Editing

Editing is difficult but rewarding.

Difficult because you are erasing what you have created. You are subtracting from or changing the very thing that got you in the publishing game! Feels risky.

Rewarding because your changes create something new, all over again. Plus, the editor is your ally and a trusted source that comes to you from a place other than the rocky mass between your (my) ears. Thank God for that.

I am preparing 24 stories for publication in the spring. Several folks are weighing in on my work and each day there’s a knot in my shoulders and that night’s dreams are peppered with flickering replays of scenes from the collection. I wake up, make notes, fall back asleep and then laugh at my scribbled nonsense in the morning.

Here is a segment, edited recently. I offer it as a fast in situ peek at the crime scene. It is from the story, “The Peacemongers” and the topic is Canadian Mennonites during the wars, WW2 in this case, who deigned to be officially named “Conscientious Objectors.” This meant they would work in labour camps in Canada rather than serving in the military.

I thought of Corky’s uncle John who worked at Loeb’s lumberyard. He wore a red vest and a plaid shirt and stood behind the counter at the lumber desk. He was a big man with very white teeth and he would stand there smiling and writing down what you wanted to buy. My dad would always order lumber from him and it always started out the same way. Dad would say, “I need some two-by-fours,” and John would say, “how many and how long do you need ’em?” Dad would reply “twenty pieces and forever!” Same joke every time. Then John would yell for one of the yard boys to come and load the order into our truck, his pencil poised above the order form, looking at my dad over his glasses. “Twelve-footers,” or whatever length he needed, was the answer, served with a slanted smile.

Dad said John had been in a C.O. camp during the war. He told my dad stories about it and how he made lifelong friends there. “Some were in the camp for other reasons, but most were there to follow the Word. That meant something to us and it was like our battle, to stay true to what we had been taught and to what we would teach our children.” I heard him talk about this to my dad and other men at the lumberyard. He stood straight up and looked into the eyes of the person he to spoke to. His voice was firm and he was not trying to convince anyone—he was just telling it. I was too young to understand everything, but thought he was telling the truth, exactly as he knew it and believed it.

.

I sometimes felt as though John and many others like him in our town believed, maybe secretly, that God was the biggest, toughest, most bad-ass Mennonite of them all. As if God would do all the fighting for us, and He would take no prisoners. I’m not sure that made our desire to live a life of pacifism any better. Possibly worse. It made God seem to me like a kind of bully—forever smiting Old Testament armies and kings that He didn’t like and constantly fighting with the Devil. Like Archie and Don, who fought almost every day after school at the corner of Hannover and Kroeker, accomplishing nothing but scuffed chins and bloody knuckles.[MT1]


 [MT1] Added 22-09-10 in a moment of random inspiration.

—Considered but not promised, for “Pinching Zwieback” At Bay Press

A Collection of Short Stories

Here it is… the announcement I’ve been waiting to make public since my story in grade four at Southwood School in Steinbach made it onto the classroom bulletin board.

Bigger me, bigger bulletin board.

Cheers, respectively, to teacher Miss Hildebrand and publisher Matt Joudrey.

“Pinching Zwieback” is a themed fictional account of the lives and characters in a place on the Canadian prairies called Hartplatz. It features the Zehen family and many others whose comings and goings represent events both real and imagined under the Prussian blue sky. Among them: Hart & Justy, Schmietum Jake, Pete Vogel, and Matt Zehen, whose journey is observed from childhood to later in life. Characters that really schmack!

More info as we get closer to the spring 2023 launch. Watch this space and my Facebook and Twitter pages. (LinkedIn too.)

two flash collections to love

Here are two flash fiction collections to love:

“Small Shifts” edited by Shawn L. Bird (Lintusen Presshttps://lnkd.in/gRNdw659 and “This Will Only Take a Minute — 100 Canadian Flashes” edited by Bruce Meyers and Michael Mirolla (Guernica Editionshttps://lnkd.in/gp6fJVcE

Many exceptional writers with some of their best stories in two books packed tight with wisdom, pathos, and humour. Plus, the boring bits have been removed. (As flash lovers already know, this is what generally happens.)

#flashfiction

Canada-wide Creative Nonfiction Contest

Thanks, danke seea, to the Humber Literary Review and the Creative Nonfiction Collective for placing my story, “The Mighty Hartski” on the longlist for this year’s contest. A blintering, stellar array of writers and me, happy to be in this stacked stack.

Shortlist in early June. The winner will be announced at the CNFC annual conference. Bonne Chance to all the finalists.

“Rommedriewe!”

Dappled Thoughts

Image: James Farl Powers, 1917-1999

Dappled Things has announced the finalists for its 2022 J.F. Powers Prize for Fiction, and I am one of the 28 authors selected.

“Well, now,” I said to myself, “I sometimes do interviews with other writers. Why not do one with me? An auto-interview?”

So here it is, with inspiration from interview subjects near and far, young and old, Catholic and Mennonite…

What drew you to this contest?

