Sunday, July 11, 1982
7 PM in Charlottesville.
Last night was my last night with my grandparents. After Grandma Ethel came home from playing cards at 10 PM, she joined me in watching a CBS special on the terminally ill and how they deal with dying. I could tell by the way her hand never left her mouth that she was shocked that anyone could discuss death and cancer so openly. Grandpa Herb had gone to bed, telling us to avoid such “nonsense,” and Grandma soon left, too.
I couldn’t fall asleep easily and it was 2 AM before I fell into a hallucinating sleep. I dreamed I was back at our house in Brooklyn waiting behind the door for the postman to drop the day’s mail in our box – that’s something I did 700 times in reality. I awoke to a cool, foggy morning.
After I kissed Grandma goodbye, Grandpa came down with me to wait for the bus. When it came, I shook his hand – outside, he does look more frail. Despite everything, I’m glad I had the weeks to spend with my grandparents. As the bus pulled away, I realized that this may have been the last time I’ll see Grandpa.
The Q53 bus took me to northern Queens, where I got a short taxicab ride to LaGuardia, arriving at the Eastern Air Shuttle five minutes before the 11 AM flight was to leave. It was odd to be rushed onto a plane like that, and to find a seat at random.
I was a little antsy but the flight was routine and brief – about 40 minutes. I know now that I’ll never be as scared of flying as I once was.
After having lunch at the D.C. airport, which I remembered pretty well from last year, I decided things were going so smoothly that I’d take the 1:30 PM Trailways bus to Charlottesville.
So I took my second quick cab ride of the day downtown to the bus terminal. It’s dreamlike how I usually only pass by all the famous government buildings in Washington without ever getting out of the car – but I still feel at home in the city, as though it is familiar.
I got on one of three buses going to Charlottesville (my luggage got on another), and since the bus stopped only in Fairfax, the ride took just three hours.
I relaxed and listened to the oddly intellectual conversation of others. It’s amazing how many educated people were on the bus: a kid who threw around words like “dialectic” and discussed Doris Lessing; a psychiatrist whose daughter went to Andover and who got her own degree in Heidelberg; a nurse whose fiancé is a novelist, etc. It gave me hope.
At the bus station in Charlottesville, I called Ellen, who was busy with a freshly-bathed, naked Gabriel. Ellen’s parents were visiting from Florida and tomorrow her best friend Susan is coming to stay, so I didn’t tell her I was stopping in town; I’ll be seeing her and Wade while I’m here in Virginia, I’m sure.
After I got my luggage, I took a cab down Main Street to the Howard Johnson motel. I remember Charlottesville – and it’s as wonderful as it seemed last year.
The motel room is gorgeous, I have color cable TV and I had a sweet shower when I got here. Naked in front of the full-length mirror, I looked halfway decent – and I feel better, more energetic, healthier, and sexier than I have in years, or at least weeks.
Though my cough persists, I am surprisingly relaxed and I feel elated now, after a walk around town and a dinner downstairs. My Amex card took care of everything today.
To get from there to here is exhilarating. I handled all the details of my trip: bus, cab, plane, cab, bus, cab – and I’ll have only a one-hour bus ride to Amherst tomorrow. I feel proud of myself for being able to have managed everything so well. Whatever happens here in Virginia, at least I’ll know I’ve conquered the details of traveling.
Monday, July 12, 1982
It’s about 2 or 3 PM. I’m in my room at VCCA – not my studio, W1, the one that was next door to mine last year, but my room in the spanking new residence building, the one that looks like a condo.
I’ve got the radio on to figure out what time it is. I had a pretty restless night in the motel. About 3 AM, I drifted off into a dreamy sleep and I was up at 8:30 AM or so.
After breakfast in the coffee shop, I walked down Main Street. Charlottesville is a great town, and I think I’d like to live there for a while. I bought a copy of the Washington Post and I got a haircut at a shop called Shear Essence; it was a nice job for a hair stylist who was later in the day going into UVA Hospital for a sonogram to see if she has an ovarian cyst.
After another stroll – this time to the University – I went back to my room to relax. At 10:30 AM, I checked out (the bill came to $30 – everything’s been going on my Visa and American Express cards), took a cab to the bus station, and waited for the 11:55 AM bus.
The ride from Charlottesville to Amherst was pleasant enough – lots of green scenery – and I was picked up in town by Janie James, whom I’d called from Charlottesville.
