classy joint — the judges, the pre-selection readers, and my mentors and critique readers on this story. Of the latter, there were several and they did an outstanding job of helping me with this piece — one that I managed to write in the most difficult way possible! I had a lot of help.
Congratulations to the winner and to my co-finalists and to the nearly 800 entrants who, like me on many other occasions, heard the silence and I know they are gearing up to enter again next year. Yikes.
Plus… I do have a lot of contest entries still in play. So cross your fingers and maybe I can fetch up another one.
PROPER MENTION to “Write Clicks” pal and songleader Zilla Jones of Winnipeg who outdid herself with THREE stories in the final eleven.
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As my debut novel nears completion I am working on understanding the basics of the business side of writing. The book will become one of millions of items competing for audience share. Who will my book appeal to? Why? How can I reach them to let them know what I have written? How will I stand out from the massive crowd of competing works that vie for those same consumers of literature?
Thinking in this arena is not new to me. Marketing and advertising are how I made a living as I raised kids and paid bills and lived life (a wonderful one) while waiting for my opportunity to focus on creative writing. I even have some applicable education: I studied Sociology at the undergrad level and have a Masters Certificate in Marketing. Also, I made a paycheque for more than twenty years as “the creative guy” for manufacturing firms in Canada and the U.S.
Still, even with my background, literature and the world of literary book marketing and sales is all new to me. I may have sold lots of windows and doors, but apart from expertise in the basics of marketing, I have no insider knowledge when it comes to publishing and book sales.
So, I’m learning as I go. Experts abound and it’s not finding advice that is a challenge, but more a matter of figuring out which advice to follow. Several experienced authors, including my regular freelance editor, have made suggestions. Their ideas range from self-publish to approaching small presses who consider “agent-less” authors to seeking out a literary agent. These mentors have given me a lot to think about.
My own best advice circles around finding like-minded, fun, smart professionals with whom I get along. (I didn’t flog fenestration for all those years just to align myself with a bunch of miserable people, after all!)
Over the past six years of dedication to writing fiction and CNF, I’ve wrestled with the self-publish vs. traditional publishing quandary. There are plenty of factors to consider and it’s not an easy decision. It is the main decision though: everything follows, depending on what you choose. I feel strongly inclined towards a traditional approach. I think this is because my greatest involvement in literature as a reader was during the time when “vanity presses” were a weak alternative to regular channels. Times have changed, but I have to admit that my perspective is still somewhat biased. But biased or not, I would certainly go down the current self-publish path if not for the heavy commitment to marketing.
It’s kind of ironic — I’m an experienced and successful marketer and yet marketing is the activity that dissuades me from choosing self-publishing. Here’s the thing: I have spent more than twenty years obsessing over marketing and persuasion and advertising. I did it for a living and it was, in many ways, a grind. So to jump right back into that grind is not appealing to me. Furthermore, I know the methods and channels and players in my old industry, but I am not equipped in the same way for literature. In traditional publishing, I know I will still be saddled with a heavy obligation to market myself and my work, but at least I’ll have a knowledgeable and invested partner to direct me. As a self-publisher, I have to figure everything out by myself.
I’m told the first thing an agent or a publishing house wants to know about a novel is “Who will read it?” And why, I’m sure. In my case, even though I come from the Segment-Target-Position world, I did not think about the larger audience when I wrote the book. As I’ve run through edits and revisions (over the last two years+) I’ve come to have a sense for WHO that WHO is, categorically and in the person of a proto-reader.
I’m inclined to believe that my proto-reader might resemble me in some ways. I wrote it for myself after all — consciously or subconsciously — and others who have experienced similar life circumstances might most naturally be attracted to the story. Plus, I believe that the things about relationships, loyalty, and violence that brought me to write the story in the first place will find an appreciative audience in others. I suspect so. I hope so.
So… for starters, who am I? 65 Y.O. white, cisgender, hetero, male, backsliding (or never really slid forward in the first place) Canadian Mennonite. Hmm… oughta be about 70 or 80 of those. I’ll need more, so what next?
Cast a broader net; find and engage others. Objective: read my book, like it, experience catharsis, empathy, and emotional rise and fall, a few chuckles, some “exactly!” moments and some “no way!” experiences too. A book you tell friends about at Tim Hortons, in church, at book club, at old-timer baseball, sewing circle, on a wine-tasting tour, on your walk, at the grands’ hockey game, etc.