That is an excellent question. You are not only handsome but wise. Okay, here’s what Dappled Things say about the content they seek for the periodical.

“People fascinate us; sin bores us. Beauty amazes us; surface concerns leave us cold. Experience intoxicates us; world-weariness makes us yawn.”

That appealed to my sense of loftiness. Of aiming high. So that’s what I did — with the story and with the submission.

Were you, a Mennonite, concerned by the fact that the publication and the J.F. Powers contest are sponsored by an organization that is “Wholeheartedly Catholic?” Did this fact change your approach to the story?

Not concerned, as much as intrigued. In my experience in South Eastern Manitoba where disparate small towns dot the farmland, there are many predominantly Mennonite, Lutheran, Catholic, and Ukrainian places. Despite coming from distinctly homogenous communities, each with its own dominant religion, people somehow always end up mingling. Whether it is through work, play, school or — inevitably — romance, intersections are created and blending results. Not right away, but over time. I saw this many times in my own family and beyond.

In this way, my story about a mixed Catholic and Mennonite family with a close sibling relationship between two of the children seemed to be a natural fit for the ethos of Dappled Things and the J.F. Powers Prize.

Did it change my approach? No. In fact, the merging of two, I would say, strong faiths, plus the fact that the early “Mennists” grew out of the Catholic religion makes the religious undercurrent in the story a strengthening factor and one that adds an interesting complexity.

Does religion play a major role in your story?

No. Religion is there, the same way the Manitoba prairie is there, to offer context and grounding. In fact, I can’t see how the story could have “got out of its own way” if religion would have been the central theme. I wanted the characters’ inner humanity and the always present tension between our selfish desires and our innate generosity and compassion towards others to be the core conflict. Describing where that generosity comes from is not part of my authorial responsibility. I’m just there to tell a clear story and let the reader find in it what they may.

So… you have a chance?

Nah. Like a platter of Niejoahsch’kuake1 in the church basement on Christmas Eve, I will be long gone after the first wave. The writers in this prize are the Iowa Writers’ Workshop types, The Paris Review essayists, the ones who put the “Masters” in MFA.

And yet?

Yes, and yet if I read my story, I know there is always hope.

1 New Year fritters. Deep-fried, dusted with icing sugar, sinfully good.

The Morning After Nothing

Image: Cover, “Strange Weather” Becky Hagenston Press 53

Most mornings… in fact, most mornings as long as I can remember, I wake up happy. It’s a trait I would not trade. I am a cheerful morning person with a positive outlook. However, I must admit that some mornings are more of a poutlook. Soo gohne daut; so goes it.

Pouty mornings I sometimes call, “The Morning After Nothing.” A kind of bitter hollowness, apropos of nothing, with nothing left to lose, and nothing is more true than that you still have to get up and make the bed and get going. There is no cancel button for this illness.

“Cancel” starts with a C. What else starts with C are the things that conquer the dog-breath stench of waking up on a Morning After Nothing: coffee, chickadees, and creativity. My go-to fixes, respectively: Medium C, Little Cs, and Big C.

Coffee and the antics of our neighbour chickadee pals are self-explanatory cheer-bringers. Creativity is the third great remedy because it takes you away from the grumbly place and puts you far on the other side of Nothing. This last C takes you straight to Elsewhere: rapping at a keyboard, pushing wood through a saw, trying to learn a new move on the windsurfer. Painting something for a friend or for one of our pog grandkids. (That’s my wife Janice’s usual way out.)

“Dee-dee-dee!”

Today, I found the coffee less than stimulating and the chickadees were their usual acrobatic and fearless 15-gram selves but I still had the look of the guy at the back of the longest line at the grocery store… the guy with the dripping container of ice cream.

But, C-ing is believing, as the saying goes, so I moved on to Creativity: “C’mon Creativity, papa needs a new toque!” I wound up considering a difficult short story I’ve been working on for a long time. It’s an outside-your-comfort-zone story, with nary a Mennonite in sight. The story is dark and harsh, and carries a gut-shot of implicit violence. Well, if you’re gonna write about toxic masculinity, I guess you gotta break a couple of… Uhh, scratch that—sounds too glib, and not a little.

Cal Rhinehart. Big and mean. Damaged goods and all about the booze and the dope. Everyone else’s fault but his. Maybe his dad beat the shit out of him or maybe one fight too many or maybe he just had bad chemicals in his head; got dealt a rotten hand, Fiona thought, sad and furious and terrified all at once. Maybe understanding too well. Maybe even feeling a sort of mongrel kinship. But she shook that thought away. Positive thinking, Doctor Tracewski always says.

—Main Character, Fiona Hewel, in “Four Baths, Great View, Bank Owned Mountain Home”

This is the story that started up in my head after reading an incredible story by the super-pog Becky Hagenston, “Midnight, Licorice, Shadow.” I was determined to jump outside of my skin—that old, wrinkly bag of derma—and take on the many risks attendant for an older man who writes a story that contains difficult passages; violence both emotional and physical and violence against both men and women.

