Swingin’ the Can

DURING MY SIXTEENTH YEAR I jumped in my mom’s new AMC Gremlin and drove from Steinbach, MB to Ladner, BC. I went to work on my dad’s cousin’s farm where potatoes and strawberries were grown for McCain to flash freeze.

I learned how to drive a tractor and load a flatbed trailer with skidboxes of potatoes. On the way there, in the mountains, a grizzly bear taught me a little about the writing business. Of course, I did not know it then, but I have come to realize the similarities now that I write fiction every day.

On the first day of my westward trip I had driven non-stop, as a sixteen-year old would, and ended up in a wayside rest stop near Golden. I was too tired to carry on to the next town and so I just reclined the plastic seat and fell asleep.

Around dawn, I was awakened by a strange noise. It was the creak-creak-creak of metal followed by some rough noises like gritty sandpaper rubbed across the grain of a plank. I lay with my head just below the bottom of the car window. Feeling for the lever, I raised the seat up a few inches. There, about thirty feet from me was a full grown male grizzly bear. He stood on his hind legs and with his gigantic front paws, swung a 45-gallon steel drum that hung on two chains. The drum – a garbage can – was “bear-proof”; suspended in this manner from a horizontal cedar beam that stood on two sturdy posts buried in the ground.

I watched him for a while. The creaking sound was the rusty chain, complaining as it stressed its steel moorings in the wooden spar above. The bear, heeding the call of an aromatic potpourri of watermelon rinds and half-eaten chicken salad sandwiches, was grunting and half-growling in his exertions to defeat the uncooperative swinging drum. His gruff exhalations were the sawing wood sounds.

After a time, he dropped down – heavily – onto all four legs and stood resting, sniffing the air. He whined with irritation like my daughter’s canine buddy Rude Dog does when you are busy with your double-double and interrupt the game of fetch at the park. It was the bear equivalent of, “for shit’s sake!”

The drum swung silently, slowly ebbing, losing the energy the giant omnivore had put into it. As the drum went back and forth the grizzly’s attention was on one of the cedar posts. On each pass, as the drum bobbed from upward amplitude – to apogee – and then was pulled back down by gravity, the post shifted.

The bear and I watched together as the post pivoted in the sandy ground on each swing of the heavy drum. A little pile of fresh, damp sand had built up at the base. Ambling towards the pole, his expressive face looking as human as his ursine features would allow, the brute stopped and sniffed deeply at the wet sand. Staring, he stood for a long moment without moving. Then so abruptly that I twitched in surprise and was instantly aware of my puny defenses, the giant bear stood and began enthusiastically rocking the post.

Luckily, Smokey was so engrossed in his new tactic that he did not notice me sitting up in my seat and only put his beady gaze on me as I tore out of the lot, spitting gravel behind the car as I left.

I stopped on the deserted early morning highway a few hundred yards down the road. Opening my window, I could hear the clacking reverberations of the drum chains as the bear gained purchase and I could imagine the can gyrating wildly as 700 pounds of hungry, determined bear attacked the support with cycloidal ferocity.

He pushed the crap out of it until it broke.

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So, you, me and the impassive bear in the image above are all wondering – what’s the message in the metaphor?

Good question and here goes: the bear’s strength was never in question; it was more a matter of how he applied it.

There’s little doubt – according to the abundance of meme wisdom on my tres writerly twitter feed – that the more I read and the more (fearlessly, honestly, blahblahblah-ly) I write; the greater my chances of success. (What the eff is success? That’s another blog, by someone smarter than me.)

Maybe this is the message of the bear in the forest near Golden:

Swing the drum and trust your strength.

However; what the bear might tell me, as he picks Skittles and KFC residue off of his chest fur, is to swing smarter.

But that is the tough bit. I suspect ‘swing smarter’ here might mean to write great blog posts; enter contests; tweet with pith; suck up to editors and influential literati; and otherwise do everything except WRITE. 

Does the bear look skeptical? He looks skeptical to me. 