I recognized Amherst and the road to VCCA. It’s different being back here again because things are not so strange to me now. I got Helen, the cook, to fix me a tuna sandwich, and Dorothy, the housekeeper, had cleaned up my room.
The room is on the second floor, and it’s small – like my old bedroom back home in Brooklyn. But I love modern things, and so I feel very much at home here. I have a narrow bed, a chair, a teeny balcony but a great view of mountains and trees; I’ve got a sink in my room and I share a toilet and bath with the adjoining room. There are new wooden drawers and a closet. I’ve put away all my things.
I paid Janie the $5 deposit for lost keys and I’ve given her a check for $41.60 to pay for my rented typewriter, which should arrive tomorrow.
The only other Fellow I’ve seen was Sterling Watson, who was surprisingly friendly; he said they’ve got a good group here this year. As usual, I’m apprehensive whether the others will like me, though I know Susan Mernit is here, and Lou Jones and Anne Freeman – and I see that Cathy Smith-Bowers and Susan Ludvigson are arriving in ten days, and Sybil will be here at the end of the month.
I’ve already figured I can get a ride back to D.C. with Lou or someone. Now, though, I’m here.
I went to my studio, but Janie had given me the wrong key, so I couldn’t get in. On the way, I did run into Bill Smart and Randee and Steve Humphrey, who greeted me warmly.
8 PM. I just came back to my bedroom. My studio is the corner one, the one next to mine from last year. It had a typewriter in it, but I don’t think it’s for me; it has no ribbon and a gigantic carriage.
I spent the afternoon exercising and writing letters. We shall see how much work I get done while I’m here – less than anyone else, probably. I am the laziest and least disciplined of writers.
At or before dinner, I met the other Fellows – of course, right now they’re just a blur of names and faces. I spent dinner with Susan, Anne and a writer, Carole Stone, from New Jersey, a very nice woman I was at Bread Loaf with in ’77.
There seem to be a lot of older married people with kids; as usual, the ratio of women to men is 3 to 1. I don’t expect to make any great friends the way I did last year. I guess I’ll stick by myself a lot, read, try to write, and think – if I’m up to it.
As always, it’s a little scary the first night: I feel like an artists’ colony virgin again.
Wednesday, July 14, 1982
9 PM. I’m doing okay at the VCCA. I’ve met a number of fine people, and I’ve had good talks with Susan, Sterling, and others. I’ve done some writing, but as usual, I feel a bit at sea.
Probably it’s scary because I’m not as obsessed as most people with being productive. But again, I feel I’m here to enjoy myself, not torture myself. As Diane Banks, a funny sculptor, said, “The work gets done somehow.” With all this time and concentration and respite from ordinary chores, I’d have to get some ideas here.
The dinner conversations are stimulating. Last evening I took a long walk with Susan and Carole; then we returned for the evening’s performance. Matt Harris, a composer, played several melodies; then Diane showed slides of her constructs (she does marvelously organic work); and Robert Mejer, an artist from Quincy, Illinois, presented slides of his astounding monotypes (till last night I didn’t know what a monotype was).
It struck me that literature, and fiction especially, is the most reactionary of art forms.
The painters and sculptors of today aren’t trying to imitate the 19th century artists; they work in many styles and don’t feel compelled to repeat the representational work of another era. Composers aren’t writing classical symphonies. So why – in this age of TV, computers and instant world-wide communication – do we writers have to write in such a prescribed form? Why is any innovation treated as a deviation and somehow less worthy?
I feel that much of my writing problems in the past couple of years stem from my trying to work in a form that I find stultifying. Most standard novels, commercial or literary, bore me to tears.
I keep trying to convince myself that it’s my laziness that accounts for my inability to write traditional narratives. But I should be more like Pete Cherches and Paul Fericano and believe in myself. Unfortunately, I haven’t really found a form that I both feel comfortable with and that I think is interesting.
I did a silly little series of stories today which I could see as a book. Called Pac-Man Ate My Cat, each piece ends with Pac-Man eating an object that rhymes with cat: baseball bat, thermostat, cravat, etc. Who knows? It might even be commercial – the kind of non-book a packager like Dena/Corwin might see as profitable – with the right artwork, it’s possible. Or it could be an artsy-fartsy little book, beautifully done, like the kind of thing Pete and other East Village writers/artists publish.