Violence is real. Violence towards women happens. Violence is at the heart of the topic I wanted to broach, and yet, how could I, “go there?”

Would it be best to just bail-out? Let someone else handle this topic? Did you just shout, “Hell yeah?” I understand, and yet, I have an indelible memory; something that happened to me, in real life, in the real world on the #1 Highway just west of the Bow Flats, at the feet of Big Sister, Middle Sister, and Little Sister.

“What in the world? Look at that!” Joe said, straightening his back and shifting his attention to the road ahead. A red SUV accelerated along the merge lane of an intersection. Behind the speeding car, a tattooed, bareback man ran in a dead sprint.

“Is he chasing them?” Fiona said.

Tall and broad shouldered, the man had an athletic build and long dirty blonde hair. The white drawstrings of his grey sweatpants fluttered and snapped behind him like kite tails as he ran after the vehicle. His bare feet pounded on the gravel strewn pavement.

The bizarre drama played on and Joe slowed the car as they closed on it. A white, flatdeck truck, “Rhinehart Well Drilling” in bold letters along the side, sat parked at a cockeyed angle near the intersection—driver door open, blinker on.

The running man slowed and hopped a few strides on one leg, then staggered to a lame halt. He bent at the waist to inspect his foot. The SUV sped away on the highway.

—”Four Baths, Great View, Bank Owned Mountain Home”

As you can see, I choose to go ahead with the story. The early iterations were the cause of some “Morning after Nothing” feels, but “vann aul, dann aul,” as is said in the Plaut: “if already, then already,” or “if you’re going to do it, go all the way!”

So I did.

Ugh. The result was more than one editor, I fear, not seeing the Red Badge of Courage in my choices, but instead feeling triggered and put upon. More than one editor who might have stroked me off a list or two. For good, or longer.

Still, this the way of it, is it not? If there’s no risk, then I will stay forever in the safe-feeling place—potentially a moribund state for my writing—where I just write happy, little stories about wise Mennonites. Where grey-bearded Opas nod knowingly and open their mouths to release a dazzling, atmospheric river of axiomatic truths and cornpone savviness. Savvy like, “vann aul, dann aul.”

But… many rewrites and tough critiques later, I feel as though the story has evolved and now comes closer to the way I want it. Consider: I am a male writer, someone who grew up in times and places where even the worst acts of wanton male violence were sometimes forgiven—forgiven (or given up) even by those who suffered the violence. Forgiven by those whose job is was to police this violence: pulpit, patrol car, politician. I lived this condition, directly and indirectly. Is that not a story worth considering? Is it not important to write from a point of view that—without absolution and without friendly framing—tells a human story in all of its unsettling truth?

I vote yes.

There’s a part near the end of “Midnight, Licorice, Shadow” where the author describes something being thrown into a dumpster, “with a thud,” and your heart sinks, and you feel a bit sick to your stomach. Without that passage the story is still wonderfully strong, but when you read it… when you read, “with a thud,” you are moved in a way that will last.

That! That result is the big prize, the one worth taking some risks to attain. It’s how a story can make a difference. It’s certainly one way to beat the Morning After Nothing blues!

Besides, as some wily Mennonite Oma must have said, to some future author on some far shore: “the best way to catch fish is to keep fishing!”

So I will.

Tweet from Charlie Fish (@FishCharlie)

Charlie Fish (@FishCharlie) Tweeted: In Mennonite Manitoba, hard-up teenager Diedrich Deutsch is getting bullied at school, and tries his hand at basketball. Read Mitchell Toews at https://t.co/dO9tFIbTVq https://t.co/Sgx6bczYGX https://twitter.com/FishCharlie/status/1309550748854878209?s=20

Imposterism and Perspective

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.

Otter Redux

My short and furry flash fiction, “I am Otter” is up on the new site: Short Tales – Flash Fiction Stories. The online site, which is aimed at international readers, features stories of no more than 1500 words. https://tale.code.blog/ Editor: @samkandej

I am Otter was first published by The Machinery in August 2017.

Mitchell lives and writes lakeside in Manitoba. He enjoys those splendid opportunities to fire in a one-hopper from deep in fiction’s left field, where ideas go to get green-stained and bedevilled.

 

“Died Rich” Coming to Fabula Argentea

My heartfelt tale of a neophyte basketball player—slash—jung Reiba ☠️ will be included in the May 2019 edition of the American literary magazine Fabula Argentea

https://duotrope.com/listing/8261/fabula-argentea

Thanks to Editor Rick Taubold for accepting my work. This is a “silver story” of both friendship and hardship that comes from personal experiences and a buddy who left too soon.

Active since 2012, Fabula Argentea receives over 500 submissions per year and from that produces three issues of about 8-12 stories each. Here’s an interview with Editor Taubold that succinctly describes the magazine’s approach:

https://duotrope.com/interview/editor/8261/fabula-argentea

allfornow,
Mitchell

☠️

jung Reiba is Plautdietsch (Low German) for “young pirate”.