Haim Watz­mans new book, Nec­es­sary Sto­ries, is a selec­tion of 24 sto­ries from his month­ly col­umn in The Jerusalem Report from the past nine years. Haim is guest blog­ging for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on The ProsenPeo­ple.

For the last nine years I’ve writ­ten a short sto­ry every four weeks. I haven’t yet missed a dead­line yet.

Nine years ago, in 2008, I began writ­ing a col­umn for a biweek­ly news mag­a­zine, The Jerusalem Report. My col­umn, Nec­es­sary Sto­ries,” has appeared in every oth­er issue since then.

The edi­tors invit­ed me to write for the mag­a­zine in the wake of two non-fic­tion books I’d writ­ten, a mem­oir about my ser­vice as an IDF infantry reservist over near­ly a decade and a half and a John McPhee-type trav­el nar­ra­tive about a trip through the rift val­ley that runs up Israel’s east­ern fron­tier. They thought they’d get per­son­al essays, but after writ­ing two first-per­son fact-based books, I want­ed to let my imag­i­na­tion run free. It was more fun and required less research. I start­ed send­ing in short stories.

Hav­ing to come up with a work of short fic­tion with con­vinc­ing char­ac­ters, a com­pelling sto­ry­line, and engag­ing prose once a month like clock­work might sound daunt­ing. I have to pro­duce a sto­ry whether inspired or not, whether in the mood or not, whether my day job as a trans­la­tor leaves me time or not. Many is the time — it hap­pened just a cou­ple weeks ago — that I have sat myself down at my com­put­er on the appoint­ed day with­out a clue as to what my sto­ry will be about.

But the dis­ci­pline is good for me. Per­haps because I worked for many years as a jour­nal­ist, I seem to pro­duce my best work when a dead­line looms. I cer­tain­ly would not have writ­ten upwards of 115 short sto­ries in the last decade had I sim­ply wait­ed for ideas and inspi­ra­tion to come (and, to be hon­est, with­out the incen­tive of the mod­est fee that the mag­a­zine pays me for each piece).

Is each one a great work of lit­er­a­ture? No, of course not. Some­times a sto­ry doesn’t click for me, or for read­ers. But I’m sur­prised at how sel­dom that hap­pens. Last year, when I had to reread my out­put to choose which sto­ries to include in the Nec­es­sary Sto­ries book that I’ve just pub­lished, I was grat­i­fied to find that the choice was dif­fi­cult. A large por­tion of the sto­ries I reread had, at least for me, stood up to time and reread­ing. No less grat­i­fy­ing were the e‑mails from the loy­al read­er­ship I’ve built up over the years, read­ers who encounter the sto­ries in the mag­a­zine or on my web­site, where they also appear. Read­ers remem­bered and urged me to include sto­ries they had read years ago, and there were so many such requests I had no choice but to dis­ap­point some of them.

Some­times a story’s plot, char­ac­ters, or sit­u­a­tion are sug­gest­ed by cur­rent events — the new col­lec­tion includes, for exam­ple, Sin Offer­ing,” which address­es Israel’s treat­ment of African refugees. Or it might be a his­tor­i­cal event: The Dev­il and Theodor Her­zl” imag­ines Herzl’s meet­ing with Vyach­eslav von Ple­hve, Min­is­ter of the Inte­ri­or for the Russ­ian Czar and fomenter of the infa­mous Kishinev pogrom. Some, like Bananas,” are based on fam­i­ly tales — in this case the expe­ri­ence of my wife’s fam­i­ly, immi­grants from Bagh­dad who lived dur­ing Israel’s ear­ly years in an immi­grant camp in Holon. Still oth­ers grow out of per­son­al pain: In Exile at Home,” A Him to him” and Fire­flies” are sto­ries of mourn­ing for my younger son, a sol­dier in the Golani Brigade who died in a div­ing acci­dent six years ago.

But some­times real­ly good sto­ries come out of nowhere. When I sat down to write the sto­ry that became The Dryad,” the illus­tra­tion for which (by Avi Katz; our col­lab­o­ra­tion will be the sub­ject of anoth­er post in this series) graces the cov­er of the new book and accom­pa­nies this post, I hadn’t a clue what I was going to write. When I’m stumped, I find that the best method is to take a few min­utes to look deep into my soul to find out what is both­er­ing it most. Often I find two or three dis­parate things that don’t, at first, seem to have any­thing to do with each oth­er. In the case of The Dryad,” it was the intense ankle pain I was suf­fer­ing from after a long hike with friends a few days before, and the anguish I had heard in a sto­ry told to me by a school­teacher friend. Nei­ther my hike nor the friend’s spe­cif­ic sto­ry appears in The Dryad.” Instead, they pro­vide the scenery and the mood. Once I had that in mind, and sat down to write, the cen­tral char­ac­ter and nar­ra­tive fol­lowed, and devel­oped in ways I had not expect­ed or planned.

That’s what makes meet­ing my dead­line so much fun

Haim Watz­man lives in Jerusalem and is the author of three books: Com­pa­ny C: An American’s Life as a Cit­i­zen-Sol­dier in Israel; A Crack in the Earth: A Jour­ney Up Israel’s Rift Val­ley; and a sto­ry col­lec­tion, Nec­es­sary Sto­ries, a selec­tion of the more than 150 he has writ­ten. His play The Chair won the 2021 The­ater Insti­tute Award of the Con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish Dra­ma Inter­na­tion­al Com­pe­ti­tion spon­sored by the Estera Rachel and Ida Makin­skie Jew­ish The­ater in War­saw. He has trans­lat­ed more than 50 books from Hebrew into Eng­lish, among them works by Shlo­mo Avineri, David Gross­man, Hil­lel Cohen, Amos Oz, and Tom Segev. He edit­ed the Eng­lish-lan­guage ver­sion of Yuval Noah Harari’s world­wide best­seller, Sapi­ens. Sub­scribe to his Sub­stack newslet­ter here.