Early Short Stories
The short stories in this section were written in 1996, 1997, and 1998, and are some of my favorites from that early portion of my illustrious writing “career.” Some have appeared previously in literary magazines in the U.S., and also in Armenian translation in Armenia. The rest have not been published.
During that time, my mailbox was full of rejections. For awhile I found this inspiring, since the rejections actually outnumbered the bills and junk mail. Soon, though, I began to lose faith in the system. I felt then, and still do, that a well written, entertaining story with genuine content shouldn’t be rejected a dozen or more times by editors who claim they are looking for well written, entertaining stories with genuine content, especially when the magazines they are editing suffer from a severe lack thereof. Luckily for me, not all of the editors to whom I submitted work fell into this category. Some actually liked and wanted to publish my work. The late Dr. Leo Hamalian, then editor of Ararat, John Berbrich, the editor and publisher of Barbaric Yawp, and Rebecca Hillan, the former prose editor at The Rockford Review, were especially encouraging, as were several other independent-minded editors along the way. They have my eternal thanks.
With each story link, I have provided a tiny bit of pertinent information. If there was no pertinent information handy, I tried to say something revealing, or funny, or both. In other words, I did what I always do. The approach hasn’t worked yet, but old habits are hard to break.
I hope you enjoy the stories. If you do, please tell someone you know. Also, if you would send a glowing letter to Random Grouse, or Doubleplay, or Pnopf, or whatever their names are this week, it will be greatly appreciated. And remember, your correspondence is always welcome. This is, and shall remain, a two-way street. Thank you for reading.
EARLY SHORT STORIES
by William Michaelian
When the World Softly Dies
This is the first story I wrote after deciding I was sick and tired of thinking about writing for a living, and that the time had come to actually do something about it. The story eventually appeared in Ararat, and a wonderful Armenian translation by Samvel Mkrtchian was published with one of my drawings in Armenia’s oldest literary magazine, Garun. Prior to that, the piece was rejected nine times without comment.
The Prize Oranges
As sensible and straightforward as any story I’ve written, “The Prize Oranges” is based on a real incident related to me years ago by my mother. As far as I know, the villains are still alive, but I suspect their activities have toned down a bit — not because they’ve had a change of heart, but because advancing age has left them as vulnerable as their victims. The story was rejected fourteen times. This is its first appearance.
The Man in the Barn
This story was written a little over a year after my father died. I wish he could have read it, since it is set on the farm where he grew up and the narrator bears his name. There really was such a barn on the neighboring property, and it was one of my favorite landmarks. It, too, has been gone for a number of years. Several editors told me they liked “The Man in the Barn,” but none liked the story enough to publish it. One said “the ending wasn’t conclusive enough.” Another didn’t understand the “sudden transformation” of the narrator’s older brother, even though the reasons couldn’t be more clear. The story is simple and innocent. I still remember reading it to our four kids one evening, and how much they enjoyed it, and how they weren’t confused by it at all. Unfortunately, not one of them is an editor — yet. Maybe someday one will start a magazine and decide to publish this piece by his old man.
I could say this story is strange because I meant it to be, but since my stories are never planned I am left with the truth: I must have mental problems. But that’s okay. If I didn’t have mental problems, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. And since I enjoy what I’m doing so much, it follows that I am lucky to be a basket case. As Mark Twain once said, persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted. To this I would add, persons attempting to find insight into my character won’t come away empty-handed. Of course, such understanding comes with a price. Ten editors rejected “Fresno Stories.” Obviously, they didn’t understand, and are therefore living hollow lives. But I still keep them in my thoughts. Maybe you should, too.
This was my first story to be accepted for publication, but not the first that was published. By the time it appeared in Paterson Literary Review with a note saying it was my first publication, Ararat had already published another story of mine called “Naneh’s Melon Thieves.” I had so many stories in circulation back then that this was bound to happen. But of course it doesn’t matter in the long run. What bugged me a little at the time, though, was that my name was given twice in the Paterson Literary Review contributors’ section as William Michaelson, instead of William Michaelian. When I wrote to the editor to thank her for publishing my story, I cheerfully pointed this out, saying that the same thing had happened in my high school annual, and that a friend of mine, Scott Michaelson, had written under my picture, “Lucky mistake.” She didn’t respond.