I’m not Scott Sommer, Susan Mernit, Wes Strick, Debby Mayer or Jane DeLynn. Not being able to write what Kirkus Reviews calls “real” stories may very well be my great weakness, but I may be able to turn it into a strength. If I can’t have fun writing, I don’t want to write.
What I like in Diane’s and Bob’s art is the liveliness, the spontaneity of it. The daring.
When Hitler came out, I was accused of being a show-off, of being flashy. Maybe that’s all I can be – but at least I can be that.
Aside from all the pondering, I’m having a sweet time. I sleep as much as possible, exercise as much as I force myself to, and gab, gab, gab as much as I let myself. We’ll see how I feel tomorrow.
Thursday, July 15, 1982
8 PM. I didn’t sleep much last night, but again, I made up for it this morning. I slept till 11:20 AM. Then I went to my studio and typed up about half of my silly book of pieces called Pac-Man Ate My Cat.
I feel very excited about it, and I’m beginning to think I might be able to pass this off as a junky commercial non-book. I think college students would like it: it’s dumb, the protagonist is a college student, and it seems like those kind of books that sell. Yet I’m not writing it to make money: It’s fun to write this. Nothing has given me this kind of pleasure since I wrote Eating at Arby’s. And I think there’s a little social criticism in the book; I’m making fun of dead cat books and the banality of life today.
Tonight at dinner, we had a long discussion about the effects of the new technology – TV, computers – on young people. I know I’m part of the TV generation and I’m not as literary as the older writers. Also, I’m so immature I seem younger than I really am.
Being with my students, especially at Broward Community College – and being close with Sean, an extremely intelligent kid who nevertheless is not a great reader – has given me a new perspective. On the other hand, maybe Carole Stone is right, and it’s a matter of class; she said I see only lower- and middle-class kids, not the elite that go to Ivy League schools.
What’s the point of this, anyway? Do I want merely to be read? Well, in a way.
I know I don’t want to write stories for obscure little magazines anymore. Sterling is a fine writer, but his books are from a different era almost. I can’t see young people reading them; Sterling’s books are too long, too dense and probably too intelligent. Hell, students can barely read the little stories in With Hitler in New York or Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog, although I do think they’re easier.
Write a novel, everyone says – and I’m the only fiction writer here who’s not doing a novel. Sterling’s got his, Susan’s got her jazz novel, Anne’s got her historical novel, even Bill Rice – who’s younger than I am – has his religious cult novel.
But I’m betting I’m right: the novel is all but dead except as a starting-off point for films, video and T-shirts. Every time I visualize a novel, I realize that it could be done better on film or videotape.
Do I read novels these days? Not much. Why not? Because few novels tell us how to live anymore. Now I go to social science books, to the newspapers and magazines, and to TV and the cinema. My “writer’s block” may not be a block at all but a realization that I’ve got nothing to gain by driving myself crazy writing a conventional novel – or even a standard Fiction Collective-type experimental novel. Oh, well – enough of this.
Last night I spoke to Mom: all seems to be well, and we had a pleasant chat. She was interested in how things were going here.
My one fear is that I’ll get sick while I’m here, and while I’d do almost anything to avoid it, I suspect that one of these days I’m going to have one hell of a stomach virus with nausea and diarrhea. There’s a vicious bug going around the colony and the food is unfamiliar – and sometimes the pits. But for now I’m okay.
Sunday, July 18, 1982
11 AM. I could write pages about the fun I’m having or the friends I’ve made or the people I detest. But for me, the real value in a place like VCCA is that I can reevaluate my life, my career in particular, and decide where I want to go from here.
It seems as though the crucial issue for me is that, aside from pieces like Arby’s or Pac-Man, the joy has gone out of my writing. It’s not that I’ve suddenly become lazy or untalented.
The real pleasures in the past three years have been those of publicity and performance. Why? Simply put, because I know I’m reaching people when I’m on Page Six of the New York Post or in the Sunday Miami Herald or in McDowell’s column in the New York Times Book Review. I know I’m reaching people when I give a reading in New Orleans, or a talk in Cocoa Beach, or when I’m on a TV show.
Once, I thought I could get that writing fiction. I followed all the rules, but the rules changed in midstream: an MFA and lots of stories and adjunct jobs led to a New York trade book, some recognition, a grant and other goodies – but it didn’t lead to a modest paperback sale, a cushy writer-in-residence job, or academic respectability.
I can’t really complain, though, because I’ve had a much better time of it than most, and very likely I’m better off for not getting the “rewards” I once sought. Look, there will always be assholes like me who don’t get what they think they deserve. My problem is that I realize now that even if I got the “recognition,” it wouldn’t be enough.