They will likely be readers who enjoy and gravitate towards: big characters, intense stories, dramedy. How do they feel about Miriam Toews work? Patrick Friesen? (Whoa! — I ain’t sayin THAT… I’m JUST sayin… you know, kinda-sorta-maybe a bit… some generalized similarities owing to some broad commonalities in that general direction and certainly from the same original whole cloth, but a different batch. Make sense? Have I been “humble of heart” enough?)
They will be individuals who like nature, the boreal forest. They might like fishing, snowmobiling, bird-watching, hiking, hunting. They might have memories of small towns, farm life, the whole Menno schtick, urban or rural, Canadian or U.S. Frintschoft? They might have them in Steinbach, Fraser Valley, Winkler, Kitchener-Waterloo, Leamington, Midwest US. Or they might find Mennonites kind of interesting even if they are not of that faith or cultural origin themselves, but buy the sausage and love the quilts.
They might have read and enjoyed: Of Mice and Men, Never Cry Wolf, The Sisters Brothers, Don Quixote, Tortilla Flat, Papillion, On the Road, Calvin and Hobbes 😉 and A Complicated Kindness and The Shunning. (Just to ring that bell again.)
They could be lovers of: Fargo, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Thelma and Louise, The Nick Adams Stories… Their favourite kind of sci-fi movie might be from the “last person left on earth” genre.
Okay, all right…coming into focus, through the glass darkly.
“Good point. Okay…It’s called Mulholland and Hardbar. Think, ‘Fargo’ but with Mennonite accents. Here’s a brief synopsis:
Burdened by a tragic event in his recent past, college freshman Aubry Penrose, who goes by the self-chosen name “Mulholland” decides to ditch school after the first semester. He consolidates his limited savings and rolls out of Winnipeg in his pick-up truck heading north, not to his home town of Friedensdorf but further into the wilds of the Manitoba boreal. He plans to live alone in the isolated cabin his Welsh Grandfa Billy built in the Fifties on the shore of Penrose Pond.
Alone he is until—resolve weakening—he finds himself roaming the region’s cabin country looking for easy-pickings. Out of character, he begins stocking his larder and taking things he needs with a less-than-certain promise to return them. He keeps a well-intentioned list of his plunder until he’s joined unexpectedly by “Hardbar”, a unique, larger-than-life stranger with whom Mulholland strikes up an uneasy alliance. They combine forces, share the darkness in their pasts and wander down an ever steepening path of mayhem, led mostly by the fierce, single-minded little man who arrived mid-winter on a stolen snowmobile.
The story follows the four seasons in Manitoba’s forestland: friendship, mistrust, deceit, and violence.”
Oh, and “Mulholland and Hardbar” takes place in the 1970s on Treaty 1 and 3 lands, unceded Indigenous lands that are the traditional home of the Anishinabe and Swampy Cree nations and the home of the Métis Nation.
SO, BOIL IT DOWN, ALREADY… what is the condensed version? I’m working on that. The grid below is part of the distillation process. A succinct way to get to the key traits, tendencies, influences and cultural biorhythms that make the human world go round and round.
That’s all for now. But I’ll be thinking about it, so that when the question is asked, “Who will want to read it?” I won’t say, “It’s a book for everyone!” because I actually don’t believe that it is.
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Sitting and drinking coffee just after sunrise. I’m watching a kingfisher in the branches above the shallow water near the shore. Mary Lou Driedger’s thoughtful observations of Sarah Klassen’s new book of poetry–many of the poet’s verses a loving look at the natural world–make the perfect complement to my morning and add another book to my buy list.
In a book chat featured on the 2020 Thin Air Writers Festival site, Sarah Klassen and Sally Ito talk about Sarah’s latest volume of poetry TheTree of Life published by Turnstone Press.
Since I had just read The Tree of Life I was interested to learn from their discussion that many of the poems in the section of the book titled Ordinary Time were inspired by things Sarah observed in nature while standing on the balcony of her fourth-floor apartment.
Sarah introduces us to a convoy of geese as they “contemplate, courageously, the next long flight,” the sparrow with its “claws like little commas”, the hawk that “hovers, hungry, wings wide open as if in benediction,” and the bald eagle “in transit across the sky’s blue canopy.”
Readers are enchanted by foxes “yelping, chasing, wrestling on the grass like children unrestrained by fear of predators or vixen…