If I think about it some more (remember the bear staring at that loose post?) I conclude that I don’t know what I don’t know. Less cutely written – I don’t know shite. So, for me to figure out the “angles” that will  give me success (and I am an impatient fool; not a little) seems like I would be depending on a lot of luck.

So, swing smarter? Sure – but just because it is FUN; it provides a change of pace; it cleanses the palette (like Skittles). Not as a strategic ploy, but because writers-editors-publishers are smart, self-deprecating, funny as hell and well – and I should know – garrulous and outspoken.

So, I’m gonna go swing the drum now — I have three short stories on the go and I have a fantastic passage to write for one of them about a wolf frozen solid in a trap. (I saw this, when I was twelve. I don’t think it was done for McCain.)

allfornow – m

Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2016

Confessions of a Serial Describer

It is November on the 50th parallel. The scrub White Spruce is still a vibrant green while the surrounding ferns have turned a rusty mocha. Bright lichen florets make the rocks stand out in bold contrast.
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It is late November. Where the hell is the snow? I can only truly enjoy Mexico if my friends at home are completely miserable.

Man, that was descriptive. Phew! Chills. Need a tissue?

Except the last part.

Let me reverse digress.

Setting, tone, pace, narrative arc, word choice, description, dialogue, exposition, themes and plot — all of these and more are at play in the creation of fiction.

It’s a lot for a small-brained lad to keep track of and yet I must! I have to admit that after twenty years of having product imagery, branding, price and audience as my guiding lights, I need to do some relearning.

Many writers, editors and readers today prefer a “leaner” kind of writing. This includes several key style considerations. One important factor is the interdiction of adverbs. Shoot them out of the air before they can land and defile your verbs with those filthy ly-suffixed words!

Adverb avoidance makes sense — no argument here. Let the verbs do the work.

Exposition or summarization is seen today in literary fiction as unnecessary and dated. A knowledgeable editor I know stresses the need to “show not tell”. At the same time, I’ve often read that many classic pieces of literature are filled with exposition and they are still loved today. Would those classics succeed if written now? Probably, but contemporary conventions can be powerful and I believe a writer needs to be both skilled and confident in their approach if they choose to buck these trends.

Note to self: don’t buck around with trends unless you have a good reason to do so.

SIDEBAR: I think there are some outliers here – the editor I referred to states that she personally is less inclined to enforce a hard “no exposition” rule. Additionally, my personal experience may indicate that not all regions are on the same wavelength when it comes to exposition. London literati may take a different view than their Vancouver cousins, for instance. Certainly, literature is more global than ever and regional idiosyncrasies are hard to prove, but my own anecdotal experience suggests some commonalities based on geography.

Furthermore, my editor friend highlights the fact that, “exposition is very much alive in genre fiction (romance, sci fi, fantasy, suspense thrillers). However, there’s no doubt that too much telling stops the pace of the story and causes the readers (who we are told these days have very short attention spans) to become less interested in reading on.”

Description is a story-telling tool that I use a lot. It is not a favoured structure by all. There are those who see it as simply “copyism” — the tree is green and the surrounding plants are brown. Big deal.

I get the point. Description stops the action and is a close relative of exposition in terms of not sufficiently trusting the reader to figure things out.

But. Yes, I have a but – a small one (God willing, it will continue so). I love to describe things that may be out of the experience of the reader. Or it may be that description can help to support a feeling or mood or to otherwise move the story along. The examples that follow are personal favourites: “Big Two-hearted River” and “Islands in the Stream” by Hemingway, and “Robinson Crusoe” and “Moby-Dick”, as well.

In the Nick Adams short story “Big Two-hearted River”, we are told exactly what the man eats; the types of trees in the forest and swamp; and the temperature of the water as Nick wades into the current to cast. Hemingway describes the way the grasshopper – used as bait – spits “tobacco juice” on the hook. All of these minute, intimate details put the reader in the place and time with the Nick Adams character and condition us to be curious to understand and empathize with him. “Why is he so sad?” is the thing that occurs to readers even as the detailed description continues to push us away from this central question.

