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

Thursday, February 10, 1983

5 PM. A thunderstorm is raging right now. That, combined with The Winds of War, should keep my creative writing workshop’s size down tonight.

I’ve been feeling pretty good. Perhaps my slump is over. I did sleep well last night, from 3 AM until 11 AM.

Ed called at midnight, responding to my rather hysterical letter. We agreed to a compromise, and if he can get us a party at B. Dalton in the Village or at Endicott (on the West Side), I’ll come to New York in March for a party.

Maybe I can take a bunch of sick days and really enjoy myself in Manhattan. The cost of the flight will be a real drain, but it might be worth it.

I got a call from the head of Boca Raton’s Pen Women, who have rescheduled my talk to their members to Wednesday, April 13.

In the mail, I got a brochure for this Sunday’s reception at the Pompano Beach library; my appearance there will give me a little lift, at least. On March 7, I’m going up to Fort Pierce to speak, so I’ve got some things to look forward to.

This afternoon, Prof. Ross Murfin, head of graduate studies in English at the University of Miami, called. Apparently Brooklyn College hadn’t sent my transcripts, but later he called back and said that the admissions office had just lost them for a while. Anyway, they’re putting me up for a university fellowship, but that appears unlikely.

Why? Because my GRE scores aren’t high enough. He said it’s more likely I’ll get an assistantship, which means two courses to teach and two (“or three if you’re tough”) to take, with about $5500 a year. That’s less than I hoped for.

Can I live on that? Well, I’m not going to complain again that life is unfair – I’ll take what I can get. It’s just that at 32, I feel too old and too experienced to live like a graduate student, have roommates, and eat a lot of pasta.

And the GRE thing is just another example of the academic mindset. My math scores can’t touch those of grad students in the sciences.

I got an invitation to a PEN reception for new members. Most of the names on the list are familiar (John Yau, Scott Sommer, Jane DeLynn) and some are famous (Jayne Anne Phillips, Richard Reeves, Roy Blount). I feel I’d like to be part of them that night instead of teaching my Broward Community College students.

Ed said he sent out the galleys to Publishers Weekly (Daisy Maryles said we’re cutting the deadline “very close” and it might not make it in), Library Journal, School Library Journal, etc.

He also sent a copy to Jaimy Gordon, who’ll add to her American Book Review review of Disjointed Fictions and Eating at Arby’s.

Ed told me a New Hampshire woman is joining Zephyr as a new partner because as I Brake went into production, they realized that Ronnie and Leora are overcommitted.

He thinks that having another person at Zephyr will help, and he strongly believes a party, with publicity and a window display could do a lot for us “psychologically.”

As the author, I suppose I should be the one most pushing for a big party, but I’m skeptical it will help much with sales.

I went to BCC to xerox my students’ work for tonight and to collect my mail. Mick put me on to a job at CSU-Long Beach he thought I should apply for.

I had a talk with my student, Kevyn Miller. She’s so cute, blond, peachy-skinned, built like the way I like women to be built: round and short and sexy.

Together, we went to see Max Hall, because Kevyn wants to major in journalism when she transfers to the University of South Florida in Tampa.

At the house in Davie, I went to see Jonathan and wish him happy birthday; I kissed him gingerly, as I really find it hard to touch my brothers. He asked my advice about investing $2,000 in savings, and I told him to put it in a CD rather than an IRA which he couldn’t touch for nearly 40 years.

My American Express bill was only $6, so I paid it right off. What I’m waiting for are my tax refund and my dental reimbursement from Travelers; only then will I be able to get out of debt a little.

It looks rugged out, like I may have to swim to school. I’d better get moving.


Friday, February 11, 1983

6 PM. In an hour I’m going over to Lisa’s, and then we’ll head over to the party at Monica’s house. I hope that it’s not all BCC shop talk. Patrick and Mimi had their interviews for the permanent positions today, and Lisa told me that Bob was very upset by their conversation about questions asked, etc.

Lisa herself had a laughing fit when she walked into her 11 AM class and made the students face the back of the room while she taught. “I think I’m having a nervous breakdown,” she told me.

I saw no reason to hang around the department after my classes were over, so I took my papers and ran.

Last night, I left the college just as the terrible storm was ending. To the east, embedded in dark clouds, was a double rainbow; it was exciting to see the jagged lightning join the sides of the center arch. The sky took on a sickly yellow-purple cast, though out west the sun was setting under fair skies.

