The Sewing Machine: The organic truth behind the fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Just tell him Art Vandelay sent you!

Issue 1: “Sweet Caporal” by Mitchell Toews

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

Issue 6: “The Sewing Machine” by Mitchell Toews

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

Prosetry 22

Simplicity.

A summer night, where the thunderheads fist-bumped and parted ways, leaving our skies more Prussian blue than ash grey. Mosquitoes too were deported, sent elsewhere to do their whining — we think they all rented tiny jet-skis and rode off across the river.

Friends arrived just as the make-shift stage (soon to be returned to its rightful duty as a dock — rather than doc. — segment) was commissioned into service and we chatted and snacked and popped open bottles and cans and congratulated ourselves on being capable of being in such a place… in space and time, on Earth, today.

The loaner mic in friend & neighbour Jack Schellenberg’s hand-crafted and skookum-engineered mic stand crackled and away we went, led with panache by author Roger Groening. Knuckleball is Roger’s novel. (The author’s legs appear above, royalty-free; they’re the stems to the right.) He read a recent WIP excerpt that had us reaching for our decades-ago-discarded DuMauriers and l-o-l-ing and giggling through his vivid description of a wry woman tasking a man in a room without solutions.

Next came Leslie Wakeman who brought so much: snacks, wine, a beautiful quilt, handmade cards and her story, “The Goddess Cup.” We were gradually drawn in as her character’s embarrassment grew and our appreciation for Leslie’s deft, humourous-and-so-human touch led us along.

And then it was my sister Marnie Fardoe’s turn with a reading of a diary entry she had repurposed for us, for this perfect evening. She called herself a novice but we knew better. In addition, we got the family discount as Marnie gave us a quiet and moving performance of our sister Char Toews’ powerful poem, “Schedules are subject to change without notice”

[...] If the weather's that shitty it's kind of iffy
You're better off in the air or on the land

Or living or dead, which is what my Dad did
And me with a number of things planned

Then home in May, cutting the grass that first day
Mowing and crying and thinking about worms and their dirt [...]

Vid by Bonnie Friesen: https://www.facebook.com/580948274/videos/800154487823298/
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The perfect lead-in to Wes Friesen and his soulful playing and singing. Two beautiful Leonard Cohen songs following by a fascist-killing presentation of Deportee/Plane Wreck at Los Gatos, by Woody Guthrie.

Vid by Bonnie Friesen: https://www.facebook.com/bonnie.friesen.9/videos/1403462673497989/

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More poetry, from Winnipeg poetess Phyllis Cherrett who wowed and dazzled, showing us her calm control over word and emotion, ending with the perfectly-suited dent de lion

Phyllis Cherrett also gave a truthfully written acknowledgement of PLACE.

I offered a pair of flash fictions, “New War — Old Technology” and “Luck!”, bookending our great friend Christiane Neufeld’s spelky delivery of poet Ceinwen Haydon’s Gooseberry, a repeat-performance from Prosetry 2019.

It should be noted that Chris’ hub Hans Neufeld (aka John E. Neufeld) was present but chose not to present this year. Hans was, without doubt, the most prolific writer on the property at Prosetry 22, him being the daily author of THE MEANDERER http://themeanderer.ca/: a most profound and enjoyable gathering place, enjoyed by many online.

Two best-selling and truly masterful authors closed out the evening. MaryLou Driedger (Lost on the Prairie) offered us the first chapter of her WIP SEQUEL novel, set in 1936.

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Writer, memoirist, author, instructor and warrior-woman Donna Besel did not disappoint, giving us a thematic reading about a boathouse construction job set at nearby Brereton Lake. The story was a piece from her hit collection of short stories, “Lessons from a Nude Man.”

MaryLou Driedger as Gustave Flaubert would have seen her https://maryloudriedger.com/
Donna Besel https://www.mcnallyrobinson.com/9781926710303/donna-besel/lessons-from-a-nude-man

Through all of this, photographer Phil Hossack was doing his quiet and unobtrusive professional best, circulating among us, taking pictures that caught mood and feeling as much as light and dark.

Phil Hossack https://philhossackphoto.ca/workshops/

Cheers to local artists Janice Toews, Gale Bonin, and Allison Rink whose brushwork filled the SheShed with brightness and colour.

NEXT YEAR: Book the day, slot it in and make it sacrosanct… we want you here to read and listen, to watch the clouds part, to smell the woodsmoke and taste the wine, to read, to hear and experience. We’ll make it more of an afternoon event — we’ll start at 1 PM and make it possible to leave without rushing before the sun goes down.

