Sunday, August 14, 1977
10 PM. I’ve just been reading an article in the Sunday Times magazine section on the logician Saul Kripke, the most brilliant of American analytical philosophers at 36, and Gary’s second cousin. (He’s the nephew of Gary’s father’s cousin Doris, whom I drove to Gary and Betty’s wedding.)
As a fiction writer, I’m fascinated by what I can understand of Kripke’s truth theory, and I have a gut feeling the man will become a towering figure in philosophy, another Descartes or Hume.
Can we quantify language and human emotions? I’m much too stupid to even ask that question, but I’d like to learn more. Kripke is a true genius, the kind of man who makes me glad I let my Mensa membership lapse.
At age three, Kripke was aware of difficult philosophical concepts; at six, he taught himself Hebrew; by fourth grade he had “discovered” algebra and read all of Shakespeare. I’m in awe of such pure brilliance, the Einsteinian kind.
Now I may be a clever fellow, but as Soames Forsyte said of one of his duller cousins, I’ll “never set the Thames on fire.” I don’t regret not being a real genius, but I wish my talent were more substantial and less superficial.
I have no doubt that I’ll be a success, but in the end the world will have changed little for my being here. Who is it that defined true genius as influencing those who’ve never even heard of you?
Realistically (but what does that word mean?), I know I’ll never get there. I have the energy and the talent, but no solid concepts – no new ones, anyway. Still, I’m a fairly nice fellow and I would like to try my best.
It’s been a dreary, rainy weekend. I ventured into Manhattan both yesterday and today, attending a rained-out “festival of soap opera stars” in Bryant Park, wandering through bookstores, looking at people on the streets, being handed cards that urge me to see the “beautiful girls – belles mustaches [sic] – only $10 – nothing extra.”
I talked to Gary and also Alice, who had been crying after one of her semi-annual spats with Andreas.
Grandpa Nat gets no better, and I guess I’ve pretty much accepted the fact that the man I knew is gone. Perhaps this will make his death, whenever it comes, a bit easier to adjust to.
I’m practically ready to leave for Bread Loaf. I spent several hours getting my manuscripts in order today. I’m going to have to buy a few things tomorrow, but I’ve got pretty much everything.
Part of me wishes I could stay here and be comfortable in familiar surroundings for the next two weeks. I hate leaving my routines, I worry about missing my mail, and about having to share a room with a strange person (for example, when can I be alone to exercise or, yes, to masturbate?).
I’m not looking forward to the regimen of meals at specific hours and no bathroom to myself and other barbarities – including lack of TV, radio and newspapers. I’m going to have to give up some freedom and do things on other people’s schedules.
Actually, as I write this, I’m experiencing the sinking feeling that I will hate the Writers’ Conference. I don’t expect it to be very useful to my work. I couldn’t imagine Virginia Woolf or Henry Miller or Joyce or Kafka or Proust or D. H. Lawrence going to something like Bread Loaf.
I’m not really excited about anyone on the staff. They’re all competent craftsmen and craftswomen, but no one who astounds me. (I can’t even read John Gardner – and until recently, when I heard the name I would invariably think first of the Common Cause guy.)
And I dread the seven-hour bus ride, and the hour before it, and the hour it will take to get to the Bread Loaf campus. I’ve always had a phobia about traveling.
Now I don’t expect to have any serious panic: I expect mild anxiety attacks, but I’ll survive them, and re-experiencing them will probably do me some good. But it’s the annoyance of it all.
I know that another part of me loves the sense of adventure involved, though. And if I don’t like it there, I can always get the next bus home.
Tuesday, August 16, 1977
It’s 11 PM and I can see that only by my digital watch. This has been one of the strangest days of my life. I really wish I was back in Brooklyn in my familiar room instead of here in this cold, primitive room in Vermont.
I’m really scared. I feel like a kid on his first night of camp. Everything is so strange, and I’ve traveled for so long, and there’s too much to take in. I feel terribly alone and friendless here.
I survived the bus ride well, with a minimum of anxiety, although the trip was terribly tedious. Dad came with me into the Port Authority and watched as I stood on line for tickets.
The bus left Port Authority at 9:30 AM and we made pretty good time up the Thruway, getting to Albany in 3 hours. My phobias didn’t bother me, but I was very tense.
