A 30-Year-Old’s Diary Entries From Early July, 1981

Wednesday, July 1, 1981

9 PM at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I feel odd, but today hasn’t been a disaster. I keep expecting something to happen, but so far things have gone well.

I’ve got a pleasant room here and I don’t feel the way I did the first day at MacDowell last year: I am not wanting to go home. It’s been raining hard, and I do have to go outside to get to the bathroom, and I did forget to bring a jacket and I am dizzy and headachy, but things are generally okay.

Last night was pleasant. Eric Baizer and Joe Lerner went out drinking and distributing the just-released Washington Book Review, so they didn’t show up at Kevin’s apartment. Nor did Gretchen, who was busy cooking a big dinner for guests at the Harrimans’.

But John Elsberg came, as did the Plymells and Rick Peabody.

Charlie Plymell seems a bit the burnt-out Beat, but he was loads of fun as he told great stories. Pam Plymell is a real doll: she’s selling advertising at the Wall Street Journal, as Teresa used to do, and taking care of Cherry Valley Editions. They have a new book by Herbert Huncke coming out, as well as the latest issue of Northeast Rising Sun.

Rick looked good minus his mustache and with a short New Wave haircut. He and Gretchen are going on their summer trip out West soon, and they’ll be stopping in New Orleans to visit Tom.

John Elsberg is a genial fellow: very laid-back and funny. I very much enjoyed the evening’s shop talk and I felt a part of the scene.

The conversation was mostly literary: who’s doing what in the NEA Literature Program (Mary MacArthur’s leaving, David Wilk’s staying), who’s going crazy and becoming suicidal (Tom Ahern and Harrison Fisher in Providence). We all talked about George’s new book, which Rick has published.

They left at midnight, after John proofread parts of his new White Ewe Press book, Home Style Cooking on Third Avenue.

Kevin is typesetting two issues of Gargoyle: the Washington lit-mag anthology and the next regular issue. Later in the month he’ll typeset Disjointed Fictions. (Kevin thinks the Kostelanetz introduction will hurt me.)

From talking with Kevin, I see he’s much more idealistic than I am. Although I think Kevin is shrewd, he probably has too much integrity for his own good.

Finally I got to sleep, and I did sleep fairly well because I was exhausted. After Kevin and I had breakfast at Steak ‘n’ Egg Kitchen, he drove me to the Trailways station in Washington on his way to Southeastern University.

My bus left at 1:30 PM, just a few minutes after I arrived, and it was a pleasant trip, if very tiresome. We drove through northern Virginia until it began to feel like we were in The South, finally making a rest stop at Charlottesville at 5 PM.

I called Ellen, but she had her hands full with the baby, and I couldn’t talk long. On the bus, I got into a conversation with Richard Wingo, who was at VCCA in October and then again in May; he’s a composer who decided to rent a house to finish a piece, a commission for the Pennsylvania Tricentennial.

Richard told me this place is much smaller and more informal than MacDowell – he was at MacDowell in May of last year, so I just missed him there – but it’s not as nice.

At the bus station I called a cab, and the pleasant black driver took me here quickly. Few people were out – many were at Randolph-Macon College for Women for the evening – so I met only three of the fellows.

I did notice that Peter Meinke and Susan Mernit will be here soon, and two others are also arriving this week. After I had some chamomile tea, I walked around and then called Mom, Dad and Jonny.

I feel scared but not overwhelmingly so.


Thursday, July 2, 1981

4 PM. I was surprised at how well I slept last night. I had marvelous dreams about old friends from college, and when I got up this morning, I felt refreshed.

I found some good radio stations that I listened to and felt quite comfortable here. The day reminded me of my first days at MacDowell: dark and quite cool (only about 70°).

At 8 AM I went into the dining room for breakfast and ordered two fried eggs, made my own toast and chamomile tea, and sat down with the others.

I told Susan Mernit how much I enjoyed reading those stories she sent me for the anthology that never came off. She’s now back in New York, teaching in the public schools through the Teachers and Writers Collaborative, and living in Park Slope.

