Wednesday, January 12, 1977
11 AM. Writing in the morning, for a change. Is there a double meaning in that last sentence (or fragment, as I would point out to my students)? I wonder, at times, if my diary has outlived its usefulness. Do I write “to the galleries” now? Monday’s outburst shamed me because it seemed like such a public act.
I’ve just been reading an excellent essay in the Village Voice on Gore Vidal and Anaïs Nin. They were once the best of friends, and lovers, but it seems so incongruous now.
Nin and Vidal are polar extremes: Intuition and Reason, Love and Power, Subjectivity and Objectivity, the Ideal and the Real. The essayist chronicles their relationship and their public split and reads into it the split in all of us, the whole androgyny shtick – a neat trick.
I wince at the prospect of my life being put on public display like that. I don’t want to be psychologized in the pages of the Village Voice or the New York Review of Books. Eventually one becomes nothing more than a caricature, and that in the end lends a disservice to the writing.
Mailer, Roth, Bellow, even poor Joyce Carol Oates: whether they go on Johnny Carson or not, they’ve all become cartoons to some extent. I suppose it all comes down to writing as a risky business. Essentially it’s a hostile and rebellious act to put things down on paper.
Dr. Lipton never responded to my sending him a copy of “Reflections” from Transatlantic Review. Only this weekend did it occur to me that he was probably offended and angered by the satirical way in which I portrayed his group therapy session. He may think I was “acting out” some unresolved conflict with him (and using him, no doubt, as a substitute for my parents). Come to think of it, the parents are absent in that story, as they are in most of my fiction.
I suppose I could go back into therapy and go over all my stories and pick out this and that to show some ambivalence or conflict or fear. But is there in any point in that? I have to accept the fact that I will lose friends by writing the truth as I see it.
(And how could Anaïs Nin leave out all mention of her marriages in her Diaries? Am I doing something similar here?)
Ronna may have been very offended by my fictional portraits of her and perhaps that is the reason she never wrote me a letter from Indiana. If Davey shows the Karpoffs “Peninsular People,” they may be hurt and angry because their family appears to be ridiculous.
I’d like to think I’d be the good sport, that I’d take a caricature of myself in good spirit. But would I? Of course it’s all part of the game. I try to examine myself for flaws; not that I know how to correct them, nor am I certain I could or would want to correct them.
Am I drowning in a sea of subjectivity here? Is all this chatter ridiculous, considering that I’m an unknown writer and likely to remain one?
Last night Josh called. He had his last MFA class with Baumbach, and he said that he expected to feel differently, that Jon would ask him and the others how they felt and say goodbye or something. But nothing like that happened.
Now Josh is going to try to get a job with an airline, selling tickets at Kennedy Airport. Josh reports he’s “disgruntled” and “stagnating.” He said Denis called him. Denis spent months in Colorado and California, and “from the way he spoke, every chick in the West was just dying to hop into the sack with him.”
Now Denis plans to get into advertising, so he made up a résumé which is all lies. “If you can’t sell yourself, who can you sell?” Denis told Josh. I knew neither of them would ever become a writer. Maybe Simon will, eventually, but it looks as though I’m the only one in our MFA class who’ll really be a writer.
Dad has just about given up on going to Florida, it seems. That man from the maid service there refuses to show Dad’s accountant his books, and something there seems very fishy. Dad is talking about taking a store on Orchard Street with Max, but for now it’s just that: talk.
Friday, January 14, 1977
Yesterday at 4 PM, Jon Baumbach called me. He and Jack Gelber had just gotten out of a meeting with Marilyn Gittell, the assistant provost, and said they had “an offer you can’t refuse.”
They’ve been planning a two-day Conference on Writing and Publishing to be held at the college in late April, and Marilyn Gittell gave them a tentative go-ahead; she told them to submit a budget and she would take it to President Kneller.
Jon said they’d like me to be liaison between the Conference and the college. The salary would be $400, “less than the job is worth, but there are other advantages: meeting writers and publishers, and getting the experience. . .”
I immediately said I’d do it. At first I was exhilarated over the job, the fact that they had thought me capable enough to do this (even Marilyn, whom I never met, reacted to my name with pleasure). But now, after a meeting today with Jack and Jon, I’m wondering if I haven’t taken on more than I can handle.
This is going to be a real challenge. There’s a hell of a lot of work to do, and I’ve got to make use of Gittell’s secretary and Blanche from the English Department so I don’t become overburdened.
My immediate problem is making up a budget. We’re committed to $100 honoraria for all panel members (Jon, Jack and John Ashbery are to ask their friends, many of whom are big names, the biggest, in the writing and publishing world), and there’ll be about forty of them, excluding the BC faculty who’ll do this gratis.
