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.
The engineer’s grinning at us. No, mostly he’s leering at Sarah, who sits with her hair blowy in the passenger seat. I feel the thrum of the train engine. Feel it in my fillings. Then I’ve had enough. Enough of the clatter. More than enough of the old hogger flexing his rolled-sleeve bicep at Sarah. My foot’s off the pedal and we lag behind. Caboose lights blink goodbye.
Sarah straightens her hair with one hand and rolls up the window. The evening sun is sullen behind us, drowning golden in the swamp. Her head is backlit, wild honey in the horizontal glare. Dust motes swirl inside the cab and two noisy horseflies butt their heads against the back window.
“Have you told Mom and Dad?” The last of the warm summer light angles across her face. Her lips are glossy. They part as if to speak but she does not.
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…
One of the joys of writing is meeting and connecting with other writers. It’s interesting in a capitalist context to see us buzzing together like communist bees to build a plenary body of literary work: Fiction, Essay, Journalism, Criticism, Opinion, Poetry, Theater, and so on. All done in what are often intensely personal moments of recollection, self-awareness and exploration.
We band together in critique groups, associations and guilds, in events, readings, book launches and on the internet.
Since March 2020, a LOT of internet.
A pleasure and a point of professional courtesy that (no surprise) pays off as much for the giver as the receiver is to read and review work in progress. I’ve been both beneficiary and provider in this regard—giving an increasing amount of effort to reading and less to being read. (Those who regularly get my feckless Momma’s boy pleadings for them to read a story and report back may disagree… You know who you are. But in my defense, we built a loft on the water just to bribe you, so, you know, soldier on.)
Here is a fresh-voiced realist who walks the streets of Every Damn Day Another THING and knows how to tell it on the mountain. I’m pleased to give you one of her stories, below. A pick-up truck with a rose-hued patina on the outside powered by a Boeing jet engine and driven by a hot-rod pilot with one elbow poking casually out the window, even around the bends.
The School of Forgiveness
by Ramona Jones
Electives or required courses? Forgiveness and Patience, two subjects failed time and time again, reappearing and taken until I get them right. I wouldn’t have to study these if I had majored in something quantifiable. Forgiveness paired with betrayal…Do I have to sit here until the class is over? Ramona, pull your head out of the emotion and recount the facts. I don’t like going to hard places in my head without good reason, because those subjects are really tough.
I understand why people block out memories and shore them up behind facades and alcohol. I just forget, or replay parts, over and over until they wear out. Maybe this time I can turn a few off.
In 1981, I lived in a house in Vancouver with my boyfriend, a medical student, and four other students, paying ridiculously low rent. So low in fact that Ron and I saved enough money for a road trip to San Francisco. Two days before departure the phone rang, connecting me to my unpleasant family life in Toronto.
“Mom’s had a stroke.” I could hear the tearful catch in my brother’s voice. There was no choice but to go. No time to do anything but book a hotel. I could not stay with my father, where my strength would be drained to construct mental defences and avoid, whatever.
Clint told me to come quick, this was very serious. I took a cab from the Toronto airport, straight to Saint Michael’s Hospital where my mom lay fresh from surgery. The smell hit me first, alcohol fumes rising through the air to my nose. The next thing—the visual—reminded me of Egypt. Her head was swathed in bandages, a lot of white bandages in a turban. In the peripheral view, tubes entered and exited her body.
I don’t remember the last time I spent conscious time with my mom before that day. My memories of commonplace days with my family of origin blur and soften. That day I only had love. I reached for her hand because she could not see me.
“Mom, it’s me.” I held a swollen hand. It had to be the right hand, because her left hand remained paralyzed for the rest of her life. She squeezed me back, releasing some of my numbness.
My dad was very upset that I would not stay with him and my brother, but Jacqueline—my dad’s cousin, a school counsellor living in BC—supported my decision to go solo. The hotel offered refuge and calm space at night, while part days were spent shopping and walking on Yonge Street, waiting to see if my mom would make it. Saint Michael’s is downtown, 30 Bond Street, to be exact. I had access to record stores and the Hudson’s Bay bargain floor. I bought a size 10 navy skirt, a red sweater and brown shoes, with gracefully thin straps and low but stylishly flared heels, perfect for my job in a Vancouver government office. I wanted badly to go home, to work, as soon as possible.
I scold myself for being so self-centered. No thought of Clint or my aunts and cousins, who are just as upset, maybe more, as me. Two of my mom’s sisters flew from Manitoba to be there. Neither travelled much—living pure, simple lives in the country, but they came, like me, knowing we were all near death in Toronto.
Only, it didn’t happen. I have a comforting memory of sitting with a nun at the Catholic hospital. She never preached or told me anything about God, just offered me a mug of hot chocolate. So sweet, in the midst of everything. I found out more about what they did and thought about my mom’s cerebral aneurysm after I got home. Dr. Howard, who is my cousin, and is renowned in his specialty, Geriatric Medicine, told me afterwards that he arranged for my mom’s stay in Riverdale Hospital. In her situation, with inadequate support at home, she lived in rehab for an entire year.
I used to think, Eva, my mom, was a bit of a chicken—always anxious, always evading the direct questions I would fire at her from my position as her dependent but selfish child. The stroke threw back the covers, exposing her truth. My mom worked so hard in rehab, she became the bravest woman I ever met. She learned to walk again.
