A Young Writer’s Diary Entries From Mid-January, 1983

Tuesday, January 11, 1983

4 PM. I woke up feeling better this morning; my sinuses area no longer so bad.

Last evening Alice phoned from her bathtub. She’s getting a little restless at work, but she may have a job at Woman’s Day one of these days.

In February she’ll be having her eighth annual party at Andreas’s loft. It will probably be her final party, since Andreas has decided to give up his gallery because the rent is going up and because someone threw a rock through his window on New Year’s Eve. Alice’s story on Andreas, however, will be going into a future issue of US Magazine.

She said Peter was very upset because his new word processor broke and lost four chapters of his latest kids’ book. Now it turns out that the machine may not be compatible with the wiring in the apartment, and Peter refuses to go back to the typewriter. (Sometimes he can be very childish; perhaps that’s why he’s good at books for kids.)

He’s ready to give up his dream of being a successful Broadway playwright because nothing has worked out for him.

Oddly, Alice still professes belief that if one works hard enough, success is inevitable. I love Alice and her enthusiasm, but she’s never really had a sense of . . . what should I call it? “Tragedy” sounds too pompous.

But what about all the unemployed auto and steel workers? Didn’t they work hard? Didn’t my father work hard all his life? Didn’t Alice’s father work like crazy till the day he died?

No, hard work – not even hard work and talent and intelligence – will not ensure success. Luck is involved, too, and while Alice is right in saying that hard work makes it easier to be lucky, I can’t help believing she’s got it down too simple.

Alice mentioned she had a proofreading job at the magazine for Ronna, so I phoned Ronna. She wasn’t interested but said she’d give Alice a call.

Ronna elaborated on Alice’s gossip about Hearst replacing Anne Mollegen Smith as Redbook editor with Annette Capone, Alice’s one-time boss at Seventeen.

Ronna said she’d love to work for her new idol, Governor Cuomo, but of course she never bothered to find out how to go about it.

I suppose Alice and Teresa and I make more luck than Ronna does because we’re on the ball.

– Oh, Richie! It’s so easy for you to see everyone else’s mishigass : Alice’s, Peter’s, Ronna’s. Can you see your own craziness, your own idées fixes, your own faults? Nope. Do you try? Nope.

Last night I dreamed that Shelli and I teamed up to capture some underworld gangsters in a dark city. This morning I got three more orders for Eating at Arby’s, two new credit cards (Amoco and JByron’s), lotsa junk mail.

At Broward Community College this morning, Dr. Grasso came by to ask me a question and we got into a long conversation. The average English class has only 22 students this term, down from last term’s 29; all departments on both North and Central campuses have lost students.

There were 250 responses to her ad for full time teachers, but after narrowing things down, there are only 50 applicants now, not a big enough pool to select five people from.

Dr. Grasso said that most applicants were heavy in creative writing and literature, and told me she was eliminating those people because they’d be unhappy here. So she does understand my frustrations about not being able to write. “This place is a sausage factory,” she said, “not a university.”

She told me about interviewing a black woman for a part-time job. The girl said she was working with Isaac Asimov at the University of Miami but he was too old and doddering to help her.

Dr. Grasso told her Asimov was a vigorous man and she was confused until she realized the woman meant Isaac Bashevis Singer! She did not know the name of the world-famous writer she was working with!

I can understand why Dr. Grasso finds it hard to find part-timers; compared to this woman, teachers like Jim and Dave look like Harold Bloom.

*

11 PM. One hour short of Wednesday, I feel I’ve got to record how I feel. I haven’t felt this way in a long time. It’s that sweet moment in time when life makes sense and all the shit seems worth it. My class really went well tonight.

It’s a good night group, a talkative mix of ex-Canarsie residents, surfers, middle-aged blacks, one New Waver, several young businessmen, a few married nurses, and a golf pro.

I was brilliant as I lectured about fiction, as we discussed literature. Everything was working perfectly. I don’t think I can be this good a teacher except maybe once a year. It all seemed magical, as though I could do nothing wrong.


Wednesday, January 12, 1983

8 PM. Euphoria can’t last. While I had wonderful remedial classes today – one of my Venezuelan surfer-boy students asked, “Do you carry all your classes so well?” – I’m not quite satisfied with teaching at BCC.