I have to arrange the rental of rooms in SUBO, free lunches, publicity flyers, tickets, the sound system and a million other details. This is the biggest thing I’ve ever had to do, and I’m afraid of failure. Also, I’m worried about how much this will take from my new classes at LIU and my own writing, which are second and first in importance in my life.
Still, I’m not sorry I decided to do this: it will test my administrative abilities, and it’s a good way to make contacts. I needed some extra money for this spring anyway; I’d already sent out résumés to other colleges. And now I’m going to have plenty to keep me busy.
Last night I spent ninety minutes on the phone talking to Shelli. I called her in the afternoon, on impulse, after Stanley phoned me. Although I’d left a message with her father, I wasn’t sure she’d call me back. But she did.
She must have been very surprised at my gesture, but she didn’t dwell on it. She’s been in New York for weeks, since the holidays, and is leaving tomorrow.
Shelli said she had just gotten off the phone with Ivan, and “although he doesn’t know it, I’m pissed off at him. . . We’ve been very close recently and tonight he just put up a wall. . .”
When I asked what Ivan was doing, she just said, “Working.” I didn’t even know he still lived in New York; I guess he hasn’t married Vicky yet.
From the way Shelli was talking, it sounded as if she and Ivan might have been lovers these past few weeks. Years ago I would have thought that wonderful and ironic; now it doesn’t matter much.
Shelli is no longer the 18-year-old girl who was my girlfriend; she’s a woman, an aspiring filmmaker or TV person, and she’s sweet, generous, pretentious, hip, sensitive and ambitious. She now places her career first.
Although she desperately would like to have children, she doesn’t want to marry again after her divorce from Jerry becomes final later this year. No doubt she has many lovers, but she’s changed from the Shelli I had heard about. She said she no longer smokes grass; she’s fairly slim and neat; she says she’s grown up, and it sounds like she has.
Jerry, whom she “loves like a brother,” is unhappy in Madison, working as assistant director of the welfare center for Mayor Soglin. He feels he’s not getting anywhere and may move to a larger city.
Leon is getting his M.A. in linguistics and working at a disco; he and Shelli co-host a Madison radio show featuring music and comedy sketches. She’s a production assistant at the cable TV station, too. Shelli said she works very hard at school – she went 3.8 this term – and will probably stay on after the next term to go to grad school.
We chatted like old friends. I told her that she misunderstood my “hostility” in June and she said that might be the case. After much gossip and stories and musings, we hung up at 11:30 PM. “Take care of yourself,” I told Shelli.
“Sooner or later, I’ll write,” she said. And we both admitted we were glad to have had that conversation.
Saturday, January 15, 1977
6 PM. This is the worst winter in everybody’s recent memory. I’ve just come from outside, where I’ve been shoveling for the fourth time in two days. It started snowing yesterday while I was at Jon’s in Park Slope, and by midnight, seven or eight inches had fallen.
I abhor snow, and it looks like there’s going to be a lot more this winter, and maybe even tomorrow. Today there was just no place to put the snow; the snow that fell on Christmas has never completely melted.
Although I was supposed to go over to Mark and Consuelo’s this evening – Mendy was going to be there as well – the snow put a kibosh on that. I’m afraid to risk driving tonight.
If I were feeling at all creative, I’d be less likely to succumb to midwinter depression. But there are absolutely no stories within me. It’s another dry period; even the magazines containing my stories have stopped coming out.
Sun & Moon was supposed to be out this month, but they just sent me their latest issue – dated Summer 1976! – so it looks as though “A Clumsy Story” won’t be out for a long time, if ever. I’d say about ten to fifteen of my acceptances will never appear in print because the magazines will have folded beforehand.
It was good to talk to Shelli again. While we can no longer be as close as we once were, it’s liberating to feel that there’s now no tension on either side. Finally we achieved an understanding; I guess it took all these years for all the shit between us to clear up.
I don’t expect to hear from her except perhaps once a year or so. Still, there were good vibrations throughout our whole conversation: no discordant notes at all, at least as far as I could tell.
I only wish Ronna would have gotten in touch with me. I swallowed my pride and made the first move towards Shelli, but I can’t do the same with Ronna because I’m more vulnerable with her.
I wanted to ask Shelli what she knows about Ronna, either from her own contact or through Ivan – but I couldn’t. It’s strange how in all this time I’ve never run into anyone who might be in contact with Ronna. There was that incident with Felicia in Brooklyn Heights, and then Henry’s note, but nothing about Ronna.
I’d like to know that she’s all right, just as it makes me feel very gratified to know that Shelli has finally gotten her act together. And I think Shelli is pleased with my successes (though not as much as I’d have liked her to be?).