Naneh’s Melon Thieves
Two weeks after I sent this story to Leo Hamalian at Ararat, he replied saying he liked it and was going to publish it in the next issue. Thus began our simple, yet fruitful editor-writer relationship, which lasted until his death in November 2003. By sad coincidence, my last letter to him was written on November 8, the same day he passed on. About two years before his death, in handwriting that was becoming more and more difficult to read, he apologized, saying he was battling Parkinson’s Disease. In another letter sometime after that, I was surprised and touched when he thanked me for “sharing my talent.” Now he is gone. The magazine remains, but of course it has changed, and will continue to do so. “Naneh’s Melon Thieves” also appeared in Armenian translation in Grakan Tert, a paper published in Yerevan by the Writers’ Union of Armenia. The piece was translated by Samvel Mkrtchian.
In downtown Salem one day back in October 1997, I happened to see a poor couple on a rugged old bicycle, the man peddling bowlegged and the woman riding uncomfortably on the frame in front of him. I wrote this story the same afternoon. This is its first appearance.
One thing I take pride in is being able to write any kind of story, according to the demands of the story itself. I don’t tell a story what to do. It tells me. If a story wants to be simple, I don’t try to make it complicated. If it decides to be crazy, I am crazy right along with it. To impose myself on a story, or to decide ahead of time how it should sound or what it should accomplish would be like denying the individuality of my own children. The approach leads to frustration, resentment, and uniformity. This brings to mind an interesting question: Is it possible for a story to resent its author? Judging by some of the stories out there, I’d say it would be impossible for them not to. Do any of my stories resent me? Undoubtedly — but for reasons they have thus far been unwilling to explain. “Miss Martin” has been rejected by editors all over the country. Finally, we had tea together one day, and she convinced me she wasn’t really the traveling type.
Each time I read “Dear Leo,” I feel defiantly proud of my occupation. A four-part letter from a starving writer to his friend, the story once attracted the attention of an off-beat magazine publisher who held onto it for three years while he was going broke. I haven’t heard from him since. As far as I know, he still has it, and plans to publish it when he gets back on his feet. Recently, I heard from another small press publisher I had long since given up on — not because he went out of business, but because he rejected everything I sent him. The purpose of his letter? He wanted me to buy a copy of his novel. “Dear Leo” has another interesting distinction: it subtly addresses something that happened in “Escape to Paris,” a story of mine that appeared in my 2000 chapbook, Among the Living and Other Stories. I am bringing it up here in case no one bothers to write my biography when I’m dead.
The Grapes Are Early This Year
Visiting an old-fashioned neighborhood barbershop is one of life’s great experiences. Amazing things happen in barbershops. Toupees are removed, shaves are given, and a number of fascinating physical irregularities are calmly dealt with before they have a chance to cause embarrassment or offense. Best of all are the stories that are told, and the way personalities are revealed in the telling, and in the listening. Sadly, most of these stories cannot be told in today’s busy hairstyling establishments — not because of their subject matter, but because the generic, temporary atmosphere of these places stifles the storytelling spirit. “The Grapes Are Early This Year” is published here for the first time.
My Life and Other Stories
There are two things a writer needs if he is to survive rejection and the utter incongruity of his existence. The first is the ability to laugh at himself. The second is the belief that he is, or will eventually be, the greatest writer alive. One is useless without the other. If a writer doesn’t believe in his own ability, then no one else will. At the same time, if he is too serious about it, his work is bound to be boring, even if it is technically sound. That many fiction editors today prefer boring, technically sound work proves they are dull people who don’t realize that writing cannot be effective and memorable unless it has spirit. In terms of literature, I define spirit as laughter that is on the verge of tears, and sorrow that hasn’t forgotten how to smile.
Sing With Me
A free-style story that combines fiction, essay, and family history, “Sing With Me” is a celebratory work that ultimately caught the attention of an editor because of its references to music. I like it because it is irrepressible, and because it says important things about the self-conscious, lonely way in which great numbers of people currently live. The story first appeared in Artisan.