There’s an older woman painter from Washington who is nice, and Julian, a British painter who’s been here since April, and a South Carolina writer named Cathy who has a cute accent.

I don’t feel I’ll make any close friends here, but everyone is pleasant. Susan and I went to the office to introduce ourselves. Bill Smart and Janie James weren’t in, but we did meet Steve Humphrey, the PR director, and Debra Flood, the secretary.

After that, I showered and changed and filled out the White Ewe Press publicity questionnaire for Kevin. I read Crad’s Human Secrets (Book One), which may be his masterpiece. I think he stole my story about Grandpa Nat telling me to get a job with his long-dead brother Ike.

I was pleased to find a letter in my box; it was from Miriam Sagan, who said she knew how nice a letter looked in the VCCA box. I read it outside as I walked by the cow pasture: there are about a dozen, mostly pregnant, cows and one bull.

Miriam read Hitler and liked it a lot, especially “Princess,” “Lethe,” and “Forrestal.” She definitely wants to do the book, but the other Zephyr editors are going very slowly. Her letter was friendly, lyrical, caring and fanciful.

At lunch, I met another new arrival, Sybil, a writer who lives by Brooklyn College and who has taught at Hunter. It’s amazing that there are so many writers whom I’ve never met.

We all had a good talk about writing, and Susan told me her good pal Cheri Fein met Miriam here and the two of them became fast friends.

Cathy drove me to a shopping mall near Lynchburg, where we got distilled water, detergent and some goodies.

I spent the rest of the afternoon sitting outside, going over my diary manuscript. I’ve changed only people’s last names except where I have people with more than one first name; also, I’ve changed the names of relatives except my grandparents and brothers.

I got up to June 1976 – about halfway through – and made only minor corrections. Actually, I’m surprised at how well the manuscript holds up. I could probably submit it as it to Sasha Newborn, but of course, if I don’t type it up, I’ll have little to do for the next month.

It’s just started to thunder and rain very hard. I can’t believe I forgot to bring a jacket other than my sports jacket. Tomorrow is also supposed to be dark and gloomy and cool. I wish it would become sunny and warm so that I could really enjoy this place.

When it’s dark, the country always feels worse than the city. I still haven’t adjusted to the country smell and the rustic atmosphere. I guess I’ll always be a city boy.


Friday, July 3, 1981

3 PM. It’s been raining constantly since I arrived, and the gloominess is starting to get to me, the way it did my first week at MacDowell.

The worst part is that I don’t have a jacket or an umbrella and that I have to go outside to go to the bathroom. This is particularly a problem at night.

The ground has become very muddy, and my sneakers and socks and dungaree bottoms all get wet. The rain has brought all the flies indoors, and they’re a real pain in the ass, especially at mealtimes.

The people here are all nice, but there’s no one outstanding whom I could become close with: nobody dynamic like Jane DeLynn or absurdly funny like Fredrich Cantor (whose photos hang in the dining room).

None of the people here are really my type; they all seem like steady workhorses rather than volatile artists. Of course I’ve hardly had a chance to get to know them. We have pleasant conversations at meals, but that’s about it. I think I’ll find my stay here tolerable but not magical like MacDowell.

I’ve gone over all of A Version of Life and made minor changes. Actually, all I need to do is write the entries for this year and then have the manuscript retyped. I could have saved myself the VCCA fee and paid for a typist instead.

I could be in New York collecting unemployment or in Florida relaxing. In a way, I’m a little sorry I came here.

Mom still hasn’t received word from New Orleans, and by now I’m half-hoping I don’t get the job at NOCCA.

If I get a grant from the Fine Arts Council of Florida, I’ll probably stay in the state. And do what? Well, look for a job – not a teaching job, not a low-paying job, but a real job in advertising or public relations or broadcasting or journalism. I’d like to be earning about $15,000.

To be honest, after all these months of taking it easy, I feel ready to hold a full-time job. I haven’t really worked in half a year. (I don’t really consider my one Broward Community College spring semester course “work.”)