For those who stay, maybe we can set the boreal ringing with this unforgettable folksong refrain:

Wes Friesen

…Goodbye to my juan, goodbye, rosalita,

Adios mis amigos, jesus y maria;

You won’t have your names when you ride the big airplane,

All they will call you will be “deportees”

🎶
Janice Toews
Showtime minus 90 minutes
2017 U.S. Inauguration crowd
Ruth & Roger Groening
2019 Prosetry (July 20)
MaryLou Driedger reading at Prosetry 2019
Yet more Toews
Leslie, Marnie, Bonnie
SEE YOU NEXT YEAR! “Daj Boże!”
Janice and I reside in the boreal forest just north of the Fiftieth latitude in eastern Manitoba on Treaty 1 and 3 lands. Our property is situated on Métis land: Anishinabe Waki ᐊᓂᔑᓈᐯᐗᑭ  http://www.anishinabek.ca/ 

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

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.

Jus’ Noodlin’

Image: My grandparents and my uncle Ken in Steinbach, MB during the 40s; Mennonites hiding in plain sight.

As I idle down the back lanes of my brain’s daydream centre, procrastinating before my session on the rowing machine, I imagine what the logline might look like for a collection of my short stories. Note that I’m idling along the back lanes—where windmills and cobwebs exist in perfect harmony—on a brand-new, electric Ural sidecar motorcycle. Hey… if you’re gonna daydream, go carbon-friendly or go home!

Mitchell Toews’ collection of insightful short stories, “Pinching Zwieback – Prairie Stories,” reveals the confines of small-town life in a Mennonite community. Vivid characters demand to be heard and recognized. The book’s mixture of the iconoclastic and the nostalgic delivers reality through the little-seen lens of an outsider—but one with a deep insider pedigree. Toews’ heartfelt expression of lives lived captures the conflict and the contradictions that are unavoidable in these insular Jemeend*.

Pulling apart the clockwork of the axiomatic Mennonite profile, Toews probes for what is common to all and what is beautiful and what is problematic within faith, culture, domestic life, commerce, and interaction with the wide world beyond.

“Out of patience, I stood up and began angrily shouting down the ridiculous, muddled stereotypes coming from the lecturer in my ‘Introduction to Geography’ course. I was at the University of Victoria in 1974 and we were discussing Canadian Mennonites. At almost the same time a tall, blonde woman from the Interior rose to protest, and also another; a young Albertan from La Crete who was on the men’s J-V basketball team. All of us disavowed the reckless, almost comical blending of Amish, Mennonite, and Hutterite tropes. At that moment, I saw myself and my ‘brethren’ in the way others must and furthermore, I saw the confusion within our own ranks.”

Mitchell Toews

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*Or Gemeinde: Communities or congregations

Jessica Lake IMPRESSIONISM

I’m working a lot lately on creating stories that follow my understanding of an “impressionistic writing style.”

Impressionism as manifest in Scene; Character; Action; Sensation; and Style.

This is, you see, part of the Jessica Lake MFA I’m enrolled in. The internet and my writing group, the reading I do, my readers and editors are the instructors. I am definitely the coolest guy in my MFA. In fact, I’m the only guy in my MFA, but then, I always avoid giving statistics too much credence.

The overriding rules go a little like a Lightnin’ Hopkins song — there’s some improvisation involved as you go along:

  1. Writen in the present, without reflection or authorial comment
  2. No narrative intrusions of any kind — the story simply unfolds in the reader’s mind
  3. Choice of words is left to “Mot juste” or a sense of using just the “right” word that contributes to the totality of the piece without undue attention to the beauty of the prose.

Scene — a reportorial flow, objective, use of understatement and simple words, clear imagery, repetition and reiteration of key words and phrases, strong description of action, use of landscape to echo emotion… the last bit suggested by author and writing instructor Lauren Carter of Winnipeg.

Character — describe traits or activities, but not physical attributes

Action — up close and participatory with reader as onlooker, cinematic: rapid (fluttering) or slow motion and may utilize a bird’s-eye view from above that is clipped and declarative

Sensation — actions are felt by the reader, be concrete and crude, be simple and realistic, work the senses

Style — author should express their individuality as a writer (untarnished), focus always on the subject and what the subject experiences, use the iceberg technique to hide the worst and only show the surface — the tip — of what is wrong, and ala Hemingway and Manitoba memoirist Donna Besel, write slow and clear about the most terrible and the most hurtful.

Note: A good deal of this came from a doctoral thesis (from a few decades ago) I found on the web and now cannot relocate to cite. Acch. Quite a bit is of my own invention so… maybe the no citation is okay here. If you recognize it, lemme know!