Every challenge was met with a search for a personal solution, not complaining or blaming. With her new outlook, she went shopping, once a week to a mall, travelling by a bus for handicapped people, for treasured time outside of the house.
She never took another drink and assumed a mental independence she never had before, returning home where she relished every minute until the day she died, 26 years later.
My brother had a huge part in her story, but not mine. He told me he prayed hard, hours on end, begging God not to let her die. There is more to what he told God, but that is not mine to share. Clint told me Mom had a dream before the stroke. Jesus appeared to her. He told her, “Eva, Life is going to get very hard for you, but you are going to be alright.”
What did I make of that? This: Forgiveness does heal. My mom showed me how it is done but I am still working to graduate from that course. Patience? If you saw what I felt, watching Mom navigate from a wheel chair, in a walking world, you might not have enough either.
British Columbia’s Dr. Bonnie Henry has nailed this now, in Covid context, but my mom learned it, miles back:
Be calm, be kind, stay safe.
~ ~ ~
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A quick ramble through the blackberries: I write about my Mennonite and my secular experiences–what I love and what I disrespect–as it occurs to me and in roughly equal measure. As a non-baptised cultural Mennonite, and a self-named Mennonite imposter, I am outside of the permission loop that may constrain others who write about the same topics.
But I’m not immune to restraint and inhibition just because I don’t surf the hemlock pews on Sunday morning. (Another one of those surf-slash-theological and pinophytically-correct metaphors, dudes.) Externality, it could be argued or at least considered, gives me and those like me the freedom to be hyper-critical.
In fact, I am rigorously beholden to all of my personal relationships, long held and cherished, with those who DO “surf the hemlock.” Seriously, a perceived outsider (or imposter) has internal motivation–not church-imposed–when speaking out. An equivalent influence? Sometimes jo, sometimes nay.
So… audible inhalation… I would like to and should make it my professional beeswax to know what has gone on in various church groups, conferences, etc. in the history of Mennonite writing. I need to understand those who held or now hold formal rank and wield the power of censure or absolution. The fact that those bodies-politic were, or still are, all-male and seem as intellectually homegenous as those identical rows of psuedotsuga benches upon which they, uhh, ‘hang ten’ bugs me not a little and diminishes their validity in my view. But still.
So, yeah… I’ll work to enhance my knowledge of the history of “insider” writing in the Mennonite fiction canon. It will enhance my POV even as I see my externality as an equally worthy, and perhaps in the final analysis, less incumbered point of origin. My lifetime of personal experiences continue to kick me “right in the back pocket” and won’t allow me to ignore their painful presence. Plus, considering the depth and context of my personal Mennonite experience–with both a Russian delegate and a shunning in my antecedents–and my 50-years in one of the central milieus and eras of Mennonite evoloution… I feel I should tell the stories I have lived.
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Winnipeg blogger and author MaryLou Driedger (“What Next?”) had this interesting post on her site recently: Flash Fiction and The Group of Seven. I’ve re-blogged it here partly because she mentions me in her post.
She has pointed out that photographic artist Phil Hossack and I will draw from people and places in Manitoba to create an ekphrastic prose-filled artbook. The photography will offer one interpretation and prose another.
MaryLou accurately points out some similarities between our concept and the excellent new book, The Group of Seven Reimagined published by Heritage House in Victoria and edited by Karen Schauber.
Like the Group of Seven book and other artbooks that combine visual art and the written word, we too will be called upon to create an aesthetic that is worthy of the subject matter. Our “design charette” has paid attention to the design on the printed page. Some benchmarks: Unity & Variety; Balance; Emphasis & Subordination; Directional Forces (visual flow of pages, spreads, covers, bleeds, etc.); Contrast; Repetition & Rhythm; Scale & Proportion.
Leading our design… the recurrent themes or stepping stones will be People, Places, and Light. Phil and I are excited, eager to begin, but we’ll wait for the all-clear Covid siren to sound before we hit the road.
Below: One of Phil’s evocative images, Roseisle artist Stephen Jackson near the Sourisford Linear Burial Mounds. This photo provides a possible example of how People, Place, and Light might combine to suggest a fictional narrative with a distinctive Manitoba inflection.
This project, with the working title, “People, Places, and Light — a Manitoba journey” is assisted by a “Create” grant from MAC | CAM.
I have a new story out today. The inspiration for this tale comes from my real-life friend Irene M. and her mom. Taking the plotline related to me last summer, I created a composite small-town mom, mixing aspects of Irene’s wonderful tale of resolve with memories of my own mom and her steely side.
The result is the short fiction, “The Grittiness of Mango Chiffon.” This story is live online now, August 10, on the great Canadian literary journal, Agnes and True.
It’s a special story for me in lots of ways—timely too—and so I’m hoping it will get lots of reads, shares, forwards, and reviews. If you are able, please give it a glance and send it around to friends who might have a special understanding of some of the conditions and the times and places described, or who might relate to the overall grin-and-shimmy of it.
I’m hoping that someday my granddaughter (Hurricane) Hazel will read this and say, “What the crease-resistant Fortrel was Gramps talking about? Could it really have been like that?” You see, Hazel—like all of her aunts, great-aunts, grandmothers, great-grandmothers and definitely her mom—is made of stern stuff, just like the main character in the story.