So one question I raise: Does the world really need another literary fiction writer? I think not. That leads to the second $64,000 question: Where do I go from here?
Ah, I see now that I’m never going to write what Aunt Arlyne and everyone else’s aunt refers to as The Great American Novel. What’s more, I don’t want to. Because there’s no audience there. Only one John Irving per decade is allowed, and more power to him. I, powerless except for my resourcefulness, have to adapt to a new situation. Good – nothing stays the same.
When I spoke to Dad yesterday, he said that Broward Community College said (I guess that means Dr. Grasso said) I can’t have the creative writing course this fall but that I could take any other overload class.
But I think that if I really want the extra money, I’m better off teaching at Miami-Dade Community College, FAU, FIU, the University of Miami or Nova – in order to get experience (and maybe a foot in the door) at another school.
And I need time to write – yes, I think I will write, though maybe not fiction – and to study computers or work on my stage act or whatever.
Sean writes that he’s been very creative this summer, writing stories and music and working on a book called The Cat Haters Songbook, “which will make millions so I can take care of you in your old age.” What a great guy Sean is – I really know how to pick ’em. He and his mom are driving to Gainesville to look at apartments; UF said he needs off-campus housing.
Miriam writes that she and Robert have moved to an apartment near his job and The Zen Center and that otherwise everything – writing, love, massage – is going well.
Yesterday I had a terrific day, going to the art gallery (a surprisingly fine collection) at Randolph-Macon Woman’s College in the afternoon and spending the evening shopping for today’s pool party.
It’s funny, though: there’s such a difference between being with all men, as I was during the day, and being with women this evening. Men – most straight men, anyway – are such clods, even male artists. Women, on the other hand, have spunk; they know how to laugh and relate. I really love Diane, Barbara, Carole and of course Susan, with whom I spoke until nearly midnight.
Tuesday, July 20, 1982
Only 9 AM, but I’m in a good mood and it seemed like time to stop writing kvetchy diary entries.
Yesterday Carole drove me to Sweet Briar College on her way to swim in the lake with Diane. I xeroxed Pac-Man Ate My Cat at the copy center and picked up a letter from Mom that was postage due (it contained junk and an American Express bill for $10) at the post office.
I got back to VCCA with Debra, who was also ferrying Randee and Jim, who’s leaving tomorrow.
At dinner I sat with Jim and a new arrival, a funny ex-Brooklynite (also with parents living in Florida), Linda Trice. A former BMCC professor who got canned during the ’75 budget cuts, Linda just got a divorce and seems very nice.
Susan received bad news again: Spencer called to say that her grandfather had had a heart attack and was hanging on to life “by a thread.” Coming right after Rose Drechler’s death, Susan is a bit numbed.
To calm her down, we drove over to Madison Heights and went to the drug store and supermarket; it’s amazing how much pleasure one can get from just window-shopping or reading a paper.
After doing my exercises, I went to bed early and slept fairly well, having a number of dreams about a combination of New York and Florida. In one, I was living in Rockaway Beach, but it was in Florida, and late at night, I decided to run on the boardwalk. I ran swiftly with my feet hovering above the ground.
Years ago I used to have dreams in which I’d be running on all fours and covering ground as quickly as if I’d been in a car. Last night’s dream gave me that same feeling of satisfaction.
I mailed out copies of Pac-Man to Price/Stern/Sloan and to A & W. If I had Stan Corwin’s address, I’d send him a copy, too. I’m certain the piece will eventually be published, if only in a magazine. Last night I saw a whole section of Pac-Man toys at the supermarket. And as Crad pointed out, Pac-Man Ate My Cat has a euphonious ring to it. I do feel I’ve got a winner here.
Hey, would you like to hear about my fellow Fellows? The person I dislike most is Bill Rice, with whom I share a bathroom. He’s Old Virginia money and supposedly he’s writing a novel about a cult.
A humorless patrician, he’s racist (he refers to some of the workers here as “darkies”), sexist and homophobic (I left the room when he started talking about “fairies” the other day). Actually, the guy is kind of pathetic; by now, few of the people can stand his Tory-conservative views, and I leave Mr. Rice to God. (For a couple of minutes, though, he did seem interested in befriending me – until he discovered I wasn’t a Virginia Grayson.)
