Monday, July 13, 2009

Forgive a Personal Indulgence: My first short story

Charles May, who has taught and written about the short story for over forty years, has finally (gasp!) published his first short story.

I begin this entry with the preceding sentence—which expresses the humility and pride I feel about this little addition to my resume-- because if this blog entry ever pops up as the result of a Google search, it is the sentence that will appear. The story is available at:
Click on the summer issue icon and scroll down to my story "This is Me" and click it.

I have debated over the past two months since the story appeared whether I should devote a blog entry to this. On the one hand, it seems a little too self-serving. On the other hand, to fail to talk a bit about it seems chickenshit. I mean I have criticized so many short-story writers over the years, I should give readers to take a shot at me.

Like most teachers of English, I always wanted to write. You know the old saying—those that can do; those that can’t teach. I began writing stories when I was a kid growing up in the mountain of eastern Ky. I published them in a little broadsheet that I laboriously printed out by hand in multiple copies and “sold” to my family. In high school and college, I wrote stories and published them in newspapers, for which I was editor or feature editor.

When I was a senior in high school in Paintsville, Ky, I received a modest scholarship to attend a writer’s workshop held on the campus of Morehead State University, where I had been accepted as a freshman and got a job running a printing press. The professor who ran the workshop and gave me the scholarship was Albert Stewart, a, diminutive man who wrote poetry and was one of the Appalachian Mountain’s most energetic promoters of writers.

At the workshop, for the first time in my life, I met real, honest-to-god writers, such as Jane Mayhall and Robert Hazel, and literary agents and other aspiring wannabes like myself. It was exhilarating for a country boy who loved to read and wanted to be a writer. I think I was probably the youngest one there.

At the end of the workshop, the faculty got together and named who they thought to be the most promising writer at the workshop. I and a man from Florida, whose name I cannot recall and have never seen since, were named the winners. Oh, my friends, it was heady.

During the time I was an undergraduate at Morehead, I took classes from Al Stewart and Jim Still, the most respected writer in Eastern Kentucky, after the less-talented Jessie Stuart, that is. He introduced me to Turgenev and Chekhov and read his stories to us and talked about them. I once visited him at the Hindman Settlement School, where he was librarian, and he showed me files and files of work in progress, and I was definitely hooked. I was going to be a writer.

Then I got a fellowship to do graduate work at Ohio University, and I threw myself into that and put my desire to write fiction aside. I got my Ph.D. in three years and took a job at California State University, Long Beach. So there I was, six years out of high school, and determined to climb the tenure track ladder to provide for my family and become a professor.

In the forty years I was at Long Beach, I wrote some fiction, kept notebooks, tinkered with some drafts, but never really finished anything and never sent anything out. I was succeeding, after a fashion, writing critical articles and books on the short story, and was too chicken to send anything out that pretended to be a short story.

Finally, when I retired, I took some stuff I had saved over the years on my hard drive and started working with it. One piece, which derived from my experience of sitting in an ER waiting room for two weeks in Kentucky while my mother died, seemed to have enough detail, enough thematic significance, enough engaged point of view, that it might actually be a story. So I polished it and sent it out to a journal I had published in before: an interview with Ky writer Chris Offutt and a tribute on the death of Jim Still—Appalachian Heritage, pubished at Berea College in Kentucky. A few weeks later, the editor wrote me to say he was going to publish it in the summer 2009 issue. It is entitled “This is Me,” and women forgive me for appropriation, it is from the point of view of a female.

Those of you who have published fiction know this feeling, but it was a first for me. An editor of a periodical had read something I had written and pronounced it a story. If he thought it was a story, and he was supposed to know such things, then, By God, it must be a story.

So I have some modicum of confidence now. I have tentatively been anointed a short-story writer. The confidence that Al Stewart and Jim Still showed in me almost fifty years ago—that I had promise—might possibly be affirmed. I am writing fiction. At least I think so. I am not sure. One story is not sufficient to overcome a half-century of reticence and cowardice.


Charlene said...

Charles, Thank you for the post. It is somehow heartening to know you have remained faithful to your intention to write stories. I read your story online. The details are vivid. You capture what I believe is the theme--"that the body is a twisted illusion, bearing no resemblance or relationship to the reality that lies hidden within." The indomitable spirit of the people is evident on every page, even as life is wearing them down. Thanks.

Charles E. May said...

Thank you, Charlene. To have published my first short story at age 68 is a real pleasure for me. I have since completed two other pieces that I have sent off. You are a dear for taking the time to write.

Anonymous said...

congratz, charles!

chriso said...

ooops, that's from chris offutt,
i can't always figure out how
these things work

Lee said...

I look forward to reading it this evening. Thank you.

Becky said...

I liked your story. What sticks in my mind is the mom shopping for a thigh-slimming outfit she'll wear in her final resting place. It's funny and poignant.
I hope you do keep writing. Your age is an advantage. I think it's a peculiarly American notion that only the young punks have all the talent.

Ann Graham said...

I read your story, "This is Me," and found it wonderful. The 1st POV is well-done and realistic. (I'm female.) I also enjoyed the interjection of a scholarly detail, Appalachian Exoticism: Marginal Women. I always like to learn something in a story.

Also, everytime I hear of a person past the age, of say, 50, or so, who has just published a short story for the first time, I let out a squeal of pleasure. So, thanks bunches for giving me a thrill.

ChrisG said...

Wow, way to go, Charles. Funny, sitting in your classes listening to you hold court and tell tales, I always wondered why you'd not published stories yourself before. (Or if you were, why you were holding out on us.) In fact, I found myself revisiting these questions not long ago, and lo and behold, the fictional debut of one of America's newest up-and-coming writers has appeared...

I liked your story a lot. It's good and heartfelt without being manipulative. The final scene on the plane leads up to a genuinely believable moment. When she cried, I nearly did, too. Wrapped up in the story, of course, are questions about identity, what we leave behind in the name of "personal growth," and what we lose when a parent (or any elder, for that matter) passes on. The older I myself get, the more such topics seem important to me.

Congratulations on being published! As much as I heard the story's narrator in my head, I also heard the unmistakable voice of Charles May. Thank you for sharing; I hope that voice has other tales to tell in the future.

Charles E. May said...

Thanks, Ann and Chris, for reading my story. No matter what writers say about why they write, one of the primary reasons is: They want to be read. I love being read. Probably shameful self-indulgence and ego gratification, but there it is. I have three more stories out and about, and am working on a new one. Great fun for an old guy!

David Fine said...

Charles. With mor than a fair share of embarrassment over my neglect of an old pal and colleague for lo those many years, I have at long last come upon your short story blog. Peck told me about it when I last saw him, but I got so caught up in my own shit, I only now (midnight in western Massachusetts)took my first small dip into it. It's terrific. Next step is to read your first published story. Looking forward to that. I'm still plugging away at my first novel (five years and counting) and will probably self-publish (the print on demand route). Not much chance for an old codger like me (and I have a few years on you) to place a first novel with a "real" publisher. Should be ready (after a zillion revisions) in a few weeks. God willing. So, congrats to you and all that for launching yourself as fiction writer. David (