Maybe I’ll come out of VCCA deciding that a real job is what I want. Of course I’m a writer first, but I feel tired of being just a writer. I’d love to have a challenging job like Teresa’s or Alice’s, Mikey’s or George’s.

Of course I’d have to put up with a whole lot of shit.

*

11 PM. It’s still raining hard. I spent the afternoon typing up a new résumé and writing letters. At 5:30 PM, I went to the dining room and read Time magazine.

We had a pleasant dinner (I seem to be using the word pleasant too much) with lots of jokes, puns and non sequiturs. I got to know a lot of people better, especially the three writers who arrived the day I did: Sybil Kollar, Cathy Smith-Bowers, and Susan Mernit.

Susan and I had a long talk about the literary scene in New York, about politics, having non-writer friends, little magazine gossip, and other stuff.

I feel as though we’re all becoming a little closer. We all broke down and talked about the problems were having adjusting to the colony, and I feel less alone now.

Two new writers, both women, arrived tonight, so I no longer feel like the new student in class. After dinner, I had a bit of an anxiety attack, but it passed.

Last night I dreamed that I was perched atop Manhattan and could see goings-on in the whole city. All my dreams here in Virginia have been fairly peculiar.


Saturday, July 4, 1981

9 PM. Today was a fine Fourth of July. I’ve been sleeping surprisingly well here; each night I seem to have very enjoyable dreams about people I care about.

After I awoke at 7 AM feeling very well, I hurried off to breakfast. I lent a copy of Hitler to Cathy, and later in the day she came over to me in that soft Carolina accent: “Richard, you’re a very weird person.”

I feel comfortable with the people here now. The food is nowhere as good as the food at MacDowell. At breakfast you take your eggs the way they make it, and lunch is basically a do-it-yourself affair. There is one large dining room and a smaller room with a table for four or five and a TV.

Diane Levenberg said this place is more hamishe than MacDowell, which is true. Diane is a fast-talking, wisecracking, almost stereotypical pushy New York Jew. She teaches full-time at Touro’s School of General Studies, and her literary agent is Alice’s friend Anita.

When I went to the supermarket with Diane, she kept making fun of the way locals talk, as if they weren’t people but buffoons. I see a lot of yahoos here in town, but most people seem pretty nice.

The bag boy at the supermarket kept smiling at me. Sometimes I have trouble telling whether Southern boys are gay or just overly friendly; the guys I see here in Virginia, like those in Florida, seem much more open than guys in New York.

After a shower, I got to my typewriter and nearly jumped ten feet when I saw a little frog perched on the roller.

I’m usually pretty queasy around country critters, but I screwed up my courage and tried to grab it. It hopped all over the place, and I suppose the scene was quite comical.

Finally I covered it with a paper cup and managed to kick it outside. The heavy rains have brought out all these little frogs, most of which seem to be dying.

The day was almost sunny, so I took a long walk down the road: Highway 29, which goes north to Charlottesville and the Virginia suburbs of Washington.

Back at my studio, I wrote five pages of a story called “If Abortions Are Outlawed, Only Outlaws Will Have Abortions” in the voice of a 16-year-old boy.

I don’t really think I want to retype A Version of Life here. The changes I’ve made are minor and can really be corrected without a lot of retyping. Maybe if I can get those little white strips that go over lines of type.

What I’d really like to do, if I get some money together, is to pay somebody $150 and have them type up the manuscript professionally.

We had a fairly riotous lunch here. Peter Meinke arrived with Sterling Watson, the novelist who works with him at the Writing Workshop at Eckerd College.

They drove up together from St. Pete, stopping at Chapel Hill to visit friends on the way, and they seem to be very close friends.

About mid-afternoon, I went out to the pool and was astonished to find no one there. Sybil soon joined me, and then Cathy came and then Susan and Sally, then Peter and Sterling, and the PR director Steve Humphrey, his wife Randi, their baby, and Randi’s brother, the only cute guy I’ve seen around here.