From talking about adjuncting with Kevin last night to taking a call from a disturbed Lisa an hour ago (she didn’t get paid today because she’s on semester, not a yearly contract), it’s clear that we’re being exploited.

Yes, I know: so are millions of other Americans, but let’s talk about me right now. My contract with BCC, which arrived in the mail today, lists my salary as $15,800 for the academic year. I’d been making more than my salary grade because of extra work: a sixth course, subbing, being P’an Ku advisor.

Now, it’s one thing to be poor in the name of Art; it’s another to be a white collar professional performing an important service for which I’ve been educated and trained – and still be making less than most supermarket managers or auto mechanics.

I hate to kvetch, but I feel I’ve got great credentials and am being wasted at BCC. Maybe if I loved the job, the salary would be worth it, but I’m bored, overworked, harassed and frustrated much of the time. I do well for my own satisfaction.

Last night Kevin called to ask if I’d definitely work the New York Book Fair for White Ewe Press on May 13-15; I agreed. This term he’ll be teaching six courses, three each at George Washington and Southeastern, but he’s barely getting by.

And I suppose he’s been disappointed by the bad reviews Snow World has gotten in the trades (PW, Kirkus, Best Sellers). Kevin said he thinks books aren’t really fully understood until 60 years after publication.

Does he really expect his books to last that long? I don’t think my books will survive my own lifetime – if I’m lucky, that is.

Meanwhile, $18 in Arby’s orders came in today, including an order from Randee and Steve Humphrey. She says she sees no problem with a fall residency at VCCA – so it looks like I have one option open to me if all else fails.

I went to school with Marc today, as usual, and taught my classes and spent an hour giving a woman who wants to write lots of advice (practical stuff – for which I should charge).

Lunching with Lisa, I noted that I’ve got a number of obviously gay students this term. She’s got one student who might either be female or male and so she just tries not to do anything that might refer to the student as being of one sex or the other.

I hung around the college, waiting for my delayed paycheck, which came to all of $400. Patrick said his check would just cover his mortgage this month.

A cold wave has come through, and it’s crisp, chilly and not humid. Going down to 38° tonight.


Friday, January 14, 1983

8 PM. I’m tired but at least I’ve got a weekend to rest up. Yesterday I had a heavy negative workout which has left me with a sore chest, arms, back and calves – but at least I know muscles are coming my way.

Yesterday I mentioned writing a query letter about agoraphobia to the New York Times Book Review, so on the way to school I decided to stop off at the mall and get me a copy.

I was half out of the bookstore when I turned to Ed McDowell’s “About Books and Authors” column and spotted my name. He wrote a wonderful three-paragraph article on my books called “Unforgettable Titles.”

I said Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog didn’t sell, but I concluded it wasn’t the quality of my book but that “I guess Lincoln isn’t as popular as he used to be.”

McDowell mentioned With Hitler in New York, Broward Community College (I’m called a “creative writing” teacher now), Eating at Arby’s, the $3000 Florida grant, and ended with the title of my “next opus: I Brake for Delmore Schwartz.”

Couldn’t ask for more, could I? A great way to start off 1983: my third mention in NYTBR, thanks to McDowell, in less than a year.

I sailed to Davie, read the article to my parents and brothers, and then floated off to BCC. Although I was preoccupied during my creative writing workshop, I didn’t let that stop me from having a good class.

However, I did lecture my students about reading literature. As Lisa said, everyone wants to be a poet but nobody wants to read poetry. She’s shocked her poetry writing class by forbidding rhyme.

Today some skeevy guy from Phyllis’s class, a new arrival from Long Island, brought me his “works”: God-awful poetry (rhymed, of course) and idiotic “fiction,” all written under a pen name (a composite of three dear friends, all killed in the last year).

He was dying for me to tell him he was the greatest poet since Shakespeare (probably the last writer he’s heard of).

And some schmuck called to ask if I’d work on a “who’s who” book (he didn’t want to tell me more – after all, I might steal his idea) for a percentage of future profits on a “vanity press” book that would sell well over 100,000 copies. I got rid of him quick.

I think the state of Florida is filled with aspiring writers, all of whom think I can help them achieve fame and big bucks in one easy step. God, I never asked anyone for help – except journalists, and then I was providing them with good copy.

Alice always said we should be grateful for all the lame people; it should give us a better chance to succeed. At least the New York Times Book Review makes me feel I’m not one of them.