Before that, we spent our creative writing workshop on two very long pieces: one, a remarkable Bergmanesque conversation between two women, written by Christine, the one student I’ve got with real raw talent; the other, a rambling narrative about a mental hospital by Ben, a garrulous senior who argues with all the critiques he gets.

Still, it was a lively class that went over three hours, lasting until 10:10 PM. One student – John, of course – felt he had to leave during the break to watch The Winds of War.

Yesterday Kevyn, who must have a crush on him, commented on John’s good looks and asked me if he was a good writer. Actually, it’s funny how someone so handsome can be so stupid, but all the guy is, is a dumb hunk.

Driving home, I felt exhilarated and told myself I was a great creative writing teacher and a decent writer and that somehow I would struggle on.

Going to grad school at UM next year won’t be cushy; I’ll be in poverty, and I am a little too old and too comfortable to be in that position.

Also, I wonder if the other grad students will be friendly. I hope they’re not that young, for I don’t really want Ph.D.-program peers that I could have taught as undergrads myself.

Theoretically, the students in my first class of freshman comp students at LIU eight years ago could already have their doctorates or be out of medical school or law school. Weird.

I was too hyped up to sleep very much, but when I did, I dreamed I’d won two Obie awards and that one of my female students (Kevyn?) announced she was in love with me.

Today’s classes went relatively smoothly as I had the last of my conferences and collected a new batch of paragraphs.

Crad wrote that things are pretty rough in Toronto:

The weather has been mild, but people here are shriveled up emotionally. They don’t smile the way they did before Xmas. And down in the financial district, they look really sick, mean and pathetic. I’ve been peddling ‘Hot Financial Stories’ with little success . . .

Spent a bleak hour or so downtown in the rain. Didn’t sell a single book. Felt extremely tired and emotionally drained . . .

During all of January I made about $129. Sometimes I feel like giving up. What gets me down is the impression that I’ve built absolutely nothing after four years on the street . . .

The next day he added:

. . . Had a better day today. Sex Slaves of the Astro-Mutants has finally begun to show a profit. Hooray!

Crad mentions a Toronto Globe & Mail editor who blocked yet another review in the paper of Crad’s work:

You know, I’ll bet that editor prays to God at night that I’ll disappear and give up, because if I ever become somebody, I can make him look bad . . .

I saw Martin Sheen on the street. He smiled at my sign (‘Abnormal Bedtime Stories’) but didn’t stop to speak. I’ve gotten over yesterday’s depression. I’m looking forward to Human Secrets: Book Three. I have an instinctive feeling that some good things will happen this year.

– Yr indomitable corresp.


Sunday, February 13, 1983

8 PM. I finally got my good night’s sleep in a week last night, and it was probably due to my sinusitis. It rained heavily throughout the night and continued all day, but it’s lots better being here in Florida than dealing with the paralyzing snow in the Northeast.

Although I woke up with the resolve to put off my workout until tomorrow, the guilts got the better of me (good!) and I made it to Bodyworks for a brief, non-nauseating spell.

Then, suitably showered and probably unsuitably dressed (tight blue jeans, my favorite old blue-and-green plaid shirt and a skinny grey tie), I drove to Pompano Beach for their “Reception for Local Authors Honoring the Volunteers of the Library.”

I sat like an idiot at a table with my signed name before me and made small talk with elderly Presbyterians. Although I was the only one in the place under 55, I still did not feel uncomfortable: I’m too much of a public figure already. What I did feel was that I’d been to one of these things before.

The waspish little librarian introduced me first, luckily, and I said some very few words, got a few laughs, read from Eating at Arby’s, and took my seat amid applause to listen to the other authors.

To follow my act, they brought up the aged “poet laureate of Pompano Beach” (“She’s from Brooklyn, too,” someone whispered in my ear), a lady with – of course – three flowery names who told us that her poems fell into four categories: “love of God, love of nature, love of men and love of love” and proceeded to read one of each.

Next, some pink-bedecked lady in a wheelchair, aided by her obese son, spoke about her books on “Christian Thanks” (one title was God’s Embroidery), and a prim lady sold a Junior League cookbook which at least had a good purpose: to provide money for a child abuse center (Unless that means . . . )

Dr. Cooper Kirk, author of Maneater Books’ William Lauderdale: General Andrew Jackson’s Warrior, dragged on interminably. He admitted – like all of the other authors save me – that he was a Christian and that was why his book eventually got published. Does he know something I don’t?

