3 Unwritten Short Stories Still Haunting This Ex-Fiction Writer

“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

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