A Young Writer’s Diary Entries From Late January, 1983

Thursday, January 20, 1983

5 PM. I still have to go to school in an hour, but all I want to do is get under the covers and sleep. I’ve been very tired. Of course, today’s been a perfect day to stay in bed. Since last night, a heavy rain has been falling, there are heavy winds and many roads are flooded.

Last night Teresa called. Dad had been right: Teresa was one of the 57 Cuomo campaign workers appointed to state jobs. But she was very disappointed for all she ended up with was Special Assistant to the Commissioner of Transportation.

She’ll be working in the World Trade Center, which does have the advantage of being close to the offices of the Governor and Lieutenant Governor, where many of her friends work.

And she did get $30,000 a year, needed now that her unemployment benefits are about to run out; she still owes her grandmother $3,000. But it’s “out of it,” away from the press, with no glamour or access to the Governor.

I suspect that Andrew Cuomo wanted to keep Teresa in a spot where she couldn’t open her mouth too much.

She’s sure that neither Sharon nor Frank did a number on her; in fact, she called Frank, who’s begun a political consulting firm, and has begun to mend fences. And Sharon and others think Teresa got a plum patronage job.

Teresa herself feels uneasy being beholden to the Governor (“I’m going wherever the Mario Cuomo Employment Agency tells me to go”), who may forget her, and of course it’s a letdown after the excitement of the campaign and the glamour of the inaugural.

“But I guess I had a pretty exciting year,” Teresa said.

A year ago she left the Borough President’s office; tried to get in with the county people during the dinner; got the plum of being named press secretary to Abrams’ campaign, got screwed and ended up in the Attorney General’s office, quit to work for Mario; and then put in long hours in the campaign and on the transition team.

Besides, she’s got a job she can practically phone in (though she hates working with civil service zhlubs), she will have lots of free time to work on a relationship (with all her friends, newly married, Teresa is more than ready to get married herself) and volunteer for the ’84 Mondale campaign (“At least he’s better than Glenn”).

So she’s resigned to her job – and in these bad times, her salary ain’t exactly cream cheese. Teresa knows she’s done okay, all things considered, even if her “résumé doesn’t look right.”

She said she and her parents were proud to see me in the Times Book Review, “but if you and I would only write a trashy novel, we could really make money.”

I went to BCC briefly this morning and then spent the rest of the day in bed except for a trip to Bodyworks. (I hope I’m not overtraining. My chest, arms and calves were still sore from Tuesday morning.)

Today’s mail included two orders for Arby’s, the final (for me) rejection of Pac-Man Ate My Cat, and bills to pay.

Maybe I’m becoming ill, or perhaps it’s just the weather, but I’m extremely tired. Possibly it’s mere avoidance of BCC. Funny, even with just classes this term, I feel overworked.

Because I have to take Marc to and from school and wait there for three hours on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, it’s a real drag. Even though it will mean me shelling out bucks, I’ll be thrilled when Marc finds a new station wagon.

Well, off to feign enthusiasm for my students’ “stories.” I’m far too selfish to be a good teacher – I don’t like to give enough.

I just need to think about being in New York in May.


Sunday, January 23, 1983

8 PM. I’ve been terribly lazy this weekend. I never got around to marking those papers for Tuesday night. So now, instead of doing them at my leisure, I’ll have to work hard the next two days. Crazy, isn’t it? Human, too.

Again today, I had no human contact except for a brief phone call to Mikey. I think this deprivation is getting a little out of hand. While I dislike being capable of boredom, I’ve been more than a little bored this weekend.

Once again, I stayed in bed until 1 PM, reading the papers. Of course, a very heavy rainstorm made it easier to stay in. And I did attempt to see the film Sophie’s Choice, but I got to the theater too late.

One advantage to all this homebody stuff: I’ve been saving money. But what have I been losing? I have no sexual life outside of masturbation and very little social life, either.

I find I’m retreating into myself these days, that I can’t wait to return to my safe little condo, my secure king-sized bed without Sean or anyone else next to me.