It’s nice to know lots of folks will be remembering me now; if I’m not being taken seriously yet, that’s okay. When I get in NYTBR through the front door, in a review, I’ll have earned it.

Today was okay at school; my remedial classes went well.

Paul Fericano sent me a bubblegum cigar and a photo of 3-minute old Kate, born ten days ago to thrilled parents. I’ll have to call the Fericanos this weekend.

Ed Hogan should be pleased by the mention of I Brake for Delmore Schwartz book even if they didn’t name the press. Kevin probably won’t be thrilled that I said Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog has sold “less than 200” copies.

Oh, well. Dat’s life!


Saturday, January 15, 1983

8 PM. My weekends are havens. Of course mostly I read and I sleep. But that’s a haven, too.

Last night Josh and I talked for an hour. His detective story, growing to 100 pages, is becoming a novel. He says that after writing on a word processor, you don’t want to go back to a typewriter: “It’s like working on a manual typewriter after you’ve gotten used to an electric.”

Although he’s still unhappy at work, Josh’s pay is up to $24K now (unlike his computer, which has 128K). He says he spends all his time alone, writing and moping.

Simon’s sister tells Josh that, in contrast, Simon is “as happy as a pig in shit” as a computer programmer. Simon’s in-laws in Canada got him money for a car. Though he’s stopped writing, Simon is floating on air with his wife and his job and San Francisco. It can be done.

Boy, am I sounding fey tonight; it must be the tofu I just gobbled up.

Dad is flying into New York right now and will probably land at LaGuardia in the midst of the season’s heaviest snowstorm. I brought over a heavy jacket for him this afternoon.

When I called Grandma Ethel, she said it was merely misty and drizzly. Down here we’re bracing for a new cold wave: it may get as low as 35° by morning.

I slept till 1 PM, that very heavy sleep I always get when my sinuses are clogged and my body is manufacturing lots of mucus. Still, I enjoy being a layabout and thinking – or just sleeping.

In the mail were: $9 in orders for Eating at Arby’s; a delightful New Wave story by Susan Mernit, who’s finishing one novel and working on the next, all while adjuncting, therapying, and getting ready to divorce Spencer (though she doesn’t know that yet); The Village Voice; a Brooklyn College Alumni Association Board of Directors notice; and a xerox of a review of George’s Modern Times.

Mom said she read that the Key West Literary Seminar was so booked, they had to rent larger quarters. For Rosemary’s sake, I’m really glad. I wonder if I’ll be mentioned by the Herald’s Robertson and the Orlando Sentinel’s Hayes. It would have been fun to go to Key West and hobnob with the literati, but sleeping in my bed has its pleasures, too.

Funny how people around here keep coming to me as if I were a successful writer. I know that I’m Mr. Nobody from Nowhere and the New York Times Book Review piece is really small potatoes.

Hell, I may never become a celebrity, which it seems to me, is the one exalted status in this age: like the kind of immortality granted to the early Roman emperors, except they had to die first.

I do want it, that escape from real life into headlines in the tabloids and ten minutes on the tube. Sure, I’m a publicity hound, but no more so than many successful artists (Woody Allen, Zsa Zsa Gabor). Can I live without publicity? Ah, we’ll have to see.

I bought Kate Fericano a little sleeper and mailed it off to California; I was touched that Paul and Kathy were good enough to send me a photo of her. Are my happy dreams of babies a desire for fatherhood?

Next year Florida Atlantic University will begin offering freshman and sophomore classes, as well as expanded Broward courses. I’d love to teach there.

Patrick told me Mimi told him that Casey told her that the search committee may not consider any of the full-temporaries for one of the permanent positions.

Yesterday I went to the Martin Luther King Day celebration at school. Hearing “We Shall Overcome” sung anew, I felt nostalgic and sad.


Monday, January 17, 1983

10 PM. Read, read, read. Sometimes I think I’m becoming an information addict. Yet occasionally, I turn up gems, like this letter in College English I just came across.

The writer was one of “100 people who applied for one of several English positions at a community college on the east coast of Florida.”

He states that the reason the best of the group were not eventually offered jobs is that the best refuse to become drudges:

Consider: 15 hours (5 classes) per semester, with an average of 28 students per class, of either remedial or freshman composition – and little chance of teaching literature. Nothing else about the job matters. . .

No English teacher can teach 140 students to write well in just one semester. The best would refuse to perpetuate such a fraud on their students. . .