I chatted with Barbara Unger, a 35-ish neurotic poet and teacher at Rockland County Community College. She was fairly nice and took my mind off the long drive.
We must have stopped at every city of any consequence in Vermont – and Middlebury is pretty far north. The scenery is beautiful, of course: the Green Mountains are just that, but then I’ve never been one for rural scenery.
It was close to 5 PM when we got to Middlebury, and by then a steady rain had started. Seventeen of us packed into one Middlebury College taxi and it was a scary drive the twelve miles up the mountain.
We really are in the middle of nowhere, especially where they stuck me: in Gilmore, which is ¾ of a mile from the rest of the Bread Loaf buildings. I do have a room all to myself and I suppose I should be grateful for that.
I walked with my luggage up the road in the rain until some kindly people stopped their car and drove me here. No sooner did I put my luggage in my room than I got a ride back to the Inn with another guy.
After registering, I sat around meeting people until dinner began. I’ve met so many people I’ll never be able to remember all their names.
Dinner was fairly bland but wholesome, and after that we hung around till 8 PM when we went into the Little Theater. Bob Pack and Sandy Martin, the directors of the conference, introduced themselves and made short welcoming speeches.
Martin said that the average Bread Loafer is 35 and there are many varied people here – kids my age and younger; middle-aged women; even retired septuagenarians.
Maxine Kumin read her poetry, and she was pretty good, and afterwards there was a reception social at the Barn. In a superficial way, I’ve gotten chummy with a couple of people.
David, a budding novelist, comes from Boston, where he works for his father manufacturing jackets. Because he lives in Gilmore and has a car, I really have to stick by him, especially if the rain keeps up.
Rick, who’s a waiter from New Orleans and probably gay, lives here in Gilmore also, as does Drew, a poet from somewhere down South (at first I thought he was putting on that accent).
I met Debby, a cute blonde woman from Ithaca, and Elise, from New Rochelle, and a bunch of other people. At dinner we sat with two women who are in nonfiction, one of whom works for the Washington Post. And I met a woman, Mary Mihaly, 26, from Akron, who recently published an article in Seventeen.
But I really feel “out of it,” trapped in this place in the middle of the mountains. All the pent-up anxiety has just begun to hit me and I feel queasy and I’m shivering (it’s also pretty cold).
I hope I don’t have a breakdown. I’ve taken four Triavils, but I don’t expect to sleep at all tonight. If I could just get three or four hours, it would be wonderful.
You’re supposed to be up really early. The waiters are all Contributors, and if you miss the first 15 minutes of meals, the doors are slammed in your face.
I feel terribly frightened and lonely, like a kid at his first night of camp.
Wednesday, August 17, 1977
3 PM. It’s so freaky being here. A large part of me would like to take the next bus back to New York. I really can’t imagine myself staying here another ten or eleven days, but there were times yesterday when I couldn’t imagine myself staying here through today.
I think I’m getting civilization withdrawal pangs; it was such a shock to see the first page of the New York Times saying Elvis Presley had died. Without TV and radios, news has no impact.
I didn’t sleep very well last night, but I did get four or five hours filled with dreams. In fact, I dreamed I couldn’t sleep.
Actually, I have to confess it was better than I expected: I didn’t wake this morning with too bad of a headache although I don’t like the looks of the dark circles under my eyes.
The bathroom upstairs has only a bathtub, and it was too rushed all morning. After lunch – it’s a long walk uphill back here, 15 or 20 minutes – I took a shower downstairs, washing and blow-drying my hair.
This morning I got a lift with Carl Dennis next door. He teaches at Buffalo State, and his poetry books have been published by George Braziller. Several years ago, he was a Bread Loaf Fellow and now just comes back to see his old friends.
I can’t imagine making a good friend here although many people seem nice. It strikes me that I don’t feel much like me here, and that scares me a little. Of course, that could be an improvement.
I had breakfast with David, Debby and Elise. Debby’s cute; she reminds me of someone but I just don’t know who. Elise is temporarily with her parents in New Rochelle but intends to spend a year in Israel.
For breakfast, I had Product 19 and orange juice, which really wasn’t substantial enough for me. It was dark and cool this morning, cool enough so that it was just comfortable enough to wear a sweatshirt.
