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

Wednesday, March 23, 1983

10 PM. I’m lying on the sofa bed while Grandma watches Merv Griffin.

Tomorrow night I’ll be back in Florida. I suppose it will be good to go home, but this trip, unlike my other visits to New York, has convinced me that this city is my home, too.

As I just told Susan Mernit on the phone, although I hadn’t been here for over eight months, I still felt very much at home here. Every street and building and subway route seemed familiar this time out.

Perhaps it’s just my frame of mind, as Susan suggested, but the city seems cleaner, the trains seem more efficient, and even today’s cold (the high was 40°) didn’t faze me.

I’ve been on subways and buses all over Manhattan, and I’ve enjoyed walking and seeing life on the streets again. There is no place like New York: the tremendous energy, the wonderful variety, the feeling that you can be whoever you want to be.

This morning I took Grandpa’s clothes to the Salvation Army in Brooklyn, drove around the borough (through Prospect Park, down Eastern and Ocean Parkways), finally parking the car at the Albee Square Mall – which isn’t a bad shopping center – and then I enjoyed a burger at Junior’s.

Hopping on an N train at DeKalb, I rode it to Manhattan, the two stops to Times Square, and transferred to the IRT express.

Ronna was making herb tea when I arrived; she had just taken one of her four daily baths. Her operation seems to have been successful, but they left the incision open, and it’s oozing and bleeding slightly.

We had a great talk over Mo’s 24 Herb Tea.

(“Never leave a knife in the sink,” Grandma just said to me. “You never know who could come into the house at night.”)

Ronna is doing well. She’s still, to me, the pretty girl I loved a decade ago; there’s still that bond of affection between us.

We dissected the party last night and talked about Alice’s argument with Richard Kostelanetz (she thinks I should write a quickie junk book, which of course is anathema to Richard); Mikey and Amy (who is kind of shrewd but who may be the making of Mikey; Teresa said, “She won’t let him work at Legal Aid for long”); Stanley (who works as an export agent); and Wes, who’s writing screenplays for big bucks.

After hugging Ronna goodbye, I took the M104 bus to the Theatre District and walked over to the Gotham Book Mart, where I went through the little magazine room.

Then I walked around a little and took the bus back uptown, but apparently Teresa and I got our signals crossed and she wasn’t home. I left a message on her machine and had dinner at the local Greek diner, and then it was the subway to Brooklyn and the drive back here.

I had an hour-long talk with Susan, who’s relieved that her Empire State College course ended and that she’ll be off next week from her other teaching jobs.

Susan said she knew I felt disoriented last night. “It’s like your wedding,” she told me, “seeing all those people from different parts of your life together in one place.” But she felt the party went very well.

Tomorrow morning I take the car to Oceanside, from there Marty will drive me to the airport for my 1 PM flight and then I’ll be back home.

Home? I’ll be back in New York in May, and if I still feel this good about the city, I’ll have to consider moving back here – but in the future, certainly not immediately.

I never again want to struggle to survive financially in this town. What will make me come back here is a great job or financial independence.

Still, this trip was better than I could have hoped for.

Thursday, March 24, 1983

10 PM. Home again – or should I say I’m back at one of my homes? I think I got right back into the swing of things again, but we’ll see.

Looking back on my trip to New York, I can only say that it was a success in every way: (1) The party was about as good as it could have been. (2) I got to see more of my friends at one time than ever before. (3) I got to spend time with Grandma. (4) I got to appreciate New York again, to feel as though I do belong there. And, (5) I got away from Broward Community College and its problems for a week, expanding my field of vision, and coming back with a sense that BCC is now behind me and in perspective.

And, also, of course, I now have the tangible object of the book, I Brake for Delmore Schwarz, the handsomest of my five books. I still haven’t looked through it completely, but the book cover makes me sound like a rising American writer. Which I might be: who knows?

Last night in Rockaway I slept soundly for nine hours. Grandma awoke with a new krenk: a bad back. But I think it was because I was leaving. I packed quickly and drove in the 35° cold to Marty’s office in Oceanside. He was kind enough to take the time to drive me to the airport.

The plane left on time at 1:10 PM, but it was quite a rough flight at times, due to bad weather in the Southeast. Atlanta and Charlotte got six inches of snow, and tornadoes ripped through Cocoa Beach.

I was fairly nervous through much of the trip; however, despite the bumpy landing, I managed to relax during the last hour.

Mom and Dad were at the airport to meet me; it’s always good to have someone waiting at the end of a trip. Since it was 4:30 PM by the time I got my luggage, we got stuck in rush hour traffic.