I spoke to Consuelo to cancel this afternoon. Shelli said that Mark and Consuelo were very close to her and Jerry until the two of them started “living crazy,” and then Consuelo told Shelli she would have to give her time “to get her youth out of her system” and pulled back a little.
This afternoon I also spoke to Elihu; Shelli didn’t call him, either. Shelli told me that her hassles with Elihu go back to the time when he was sticking Allan Cooper with those long-distance phone calls; Leon and Jerry went along with it, but to her credit, Shelli didn’t think it was right and Elihu got angry with her for her attitude.
Yesterday, at the Baumbachs’, Georgia gave me tuna on English muffins and coffee for lunch with Jon and the baby. Jon and Jack kept tossing off their friends’ names – “Joe” Heller, “Phil” Roth, “Jimmy” Baldwin – so I assume I’m going to be in the major leagues now.
Last night Alice called. She was out sick from work and rather depressed. Her Cosmo interview/question isn’t going very well; she had had only nine famous people answer the question, “What is your secret unfulfilled ambition?” and she needs forty of them.
I knew I had to get away this afternoon, so I took the Mill Basin bus and the D train into the Village, where it was only slightly less slushy. I had lunch at The Bagel; Al, the owner, and Sonia, the waitress, were friendly although I was pissed because some girl got mad because I opened the door of The Bagel before she’d gotten her coat on. “Stupid jerk,” she called me.
I went to the Eighth Street Bookshop, where Laurie and I chatted for half an hour. She showed me her galleys from Statements 2 that Peter had sent to her. Laurie said she was so glad to see me, to take her mind off a migraine headache.
We discussed poetry, Leon: she hears he’s forgiven her “in absentia.” She passed Leon on the street two years ago, but it was his last day in New York and she was on her way to her shrink, so neither noticed the other.
I told Laurie about Shelli and Jerry and we talked about making out (“It was so nice to do it for hours, fogging up car windows and getting sore, and then you’d go home and have great dreams,” she said).
When I left the bookstore, it was with a hug and a kiss for Laurie, the cool senior editor of the yearbook who so intimidated me as a sophomore. She’s such a dear friend now.
Tuesday, January 18, 1977
4 PM. I’ve been absolutely insufferable lately; I can see that now. Better late than never, I suppose. But why couldn’t I realize it before? I was behaving like the kind of rigid, unsympathetic, arrogant person I’ve always detested and mocked. Life has a curious way of turning us into what we hate most.
Over the past few days I’ve lost all my humanity. In a sense I’ve been doing just what I accuse Jonny of doing: he makes himself physically strong and rigid in his habits to fight off a chaotic world and his uncertain role in it. Just as Jonny defines himself in terms of his muscles, I’ve been defining myself in terms of my accomplishments.
A man is so much more than the sum of his deeds. Thank God I haven’t yet blinded myself to that fact. Teaching and getting stories published does not make me a better person. In fact, if I really were sure of myself as a man, I wouldn’t need to keep referring to the things I’ve done.
I don’t really want to end up as a hateful, prideful, lonely man of accomplishments. Oh, a part of me does, but it’s a part every bit as weak as the parts of my family that I’ve been criticizing.
A few things have put that into perspective for me. Last night, not wanting to be with my family for dinner, I went out to visit Grandpa Herb and Grandma Ethel. As I ate a meal, watched TV and talked with my grandparents, I realized I don’t need to tell them I’ve done this thing or that thing. They love me unconditionally, just because I’m me.
If I were a high school dropout and an alcoholic and a drug addict, they’d probably feel the same way about me. My position vis-à-vis the world is irrelevant to them. And I don’t love Grandpa Herb and Grandma Ethel any the less because of the things they’ve failed to do in the world.
I’ve been terribly guilty of dealing with my parents and my brothers with a complete lack of respect. They deserve respect, as does everyone, by their being human. Diplomas, jobs, fame: it all means nothing in the end.
How in hell did I fall into this stupid trap? Me, who should know better. When I got stuck with the car this morning, it was Marc and Jonny who came and gave me a boost. These past few I’ve treated them, and Dad and Mom, horribly.
Being disgusted with them is one thing: my reasons may be valid. But I’ve only been counterproductive with my aloof, holier-than-thou attitudes.
I am dependent on other people, and being human, I will be all my life. I can pretend otherwise, but in the end it won’t work. I don’t have to be Mom or Dad or my brothers, but I don’t have to hate what I am not.
Today I went to Brooklyn College and spoke with Dr. Whipple about arranging the conference. Later in the day, I made up a budget, padding it out a little; still, I kept it under $6,000. I only hope I didn’t forget something important. Gloria told me that Jon and Jack had been absolutely panicked at the thought of making up a budget.