When I saw Rick outside, he looked as depressed as I felt, and he said he had slept poorly, too. Debby had the same complaint.
I walked to the snack bar in the Barn with Margaret from Toronto, who’d gotten up too late and had missed breakfast. At the Barn phone booth, I called Mom, who said she misses me. I realize I miss her and the others, too. Isn’t that childish?
Just before lunch, I wandered off by myself. The mountains here are so fresh-looking and beautiful, and the air is clear, but I miss Brooklyn and New York City. I guess I have a strong sense that my home is there.
This doesn’t seem like the real world; maybe that’s it. If I were at a “normal” place away from home, another city like San Francisco or Chicago, I might feel differently.
I went to all three morning lectures: Bob Pack, director of the conference, spoke on the importance of words, the particular word in poetry. He used poems by Frost, Robinson, Dickinson and even Paradise Lost to make his points, and he was pretty interesting.
Stanley Elkin came next and he was a disappointment. He played cranky old man and didn’t give a lecture, but just answered questions.
I asked him a question that I thought deserved a serious answer, “Does a short story have to have a beginning, a middle and an end, and what order should they be in?” and he just laughed and said that of course they did and anyone who changed the order was just “stunting.”
The audience sensed Elkin’s superiority and they were fairly hostile. At the end he said, “I’m sorry,” and hobbled off on his cane.
The next lecturer was Mark Strand, who chose to address the subject of “craft,” but his delivery was so pedantic that my mind was wandering before he’d gotten through a third of his text.
I found a letter in my mailbox. As a Scholar (it says in the leaflet that I won the National Arts Club Scholarship in Prose), I’m invited to the cocktails at Treman House for Staff, Scholars, Fellows and Assorted Visitors. There
is a lot of drinking going on here – a hell of a lot.
I had lunch with Carl, David, Debby and an elderly couple who called each other “Mom” and “Dad,” then I walked back to Gilmore House. I’m going to try to get some rest.
Thursday, August 18, 1977
4 PM. So much has happened in the last 24 hours. It’s all a blur, really, and there’s no time for anything to sink in, but I’m sure these events and the impressions I have of them will be with me for a long time.
After writing yesterday’s entry, I smoked some hash with Bob and Charles, a nice-looking rich kid who goes to Skidmore, then fell into a sort of restful semi-sleep. At 5 PM David came back, and I persuaded him to drive into town. It was a relief to get back to the real world. I hadn’t realized (how did I miss it?) that we are on the top of a mountain.
The drive into town was fun; we smoked a joint on the way and that really relaxed me. The sun had come out by the time we pulled into town, and that made it pleasant.
Middlebury is so beautiful; it makes you think you’re in some kind of fantasy place. The stores on Main Street are so neat and snug, whether it’s the health food place or the drugstore with a real soda fountain and popcorn machine or the boutiques.
We stopped in at Lazarus’ Clothing Store, where David looked at the jackets, comparing them to the ones he and his father make; I know that syndrome.
There’s a creek running right across Main Street, and it’s beautiful to stand on the bridge and watch the water flow on the glistening rocks. We stopped at Tony’s Pizza for some drinks.
I think it’s cute that even here, there are such obvious ethnic types like Lazarus and Tony doing their thing.
Vermonters impress me with their courtesy and their progressiveness: there are no roadside billboards and the soda cans have press-ins, not flip-tops, and there’s a five-cent refund on the aluminum.
David and I ate in the Rosebud Café, a marvelously hip place with a nice atmosphere: stained glass, weathered wood, antique stoves. I had a sandwich that was delicious, white meat turkey with mayo and lettuce on pumpernickel in a basket of potato chips and pickles. I had Red Zinger herb tea, and they served it with honey, not sugar.
The drive back to Bread Loaf was so relaxing, I couldn’t believe it. Driving really fast on the curves was exhilarating and David’s tapes were playing and the sun was setting and I felt better than I had since coming here.
We made it back to the Little Theater just in time for John Irving’s reading of the start of his forthcoming novel The World According to Garp, which sounds like it will be hilarious; I wasn’t bored for a minute. I walked back in the dark with Bob, Charles and Kevin, a blond kid from Racine, Wisconsin, who’s still obsessed with his ex-girlfriend, “who could really fill out a pair of carpenter jeans.”