I Feel Like I’m Falling
Each of the fourteen times this story was rejected, I wondered all over again just what it was the editors or their readers didn’t like about it. I am not foolish enough to think it is perfect, but I do know it is well-written. Was the piece dismissed because it was perceived as being just another story about death? Certainly, there are enough stories about that dreaded subject to choke even the most literary of horses. But did they not notice that it is also about life, and the fragile, wondrous thing it is? If not, was it due to my failure, or theirs? I don’t know. But I do know that we face death each and every day, and the loss of loved ones, and the seemingly insurmountable task of carrying on. It’s a hard fact to ignore.
Old Bedros is more than a man. He is a time, a song, a poem, and a nation, defined and enlightened by great suffering. Some people say he did not exist, and that his story is a fabrication. They say this because they lack the moral courage to see and tell the truth. Some are shameless professionals who are paid to rewrite history. Others are politicians who care only about money and strategic alliances. But none can change what happened. “Old Bedros” has been published three times in Armenia, in Armenian translation: in Aghpyur, a children’s magazine; in Artasamanyan Grakanutyun, a journal that features Armenian translations of world literature; and in a pocket-sized edition with three other stories of mine under the collective title, A Map of My Heart. This is its first appearance in English.
The Family Album
It is all here, some of it remembered, some of it forgotten, none of it less than a miracle. It is the truth — our truth, summed up in a moment, as if the silent centuries have finally chosen to speak. It is all right to grow older. A society that worships youth and denies old age is a selfish society that condemns itself to loneliness. The young and the old should live together, take care of each other, and learn from each other. I have seen young people who are afraid of old people. I have seen old people who are afraid of young people. It is a terrible thing, a sad thing, a waste.
The simple, immediate, and obvious solution to poverty is to have plenty of money. And yet money does nothing to alleviate poverty of the spirit, which is such a powerful disease that it prevents those afflicted with it from recognizing the deadly nature of their illness. The narrator of this story is a successful man of letters who understands both kinds of poverty, and who earnestly, perhaps even desperately, reveals his knowledge in a letter to his literary soul-mate. The story he tells along the way is a good reminder of how dangerous it is to judge a human book by its cover.
My Dear Mrs. Fitch
I love this story’s quiet sense of wonder, humor, gratitude, and acceptance.
One thing is certain: if we were all as lucky as the narrator, the world would be a much happier place.
The First Rain
The geography of the earth has a great deal of influence on the geography of the spirit. It is impossible to live in one place very long without mentally adapting to its rhythms and demands. Little by little, our perceptions come to reflect the weather and the terrain, and our expectations and outlook are at least somewhat conditioned by them. The funny thing about us, though, is that we are restless even in paradise, and disagree on what it is. I have been there. I know.
The difference between sanity and insanity is of major concern — to some. And while many people are able to agree on definitions of sanity and insanity, no one really knows which is which, or where one leaves off and the other begins. That we think we know is something I find very amusing — also frightening. “Voices” was first published in Barbaric Yawp.
This story turns me inside-out every time I read it — first with laughter, then with tears. By now, I suppose I should know better, or at least see it coming, but the poetic reality of the piece is too powerful to resist. It might be wishful thinking on my part, but I think the broken-English narration and the accuracy of the characters and their observations make the tragedy that defines them the reader’s own — which it is, because we are all inextricably bound, whatever our background.
The Dry, Hot Earth
No matter our age, and even in the smallest of worlds and in the petrified heat of certainty, things are not always what they seem. The person who denies this has a head-start on death. The person who can be surprised still belongs, and is still living. “The Dry, Hot Earth” was first published in The Rockford Review.
My Mother, Baking Bread
I submitted this story to magazine editors only three times. The first editor “almost” published it, but didn’t bother to say why she decided against it. The second and third editors sent tiny unsigned rejection slips. The piece has been stored in a binder ever since. Now, seven or eight years later, it is taking its place as the last story in a collection of stories I had no idea I would be publishing when the stories were being written. Things seldom work out as one expects them to. But they do work out, and often the way they work out is better than the originally imagined version. I’m pretty sure that’s what this story is about, though I’m fully prepared to find out otherwise later on, possibly as soon as tomorrow, which, as we know, never comes. It is always today. Come to think of it, that is also what this story is about. I think.
Early Short Stories — Copyright © 2004-2005 by William Michaelian
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