Well, at least he’s got the Christian virtue of modesty: I’ve never seen an author’s name in such tiny type on his book cover.

The only pleasure was Anna Mae Burke, a natty Nova prof who talked about her books on computer literacy and changing careers. Most of it was way beyond her audience, who probably thought software was a type of clothing.

Anna Mae and I will be doing that Boca Pen Women’s workshop together in a couple of months.

I did sell about seven copies of Arby’s, including to one bluehair who promised me I’ll get a check in the mail – and I donated a copy of Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog to the library.

There was a reception with great pastry, and I found two Jewish couples from New York to chat with. As I left, one man told me I gave a funny talk: “You should really try writing a humorous book, you know.” I thanked him for the suggestion and got into my car.

Back home I called Rockaway and spoke to Grandma Ethel. Since her voice sounded husky, I asked if she had a cold. “No,” she said, “but everyone says I sound as if I do. It’s just that all this aggravation has strained my voice. Grandpa Herb is so bad you wouldn’t recognize him.”

It’s clear he could die at any time. He’s in no pain, but he’s very weak, too weak even to walk, and he sleeps most of the time. To me, it sounds like he’s returning to a state of infancy – as if he’s returning to the womb.

I’m pretty sure I’ll never get to see him again. His voice is so weak, Grandma Ethel said, that she can hardly understand him.

But while Grandma is under an awful strain, she seems to be coming to the realization that she’s got a life to live after Grandpa dies. It was nothing she said, just her attitude.

I hope Grandpa Herb doesn’t die this week, with Marty and Arlyne in Mexico, but I expect to have to go to New York any day now for a funeral.


Monday, February 14, 1983

6 PM. Life suddenly seems to have taken on a sense of urgency. I feel like a dozen subplots are intertwining as they draw to a climax.

Last night’s call to Grandma Ethel remained on my mind, as it kept me awake all night. Grandpa Herb says he’s just waiting for “D-E-A-T-H.” Mom told me she feels he’s gotten worse since the visit to the doctor, who said that Grandpa’s problems are because of his age and there’s nothing more they can do for him.

Mom thinks Grandpa Herb took that to mean that he’s dying and so has stopped eating and is so depressed that all he does is sleep. It could be that he is about to die. I just have this premonition of doom hovering over the first part of 1983. I’ve felt it since late December.

Ed Hogan called an hour ago, saying he’d spoken to the manager at B. Dalton in the Village and it looks good for a party the week of March 21-28. Mom had told me earlier that she and Dad would be flying to New York that week, Dad to go to the menswear show, Mom to see Grandpa Herb.

But the airfares are now up to $400 round-trip, double what they were last week. I’m not looking forward to spending all that money. I suppose the publication party in New York is something that should make me happy, but I have lots of negative feelings about the trip.

The money – and Grandpa Herb – and even the fact that Mom and Dad will be there that week: it all spells disaster to me. I dread going. Is that just the old agoraphobic immediate response? I don’t think so; usually I don’t get that feeling until a trip is drawing close.

My last visits to New York haven’t been happy, and I’d just rather stay put here in Florida. I called both Teresa and Ronna last night, and talking to them also seemed to draw me back to thinking about New York.

Ronna has to go into NYU Hospital next week for some outpatient surgery to remove a cyst or something near her rectum. God. She’s got a bad cold, is still unemployed, and is working as a volunteer for Lilith magazine and the American Jewish Committee.

Teresa is bored at work because there’s no job, really, but she needs the $30,000 salary. She’d just spent a weekend in the Berkshires, where the clutch on her car died; they had to leave it at a mechanic up there.

Teresa misses the excitement of politics and feels restless. She said she expects me to stay with her in May: That’s good.

She’ll probably meet Deirdre in California rather than come down here at Easter.

This morning I got rejections for jobs at Pittsburgh (they never even called to cancel the interview), Williams, and Florida State, where a lousy $12,000 lectureship never materialized because of budget cuts. Fuck academia!: I was shouting that all morning.

I taught two classes on fragments and left, sure that the bigwigs were too busy interviewing to keep tabs on whether small potatoes like me is keeping my office hours.

Before I left the college, Bob showed me a letter he sent Jim Ledford, chair of the search committee. The letter was a strong piece of work – “the kind of thing you should really sit on for a week before sending,” Patrick said – but I’m glad Bob expressed his rage.