After getting my car at my parents’ in Davie, I went to the post office and picked up a week’s worth of mail.

Jim Hall wrote that he wants me to call him for an interview for the FIU job, but I wonder if I’m being seriously considered or if he just wants to meet me. There were bills from MasterCard and Visa, magazines, my bank statement, and not much else.

I dropped by BCC, where I sorted through the (mostly) junk in my departmental mailbox.

The P’an Ku meeting is this Saturday at Monica’s. I had phone messages from Francis Marion College (they need a glossy photo) and from Mark Gauert at the Hollywood Sun-Tattler. And that was about it.

On the way here, I had dinner at Burger King – they now have a salad bar – and I dropped off jeans at the cleaners and picked up juice and milk at the Farm Store.

Back at the condo, I unpacked, put away my stuff, and then went to Bodyworks. I’ve been away from the Nautilus for a week, and I don’t know if I’ve lost strength, but I exhausted myself quickly tonight.

For the last hour, I’ve been reading newspapers and just resting. I feel confident again, more sure of myself as a writer and as a man.

The rest of this term now seems like it will be easy to get through, even with P’an Ku. I feel very unpressured right now.

I also feel sad not to be able to see my New York friends anymore, but I’ll be back there in six weeks. And it will really be spring then.

Certainly, I’m a lot better psychologically than I was a month or two months ago. I’m superstitious, so kinahora, I assume things will go well for a while.

The good times always do come eventually, and these good times will sustain me through the next crisis.

Time to go to bed: I’ve got school tomorrow.

Friday, March 25, 1983

7 PM. Although I didn’t – couldn’t – get to sleep until 4:30 AM and had to get up three hours later, I felt no shortage of energy today.

Last night Lisa had called me to find out how my trip went. She and the others at school sent me a telegram at the bookstore, but of course, I never got it.

The past week has been a bad one for Lisa: her dog seems to be dying, but she’s determined to spend any amount to save its life. Dr. Pawlowski, that pea-brain, sent Lisa an obnoxious note, telling her not to use Mick’s vacant office.

On campus this morning, I realized how much good a week’s absence from BCC did for me. Now that I am definitely sure that I’m leaving, the stupidity of the school no longer affects me.

I tried not to glow too much when I spoke about my trip, but I couldn’t help glowing a little. Bob and Patrick and Mimi were happy for me (Dave took the week off to go job-hunting), but it’s weird that Casey and Mick didn’t say a word. I suspect they envy me and believe that it’s they, not I, who should be getting acclaim as a writer.

If I had a swelled head, teaching comma rules to my remedial classes could have shrunk it quick. Still, I enjoyed my students – and I’ll have them for only ten more sessions.

After class, I returned a call from Mark Gauert, the Sun-Tattler reporter, who just want to shoot the breeze for a while. We spoke about the BCC situation and my new book, and he asked for a review copy but wasn’t interested in doing a story right away.

Bob’s 100-year-old grandmother died, and he’s going to New York for the funeral. His father, who was (according to Bob) neurotically close with his mother, is in very bad shape, but Bob is philosophical; after all, the woman couldn’t have lived much longer.

I hope Bob’s trip to the city does him some good in getting him out of BCC for a while. I told him to take off all next week, since Wednesday is a staff development day and Thursday and Friday are holidays.

Registration for the summer has begun, and that’s always a sure sign the semester is winding down.

Crad writes that he won’t be able to meet me in New York in May, since he’s playing a part in a movie documentary about street book vendor/authors. He seems in better spirits now that he’s moved to a new location.

I got a $90 check from the St. Lucie County Public Library – much more than the tiny sum I’d been expecting. That, added to my $400 paycheck, will cover my rent, electric and phone bills. I’m still in the red for more than $1800, but I probably will manage somehow.

I got a fan letter for Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog today from some lady in California who “congratulates” me on “a great novel [sic].”

And, at home, I got calls from radio stations in Detroit (WXYZ) and Toronto (CRAN, I think), setting up phone interviews for next Tuesday and Thursday mornings about the Meryl Streep for Veep Campaign.

Apparently, Copley News Service sent around a press release to various stations on Monday. I’d like the news to get into print, too, or TV, even.

After banking and shopping, I came home to read the various papers and magazines that have piled up. I’m slightly sore today – my chest (from the dips) my lower back, and my stomach – so I don’t think the exercise was too taxing, evidently, I haven’t lost any strength.

What I’d like to lose, of course, is excess weight. Not one person in New York noticed or commented upon my body, and that was a disappointment after seven months of hard workouts.

Saturday, March 26, 1983

5 PM. This afternoon, I was going to the movies at the Broward Mall when I was approached by a handsome (if acne-scarred), muscular, hairy-chested kid.