I heard Cathy ask Sybil, “What do you do around here for a man?” and I wonder the same thing.

It became quite a hot, sunny afternoon, and by the time I got back to my studio, I needed a shower and I turned up the air conditioner.

At 5 PM, I called New Orleans. Tom had gotten back from California a few days ago, and he said the trip was great; he loved the cool, un-humid weather.

At the writing conference, he got to know Barthelme, who was reserved at first and a bit intimidated by Tom’s knowledge of his work. Tom said Barthelme was very relaxed during his workshops, which has convinced Tom to be more relaxed at NOCCA.

After Tom challenged some of his statements, Leonard Michaels became paranoid that Tom would write something negative about the Conference.

Tom was surprised that Jayne Anne Phillips read a story he thought was excellent, and he told her he’d have to take back some of the things he had said about her fiction.

Tom told Tim O’Brien that he’d hired me to help him at NOCCA and asked Tim if he had ever heard of me. Surprisingly, Tim remembered me from Bread Loaf four years ago as an “experimental short story writer” and he said I seemed all right.

I do have the job at NOCCA, though the letters haven’t been sent out yet. More interestingly, David Vancil got the administrative position and will move, with Liz, to the apartment next door to Tom’s.

I told Tom I’d arrive in New Orleans between August 10 and August 15, and he said that should give me enough time to find a place to live.

Tom asked me if I felt any better about the job and he quoted Eustace, who said, “David and Richie just have to accept that this is probably the best thing they can do at this stage in their careers.”

For our July Fourth dinner tonight, Robert barbecued hot dogs and hamburgers, and we had hot apple pie and ice cream for dessert. We lit sparklers and had one set of fireworks which fizzled out fairly quickly.

Joe Mayers began reading people’s handwriting after dinner, when a sudden huge thunderstorm struck. I think handwriting analysis is just a parlor game, but the women seemed to take it very seriously as Joe “revealed” aspects of their personality and their past.

Tired, I came in half an hour ago. Now notice: I haven’t really discussed my feelings. To be honest, I have to say that a part of me is disappointed that I’ll be going to New Orleans.

Not only am I scared of the adjustment I’ll have to make, but I also feel that it’s not exactly what I want. Still, I suppose have to follow Eustace’s advice and realize that this is the best I can do right now.

Peter Meinke, who’s now publishing in Redbook and The Atlantic, says that if you hang around until you’re 48 like he is, eventually you’ll get things like his Visiting Professorship at George Washington University this year.

I’ve been moving around so often in the last couple of months that I finally want to settle down somewhere. I just wish it was someplace more familiar than New Orleans.

Then again, having schlepped around so much means that I’ve learned to adjust to new places. A year ago I would have a lot of trouble adjusting to this. Two years ago, this would have been impossible.

In a way, I’m sorry I’m here in Virginia, as I’d rather feel secure being in New York and Florida. However, this place will probably be good for me in that I have no pressure and that I have time to think.

And in another way, I feel lucky that VCCA is neither Florida nor New York nor New Orleans but someplace apart from my “real” life. Still, I may leave here a week early so I can spend an extra week in Florida and get my shit together before I head to Louisiana.


Monday, July 6, 1981

4 PM. I’m having a good time here at VCCA, writing, relaxing, learning, watching cows, meeting new people and making friends. I feel proud of myself because I came here.

I find that other people, like Kevin Urick or Crad Kilodney, are content to stay in one place. That’s very important in developing a routine and a feeling a security, but I feel I’m becoming more versatile.

Moving to New Orleans cannot really be a bad experience, no matter how lonely or unhappy I am, because it will teach me about living in a new place. As a former agoraphobic, I’m very aware of my feelings of “safety” in relation to place.

Twelve years ago I felt safe only in my home and a few Brooklyn neighborhoods. Now I feel safe in an expanding number of cities, and I hope that one day I’ll feel safe enough to go to Europe or Asia.