I’ve got to make an effort to get out more, to find people that I enjoy being with. Perhaps it would be different if I were writing all the time, but I’m not.

I suppose a lot of this comes from my job and the negative feelings I have about it. I do feel I’m in kind of a rut.

Anyway, I won’t be in this rut for much longer. In three months, the term will be over and I can relax and go to New York. Now that I know that Teresa will still be living in Manhattan, I can shuttle between her place, Rockaway, and some other friends’ homes.

Barbara Grizzuti Harrison had an article on the MacDowell Colony in this week’s Times Book Review. She captured the peculiar magic of the place, its social life (and tensions), the dreamy atmosphere that is conducive to creativity and to, well, weirdness.

I worked well at MacDowell. The lead piece of the new book got written there, as did the story that won the Berkeley Poets Co-op prize, a story I dreamed one Sunday as I slept past noon. I remember passing Lucille Rhodes, the filmmaker, just after I got up. Since I probably looked ill, she asked, “Is anything wrong?” “No, everything’s right,” I said – and it was.

My planned novel would begin at MacDowell on the night before I left. The first line: “He was so happy, he wanted to die.” (For some reason, I see the book in the third person.)

That is how I felt there: it was so idyllic, I couldn’t bear to go back to the real world, knowing what problems faced me there.

The novel will be a mishmash of events of that summer, though I plan to fictionalize a lot. I want to write about Rockaway, my grandparents, Marc and Rikki, Fire Island, Avis’s wedding, Janice’s death, and my decision to leave New York.

Also, I want to write about my relationship with Sean. In the book I’ll make him a 17-year-old kid from Rockaway, who, like Sean, is affectionate, quiet to the point of mystery, very bright and both courageous and immature.

Will I ever write this book? I’m scared to, but I have to. It will be easier if I also work on something else at the same time, the way Susan Mernit is doing.

Why haven’t I started yet? What “perfect conditions” am I waiting for? How many other novels have been planned and then abandoned? These accusatory questions, I hope, will prod me on.

“You must change your life.” Well, once I Brake for Delmore Schwartz is out, I’ll feel liberated, maybe.

I’ve had a pretty easy time of it as a writer; I haven’t had to work as hard as I should have. Otherwise I might be at the point where John Sayles, Ted Mooney or Scott Sommer is today.

Of course, I’ve had lots to keep me occupied. But those guys probably have, too. Oh well. Feeling no excitement is better than getting bad news. Interesting days can be tragic as well as joyful.

–Thank you, Mr. Philosopher.


Monday, January 24, 1983

6 PM. Gary called last night; his girlfriend Summer was with him at the time, just as Mikey’s Amy was with him when I phoned yesterday.

Gary will be coming into Miami on Thursday and leaving early Saturday morning for his Club Med vacation in Guadeloupe. He expects me to visit him at his uncle’s, and I guess I’ll have to go there on Friday.

Then he’ll be staying with me from the following Saturday until Thursday, February 10. It’s only five days, but I don’t think I’ll enjoy his visit, as I’ve lost patience with his boring personality.

He also believes that it never rains in South Florida in the winter, that all of us just love to sit out in the sun every day, that we don’t really work hard here, and that it’s impossible to catch cold here. Oh, well.

I slept fine and dreamed about teaching at Brooklyn – except Dr. Grasso was chairman – and quitting angrily in the middle of a class, again telling the students to go fuck themselves. Obviously, I’m making the right decision in quitting BCC.

Today Lisa told me she’d like to withdraw her name from consideration for one of the permanent jobs; she’s frightened of unemployment, but the situation at school now is making her very unhappy.

I picked up Marc at 8:30 AM and we started the week at school. My 9 AM and 10 AM classes were okay – we started paragraphing – and I was hostile and obnoxious when I subbed for Patrick at noon. My resentment towards my job is getting harder and harder to conceal.

Eastern Washington University wants my dossier, but that means only that I have to fork over another $2 to the AWP placement service.

Kevin forwarded a fan letter from a Brian Johnson at the University of South Carolina. He read Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog and decided to write me a funny letter filled with non sequiturs.