“Mister,” he said, “if I give you money, can you buy me a ticket for Spring Break?”

“Why can’t you buy it for yourself?” I asked.

“You have to be 17 and I’m only 16.”

Okay – so I bought this kid his ticket. Then I was approached by another boy, but this time I refused. Let him find someone else to buy his ticket to that crappy movie.

Later, after I came out of Sophie’s Choice but I remained struck by the way the boy approached me. I thought it was some kind of come-on (which would have made me very happy) until he said, “Mister.”

It’s very funny, really – because I am 32, twice that cute kid’s age.

How come I still go for boys? And is there anything else besides pathetic humor in the situation? I think Lisa likes young guys too – at least that’s the impression I’ve gotten.

Of course, it’s different with me. Why can’t I have a sexual relationship with an adult?

I wrote a letter to Sean and sent the copy of the Square Pegs book I got for him a week ago and mailed it off to Gainesville.

I won’t be going there myself. The University of Florida English Department awarded me a teaching assistantship, but I’ve been turned down for a fellowship, and stupid as it sounds, I feel insulted.

The “congratulations” in the chairman’s letter offering me the assistantship rings a sour note in my head, reminding me of how I was “congratulated” by that “interviewing committee” for a course at New York City Community College three years ago.

When they shook my hands and said, “Congratulations,” I thought: “Congratulations for what? For allowing you to exploit me?” And that’s how I feel about UF.

The director of graduate studies says I’m one of their most promising scholars, but I ain’t no scholar – by no means – and I don’t want to be one. All I want out of grad school is to buy writing time.

I don’t want to be a scavenger at the bones of dead writers. I want to be a writer. Hell, I am a writer. and I’ve been teaching college for over eight years; it’s just an accident of demographics that I’m not an associate professor by now.

I feel like writing a letter telling them to go fuck themselves, but of course, the situation isn’t their fault.

Am I cutting off the old schnozzola to spite my puss? I don’t think so. Comparing the University of Miami and UF teaching assistantships, I know that Gainesville offers more money and three classes rather than two.

I also realize, however, that it’s only $500 more at most and that UF has several disadvantages, including the cost of moving and the isolation I might feel living far away from everyone I know, and in a college town, no less.

This gets back to the 16-year-old: I’m not a freshman and I don’t plan to try to become one. I’m a man approaching middle age, and I don’t want to live around kids.

I’d be happier in Miami, where I can be in a city I enjoy, near people I’m close to, where I can get to the airport quickly and call New York cheaply with long-distance service, and where I can write a creative dissertation.

I’ve got to write my novel. Unlike Stingo in Sophie’s Choice, I don’t have the luxury of moving to Brooklyn and getting a room where I do nothing but write.

Somehow I’ll manage at UM, and even there I won’t be all that happy.

The UF guy announced some “good news” about a distinguished scholar coming to the department. That this professor thought I would care is laughable.

I’m on the waiting list at Yaddo for the summer.

So I’m back to being rejected again. Maybe I’m too proud, but I do feel I deserve better than a stinky teaching assistantship.

Do I sound like a conceited asshole?

Tuesday, March 29, 1983

4:30 PM. I’ve been in bed most of the day. Last night I had trouble sleeping; I felt that my mind would not stop buzzing.

This morning I had radio interviews about Meryl Streep for Veep with stations in Ottawa and Toronto; the one with WXYZ in Detroit is on Thursday.

I didn’t go to the gym today because I still felt sore from Sunday’s workout. The Nautilus books say that when your strength has doubled (and mine has, on every exercise), you should have less frequent, briefer, and harder workouts, so I’m going to see if they’re right.

I guess I thought I’d have a better body by now than I do, but I’ve got to realize that my basic body structure is endomorphic: I’ve got a round body, fat upper arms and thighs, and a short and thick neck, and I store fat on my belly. There’s no way I’ll ever get the kind of definition bodybuilders have. It’s genetic.

I got genes for intelligence and maybe verbal skills, so I worked on them; even if my remedial students practiced harder and longer on their writing than I ever did, they could never be writers. And I can never be a bodybuilder because the basic stuff isn’t there.

Of course, that doesn’t mean I should resign myself to being a fat slob; I’ve got to work hard to look as presentable as possible. And I should stop comparing myself to the teenagers at BCC: I’ve got a dozen years on them.

I just figured out that I’m in debt for about $1600 on various credit cards. It’s not that I’ve been extravagant; I just can’t live on my present salary. By the time I get out of this apartment and leave BCC, I should be in debt for only $800 or so, but I won’t have much cash.