At the Fiction Collective office, I did what little needed to be done and then had lunch with Gloria. Peter left me my galleys for Statements 2, and also in the office were the proof pages (the galleys cut up into pages, the way it will be for the book).
“Au Milieu Intérieur” is the most naked piece I’ve written, one that left me very vulnerable. In some ways I dread the thought of anyone reading my innermost thoughts, even in a book of fictions.
Although I almost wish Jon and Peter had chosen a less intimate piece of mine, something like Simon’s “Misplaced Trout,” the story is honest (and perhaps a little self-serving, too).
To begin to atone for my past misdeeds, I picked Jonny up at school today. The temperature sunk to 2° Fahrenheit, another record low.
Wednesday, January 19, 1977
1 PM on another frigid day. If it ever gets above 30°, we’ll think it positively balmy. I just got up an hour ago, as I didn’t get to bed until 4 AM.
Last evening I ate dinner with the family. Dad was upset after spending a day at the lawyer’s. He and Mom were bickering back and forth all evening; there was a lot of shouting going on. This house is so hard to live in these days.
I retreated to my bedroom and my work, beginning my story based on Michael Brody. It’s called “The Man Who Gave Away Millions,” the title being something that can be taken two ways.
My character Sam Jellicoe says he will give away millions of dollars. But what he really “gives away” are the greed and the insanity of millions of people. For a change, it’s good to be writing something I’m a little detached from. I need to get away from being my own protagonist all the time.
Then, at about 8 PM, Mason called. He’s moved to a triplex brownstone apartment on West 85th Street, one he shares with three or four other guys. He’s only been there a couple of days, though Libby’s been up to visit him already. “It’s a very nice place except for my room,” he said.
He’s selling real estate on the Upper East Side and so far he’s not been that successful. “But I’m trying to be happy,” Mason told me.
What he really called for was to tell me that Davey was going crazy and needed my help. Davey failed a lit course in the spring and thus couldn’t graduate. This term he was taking Comp Lit and tomorrow (today) was his final, and Davey needed a lot of help. I told Mason I’d try to help Davey.
When I told Mason about Shelli and Leon, he said he was going to write them. Leon’s last letter, Mason said, made a lot of sense: he seemed to be drawing back from the gay disco scene. “Leon’s so much better than all that,” Mason said, rightly.
I called Davey and told him to come over, and he was at the house by 9:30 PM. If he doesn’t pass this final, he’ll still be stuck in Brooklyn College.
Davey told me that everyone he showed “Peninsular People” to enjoyed it, including the whole Karpoff family, whom I had been terrified of offending. However, Mrs. Karpoff was so excited by the story that she made up copies for everybody. That’s so weird.
Davey and I worked in my room for three hours, until after midnight. He hasn’t got the slightest idea how to deal with literature, and I suspect his writing skills are very poor, but he’s able to bring notes to the final and I provided him with information on and analysis of Oedipus, The Stranger, The Flies, Tristan and Iseult, and The Madwoman of Chaillot.
During our hours of literary poking, Davey and I talked a lot. Last summer he went to camp as a counselor, and when he got back, he found that he’d failed Kiddie Lit and hadn’t graduated.
Then his girlfriend Julie, who’d always been the submissive and protected one in their relationship, told him that she didn’t want to see him anymore. This led to a depression on Davey’s part, the first thing even running couldn’t solve.
He was unsure about his future, but at least he was making money by doing a lot of carpentry and house renovation, something he’d always enjoyed as a creative outlet. Yet after Julie broke up with him, Davey lost some of his enthusiasm for his work.
He called her one Sunday and cried that he wanted to go up to New Paltz to see her. She finally said all right, that maybe they could be friends. Davey got very nervous and “brought flowers and shit” and spent the train ride up the Hudson in a state of anticipation.
But the minute he saw her, he realized it was all over. That night he got only three hours’ sleep: “It’s hell to sleep next to someone you want to mess around with when you can’t.”
The next morning he ran twelve miles in New Paltz: “It was a good run, but it didn’t help. So I got right on the next train to the city.” Now he’s over Julie, but it scared him that running wasn’t able to make everything right.
Well past midnight, after we got all the work done and I felt fairly confident I’d given him the suggestions and notes he could pass the Comp Lit final with, Davey took me out for a bite to eat at the Floridian. We drove to the diner in the car Alan Karpoff gave him.
Over tea and muffins, Davey told me something I didn’t know about Fred: three years ago, Fred committed himself because he was afraid he was going to commit suicide; luckily, he got better with shock treatments.
Davey also mentioned that Paul had come back from Atlanta for a visit last weekend and that Paul recently got a first-class FCC license, so he’s making his way in the world. I guess we all are.
Anyway, it turned out to be a really nice night and a lot of fun. Davey is surprisingly good company. I think I have a little crush on him.