I’m not sure what he was after, but of course I was grateful, and there’s always the chance he’s cute and might make a nice friend. (“Friend? ” Vito would say archly.)

At school, I had to fend off that rhyming hunchback, Alan, who had more of his Jesus verses for me; I ignored him as he talked to me. When I told him I didn’t like poems that rhymed, he seemed crestfallen but allowed that he’d heard “certain modern poets – like David [sic] Frost – don’t use rhyme.”

My MasterCard bill for $400, Dr. Sachs’ latest fee for my dental work, is too high for me to pay off, so I sent in the required minuscule minimum payment; I hope by next month I’ll be reimbursed by the insurance company. At least I was able to pay my $16.20 bill from Mobil.

It turned sunny and mild – if delightfully cool – today, and after school, I enjoyed a carob Häagen-Dazs ice cream cone in the sunshine.

Then, feeling guilty about overindulging, I decided to go to the health club for a very light change-of-pace workout. I’m probably not doing myself any good working out so often, but I’ll hold off the next session until Thursday.

Also, I was annoyed to discover that I’m up to 164 pounds, which means I’ve gained three pounds in the last month! It’s weird because it’s not in my stomach – obviously the weight is all muscle – but still annoying. After all, I’m only 5’ 6”.

I still haven’t marked the papers for tomorrow night’s class.


Wednesday, January 26, 1983

1 AM and I can’t sleep. Maybe it’s the caffeine in the colas I drank today. Probably part of it is just stress and unhappiness.

I really was a mess tonight. I didn’t have dinner and I almost got into a couple of accidents driving to school.

I hate the sight of BCC now and can’t stand being on campus. Luckily, my students are wonderful. They’re people like me, struggling under the burdens of family and work.

I guess I’m lenient with them on purpose. When I told them I decided to forget about the Gordon Rule – “let them put me in jail” – nobody complained. We went over a terrible piece by Brautigan and Singer’s “Gimpel the Fool,” and I let them go at 9 PM.

Back home, I put the phone back on the hook and immediately Ed Hogan called. He needed some information for the book jacket.

They are just finishing typesetting. There have been lots of delays, but Ed says the book will be improved because of the extra time spent on it. Zephyr Press, Ed said, has changed printers, and the pages will be sent off next week – as will the galleys.

Ed would like to schedule a publication party in mid-March, but I doubt if a printer could do it that fast; I told him I couldn’t come to New York at Eastertime and that I’d prefer a May publication date.

Who cares? This book isn’t going to take me out of the mess I’m in. If it does anything, it will help my career only incrementally. Will I ever “break through”? I usually doubt it.

What do I expect from this book? No money, that’s for sure. A couple more reviews – hopefully Publishers Weekly and a few little magazines. And that’s about it.

The book’s lead story, of course, deals with a guy in a situation akin to mine. His solution, unhappily, is computer programming. And what is mine?

I feel I want to get out of South Florida now, as well as to get out of BCC. I feel choky here (that’s a line Galsworthy has Jon Forsyte say about England). No longer do I associate this place with a safe, secure haven.

Life here isn’t as harsh as it was in Rockaway, but I feel so burned out that all I want to do is either sleep or go away.

Tonight I spoke to Mom for the first time in a week; it was a mistake. All she does is feed my guilt when I complain, making me feel I’ve made my choices and should live with them, and that so many other people are worse off.

She can’t say, “You sound terribly upset and frustrated.” That’s all I need to hear, a validation of my feelings. My parents can go fuck themselves. One student wrote an essay saying she’d “lost” her father because in an argument, she told him to go fuck himself and he no longer has anything to do with her.

I’m not really angry at my parents, however. I’m angry at the situation and am just turning on everyone, including them, but mostly on myself.

Part of me does feel I did make the wrong choices.

My stomach is killing me. I don’t know how I’ll get through tomorrow. I can’t even take a day off because I have to take Marc to school every day.

Right now, if there were a button that I could press which would kill me painlessly, I’d press it. Of course what I really want is a button that, when pressed, will change my life.

