Can’t wait to roll into Van with a couple of grandkids in tow to read at this event! Family day!
I’ll be reading excerpts from my 2nd Runner-up entry in this year’s PULP Literature Raven Short Story contest.
Can’t wait to roll into Van with a couple of grandkids in tow to read at this event! Family day!
I’ll be reading excerpts from my 2nd Runner-up entry in this year’s PULP Literature Raven Short Story contest.
After Janice and I sold our manufacturing business in 1996, I ended up (after being a very bad office manager for some very good lawyers) working for a series of conservative Mennonite wood manufacturing companies as “that creative guy.” My role was to do the unseemly work of marketing and advertising. Come up with some shit. You know… imagineer. (Aiyyyeee! That word is like giving an AMC Gremlin to the head designer at Ferrari.)
Before I go on, let’s check the relative humidity here. As a “creative guy,” I’m somewhere on a scale. I am not likely to be named Artistic Director for Exile magazine; not likely to die my hair blue (both of them); not likely to get in a scrap with David Cronenberg because my ideas are, “too out there, Toews!” At the same time, my ideas were more than enough “out there” to send the sucking-up-to-the-boss running dog types scooting like scalded greyhounds for the dark corners of the break room, where they would loudly rattle their dog-collars and profess to be regular folks incapable of such wild ideas.
Anyway, today I find myself somewhere between my old scramble for existence (marketing and advertising) and my new scramble for existence (literary fiction). And no, dog-collar people, the two are NOT the same.
I am working diligently to complete my manuscript and set my collection of short stories loose on the world. There is a hurry-up-and-wait aspect to this and during the in-between times, I get restless. Something that occurred to me in a slightly Cronenbergian moment was a set of icons that offered a graphical depiction of the themes present in my made-up stories. I used my prodigious Paint.net skills to render a 4X4 grid of images.
The result is the orderly graphic collage that headlines this post. The effect appeals to my Andy Warhol gene and I like how the iconography drops hints like a visual Johnny Appleseed. I have not spent time getting the size and hue and style at a harmonic pitch, but it’s good enough for a concept. It imagineers. (Ugh.)
And that’s where I find myself—wallowing like a hungry Menno in the nether region between artistic expression and INTEGRATED MARKETING. My old prof at York (the Pepsi-Challenge guy, Alan Middleton) would be pleased but I’m pretty sure my publisher will heave a big sigh.
Anyway, that’s my sitch. I am (just barely) smart enough to listen to my publisher and ignore my fond memories of Prof. Emeritus Middleton’s old lessons (“Put lye in the Coke…” JUST KIDDING!)
But you know that inside my busy little blue head, there is a steeplechase going on with wild ideas running around like crazed dogs.
So, be ready to buy the book. First 100 purchasers get a free TRAVEL MUG.*
*Also just kidding. Shipping extra.
My collection of short stories, “Pinching Zwieback” (At Bay Press) will launch in FALL 2023.
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 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/ .
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/
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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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:
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/
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.)
Here are two flash fiction collections to love:
“Small Shifts” edited by Shawn L. Bird (Lintusen Press) https://lnkd.in/gRNdw659 and “This Will Only Take a Minute — 100 Canadian Flashes” edited by Bruce Meyers and Michael Mirolla (Guernica Editions) https://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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
*Or Gemeinde: Communities or congregations
I’ve assembled a collection of short stories to present to small presses in Canada. My hope is that I can attract a skilled, smart, simpatico partner to work with and publish the collection. I have several unpublished works and just over 90 published stories from which to choose.
I curated the stories into a themed collection and they are mostly those tales I have written that I consider “MennoGrit.” I define this in a sloppy way — like when you have to saw a board with your left hand:
Stories about real life. Ordinary people who encounter difficult situations and respond in a manner incommensurate with their simple station in life. Allegedly simple.
“So, what’s your book about?” is the question that everyone from agent to publisher to the person in the line at the pharmacy, pimple cream in hand, might ask.
Good question. To better understand this I pulled up the manuscript and made a list of the themes or messages that are at the core of each story. I was surprised by what I found. Here is that Thematic Table of Contents:
Loyalty…toxic male behaviour
Women’s rights in a patriarchy
Growing up…responsibility…saying no
Friendship and its obligations
Right and wrong…courage
Toxic religion…abuse of authority
Faith…life and death
Abuse of authority
Life and death
Written as they are in the mind of my times, I can focus ice cold on these themes. They come from the lives that exist in all places, including those I know best. There is no “trending” in these familiars, where I am the son — both homegrown and prodigal — only observations scooped up and saved in a coffee can, resting placid and true on the high shelf where they have cured; some softening, some hardening.
The working title of the book is “Pinching Zwieback — Prairie Stories.”
In the first round of a tough fight, only a FOOL shouts, “I yam fuh-reaking’ lovin’ dis crap!” usually just before being knocked out by an infinitely more dangerous opponent.
Also, although I own a black toque, I ain’t Rocky and the world of fiction ain’t sides of beef. Hell, I ain’t even Italian.
Undeterred, I move forward, absorbing jabs and body shots. Relentless, bloody, concussed—I stumble on. It feels good to hit, it feels even better to be able to TAKE a hit…
Alls I’m sayin’ HEAH, is… I’ve been writing a lot lately. And, like heavyweight champ, Winslow Homer, I’ve been experimenting boldly.
The result is a small but wiry catalogue of recent work that I am actively pitching or intend to pitch to upper-tier, paying mags. Sure, some of these are gonna get knocked out before the first paragraph is read. It’s likely to be a bit of a bloodbath and “We’ve chosen not to include your story at this time,” will be spray-painted across the subway cars of my submission train more than once.
And that’s okay. I won’t wail every time I get rejected but I will let you know when I land a punch! (I’ll grunt.)
The Mighty Hartski—A 7,400-word rommedriewe, from a snowmobile crash on a frozen field to a shared understanding, bedside in Bethesda. Still brooding over this one, ’cause I’ve been writing it for fifty years.
Tiptoe—Teenage hangovers hurt the most. Bob Dylan and Willie Nelson and a smoky donut shop on Osborne.
Grudge—Worked hard for this one, put some Beta readers through their paces too. Waiting for one more critique before I set this Victoria story free. A crime spree down by the Bay Street Bridge.
Red Lightman—You can’t spell empathy without r-e-s-p-e-c-t. 2,400-words.
“I’m burly and brawny,
not squirrely or scrawny
and if you don’t like me
I shit thunder and lightning
and everything frightening
and where I come from,
Hazel Creek—1,500 words, set in the place where I live, sharp and hard as life can be.
The Three Sisters—The type of story that gets you mad: At me, at the sad protagonist—pure as the wind, at the sister who won’t play along. 3,400 words.
~ ~ ~
FIND recent stories of mine online here: “Shade Tree Haven” in (mac)ro(mic)… “Holthacka’s Quandary” in Lunate Fiction…“The Business of Saving Souls” in Literally Stories… “Encampment” in TINY SEED LITERARY JOURNAL.
COMING SOON to Literally Stories, Blank Spaces, Agnes and True, and Pulp Literature.