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3 Unwritten Short Stories Still Haunting This Ex-Fiction Writer

Will the day ever come for me to bring these ghosts of mind to life on the page?

P. David Hornik


March 31, 2013 - 7:00 am

“No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” So declared the 18th-century English writer Samuel Johnson, known for his aphoristic wit.

It may be too stark. If it’s true, there are legions of blockheads out there — people who publish works in literary journals that pay in contributor’s copies; people who publish on websites that have considerable readerships but do not pay their writers for their efforts (there are not a few of those).

I would modify it to: No man but a blockhead ever wrote short stories so that he could send each one to ten or twenty literary journals until one accepts and publishes it, and then have no sense at all that anybody is actually out there reading it.

At least, that was the dictum I arrived at after years of doing just that. As I’ve described, about a decade ago I decided I’d had enough and stopped writing fiction.

That is, “I’ve” stopped; but that doesn’t mean my subconscious has. It still comes up with stories and presents them to me, requesting that they be written.

In most cases these notions quickly fade and are almost totally forgotten. Some, though, persist — in some cases even for years. It’s a standoff: the idea remains somewhere in my head, and I know it’s there but keep declining to execute it, to translate it into typed words on the screen and see what grows from that.

I can think of three of these ideas that particularly won’t go away, like a stray dog who parks himself on your doorstep and mournfully refuses to budge. I thought it would be worth giving a peek at these. They’re probably representative of a larger phenomenon—people who have given up certain kinds of writing but whose “minds” haven’t.

This one harks back to when I lived in Jerusalem, which I left in 2006. The idea arose some years after that.

A man of 50, a professor—let’s say, of political science—at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is at last granted a long-cherished dream. A research institute in the city will allow him to work solely as a researcher, preparing and writing articles and books.

He’ll no longer have to engage in teaching, which he always regarded as a burden and a hindrance. He’ll have his own office, which looks out on a pleasant street in one of the better Jerusalem neighborhoods.

Yet, sitting in the office, he finds himself strangely immobile.

He looks at the blue-grey dusk outside the window and finds himself lost in it. He feels the silence of 50 years of life. Deep voices are saying he cannot just sit here, content, and write about his professional subjects. There are too many loose ends, there are shoals in his life he has to stop ignoring.

The next one is of more recent vintage. It happens in Beersheva, where I now live—in an apartment building similar to mine.

On the fourth, highest story lives a man —a divorcé, similar to me — who spends some modest amount of time each day playing his piano. It’s not his main activity; he usually plays at certain times of day, like late morning, or dusk.

The other people in the building are mostly culture-oriented Russian immigrants, and they appreciate his playing. This is especially true of Sonya, a divorced woman and his fourth-floor neighbor. She talked to him about it once; but he was reticent on the topic, and since then their “relationship” is reduced to eye contact, her eyes saying “You’re the person who can play like that — too bad you don’t talk to me.”

At some point he stops playing. The courtyard, into which his notes used to drift, is now silent — or suffices with the notes of birds.

Sonya’s gaze becomes more probing, until one day she stops him in the hall and says, “You’ve stopped playing.”


Perhaps he finally invites her into his flat, and — now that music is gone — can start addressing her in words, telling her he’s a lapsed composer and has decided that silence is his true composition.

And the third one is also set in Jerusalem, but the idea actually goes back to when I still lived there. In other words, it’s been hanging around for about seven years.

A divorced man lives alone in a flat in Jerusalem. He has grown kids who live in Tel Aviv, and one or two of them used to live with him in the flat.

Now, though, they’re trying to get him to move to Tel Aviv. The flat, they say, is too big for him now, and pointlessly expensive. He works at home anyway, and has no job keeping him in Jerusalem, no remaining family members, no friends he needs to live close to. In Tel Aviv there are more divorced and secular people; he’d have a better chance to meet someone.

He takes a bus to Tel Aviv and checks out some flats. It’s summer, and his lease for the Jerusalem flat runs out in September. He finds a Tel Aviv flat that he likes, comes to the brink of signing the lease—but puts it off.

After a lot of vacillation, he ends up — to his kids’ chagrin — taking another Jerusalem flat instead. It’s actually bigger than his current one. In fact, it’s very big; it has no less than 12 empty rooms.

As autumn advances and the nights get colder and longer, he spends his evenings wandering from window to window, gazing out at the night sky.