I always knew this spring would be like 1980 rather than the past two years.

I’ve had good times, renewing myself, getting comfortable a little. Now it’s time for the pain of growing. I dread the remaining 22½ hours of today.


Thursday, January 27, 1983

3 PM. The last couple of days have been a time of decision.

I realize now that I’m going through a depression brought on by what brought on two of my major depressions: separation anxiety.

I’ve been going through what I went through during the breakup with a girlfriend or when I left my parents’ house. In a way, it’s like coping with death. I’ve gotten myself stuck in the stages of denial and anger with regard to my career. I see now that it’s all futile.

I’ve always considered myself a pragmatist, yet I’ve been an ostrich here – what I’ve always criticized my father for. I claim to be a student of demographics and the future, but I can’t read the graffiti that’s as plain as TAKI183: There is no future for me in academia.

Yesterday a book I ordered arrived at an opportune time. It’s called Aside From Teaching English, What in the World Can You Do?. The answer is “a lot.” I know it, I’ve always known it, but I’ve gotten myself stuck in a rut of game-type thinking.

Look, it’s late January now. I’ll be employed at BCC for another half-year. I can spend this time complaining bitterly, or I can spend this time preparing for a new career.

I’m going to backslide a lot – the way I did when I couldn’t face the fact that it was over between me and Shelli, or me and Ronna.

But I know I can’t – and don’t really want to – stay in academia. I’ve got to work as hard as I did on my stories and on my publicity to find – to make – a new job for myself.

I think of the line in “Bobby McGee”: “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.”

With that in mind, yesterday I wrote, and today I mailed, a letter to Senator Jack Gordon telling him I will not follow the Gordon Rule.

I want to get into trouble; this ain’t Gandhi or King, but it’s the best civil disobedience I can do. I’ve thought about the possible consequences of such a letter. What’s the worst that can happen? I can be fired – but that won’t happen. I can be lectured and chastised, but perhaps it won’t even come to that.

If it does, I’ll make sure I get all the publicity I can. My fellow teachers will support me, and obviously I’d become a hero to the students. And I’d be standing up for my rights as a teacher. Academic freedom and overwork are only some of the issues involved.

This morning there were three articles in the Herald which, when juxtaposed, form the inescapable conclusion arrived at by a USF editorial printed in today’s BCC Phoenix: Florida wants better education for less money.

In one article, Sen. Gordon, at BCC, told the college it would have a big budget cut for next year. (Dr. Grasso wasn’t even invited to the meeting because she said they knew she’d tell Gordon what she thought of his rule.)

Another article noted the need for much more remediation in Florida colleges.

In a third piece, Grace Scheer talked about her retirement and said that her main concern at BCC is for the overworked teachers in the English Department, “many of whom are leaving.”

“They want more for less,” Casey said today.

Lisa is furious because they’ve been underpaying her. Dave was upset over a nasty note Dr. Grasso sent him. The whole department has terrible morale problems, and I sense a revolution brewing.

It feels more like the student strikes of the ’60s and ’70s than anything I’ve ever seen. (Is it because Casey, Mimi, Patrick, Bob, Lisa and I, as well as others, are veterans of those years on campus that we’re willing to criticize so openly when older faculty remain meek and silent?)

Anyway, if I’m leaving BCC and college teaching, I want to go out fighting. And I’ve got lots to do – plus, I want to enjoy the mild January weather.

I’ve spent time relaxing, both yesterday and today, and I intend to continue the practice.


Friday, January 28, 1983

7 PM. By the time she was my age, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was already First Lady. I’d better get moving.

Last evening, Dr. Grasso and I arrived on campus at the same time. She asked if I’d made plans for next year, and then offered me the one temporary position that will be open.

I declined with thanks, saying I wanted to “see the world.”

My creative writing workshop went well, though the material we had to work with was pretty poor: mostly poems by a retired army officer who titled his verses “On True Love” and “Trust.”

Back home at 10:30 PM, I began reading my self-help career books and got so excited I couldn’t sleep. Money-making schemes kept dancing through my brain.