I felt shitty when I awoke yesterday with almost no sleep, but I couldn’t get back to sleep after breakfast. Still, I managed to have a good day.

I wrote a six-page satire, “Emerson Made Simple,” in which Emerson goes to a gay bar on Christopher Street; I used only Emerson’s own words for his dialogue.

Susan and I had a long talk about our Jewish grandparents, our literary ambitions, our lives in New York and Ohio and Florida, her marriage, my teaching experiences, and her work as an arts administrator. We are becoming fast friends.

Cathy is another person I admire. Though she can be a Pollyanna (I’m sure her Southern accent makes her sound even more like one), she seems like a real person – despite being disgustingly emotionally healthy.

Alison Griffin, an Irish lady and artist, is also very interesting. A Catholic convert, she reads Thomas à Kempis’ Imitation of Christ every day, and she seems to have all the right instincts as well as a disarming shyness.

Lou is an older woman painter from Washington whom I really like. Diane is deliberately provocative, almost a stereotype of a pushy New York Jew. Carol Hebald is a very reticent and proper woman whom Diane seems to like to shock. Sybil Kollar is a warm, earthy writer. And so on.

Yesterday I also looked at the paintings in the Gallery, chatted by phone with Grandma Ethel, talked with Peter about the Florida Fine Arts Council – both he and Sterling have gotten grants and he assured me I will eventually, too, if I keep applying – and I finally met Bill Smart, the executive director of VCCA, a genial fiftyish English professor at Sweet Briar who’s got a young wife and two little babies.

Last evening we had a barbecue. The shish kebab was inedible, but they tried hard to make it nice. Again it rained, as it has every day since I’ve arrived here.

Now that I know I’m going to New Orleans, I want to leave Virginia in two or three weeks so I can have time in Florida. I’ve all but decided not to retype my book; I’ll either do it myself in New Orleans or, if I get a Florida grant or win the Tropic short story contest, I’ll pay someone to type it for me. I don’t really expect to do much work here, and I promise myself I won’t feel guilty about it.

Last night I slept soundly and felt pretty good this morning. After breakfast, Cathy, Sybil, Susan and I went to the Sweet Briar library; I loved being among all those books and newspapers and magazines.

We stayed on campus until noon and then went to a charming boutique and health food store for a delicious organic lunch. I am getting to appreciate Virginia more. It was good to get away from the colony and I enjoyed talking to the others.

I do wish there was a man here I could be closer to – but Peter and Sterling are very close unit, the painter David Rubello has his wife here, and the composer John Hilliard keeps to himself. Besides, they’re all older than I am.

Bill-Dale wrote that he feels bad he missed me when I was in New York. He said he saw me on the PBS documentary (“a real shock”) and he sent along some (bad) song lyrics he wrote.


Tuesday, July 7, 1981

2 PM. I don’t quite know what I’m doing here at VCCA. Everyone else seems to be working hard. I hear typewriters clacking away constantly. But I don’t think I’m the type of writer who can just sit down every day and churn out words.

Also, this is a very difficult and unsettled time for me. If I were just going back to Florida to live, I would feel more at ease; even if I were returning to New York, I’d be comfortable.

But instead I’ve got a new job in a strange city away from my family and friends and my whole life up to now.

When I spoke to Mom yesterday, she mentioned that she and Dad will drive me to New Orleans in the station wagon. That will probably make the move easier and less traumatic.

But I do feel that I’m on the verge of something completely new, as if there’ll be a dividing line between my life up to now and my life in New Orleans.

There are moments when I feel a great terror. A large part of me doesn’t want to go to New Orleans, but a larger part feels I have no choice, that – as Eustace says – it’s the best I can do for now.

If I can just hold out at NOCCA for the entire school year, I’ll be happy. Already I’m counting the weeks till Thanksgiving vacation. Ordinarily a person with that attitude probably shouldn’t be taking the job, but remember: I’m still neurotic about new places.