Until more people say no to such sweatshop conditions, such conditions will continue to be offered. . .

When I was notified of my interview at the Florida community college, I asked and received the above answers about the working conditions. I declined the interview, gave my reasons, and was told by the acting department chairperson, rather curtly, that her college “is a good place to teach.” And that’s what coal operators tell coal miners and what mill owners say to mill workers.

George Staley
Sinte Gleska College

Obviously it’s BCC.

The other comments are on-target. I’d love to get up at tomorrow’s department meeting and read this letter in front of everyone.

Well, enough fantasizing, but it’s good to know I’ve got a handle on BCC; it’s hard, sometimes, to continue to see both the trees and the forest.

Other reading: the Wall Street Journal, the Herald’s Business Forecast for ’83, and the Esquire piece on Miami, “The City of the Future” – which convinces me that if I don’t get a really good teaching job, South Florida is where I’ll stay.

I was smart to move here two years ago because this place not only has a future; it is the future. Growth will continue as Miami becomes, like New York, a truly international city.

I feel there’s still time to get in on the ground floor here. Already I’ve achieved a certain amount of celebrity. The Miami News reporter who interviewed me by phone about my “new book” (he had a clip of the Times Book Review piece) already had an idea of who I was.

I’ve begun to make connections here. Besides that, I love the relaxed lifestyle, the warm weather, the New Yorkiness of the place. I don’t want to go back up North, not when Brooklyn and Buffalo and Detroit are dying, anyway.

Last evening I read Rabbi Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People, a compassionate and wise answer to “Why me?”

Kushner believes in a God who isn’t responsible for our sufferings but from where we get our strength to cope. I’ll buy that.

Cruel, unfair life accidents do happen. I could be killed in a car accident tomorrow. Marc could go blind. Dad’s plane back to Florida could crash. Jonathan could get cancer. Mom could be viciously attacked by an intruder. All without reason.

Yes, life is unfair, cruelly so – but that makes it richer.

Today was cool and pleasant. I had two good classes of my own and subbed at 1 PM for Phyllis. Finally, I got around to calling Tim Hunt at Nova University; we’re to have lunch on Friday. Dr. Pawlowski took a phone message from a woman in Pittsburgh who read the Times Book Review article and who wants to know where she can buy my books.

In the mail, I got a letter from Tom Whalen, who’s doing fine, and a rejection from Washington University.

But mostly I read today: the Fort Lauderdale News, New York Times, Village Voice, College English, Chronicles of Higher Ed, etc. etc.

I feel very “up,” as if I’ve drunk lots of caffeine. My bad workout yesterday still managed to produce soreness in my thighs and back and shoulders. Take a Triavil, Grayson.


Tuesday, January 18, 1983

8 PM. I didn’t go into BCC until noon today. This morning I had what seemed like a good workout on Nautilus. Perhaps I’ll lower the number of exercises I’ve been doing.

Anyway, I spent the rest of the morning reading and relaxing. There was no mail and no story on me in the Miami News, so I didn’t have much to keep me busy.

Going up to see Lisa, I decided I would read her the College English letter and see if she thought I should read it at the meeting. She encouraged me to do so because she’s completely disgusted with BCC.

Yesterday Lisa overheard Dr. Grasso telling Rosemary the same old story about how she can’t find “qualified people” to fill the openings, which have grown to eight. I think the answer is in George Staley’s letter: good people don’t want to become drudges.

Lisa also heard Dr. Grasso pointedly remark, “And no more creative writers!” Fuck her. It turned out she couldn’t be at the meeting today, so Smilin’ Jack Pawlowski presided.

Lisa also told me that Bob and Mimi, too, are very upset with their jobs and future prospects at BCC; Mimi went for an interview at Boca Academy, and Bob is convinced he won’t be rehired since Dr. Grasso doesn’t like him.

The meeting was the usual hogwash, but I did read parts of the letter, albeit somewhat haltingly. A few minutes later, Chip was handing out the brochures his committee designed, and he didn’t give me one. It wasn’t conscious, I’m sure, but I bet I scared straight-arrow Chip figured I had become a bit of a pariah and he didn’t want to get himself associated with me.

Luke later brought up the question of FAU’s expansion to a four-year school and said that their faculty, who teach nine hours a term “at about double our salary” will eventually take our best students, leaving us mostly the remedial bottom of the barrel. He’s right, of course.