Traipsing up the road to Gilmore somehow reminded me of that recurring scene in Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. I looked up and was amazed – almost intoxicated – by so many bright stars, something I’d never seen before in my life.
Last night I went down to the study with Rick and Greg and David, and we sat by the fire and read each other’s work. I think it’s neat to be living in a house where twelve guys in their twenties are all reading To the Lighthouse. (Idea for story: A dozen guys, each reading a different Virginia Woolf novel, are living in a house in the woods. Title: “Virginia Woolf Is For Lovers.”)
I slept well, and although I had an attack of severe nausea this morning, it didn’t last long. Carl Dennis (who showed me his Braziller-published poetry books) drove us to the “main” campus and I had breakfast with Leslea Newman.
I attended each lecture today. Toni Morrison spoke about a “useable past” in fiction and read from her next book, Song of Solomon. Marvin Bell gave a brilliant lecture on receptivity being important to creativity and seemed to stress instinct, readiness, and continuous working – he said the more you do something, the better you get at it.
John Gardner got me appropriately riled with his talk of “Moral Fiction,” attacking post-modernist textured fiction (Gass, Barthelme, Sukenick, Barth) for not having any values or philosophy at bottom.
I had a discussion group with John Gardner from 2 PM to 3:30 PM and he was fascinating; I did my share of talking and got him to admit that he was using overkill, that of course texture is important – but only if it’s “in service” (my words, with which he agreed) to character, plot and values.
Gardner is a strange-looking man with that Veronica Lake-like blond hair but he’s sweet and smart, and he’s leading me to rethink some of my preexisting ideas about fiction. And that’s good.
Friday, August 19, 1977
Noon. Kevin and I just walked back to the house after a fantastic lecture by John Irving which was actually a story he wrote. He and his 13-year-old son Colin read it aloud; the point of it was that made-up stories are always better than the true story, that “but it really happened that way” is the worst excuse for unsatisfactory fiction.
I feel that a lot of what’s going on here has been useful to me. Even Stanley Elkin’s bitterness seems justifiable; the man has paid his dues and has been very ill. He looks twenty years older than 47.
John Gardner is more accessible than I thought he would be. He and Bill Gass, he says, like to tramp through the woods and scream at each other, arguing about fiction. I now get the feeling that a lot of what he says is just for effect. For instance, when asked his opinion of Nabokov, Gardner came out with “I think he’s a cheap diabolist,” eliciting shock from the crowd. Right or (probably) wrong, that takes guts.
Mark Strand read from his poetry last evening; the man is icy cold, but as I told Carl Dennis, I guess someone’s got to write poetry for the cold people. And one has to admit he’s good.
I had breakfast in the Barn with Dannye Romine, a fellow Fiction Scholar, a thirtyish woman who’s the book editor of the Charlotte Observer. We missed the first lecture but did go to hear William Meredith’s talk on the uselessness of personal anguish unless it is raised to the universal level; he used Bellow’s Herzog as a starting-off point.
Then came the Irving performance, which was great. I’d better get back to the Inn or I’ll miss lunch.
Saturday, August 20, 1977
7 PM, it says on the $2 Timex I just bought in Middlebury. Having diarrhea in a toilet that won’t flush is what I’ve been doing, and let me tell ya, kid, it isn’t pleasant – but that’s life.
Charles, who wears mirrored sunglasses and a jaunty hat and who calls me “Greyhound,” drove me back after dinner and I think I’m going to call it a night. I can’t believe it’s Saturday night. Anyway, I’ll probably have the whole house to myself; there’s a dance at the Barn.
After lunch yesterday, I went to a panel discussion on “Getting Started”: Marvin Bell, Kumin, Meredith and Irving hit some nerves as they talked about how they write, but I imagine every writer works slightly differently, and the aura, the inspiration, Kumin’s “prickle on the back of the neck” vary with each individual.
We took the jeep back for dinner, and I ended up sitting next to Patti Pack, the director’s wife, who told me that a hundred years ago two families owned this inn and operated it as a kind of 19th-century commune. When it was bequeathed to Middlebury College, they thought it was a white elephant and didn’t know what to do with it until Frost came along.
After dinner, Toni Morrison read the beautiful opening passage from her new novel, Song of Solomon. She’s a terrific reader and deserved her standing ovation.