Something tells me that if I can survive the year in New Orleans – without family, friends, familiar surroundings and support systems, and also without much money – I’ll be able to survive whatever life can throw at me afterwards.

So far the most difficult time has been the period I lived in Rockaway when I became ill and had no money. But in Rockaway I did have my friends, grandparents, and the New York City I had grown up in.

I remember all those days in the winter and spring of 1980 when I would lie in bed all day, too despondent to even get up and get dressed. I can’t help feeling the same thing will happen in New Orleans.

While I was living in Florida, I felt secure because I had my parents nearby and because the weather was good and the surroundings new and cheerful.

New Orleans doesn’t seem to be a cheerful place; it reminds me of some lost time in the past. Last night I had a series of vivid dreams that I think were a way of resolving – or starting to resolve – the coming move.

I dreamed of leaving VCCA and going to New York. In one dream, I boarded the Flatbush Avenue bus, but in the wrong direction. Isaac Bashevis Singer read a story to me and an older couple, and I told him that I write stories, too. He smiled.

Suddenly I was in Florida, feeling comfortable amid the new furniture and the familiar cable TV shows and local newspapers. Mom, Dad, and my brothers were all there, and I felt grateful to see them.

I had similar dreams of family and friends all night.

Right now I feel I’m in some sort of holding pattern, so I don’t feel tortured about not writing. I need time to adjust to the idea of moving to New Orleans, and I can’t expect myself to be creative when I feel this anxious.

Today, I did my laundry, wrote two letters, talked with other colonists, and read a good deal.


Thursday, July 9, 1981

2 PM. I suppose I should feel more guilt about not writing. But in a way I’m probably healthier to be like this. I feel no need to make excuses to myself. I’ve written enough for now; when the rest has to come, it will come.

Last night was very sweet, as I read in bed and listened to music all night. Although I didn’t sleep very much, I did have the usual dreams about my family, New York and Florida. Am I being told something?

This morning I learned that Cathy, Susan and Sybil were all looking for me, but they had looked in the wrong studio. This cheers me up: I have friends here who would care if I died or got sick or had a nervous breakdown.

Eggs again for breakfast, but poached eggs today: my favorite. Then I slid back into bed, got up later to exercise, read Cotton Mather, Jonathan Edwards (remember my correspondence with his descendant, Chris McNeil?), and Ben Franklin.

After a shower, I had lunch. Some friends of Sterling and Peter’s, a couple who write and teach English at Eckerd, stopped by for a visit. Diane gave me a copy of her poems, Out of the Desert, published last year by Doubleday.

I thought a lot about other people’s writing: Diane’s poems, the first chapter of Susan’s novel, the works of Tom, Kevin, Rick and George. Everyone seems so limited in one way or the other, so myopic.

I suppose I am myopic, too, and just can’t see it. To me, of all my friends, only Crad Kilodney manages to be a writer who says things about society at large. That’s the kind of writer I’d like to be.

I’m a little uneasy today; I have shpilkes. Part of me can’t wait to get home to Florida. I felt that way at Teresa’s in New York, too. What’s the matter with me, anyway?

I guess it’s just that I feel completely secure in Florida. Of course I also feel stifled there. Sometimes I lie awake at night and think how easy it would be for me to remain in Florida.

Then I tell myself: You’ll go to New Orleans for just one year, and then you’ll return to Florida. But I’m afraid I won’t last the year in New Orleans, that I’ll die or have a breakdown (whichever is worse) on alien soil.

I don’t think I could ever feel at home in New Orleans, not even if my parents and most of my friends were living there.

But then I tell myself it will be a valuable experience to be mildly uncomfortable there. If I could survive a year in New Orleans, I can survive anything – at least that’s how it seems now.

And then I think about New York and my friends and how I could adjust to living there again. It seems as though I’m going to New Orleans as a compromise because I can’t decide if I’d be happier in New York or in Florida.

I think I’ll stay here another two weeks and get back to Florida by July 25. Tomorrow I’ll call Ellen and Wade in Charlottesville; they must wonder what happened to me. TC mark

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