Friday, June 13, 1980
5:30 PM. I’ve just come back from an outing at Willard Pond, about 25 miles north of here. I was sitting on the lawn outside Colony Hall working on a story when Lucille asked if I wanted to go there with her, Linda, Jane DeLynn and Dan Gurskis (the tall blond playwright).
I always like serendipitous trips, so I said fine. The weather really changed today; it’s sunny and it got up to nearly 80°. It was great to get out into New Hampshire.
We stopped in the town of Hancock, where Lucille bought me a can of Diet Pepsi, which I’ve been craving for a week. (I was wearing pocket-less gym shorts and didn’t have any money).
Then we drove along these great one-lane highways past tall, thin trees and brooks until we got to this nature preserve, run by the Audubon Society, that Linda knew about.
We stayed there for about an hour. Only Dan and Jane went in the pond, as the water was icy; Lucille and I were being pestered by insects. I used her Off!, which was a mistake, as it didn’t help and made my eyes smart. (I’ve now taken off and am boiling my lenses, and I just hope I didn’t damage them.)
I loved the feeling of camaraderie that was on the ride; it made me feel a part of MacDowell.
Last evening I called Grandma Ethel, who said that the doctors seemed interested in Grandpa Herb’s chest x-ray; I bet they’ve spotted something on the lung. I told her not to worry and that I’d be in touch.
After dinner, about a dozen of us when to the library to see some slides of paintings by Mark Dean, the dark, bearded, energetic guy who’s always working.
Mark showed some great paintings beginning with landscapes he did at the Rhode Island College of Design, and then some of Rome and Florence, and finally some very Matisse-like studio paintings he’s been working on as a graduate student at Queens College.
The best thing about MacDowell is that I feel I’ve been stimulated by the work of other artists: painters like Mark and Marcia (who afterwards showed slides of her landscape paintings of Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard), composers like Conrad, and other writers like Michael Blumenthal.
I took out of the library a book by a MacDowell fellow, Eric Lax, called On Being Funny: Woody Allen and Comedy. Last night I began reading it and I finished it this afternoon. It’s given me new respect for Allen’s comic genius and a few ideas of my own.
I was up early this morning after only a few hours’ sleep (I cannot remember my dreams in this place). There were fresh blueberry muffins this morning; the cook said she herself had picked the blueberries around here.
I went into town with Lester at 9 AM and had ninety minutes to kill before my dental appointment, so I walked around Peterborough. It really is a lovely little place: very New England, with these clean little clapboard houses and people who are either very friendly or very reticent.
I cashed the $35 money order my parents had sent me and then read my book while sitting by the bridge over the river that flows through town. I ran into Mark and Sandy Walker and his dog, and we chatted for a while, mostly about the cynicism and competitiveness of Sandy Sokoloff and his wife (or girlfriend) Melinda.
I went to see Dr. Lawrence, a trim elderly man wearing a bowtie. After taking an x-ray and probing, he told me that my problems were caused by grinding my teeth.
I do tend to gnash my teeth at night and even when I’m awake, and Dr. Lawrence said this is part of a tension syndrome which also could affect the ear and the neck. (All my trouble spots!) He advised me to have a splint made when I get back to New York – and he said my gums are very bad.
Sunday, June 15, 1980
4 PM. Looking back on this past week at MacDowell, it seems like it’s been one of the happiest weeks of my life. Today, for example, was a small miracle.
I didn’t sleep much last night but managed to drag myself out of bed at 7:30 AM to have a breakfast of pancakes and bacon. Then I went back to my room, got into bed, and had the most delicious dreams I have had in months.
When I flipped on my transistor radio, they said it was noon. I couldn’t believe I had slept so long! I quickly showered and went out to my studio; the walk seems shorter now. Passing Lucille, I said, “I just woke up.”
“Anything wrong?” she said.
“No,” I replied. “Everything’s right.”
Somehow in that sleep a story emerged. Walking through the woods I knew only the title, “I Don’t Want No Education.” I found my lunch basket already in front of my cabin, I took it in, and began writing the story.
It came to me as if I got it out of a dream. Two and a half hours later, I had a complete 21-page story, one of the best things I’ve written in the past two years.
It is not self-indulgent and there’s no comedy in it; it’s surrealistic and scary, about a psychologist who gives up his practice to take on one patient, a 16-year-old boy.
What thrills me about the story is that it came to me the way stories used to come to me when I was really prolific. I think I’ve regained my confidence as a writer.
After gobbling up my lunch, I returned home. Home! That was a slip. . . but I do think of this place as my home now.
I called Dad to wish him a happy Father’s Day. I tried to call Grandpa Herb, but he was probably having some tests done. Mom said they’re going to make an incision in his lung to see how far the cancer has spread.
It’s weird: I feel enormously light-headed and giddy now. It’s a warm, cloudy Sunday, a perfect day.
Last evening was perfect, too. At dinner I sat with Frederich and Marcia for the first time, and they are so funny. Frederich has a great routine with the salt and pepper shakers, the milk container, and the oil and vinegar: he acts out various parts and had us all in hysterics.