Jacqui came to visit, and while she bitched about the incredibly heavy workload and long hours at Southern Bell, she didn’t appear to want her old job back. She told me that every time she thinks of quitting Southern Bell, she gets a raise and has now doubled her salary from last year.

I gathered, though, that it was mostly the pressures of raising a young child that made Jacqui’s work life at Southern Bell difficult; for a single person, she said, it would be much easier.

I’ve taken out some books on “intrapreneurship” – the new 80s buzzword. Everyone says that in a troubled economy it’s easier to make money by starting up a new business.

Actually, what I would love to do, if I had the capital, is start a small press and turn it into a decent publisher.

I never had more fun on a job than I did when I worked for the Fiction Collective. Maybe I could even be a literary agent. Obviously, I have talents aside from those as a fiction writer and teacher.

As I said yesterday, there’s still lots of money to be made in Miami and this area. If I worked as hard – and as smart – in business as I did in “marketing” my stories and advancing my career as a writer, I think I could do reasonably well. I’ve never been an ivory tower sort of guy.


Wednesday, January 19, 1983

8 PM. Last night there was a note from Dr. Grasso in my mailbox. She wanted to see the letter from College English.

Today she told me she agrees about the workload being too much but not about the quality of our faculty, so she’s preparing a reply; we learned that Sinte Gleska College is a 400-student school on an Indian reservation in South Dakota.

Last night’s class was okay; we went over stories by Joyce, Lessing, and Thurber, and quit at 7:30 PM.

Back at home, I got to catch the last half of The Skin of Our Teeth, a favorite play of my adolescence. I think I was originally attracted to the self-reflexive nature of the play, and the actors breaking out of character, etc.

Obviously, it’s a quality in my own work, and one which I’ve always been drawn to – even in silly works like the Hope and Crosby “road” movies or the Marx Brothers.

I’m tired and headachy now. I slept okay last night but got only about four hours’ sleep. An article I read makes me wonder if I have sleep apnea, if I stop breathing during the night.

I never sleep through the whole night and usually wake up at least four or five times, though it doesn’t seem to bother me.

Today’s mail brought a new Visa card (another $1000 credit limit, which could really get me into debt if I used it), a letter from Stacy, an order for Arby’s, the Authors Guild Bulletin (which lists Arby’s in “Books by Members”), and a new book by Tom Ahern, Superbounce. I haven’t yet gotten around to reading the latter two yet.

In my remedial classes, I had lessons on the dictionary, and they seemed to go well.

Dad came home from New York last night, having done a little business and captured the Sasson underwear and sock line – though that may mean more that we’ll have well-stocked dresser drawers than it does that Dad’s income will grow. He earned a paltry $19,000 from the jeans last year – less than a third of what he made in ’81.

Of course, 1982 was the worst year for the economy since 1946; that became official today as the loss in the GNP for the year was announced.

I took myself to Broward Mall for lunch at Danny’s because BCC is becoming hysterical and the temporary full-timers (and others) do nothing more than gripe, worry about their futures, and talk, talk, talk.

I understand how they feel and I tend to join in, but I find all that very enervating. Nothing constructive comes out of it.

Mick asked me if I was “burning my bridges” as far as BCC is concerned, and I said yes. Look, if I’m not going to get a chance to write, I might as well be better paid. Or if I’m going to be paid little, I want time and space to write.

BCC was great to me for two years, but I’ve got to move on or die. I realize I keep saying this, to myself, and to others, and to you, my trusty diary, but I guess I need oodles of reassurance.

My caps were too light-colored, Dr. Sachs and his assistant agreed, so they’ve been sent back to the lab for a new shade. Meanwhile my fairly trusty temporaries are gracing my mouth again.

Last night I began to feel the heaviness in my chest and shoulders that was the result of yesterday’s workout. My physique is now noticeably better; even in a shirt, I don’t look so frumpy.

And I feel better this way. A very effeminate (but cute) redheaded student – not mine – was cruising me in the lobby today.

Kevin called after he’d gotten the NYTBR piece; he was quite surprised and impressed by it. His six classes have all started, it’s 19° in the Washington area, and he’s anxious to see if Library Journal will review Snow World.

I’ll be seeing him in May at the New York Book Fair. Dad said Governor Cuomo appointed a batch of his campaign workers to state positions; I should call Teresa to see if she was one of them. TC mark

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