If I become a grad student, the financial aid and student loans will help me, but I’m going to have to change my lifestyle and cut out lots of frills I now regard as essentials.

However, these “essentials” are probably necessary now because I need to eat out, subscribe to various papers, buy discretionary items, etc., in order to compensate for all the unhappiness my work has caused.

If I enjoy being a good student, I can live on very little.

John Gardner’s “On Becoming a Novelist,” in the new Esquire, was brilliant. I’ve delayed novel-writing because I needed the more immediate and frequent successes that short story writing provided. I have worked up confidence over the years.

Whether I can ever sustain the belief in myself necessary to write a novel, to work without immediate (or even long-range) rewards, to revise and throw out the work of weeks, to get beyond the frustration with the manuscript, to devote years of my life to being a novelist – this I do not know.

I do have a sense of the monumental, and I’m frustrated with short forms; however, I’m very much a product of my times, and like most baby-boomers, I require gratification soon after the work is done.

Of all the reasons I haven’t yet done a novel – reasons Gardner would understand and my non-literary friends never will – that is the prime one that’s held me back.

Of course, the novelist, as Gardner says, wins big if he does win – much bigger than a short story writer or poet ever can – but the odds aren’t very encouraging.

Tom’s Umbra arrived today filled with good writing from his NOCCA students. I just wish my creative writing students and P’an Ku submitters had one-tenth the talent of Tom’s high school kids. They are truly amazing.


9 PM. I just walked in. It’s a lovely night: mild and clear with the sweet smell of some flower (jasmine?) in the air. I feel very relaxed, and despite a huge pimple on my forehead, I feel happy with myself.

The interview at FIU with Jim Hall went well – well enough for him to tell me, “You give good interviews.”

I wasn’t nervous at all, for I was looking forward to meeting Jim. Although age may bring “saggy belly and wrinkles,” it also brings self-confidence.

At this point in my life, I believe that if I’m truly myself, that’s the best I can be and there’s no sense worrying about it.

I like Jim, and I fell in love with FIU’s Bay Vista Campus, a secluded area off Biscayne Boulevard a mile south of Aventura and Turnberry – in some ways, my favorite spot in South Florida.

The campus is only five years old, and Jim and Prof. Elkins, whom I also met, are the only English teachers (as opposed to the 25 professors and 40 adjuncts at the Tamiami campus).

They want to start a program in creative writing, and we talked a lot about that; Jim also read my books and liked a lot of what I write. He treated me as someone on the same level, and I felt he was someone I could easily work with and become friends with.

Being in the Florida college system, knowing the area, and having a talent for public relations and media appearances are strengths. But the job so far is largely mythical.

Everything in this state’s college system is last-minute, and none of this creative writing program is in place. They want to turn Florida International University into a competitor of UF, USF and FSU – dormitories are being built – but they’ve got politics in their way, as the private University of Miami has a lot of sway in Tallahassee and doesn’t want competition in the area.

Anyhow, a job teaching two creative writing courses a semester for $30,000 a year seems too good to be true.

(Intellectually, I know I’m worth it, but I have enough fear of success – and ambivalence about money – to not wholly believe that.)

But there are other options. I told Jim I’m staying in Miami, and there may be part-time work (fairly well-paid compared to the community colleges), readings, or residencies at FIU.

Yeah, I do want to stay in Miami/Fort Lauderdale. I like the weather in the winter, the newness, and the cosmopolitan atmosphere. I’ve made a reputation, however small, here, and I want to remain here and watch this place grow and change – even if I’m forced to take a 9-to-5 job for a while.

South Florida is good virgin territory for a literary fiction writer. Perhaps in Dade County, I can meet artists, writers, intelligent and cultured people.

Another reason for my happiness tonight is, of course, the spring vacation from BCC. (Jim expressed amazement at my workload, naturally.) Except for dissatisfaction with my job, I’ve been happy here.

I had a good workout today – at least it felt good – and I noticed that my legs really look a lot nicer than they used to.

Since I returned home, I’ve been terribly horny, what with all those cute guys running around with very little clothing.

I’m still not over Sean – not a day goes by that I don’t think about him. I’ll always love him for finally bringing me out sexually.

I’d like to find a new lover, but I believe you can’t go looking for love. At least in my life, it’s always developed naturally out of friendship.

And as accustomed to celibacy as The Thorn Birds’ Father Ralph – that mini-series concludes tonight – I don’t need to try promiscuity, which can be deadly these days, what with AIDS running rampant.

Last night’s class went well: we went over some poetry and I took them to the library to do research. March turned out to be a pretty good month after a very unpromising start. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

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