After dinner, Dan Meltzer drove me, Jane and Frederich up Pack Monadnock to see the sun set behind Mount Monadnock. It was an exhilarating drive up the steep hill of the mountain. We were fooling around in the car, using the word verdant over and over until it sounded foreign and absurd. I felt so free.
When we got to the top of the mountain, instead of it being deserted, there were dozens of people about: tourists, local teenagers hanging out on Saturday night, and a ham radio club trying to break their own record time for setting up an emergency antenna and station.
Looking out and down, we saw miles of, yes, verdant rolling hills. If I were a better writer, I could describe how I felt without resorting to clichés like “the breathtaking view.” But looking at the view, I did feel as though I’d had all the air knocked out of me. I followed Jane and Dan and Frederich, joking around like very old friends, and we watched the sun set behind clouds and the sliver of a moon come out.
This is some of the most beautiful country I have seen in my life. We were up there till it got dark, just having a wonderful time.
Back at MacDowell, I settled down in Bond Hall and talked with Ellen Taaffe Zwilich, telling her I knew I’d have bad insomnia in the coming night. She’s been having it, too, ever since her husband died last summer.
I came back to my room at 10 PM and read until midnight, then lay awake till 4 AM.
Monday, June 16, 1980
3:30 PM. It’s a clear, crisp day – neither cool nor warm.
I’ve just walked back from my studio where I wrote yet another story today, a ten-pager called “It’s Another Beautiful Day in Broward County, Florida.” It’s a little forced but is probably publishable by some obscure little magazine.
The important thing is that I’m getting back into the habit of writing again. I’ve written three stories in three days, which is almost more than I’ve done in the last six months. They may not be masterpieces, but they are something.
The great thing about MacDowell, I’ve decided, is that I don’t have to worry about my car, money, shopping, cleaning or cooking: those little details of my life, which when added up, keep me from working.
It’s so good not to be constantly thinking about putting gas in the car or getting milk and orange juice. But I’m going to try to keep up my writing when I return to New York.
Last night I went back to my diary for this time a year ago. I had just started seeing Dr. Pasquale. My book was out, but nothing was happening. Dad was thinking of moving to Florida. I was scared about going to Albany until I visited there for a day.
Then things started to happen: Liz Smith mentioned me in her column. My Skylab letters were printed in the papers. Dad got the job with Ivan’s family in Florida. I decided not to go to Albany or spend August in Virginia.
So much has happened since then; it’s been a long, difficult year, but I’ve grown tremendously. I finally became an adult, slowly and painfully.
Last night, after dinner (our first inedible one, some Chinese garbage) I called Grandpa Herb. He sounded okay, and said that Marc and Rikki had just left.
Tomorrow they’ll be making an incision to see just how far the thing in the lung has spread. But even it’s the worst, Grandpa Herb is not going to die immediately.
Cancer kills you slowly, as with Janice, not suddenly. I’ll have lots of chances to be with him and time to adjust to life without him. I’ll be home in two weeks; hopefully, he’ll be out of the hospital by then.
Last evening was quiet: I watched some TV with Lucille. Heretofore I had felt embarrassed about using the set, but it was almost a relief to see television again: a PBS documentary on Egyptian hieroglyphics and Disraeli on Masterpiece Theater.
I slept fairly well, nodding off as I listened to the rain. Sandy Walker and Marcia left today. The transitory nature of MacDowell means that relationships are always changing as people come and go.
Jane hurt me at breakfast with a critical remark about my “trying too hard.” She’s a very sharp person and can be cruel. Still, I mailed her gay culture article to the Voice when Frederich and I went into town with Lester.
I needed more typewriter cartridges and I bought the new Voice. Frederich is a hysterically funny guy with a deadpan delivery.
Last night I spoke with Tanya Grossman, who writes in Russian and has been here only three years. She’s from the Moscow elite and looks down upon the materialistic Soviet Jews of Brighton Beach. Tanya told me some of them only pretend to be Jewish so they can get out of the country.
My teeth hurt and I am dizzy today, but I shall survive it.
Thursday, June 19, 1980
2:30 PM on a hot Thursday. I’ve just walked back from my studio; when I spotted Lucille and Nancy Miller pass, I caught up with them. Lucille said I look as though I’ve lost weight here, which canceled out my depression caused by gaining so much weight.
I haven’t been feeling well today: I’ve been nauseated and out of sorts since breakfast, at which I overate. This has been my worst day at MacDowell in a while – yet still my amazing creativity continues.
I wrote a 16-page piece today. Called “Remembering Rockaway,” it’s about the Lincoln Court bungalows of my childhood. I don’t know how I did it, but the story just seemed to spill out of me.
I did wake up at 4 AM with the idea for the piece, but I didn’t really expect it to be realized today. This past week has been the most productive of my writing life: six stories in six days, 160 pages in all since I arrived two weeks ago.
I’ve begun to think about the end of my stay at MacDowell; that will be in ten days. Since I spoke to Rikki on Monday, I haven’t called my family, and part of it is that I don’t want to hear the bad news about Grandpa Herb.
It’s not going to be easy when I get back. I’ll have family problems, money problems, car problems, job problems – and it will be very hot in my apartment during July and August. I’m grateful for this time away that I’ve had, to get back to my writing and reaffirm my self-worth.