Back at the Barn again, I sat with Ron Carlson, who’s 30 and teaches at Hotchkiss and looks it. But he’s incredibly sympathetic. Ron gave me a lift back to the house, where I tried to relax.
At 10 AM today, the literary agent Georges Borchardt spoke on first book contracts. I skipped the next two lectures and sat in the Barn (it was freezing outside, the coldest it’s been – and nobody was prepared for it) with Dannye Romine and Raymond Sokolov, the Times food critic and novelist, who’s a Fellow.
I could see John Gardner going over David’s novel with him. David was told that he could be a good writer and have a good novel, but he has to stop thinking about old rules and dig “deeper and deeper and deeper.”
I had lunch with Debby and that nice Gloucester teacher (a blonde divorced poet); we had a long discussion on literary “cuteness,” a big problem for me.
In our discussion group, John Gardner lectured on how to write a novel and he was just so brilliant (even though I disagreed with him) that it was too much for me to take in at once. He believes first in character and that everything stems from that. A good novel should take at least five years: work on it till it’s an ecstatic experience, “ex-stasis,” out of yourself, as if God had written it.
But Gardner did say that you can do anything in a short story, so I feel he’s not totally against me. I’ll never be able to write (to sweat out) a novel like Gardner; my temperament makes me basically an artificer, not an artist.
I prefer games and play to “serious, big” statements. Maybe that will change, but now I feel I’m so young, I don’t have any big statements to make. However, I do seem to have lots of little statements to make.
I’m going to see Tim O’Brien tomorrow at 11 AM for my manuscript conference. I’m not very concerned with what he thinks of my stuff.
When I called Brooklyn, Mom said the nursing home can’t keep Grandpa Nat because he has no chance of recovery. He’s a vegetable now but could last quite a while.
It would have been a blessing had he died – at least for the rest of us. Of course now, when Grandpa Nat does die, it will be accepted more easily and will be a relief rather than a shock.
We drove into town with Charles, David (whom Charles calls “Manny”) and Kevin, and on the way got buzzed (a new expression for me, probably because I’m older than they are). The drive was scary, as we went fast on the curves, but I enjoyed it; the excitement relaxed me.
We had soda in this 1930s ice cream parlor/drugstore and separated for a while. I bought a sweatshirt and a watch (my digital one broke, and I was going crazy not knowing the time).
I dined with the Sklars and Dannye, and then returned to Gilmore. The mice are starting to bother me: they got into my cookies. Ugh! At least I didn’t scream like Hilma Wolitzer did the other night (so I heard).
Sunday, August 21, 1977
11 PM. I’m a bit paranoid about staying in my room after spotting the mouse last night. I had a hard time falling asleep and now the slightest sound makes me jump. Oh well, I suppose the mice have to live, too.
I’ve been talking in the parlor, by the fire, with Ron Carlson, whose first novel, Betrayed by F. Scott Fitzgerald, was favorably reviewed in the Times the day of the blackout when there were few copies. But it’s actually selling quite well.
He talked about teaching at Hotchkiss and how ideal it is for him and how removed it is from the outside world. I think I might like a job like that, teaching brilliant eleventh-graders. But Ron found my stories about LIU interesting.
I met with Tim O’Brien this morning. He didn’t really offer any criticism of my work, which was good. He, of course, didn’t like the kinds of things I like and he tried to convince me to join his side, as it were.
Tim said I do what I do very well but I’m capable of writing his kind of stories, filled with characters people can identify with and dealing with big themes like courage.
He was glad I wasn’t very dogmatic about experimental fiction (my philosophy is pretty much live and let live) and he thought it was good that I came to Bread Loaf to get the view of the other side.
We talked in general for a while. He’s 30, a Vietnam veteran (his first book, a war story, If I Die in a Combat Zone, is already taught in colleges) and a doctoral student in government at Harvard (he said he’ll never write his dissertation).
Tim told me he makes a living from his writing; I told him that was something I never expected to do, and he said that was good, because with my stuff I sure couldn’t do it.
He said I should be over at Treman Cottage all the time, getting to know the big name writers; that’s why I’m here as a Scholar. I like Tim a lot though I’m not sure his work would interest me; I’ll have to get it.