In “Islands in the Stream” our dread is raised by the calm, clinical depiction of the sea, the waves, the colours of the water, the sky, and the sea bottom while the giant hammerhead shark bears down on a young boy who is oblivious; “goggle fishing” in the shallows. Thomas Hudson, the father, fumbles as he loads his rifle and sights on the shark’s fin, firing and missing — and each miss is described in excruciating detail. It raises the hair on my neck just writing about it!

Meanwhile, elsewhere in the ocean, Defoe’s numerous, lengthy, arcane descriptions of Crusoe’s fortifications and the architecture of his island home are famous examples of description. I loved every six-penny nail!

Last, I remember lying in bed at home, recuperating after a nose operation at about age thirteen. (As an air passage, it made a pretty good coat hook.) I had ordered Moby-Dick from the University of Manitoba Extension Library. The book arrived, wrapped in brown kraft paper and bound with butcher’s twine. A white sticker on the front read: “1.) Melville – Moby-Dick 2.) Young – A Boy at Leafs’ Camp”. Home early from work, my dad delivered it, coming into the warm bedroom, snow dusting his winter parka. He tossed the bundle on my bed. “Your books came in the mail,” he said. “How’s the schnase?”

See what I mean?

See three of my descriptive short stories on the outstanding Canadian e-zine, CommuterLit, edited by Nancy Kay Clark — one of the top five Nancy Clarks in all the land!

allfornow – Mitch

 

Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2016

The Tortured Wind

STRANGE AND UNRELIABLE THOUGH IT IS, the wind is my buddy.

Winter is coming and that is when the wind is disconsolate. Or, more so, it is just plain pissed off. The water – playful in summer – is now frozen and immovable. The trees are leafless and their bare branches have no grip. The snow is always around and it just follows and follows – it has no personality and without the wind, it is pretty but gutless.

Doughy and unwieldy is the wind. It is pathetic too, sometimes; oftentimes.

Wicked strong, the wind lurches along in giant, misshapen blobs, each with an invisible, tacky hide. Like the unpopular, the ambitious, the too earnest – like me, I fear – the wind tries to stick to everything it touches. But, invariably, it just keeps tumbling along because that is the wind’s true, inescapable nature.

Leaving makes the wind desperately sad, but if it stops moving, it dies.

That’s why the wind sometimes howls.

Trust me on this.

allfornow – mitch

 

Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2016

#amwriting

I have not blogged for a few days, but I have been hard at work on a lot of other writerly tasks.

  • Rowing on the lake; hiking the trails in the snow; scattering miniature marshmallows for the suspicious Whiskey Jacks (I save the sunflower seeds for myself!); prepping my workshop/writer’s studio for winter and otherwise bobbin’ and weavin’ and feeding my soul .
  • Working on a major re-write slash tune-up of a new story that I have in first draft stage. It is a satire. I received a little expert advice from a great writer + blogger with some chops in this area. Gonna incorporate her mentorly comments. Maybe send her a ring of Winkler sausage or two.
  • Re-did this blog a bit. Put in a Publications page now that I have a few places online and in print where my stuff resides. I’ve also replaced the stock photos with a few Samsung snaps of the place where Janice and I live and drink the wild air 1.
  • Waiting for some expert editorial assistance on a story a few of my “early readers” have enjoyed. I have high hopes for this sad tale of resistance and regret. I hope to knit up my ravell’d sleave 2 and enter this one in some contests! If you’d like a preliminary copy of “The Log Boom” to read and possibly flop me an op, (RSVP a POV?) lemme know!
  • Part way through a new story about Hartplatz (Steinbach on a sunny day in my imagination) narrated by an inanimate object. “Graperoo” should be done soon!
  • I have been cleaning up some existing stories that I hope to submit to some of my fav lit sites and maybe some new ones too. Now that I have a small portfolio of acceptances, I am hopin’ to scramble a bit higher up the mountainous submission piles of some of the bigger-name Canadian literary journals. It is a big hurdle, that. Afterall, I am naught but a humble country mouse who LOOKS like a Trump deplorable (but sure ain’t) and has no discernible prose DNA, except for a famous surname that some may suspect – oh, so wrongly – I have usurped. Maybe I should try a pen name? How about “Rich Davis” — that’s what my real name sounds like when I say it with a stuffy nose. Or, “Carly Menno Simons?”  A virtual gender swap might shake up those weary slush pile readers who sputter, over-caffeinated – “What, exactly, IS a Rennie, Manitoba?”
    rejection-letter-schultz 3