Last evening Mark Dean and I walked over to the Alexander Studio, a showplace, a reproduction of a medieval Italian building.
Sandy Sokoloff’s paintings were very drawing-like, and they were all on New Testament themes: Jesus, John the Baptist, the Visitation. I liked the work very much, and though I was afraid of expressing what might be a “stupid” opinion, Sandy said he thought my interpretations of his paintings were on target.
Then Dan Gurskis drove me and some others to see Lynda’s work at her studio. Lynda’s paintings are abstract, kind of impressionistic landscapes, full of sensuous color. It amazes me how many different styles the MacDowell painters work in.
Dinner last night was chicken, with brown betty for dessert, and I sat with four smoking women writers: Mary, Lesley, Lucille and Nancy.
Mary is a bit of a fussbudget, but I was surprised to learn what she does after dinner: goes back to her room, gets into her peignoir, and watches her little TV all night. Like me, Mary never listens to music.
After dinner, we trekked over to the Savidge Library for a program of music and poetry. First, Preston played a tape of his music, and then Edwin Honig read some of his poems: he likes Joycean puns.
There was more music, following which Michael read; his poetry has a clear, strong voice. People started getting restless after that, but we had another eight-minute piece by Preston – three movements, each based on a Hart Crane poem – and then an improvisation, with Preston on clarinet, Anne on piano, and Edwin reading poetry.
It was all very interesting, but it went on too long.
I went back to my room and slept marvelously, with wonderful dreams, but I seem to have gotten up on the wrong side of the bed, as I’ve been queasy all day.
Tonight John Ramington wants me to read with him and Hilda Morley, but I don’t really want to. Neither of them is my favorite person (or anybody’s), and I just feel out of sorts. I would kill for a Coke right now.
11 PM. In an hour it will be Friday, but I’m kind of keyed up from this evening and won’t be able to get to sleep for some time, so I may as well write.
At 4 PM I went into town with Lester. John asked me to buy the wine for the reading, so I took the money John, Hilda and I chipped in and bought a bottle of white Chablis (are all Chablis white?) at the state liquor store.
Lester told me that in 1938 he came to Peterborough from Maine – he’s got a heavy Down East accent, like the Pepperidge Farm man (“Ayuh”) – and got a job here for $6 an hour plus room and board. The year after that, he married and built a house which will finally be paid for next year.
In the grocery, I also bought a sixpack of Diet Pepsi for the refrigerator here in Pan’s Cottage; I hadn’t noticed the refrigerator before today.
When we got back to the Colony, I called Marc, who said everything was okay but he was trying to call Grandma Ethel to find out what the doctors told her and Grandpa Herb.
Marc said he was at the hospital yesterday and will go again tomorrow. I feel bad about putting all the burden of Grandpa Herb’s illness on Marc and Rikki. Marc told me he’d get my mail tomorrow, so I’ll call him over the weekend.
I went out on the back porch of Colony Hall and chatted with Melinda, whom I’ve come to really like, along with Sandy.
She, too, suffered from Ménière’s disease – for fourteen years – and she gave me the name of her drug, which she says is better than Antivert. I’ve been very dizzy this week, but Melinda assured me that it does get better with time although it never completely goes away.
Sandy and Melinda wanted me to sit at their table tonight, their last night here. Also at the table were Cynthia Fuchs Epstein, Elaine, and Michael, and we had a good conversation.
One thing that surprises me is that about half the people here seem to be Jewish. After dinner tonight, Frederich said jokingly that he thinks the MacDowell Colony just didn’t realize they’d let so many in at the same time, and I said I’m going to complain.
The other night Michael read a poem in which he said, “I sleep like a Jew, and I eat like a Jew, and I fuck like a Jew.”
Anyway, our reading started at 8 PM with Hilda’s poetry. I found it very boring stuff – about how looking at Turner reminded her of her late husband – and she went on and on, for half an hour.
Frederich sketched me as I listened; I think most people thought Hilda’s work pretentious. So when I got up, I wanted to be quick, bright and funny, for I knew I could come off as a contrast to Hilda and John.
So I read “’But In A Thousand Other Worlds,’” and got laughs in the right places, got applause at the end, and sat down to await John.
Talk about pretentious: he recited four poems from memory, awfully clichéd things, and he used swishy melodramatic hand gestures and intonations.
Then he read a chapter of his novel, which was so bad I first thought it was a parody: characters with junk-novel names and ridiculously clichéd situations (a party “going on for several chapters”). Every time I looked across the room at Frederich or Nancy, I had to keep from laughing.
John closed with the poem that “changed [his] life”: the prize-winning one from American Review about the leper meeting Jesus. I’d read the poem already, and it’s better than John’s reading of it was.
Afterwards Frederich and I talked. He, Nancy and Preston said that by comparison to John and Hilda, they now liked Michael’s poetry more than they did before.
They agreed I was the one bright spot of the evening, and though I’m sure I came off a little schmucky (I shouldn’t have read the very bad Minneapolis Tribune review: too self-aggrandizing), I realize I have a good deal of self-knowledge compared to other people.