Another winner among the fellows is Beth Moffitt, a non-stop talker who teaches art at New Haven College. Also a patrician racist, she is obnoxious to the point of idiocy. The other night when Charles Burwell mentioned that he had a doctorate in art education, Beth replied, “That’s the lowest of the low.” She says stuff like that with no sense of embarrassment at all.
Miriam Tane is an old Jewish socialist, but she hasn’t talked to me much. When she has, her opinions are given as fact. Basically, she’s just an obstinate grandmother, though.
Everyone else is very nice. I love Susan, Diane, Carole and Barbara, and I’m getting along with Sterling. Lou Jones is like my mother (only an ideal one), and both she and Linda have a great sense of humor. Anne Freeman is kind, and Jeanne Larsen is intelligent and perceptive. Joann Smith and I talk soap operas, and I like everyone else.
In two weeks I’ll be back home in Florida. For a little while last night, I was thinking of going back to New York, but I do need to save money. One of these days I’ll go into Charlottesville.
Wednesday, July 21, 1982
2 PM. I’ve been feeling surprisingly cheerful these days. I’ve stopped torturing myself and have let myself relax. Yesterday I went to my studio early and read and wrote and danced to the hummed tune of “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” I had lunch outside and spent the afternoon reading, exercising and finally doing my laundry.
At dinner I had a good talk with Sterling, who left this afternoon. He flattered me by asking whether his novels were too reflective. Not too reflective to be good novels, I said, but probably too reflective to sell in today’s market. His agent was unable to sell the second novel or the third and now Sterling’s well into number four. He’s a good writer and deserves publication and a wider audience, but unfortunately, the rules have changed and today no one is interested.
Diane and I joked around – Sterling hit it on the head when he said she resembles a combination of Carol Channing and Louise Lasser – and she made me feel swell by rubbing my neck and upper back. Occasionally we bicker but I would hope it’s all in fun.
Mom phoned to say that the page proofs for Eating at Arby’s had arrived; she said she’s sent them on to me. Apparently they want more money to print the book. Mom also wondered who the “Sean” of the dedication was; I said I’d tell her when I got back.
It’s been extremely hot all along the East Coast, getting up to 99° in New York and Boston, and Florida’s about the same. Yesterday morning we had a delightful breeze here; though it reaches about 90° every day, I don’t really feel it.
Mom reported that Eastern New Mexico University has me as a finalist for the creative writing job and they want to know if I’m still interested. She said she sent a number of letters to me, and I told her to keep the new letters for my arrival. Today is Dad’s birthday; I’ll give him a call later.
Last night was a reading of fiction by Miriam, Anne, and Jeanne.
Miriam’s novel excerpt was cluttered and a bit of gibberish, but she had some fine sentences and good, sharp description. I liked both Anne’s story, which was quality work and very professional, and Jeanne’s, which was kind of like an Ann Beattie piece. (Incidentally, Anne told me that after dashing off Falling in Place in seven weeks, Beattie did not write for a year; she about went nuts.)
I watched a little dumb TV (the only station we receive is an ABC affiliate) and then went to bed.
Although I slept badly, I was able to go back to bed after breakfast. I dreamed that I saw myself coming out of a doctor’s office, but it was a thinner, beardless, younger me. I’ve never actually seen myself before in any of my dreams. What does this mean?
Sean wrote me a long letter that ended with his saying he was going to “masterbate” [sic] because he missed me so much. He likes not having the pressure of school or work; it’s given him time to think. Sometimes he has insomnia and wishes he could talk to me all night.
Sean wrote eight cat-hater’s songs, so it sounds as if he’s been very creative.
He told me he’s stopped going to bars. I’m certain that’s my influence, and I don’t know whether to be pleased because I don’t want Sean to take me as a model for how to live his life.
In one way, here in Virginia, Sean doesn’t seem quite real to me. It’s been over a month – five weeks, to be exact – since I’ve seen him. I feel strange about our relationship; Susan is the only one of the VCCA Fellows who knows.
I told Diane I was gay but asked her not to tell anyone else, and I feel bad about that. I am gay, so why should I worry what people think? Maybe because of Bill’s remarks about “fairies” or the obvious antipathy toward Zan, who left today with her girlfriend; of course, Zan wasn’t the nicest person, anyway.
There’s nobody here who’s gay or whom I am attracted to except Bill Smart’s 21-year-old son, who mows the lawn with his shirt off. And of course, that mainly reminds me of Sean, who does the same thing.