allfornow – Mitch/Rich/Carly

~~~
1 – R.W. Emerson
2 – you know who
3 – C. Schultz, but you prolly knew that one too

 

Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2016

Knock, Knock, America

Knock, knock.

Who’s there?

You can’t outrun.

You can’t outrun who?

You can’t outrun your destiny.

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#NovemberNotes – Day 9

P.S. – I fell for the USA – fell hard – back when I was eight-years old. It was baseball that attracted me, but many other things too. Now my old hero is looking different. Collectively, Americans can usually make pretty good decisions. Not always, it’s true, but Canada ain’t perfect either. I am concerned about the next 200 days or so, in particular. I suspect I lot of Canadians feel the same. 

If I live long enough, I expect to see the USA become a Hispanic-majority country and Canada one where people of Asian ancestry are in the majority. Current ideas about wall-building, cultural deportation and taking cash remittances out of Mexican-bound mail might seem strange in 2050 or so. Like looking back on slavery is now.  

allfornow – m

November Palette at 50° N

November Notes – Day 7

The sun has risen. It is a blob of dirty yellow pigment, smeared by a giant Van Gogh thumb, obscured by the low grey cloud bank to the east. As a result, the early light is only that which is reflected by the clear blue dome above. This morning light is strangely weak with no shadows and no glare. Nature appears soft – a watercolour on cottony cold-pressed paper.

A chickadee and a squirrel natter at each other like old men in a cafe. Only half-interested; they have had this argument before.

It is fully Fall now, despite the unseasonable warmth. Greys and rocky taupes dominate the register. Yellow poplar leaves, the Romans of just two weeks ago, lie in ruin, piled into hollows and crevices. Their bright yellows and matchstick oranges are gone, rotting wetly into silent umbers, ochres and noble browns.

Only the brave tamaracks stand at attention, brandishing their saffron flag to the last.

Green is not going without a fight. The conifer needles and hardy understory plants still ply their verdant trade, lighting sections of the boreal with a lively glow. The massive rocks of the Shield are no longer hidden and they unfurl their attire: deep green mosses and the bizarre chartreuse of the indestructible lichens.

The raucous ferns, so green and flowing in the summer are now dark and rusted, flooding the forest floor in a leafy dulce de leche.

The pale jaune clair of the reeds rises up out of the lake water. Their faint hue belies their hard nature – they will stand, rustling as if in secret conversation, unhurt by the ice through the iron of winter.

In the ditches beside the black asphalt road, the woods have applied a splash of winter make-up. It is the deep maroon of the willow whips that stand in profusion, naked of leaves, darkly crimson and waving seductively in the breeze off the nearby open water.

Mourners at a graveside, the silver birch stand vigilant and in brilliant white contrast to the forest around them that pulls a dusky blanket over its shoulders and prepares for slumber.

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For #NovemberNotes: November 7 – “Yellow” by Coldplay (Or it could be Nov 22 – “Free Fallin'” by John Mayer.) https://thesarahdoughty.wordpress.com/tag/novembernotes/

Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2016

Gratitude for a Loyal Colony

The internet is much like a sea filled to furious capacity with fish. Viewed from a height, such as a high flying gull might attain, larger fish can be discerned and the general trends of schools and shoaling fish can be observed.

But should that gull swoop down low to snatch a morsel, it will find a teeming confusion – a frothing, overabundance of individuals each pushing and straining to the surface. The madding crowd, where many are not fish but are foul.

And yet, in all of this tumult and to my surprise, a few have found my pan-sized offerings and have returned for more. To these loyal wingmen (hens and drakes alike) I offer today’s labour – working on my short fiction, “The Log Boom”; a little story that I hope can become a big fish.

I’ll do that writing after I frame and case a pocket door and build a backsplash. The unrelenting, land bound needs of our 66-year old cabin come first. Plus, like my writing, there’s a lot of editing required.