Today was almost warm, and I enjoyed it. I talked with Elise, who mentioned going to S.F. State for her M.A. in Creative Writing; she’s cute and I enjoyed being with her.
I lunched and had dinner with several interesting people, including a woman whose next book will be about her travels to the Soviet Union and an older woman who wrote a young adult novel that Gardner told her is publishable.
Every one of the Contributors takes their conferences much more seriously than I did. After Kevin met with Meredith, he was a bit down from their talk. As I suspected, most of the people here aren’t and will never be very good writers; Tim confirmed this. But he also said that they’re the nicest people that you’ll ever run across, and that’s true.
I went to a nonfiction panel on doing research and heard Geoffrey Wolff read a moving essay about his father, a con man.
The Bread Loaf librarian told me there’s a “new spirit” at the Conference: Sandy and Bob and people like Toni Morrison have changed it from a wild circus of sex and drinking to a quiet place where people discuss and share mutual interests.
Monday, August 22, 1977
3 PM. It’s a dark August Vermont day. I’m alone in the house now, sitting in the parlor. The remains of a fire are crackling and a rare car has just passed by the dirt road in front of the house. I can hear birds singly sharply.
Charles estimated that this house and the property around it would be worth from $20,000 to $30,000 on the open market. It’s strange for me to be here, lying on this sofa, the breeze from the open door startling my leg. I feel peaceful.
This week at Bread Loaf has been good for me, I think. Perhaps I haven’t exploited the Conference staff and my position as a Scholar. I have barely spoken to John Gardner or Stanley Elkin (who’s dying of multiple sclerosis like the character in his last novel) or Mark Strand or Charles Simic (who told me he just got a card from Jon Baumbach in England).
And my work hasn’t really gotten criticized by anyone. But still, I’ve taken advantage of other things that Bread Loaf has to offer.
The multiplicity of writers, good and bad, published and unpublished, young and old, male and female, has made me realize that I’m certainly not alone. That is both a relief and a discomfort.
The relief comes from knowing all these wonderful, sensitive people who are struggling, as I am, to express themselves and to perfect their craft. But the fact that my quest is shared by many others also makes me feel less unique, and invariably, less special.
My voice is my own, true, but there are so many here who are just as good or better than I am that I despair of ever gaining recognition for my writing.
So what if I’ve published thirty stories in literary magazines? Tim O’Brien published a novel when he was younger than I am, and the novel was well-reviewed and made money and is taught.
Still, who is Tim O’Brien? I just passed him walking back here on a narrow trail in the woods. He was sitting on plank over a stream with that witty divorced teacher from Plymouth.
Tim O’Brien isn’t great; even John Gardner isn’t a great writer. (Tim told me he shares that view about John.) But I can’t believe that a writer has to be great or he’s a failure. If I end up believing that, I will end up frustrated and bitter.
I will settle for little successes and try to be the best writer of whatever it is that I write that I am capable of being. Probably some people’s dreams of literary stardom have been shattered here; I heard that Gardner told some people to just give up writing.
I never expected to be a superstar, though I’ve wished for it, and while it troubled me an hour ago when the editor Richard Marek told his audience that short story collections are impossible to sell, it was no surprise to me, not even when he said that the stories “must have appeared in The New Yorker, Harpers and Playboy and not in places like the Transatlantic Review.” Ha, that’s my most prestigious publication.
Hilma Wolitzer’s lecture was quite useful to me. She started “late,” at 35, and she’s lived a very quiet and ordinary middle-class Jewish life in Brooklyn and Long Island, a life that must be similar to the sedate life I’ve led.
But she said one did not have to experience the unusual to write about it; we are all unique and some of us have great imaginations. The important thing, she said, is to be the kind of person whom nothing gets by, on whom nothing is lost.
Maxine Kumin lectured on workshops and exercises in poetry – that was useful to me, too, I think.
I had lunch after Kumin’s lecture (I couldn’t touch the chipped beef because the look of it was repulsive) and then went to hear editor and independent publisher Richard Marek.
I feel like I’m storing up psychic energy here that will be released in the stories I write when I get back to Brooklyn and resume my routines.
The summer is almost over; indeed, with my crew-neck sweater and my sweatshirt, I already feel that it’s fall. I think it’s been a good summer – the best one ever, perhaps – in spite of myself.
Life has a way of forcing you to grow up.