What will the professor do now that he’s encountered an immobilizing hush? What will happen between the lapsed composer-pianist and Sonya? Will the Jerusalem man keep wandering from room to room as winter comes on?

The only way to find out where these lead would be to sit down and start writing them; but I don’t do it. The fact that they keep hanging around suggests that there’s real energy behind them, and if I’d just give them a chance they’d make the keyboard rattle. But it’s energy that ultimately will drift out to the interstellar spaces.


Images courtesy shutterstock / Luis Louro / Africa Studio / Yory Frenklakh / clearviewstock

P. David Hornik is a freelance writer and translator living in Beersheva and author of the book Choosing Life in Israel.

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All Comments   (10)
All Comments   (10)
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I want to read the rest of these stories. Please consider finishing them and finding an outlet. provides an easy submission and tracking tool. Yes ,you will have to send them out to a lot of places, so what else is new? Keep writing.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Thanks for the encouragement. Writing? Yes. Fiction? Don't think so.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Ernest Hemmingway was a working man,i can tell that he took the time to do it.I get the feeling that when he didn't know where to start,HE STARTED.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Only three? ;)
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Art, in this case, a short story, is usually an expression of an idea. That's what sits on top, and what those who consume art rather than make it see.

Under the hood, in that place which separates an idea, which is something we all have, from an expression of that idea in a specific field of art, in this case writing, is the language of that art, and where the true artistry lies.

So, great art is like a magician who conspicuously shows us a thing, but how it is shown is a mystery. We have no access to the engine which drives the thing.

This is why the vast majority of movie goers will be astounded by a movie and leave thinking it was the story, while not really understanding how a staging of a scene, a crucially well done edit here and there at the intersection of a great musical score, the right lens at the right time affected them.

In that sense, it is not the stories which are unwritten, because they clearly exist. You have just now written them. It is not where they will go which is unfinished, because they all 3 could end as they are and be compelling.

What is undone is the language behind the language. Done well, buying a sandwich could be interesting. So, there is the story, and there is the telling of the story. Done poorly, an interesting story and idea is an artistic nap. Done well, a boring story is great art.

What is unfinished is to tinker under hoods and choose engines. That is success/fail, not what a character will do. What a character will do is merely a sleight of hand - amusing or clever in itself, but irrelevant.

I have read many clever stories and wished to shed tears - not because they are poignant, but because of the sheer inartistry.

Clever may be good in Ellery Queen, but how much better would that Ellery Queen be if it soared above that? Crossword puzzles are not art. Art is art. That is the unfinished idea. You have only to grasp at that, and each story would write themselves in a single day.

This explains why so many short stories that are interesting ideas leave us wondering what the license plate number was. We often don't know why because we are the reader, not the writer. Too many writers should be readers. I wish more of them left their stories unwritten, because it is choking the field.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"In that sense, it is not the stories which are unwritten, because they clearly exist. You have just now written them. It is not where they will go which is unfinished, because they all 3 could end as they are and be compelling."

Perhaps, but if I sat down to write them they would go other places. Where, I don't know. If something doesn't surprise me as I'm writing it, I can't write. I still think the idea is paramount--"matter over manner" as I think Socrates or Plato put it (in translation of course). The execution is a matter of long practice, but the idea, the content, "something to say," has to be there first.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I disagree. Art is a case of manner over matter. That crucial error in thought is why everyone thinks they can make art and why so little art actually is.

No doubt the idea has to be there first. But everyone has ideas, not everyone can make art. Your stories may well go other places, but the manner of them would not. That manner is residing in you even now. It resides in all of us and we often don't even think of it that way. It is us and our specific view of the world. It is completely natural. Seeing it and trusting it is not natural. Right there is the separation of idea and art - your idea of an idea.

As for being surprised, this is of course for you to say. But I would say that if you're blocked, sitting down and letting your unconscious instinct speak while you write it down can be its own surprise and discovery.

You seem to be addressing money and fame and art at the same time in general, but more specifically art. I have offered an artist's solution. Art is what no one else can do - only you. I can have an identical idea. I cannot have it like you would.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
And they are of course three cuts at the same auto-biographical sketch, what I don't know is if you've already published one or more versions of same.

Perhaps when the silence breaks, the story gets written, a time or three.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I have a deep resistance to self-publishing. It seems like cheating to me.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
So write them and publish them on Kindle. Disintermediation is da bomb.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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