Obviously, I hit on something when I self-published Eating at Arby’s. A $12 order for four books came today from a woman who ordered one book on Monday. I feel I can do something like Arby’s again. What do people want to read?

Half the old people here seem to want to write their autobiographies or novels. People want to be “celebrities” (à la the Sylvia Ginsberg Fan Club).

Throughout the day, Patrick, Mimi, Bob and I tossed ideas for books that had potential to sell back and forth. Patrick’s son has thought up a game based on Dungeons & Dragons, called Condors & Cockroaches, and that might be promising. Someone else suggested Who’s Who in Century Village. Who knows?

Anyway, despite only four hours of sleep last night, today went smoothly.

I got a letter of acceptance from the University of Miami: I’m in their Ph.D. program in English. No word on a fellowship yet, and of course that’s what I’ve got to wait on.

This morning, I had my 9 AM and 10 AM classes write – giving me lots of tortured syntax to grade this weekend – and I subbed for Elaine Holzcer at noon; I managed to get a lot of reading done.

Word spread about my letter to Senator Gordon; Mick came by to congratulate me. Opinions differ on whether I will hear from the Senator, who, in a speech, lashed out at the “low standards” at community colleges. Mimi suggested I write an op-ed piece rebutting his charges.

The day was crisp and clear, and I felt pretty good, but after I dropped Marc off at home (he and Dad went to a car auction yesterday and will go to another next week at Palm Beach), I felt tired.

It’s a good thing Gary failed to call until an hour ago; I had a good excuse for saying I’d wait till next weekend to see him. My head hurts now, and on my last workout I really screwed up my neck and shoulder on the right side.

Right now one of the few things I do like about teaching is eyeing the gorgeous young guys on campus. But I’d hate to end up an old lecher riding a beat-up car and drinking to forget I ever had a future as a writer.

No, I’ve got to get out of BCC. Even if I go to Miami or Gainesville, I’ll make sure to have a non-academic career planned.


Saturday, January 29, 1983

Almost midnight. I’ve just come back from my first Saturday night out in a long while. At 6 PM, I called Lisa and asked her if she wanted to go to the movies. When she said she’d prefer to go to the Pompano Park racetrack, I said okay.

It was definitely a good change from my ascetic weekends spent alone in the apartment. Not that anything special happened: We talked, we blew $10 at the track, we went out to eat at Hurdy Gurdy’s. Still, it was different.

Last night I called Josh, who sounded okay but kept complaining about his job, his social life (“none”), his sex life (“none”), his general nowheresvilleness. However, he’s still writing even though he often feels he’s wasting his time.

Josh and his father haven’t spoken since their big argument weeks ago, and although Josh refuses to call the old man, he fears that “something tragic” will happen and he’ll end up with terrible guilt for the rest of his life.

I watched TV, read, and thought about the letter of admission Miami sent me. The more I thought about it, the more I felt good about it.

This may be the best bet for me. I love Florida, and I’ve always wanted to live in the Coral Gables area. If I could get paid to go to school and write and study, it would be a great change from the pressure I’ve been under at BCC.

I could use my book as a creative writing project; UM allows you to take a Ph.D. with a concentration in creative writing, and their program isn’t that pedantic. I could live cheaply in grad student housing and enjoy a real campus atmosphere, something I never had at community colleges.

What does it all hinge on? Money.

I really need a fellowship to support me. I’d be willing to take out a small student loan if I had to, but I couldn’t get by without at least a $5000 fellowship, and even that wouldn’t be all that great.

Perhaps they’d be glad to have an up-and-coming writer as a grad student at Miami, but it’s also possible they might think I’m too advanced, too set in my ways, or too conceited.

So I don’t know if they’ll offer me fellowship money. If and when they do, I’ll be relieved. Of course, a good creative writing job at a college would be preferable, but UM seems a good place for me now.

My horoscope said that there’d be “an important letter of confirmation. You’ll be asked to complete project. Funding will be available.”