Meanwhile, here is a short excerpt from, “The Log Boom”, for loyal Early Readers and other lone birds who have landed here:

This changes everything. This changes nothing, Marty thought. He had wondered how people react when they were told this. But he still did not know. He was quiet.
.

As they drove, Marty looked out at a tugboat towing a boom of logs on the Fraser. The logs flowed down the inexorable river, riding the current. Frederick noticed Marty looking at the boom and feeling the tension in the moment was happy to focus on it as well.
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“Wow. That is huge – how many separate booms are strung together?” Fred asked.

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“At least three,” Marty said as he pulled the truck over at a spot where construction vehicles had a ramp down to the river. They sat together and watched the tug as it guided the immense weight of the logs past the pilings of the Alex Fraser Bridge.
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“The boom is going downstream, so it is relatively easy to control, I suppose,” Marty commented. “But I guess you still have to be pretty sharp and plan the path carefully.”

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“Do you think it’s harder to tow them upstream?” Fred asked, glancing at his dad, his eyes moist.

allfornow – mitch

 

Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2016

“Why Do You Write?” he asked, one dark and stormy night.

OK, this sounds completely boring and self-important, but it is really kind of a tough question.

At the risk of becoming even more internet repellant – sonetimes I feel like I am RAID! for followers – here goes. Please weigh in, or whey in (feeling cheesy?) or shoot over a scathing one-liner or an interesting comment. Or if you are intrinsically repellant like me, just do whatever it is we would do instinctually and hope that it is opposite day.

A fellow writer asked on twitter,

“Why do you write ? For money , or for a release ?”

I am of course tempted, repeller that I am, to jump in with a juvenile comment of the “That’s what Phlegyas said,” type, but I will restrain myself.

SIDEBAR: If you DID NOT have to Google ‘Phlegyas’, then please send in a pithy comment. You could definitely offset some of my native repellency. A pronunciation guide would serve to validate your braininess.
If on the other hand, you immediately thought of Steve Carell saying, “That’s what SHE said,” in a ten-year old episode of The Office, then, welcome, fellow repeller; meine abstoßenshaft.
SIDEBAR P.S. – writing things in German that you obviously just translated online to make it seem like you actually speak another language is classic repellency. 

If – like me – you thought, “Define release,” then please read on. I actually responded in a kind of mildly non-repellant way. I base this on the reply from the OP (which stands for Objectionable Person in the Internet Repellency club, of which I am the President. And Past President.) I answered the OP (onomatopoeia producer? I know OP stands for something relevant and internetty, but I can’t think of it.) by saying that, “release is closer, but misses”.

Pretty good, eh?

He replies, “What hits the nail?”. Also good.

So what is it? What is the answer that Orion’s Pantleg seeks?

Here is my half-serious, not trying to be funny rather than being gutty and layng it out there, slightly non-abstoßen response:

For me, it’s a kind of compulsion; almost involuntary.

It is analogous to splinters, for those of you who – like me – get a lot of splinters (slivers: wood or metal) in your hands. If you can’t get the splinter out right away, it sits in there for a while until a little pus cocoon develops around the splinter and then, one evening, while you are re-reading Inferno by a roaring fire (naturlich), your body just EXPELS the splinter.

Bloop. A little wet spot shows up on your hand and there is the splinter: wet and shrunken and looking way less fearsome than when it shoved its intrusive way in there.

The point is, once the sliver (let’s call that THE IDEA) enters the skin (THE CREATIVE MIND) it must be dislodged (WRITTEN) by the pus (THE STORY).

In my experience, this is true for gardening, writing, art, innovation, marriage, child-rearing and sometimes, survival.

Also blogs.

allfornow – m

 

Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2016

Glass Half Empty

Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2016