I slept late, of course, and went to the post office to collect my mail, just a bill and a letter from Sean. It was a pretty banal letter, all very vague – but he did write back, ask me for my opinion on something, and sign off with his usual “Love” and “Keep smiling.”

I called Alice, who’s been named editor-in-chief of Weight Watchers after her boss switched to the other magazine after a dispute with the Weight Watchers/Heinz organization.

Despite her $10,000 raise in salary, Alice isn’t that happy, for she thinks she, too, might run into conflicts with the organization over the way the magazine is run.

“If I hadn’t accepted this job,” Alice said, “they would have fired me as managing editor.” Still, the money and prestige of the job title will suit her fine.

Peter’s play, Bleacher Bums, was wildly applauded at a Dramatists Guild reading, and he’s gotten four nibbles from producers and/or theaters.

Both Alice and Josh think going back to grad school might be good for me at this point.

Mom called with the results of the tests Grandpa Herb had. Arlyne reported that the cancer in his lungs might have gone to the kidneys, but that’s “speculation.”

“He’s a happy man,” said the doctor. “His heart and pressure are fine, so just leave him alone. After all, he’s almost eighty.” I can’t wait to see my grandparents again.


Sunday, January 30, 1983

4 PM on a mild, sunny afternoon.

I haven’t yet gotten to my English 100 paragraphs: fifty or so illiterate pages of tortured syntax. I’ve been doing all I can think of to avoid marking my papers, but as Super Bowl Sunday draws to an end – the big game starts in a couple of hours – I’ll have to start soon.

Still, I’ve managed to relax this weekend. I was out in the sun from noon until 2 PM and am now nicely reddened.

When I called Grandma Ethel, she sounded very upset at Grandpa Herb’s worsening condition. Although the doctor said it’s just “age.” Grandma has trouble believing that.

She says Grandpa Herb has gotten much weaker and has to rock himself before he can get up from his chair. He sleeps more and more, is very grouchy, refuses to eat or take vitamins, and won’t let her out to play cards anymore.

Grandma herself isn’t feeling well, but it’s probably due to depression and stress. Obviously, anyone in her position would feel despair and helplessness.

She has many regrets about her life – that she never traveled widely or got an education, for instance – and she says no one ever visits her, although Minnie and Irving and Betty were visiting when I called.

Perhaps Mom was overly optimistic about Grandpa Herb; it did surprise me how much she still wants to believe he doesn’t have cancer, when it’s pretty obvious to everyone except her and Grandma.

I called Sean, who had just driven up. His roommate James thought he saw an article on Eating at Arby’s in the Alligator, the UF newspaper; I had sent them a review copy last fall.

Sean and I had a nice talk, although I probably hogged the conversation. I should never be surprised at any secrets he has. He didn’t mention Doug or moving to Tampa, but instead talked about his classes, his bike, and the weather.

Probably I granted Sean more depth than he actually had – yet it’s so hard to tell because he’s so darned non-verbal.

Still, there’s real affection between us. I’m very fond of him, and unless I’ve read things completely wrong, Sean still admires me and likes me.

One month of 1983 will be gone tomorrow; the days pass so quickly now, I almost feel that I’ll never catch up with life.

How do I slow down life? Everything keeps changing, and it feels like the changes are coming faster each day. What I want is a slow, quiet time to reflect and to write.

I’m scared, too, that I’m not up to writing a novel, that I don’t have the discipline or the talent. Right now I can always say I just don’t have the time, but is that just a rationalization?

If I do go to grad school at UM, I’ll be facing the truth about my writing career.

Perhaps grad school, as it did in 1974-76, will give me the freedom and impetus to write my head off.

Perhaps I’ll begin a new creative period that will match 1975-1978, when I churned out story after story. From 1979 to now, I’ve written less than a quarter of what I wrote in the four previous years.

Of course, I’ve spent a lot of time growing up. Four years ago, I was, for all practical purposes, still an adolescent, not really an adult. Since then, I’ve had adult responsibilities – like marking the paragraphs I’ve been avoiding all weekend. TC mark

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