11.13.16 – I have decided to submit this flash – satire – fantasy – historical fiction partridge in a pear tree to a literary journal. In respect of that submission, I have removed the main body of the story here and left an excerpt.

Thanks to those who offered opinions.

I will post a link to the published version if and when that happens. Polls indicate almost no chance of that happening; however…

Glass Half Empty

By Mitchell Toews

In 1935, a successful German immigrant, businessman Friedrich Rook, commissioned a history to be written about his life and times. Mr. Otto Brechtzeit was the Seattle agent hired to assemble a team to create this biography. Here is one day in Mr. Brechtzeit’s prosecution of that task.

THANK YOU FOR SEEING ME, Mr. Brechtzeit. Let me just say, to start with, that in the occupation of narrator, we beer steins have not made ourselves well known. Still, I believe in the American dream and feel that, despite certain disadvantages having to do with my being an inanimate object, I deserve a fair chance.

Yes, I have credentials. As I stated in my letter of application dated October 5, 1935, I was employed during the period in question – 1885 – by the Sommerfelder Bar in Puyallup, in the then-unincorporated Territory of Washington.

I am a beer stein and I was used to convey cold beer, an alcoholic beverage made out of grain, yeast, hops and water.

It is flavourful, I agree and no, due to the non-porous nature of my body, I do not absorb sufficient amounts in order to become inebriated. I am in no way an alcoholic, sir. Nor am I a teetotaller — I still enjoy allowing the suds to soak in around my rim and the salt from the imbibers’ lips is also delicious.

What? Oh, sorry – the salt is from the pretzels. Yes the pretzel salt is quite zesty. I believe the salt is from Utah. Yes, it is washed away – sometimes more than once a day. It is washed away in the way all residue is, with soap and warm water. Alright, I hope that answers your questions about the salt – that’s a lot of questions about salt.

What makes me the best candidate for the job? Well, Mr. Brechtzeit, that is a most central question…

*SNIP*

allfornow – mitch
mitchellaneous.com

Hartplatz Sitings

The fictional Mennonite community of Hartplatz, Man., has been seen in print and on the wing at several locations on the WWW.

Tell-tales include red wing blackbirds, killdeers, grackles, budgies and pelicans…icing sugar…the smell of an old baseball glove when you hold it right up to your face…the sound a bible makes when it is dropped – for emphasis – on a large wooden desk…followed perhaps by the sound of Grandma shouting at the TV while watching All-Star Wrestling.

Hey, we all have our guilty pleasures.

Here is a spotter’s guide:

CommuterLit.com has run three of Mitch’s short fictions: “Encountered on the Shore”, “A Vile Insinuation”, and “Without Reason”. Two more of his stories, “Nothing to Lose” and “Heavy Artillery” (Oct 30) appear on Fiction on the Web (UK) and, “A Fisherman’s Story”, was published in Rhubarb Magazine Issue 39 (Available at better book stores – like Sam’s Place, 159 Henderson Hwy – or ORDER  COPIES HERE.)
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Literally Stories (UK) published Mitch’s twisted yarn, “Breezy and the Six-Pack Sneaker” as well as his nostalgic walk down a dangerous alley in 1932 Winnipeg, “The Fifty Dollar Sewing Machine”, and the contemporary tale, “Frozen Tag”(Oct 27).
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“And So Are They All” won second place in the Fiction category in the 2016 “Write on the Lake” writing contest and will be published in the Lake Winnipeg Writers’ Group’s semi-annual journal, Voices, Volume 16, No. 2. Mitch will present the story at the Voices launch at McNally Robinson book sellers in Winnipeg, on November 20 at 2 PM. Voices will be available online HERE and at McNally Robinson after November 20.

THANKS to the editors and publications who have run my stories so far. I am grateful and always nervous when a story goes, “out there”! I wouldn’t want this to get around, but the truth is, I just make this stuff up!

Let’s keep that last bit between us and the mergansers out in the bay.

allfornow – m

P.S. – Click here to think of springtime.

P.P.S. – If you caught the PUN in the title, you’re better than me. I put it there by accident and then realized it and thought, “sitings, that’s pretty good,” and left it in. Ahhh, the creative process, it’s a sacred trust.

 

Copyright Mitchell Toews ©2016