There are moments when I become so enraged by the unfairness of it all that I want to strike out at someone. I just think about it and my blood pressure skyrockets.

Right now I have about a hundred papers to grade, and I can’t stand to look at the things.

If I take a sick day on Wednesday, I could easily catch up, but I’m afraid of taking a sick day.

Hell, why shouldn’t I take a sick day? I haven’t been out once in the six weeks of this term. As of tomorrow, I’ve got eight or nine accumulated sick days. Yes, I will take off Wednesday. I need to relax.

If I end up taking more sick days that I have accrued, I’ll be docked, but so what? I have no money anyway. Do I sound like I’m having a breakdown?


Wednesday, February 16, 1983

3 PM. A thunderstorm has been raging most of the day, so it’s been a good day to think about my life. My horoscope said a job offer would complicate things, and it came close to being true.

At least the offer of a job interview has. I called Howard Erlich at Ithaca College an hour ago. He was very nice, and he told me more about the job. It pays about $17-20,000, consists of four classes a term with no more than 20 students in a class. The job sounds fine. . . But?

I guess I can’t win. When nothing happens, I stew. And then when I get a chance to go to New York for a publication party or to go to Ithaca for a job interview, I get scared. It’s natural, of course.

Even Prof. Erlich said he knows sometimes people apply for a job and then aren’t really sure, when push comes to shove, if they want it. “Do you really want to leave Florida?” he asked.

Do I? And if I don’t, aren’t I a coward, a shameless hypocrite?

Well, first of all, there’s no shame in not wanting to move. You don’t think Alice is a coward for never having left New York, do you? (I left a message of “happy birthday” on her machine today.) While it’s easy to say that you should be able to adjust to living anywhere, it’s hard to do.

Or is it mere fear of success? Are you really happier complaining at BCC? At least complaining is comfortable.

– A burst of thunder just rattled the windows.

What do you want, Richie? Safety? Comfort? Familiarity? It’s hard to discount those things.

Four years ago, you didn’t want to go to Texas for that job. Now you blame yourself for that decision, but it was the right one. You had never lived alone, let alone so far away; you would have been miserable in Texas, even though it would have looked really good on your résumé.

What I want to be sure of is that I’m not making a decision based on fear: fear of change, fear of something new. Failure is so comfortable. Remember how you once failed at everything, back when you were an agoraphobe? Ah, Richie, what the hell do you want? You’re 32 years old, almost.

Last night I couldn’t get to sleep until 5 AM.

I want to berate myself for my hypocrisy and cowardice, but I also want to treat myself well. This ain’t easy.

*

7 PM. I fell asleep for a few hours; that solved nothing, but I did need the rest.

Then I spoke to Alice, who also has been very depressed about work. She hates her job, and just as when she was teaching nine years ago, Alice says her salary isn’t worth the daily misery.

Weight Watchers/Heinz is moving corporate people in and making the magazine a house organ; they want photos of Jean Nidetch and Weight Watchers lecturers plastered everywhere. Alice’s integrity won’t let her stay on as these people destroy a decent little magazine.

A woman who wanted the top job that Alice got makes no secret of her hostility, and she’s using a matter Alice admittedly handled badly – the hiring and firing of this woman’s assistant – as a weapon against Alice.

Since this woman has more pull with the corporation, Alice feels trapped. If she protests the management’s policies, they’ll can her. So she’s desperately looking for a new job – despite the advice of friends who tell her to stay the course because of the job title and high salary of editor-in-chief.

Today she put in an SOS to Annette Grant at the Times but got no help.

Losing out as managing editor of Woman’s Day, a job for which she had a good chance (or thought she did), also lowered Alice’s morale.

It was odd, but we expressed very similar feelings about our careers: both of us wonder if we’ve really accomplished anything.


Thursday, February 17, 1983

4:30 PM and feeling good. I just took a shower following a fine negative workout on the Nautilus.

It’s a bright, breezy day; the sun is out noticeably later these days.

Last night I slept like a king and felt great upon awakening. My biorhythms must be on an “up” cycle right now. I managed to mark all the papers at school and take care of whatever needed taking care of.

A night’s sleep has helped me see my situation in a new light. I’m not a coward or a hypocrite for feeling scared about a change in my life.

Ithaca College might be a wonderful place to teach and to write. And if I need to go to New York for a party at B. Dalton, it could be fun.

Today I got a letter from Stacy, who was fired at the Transit Authority. At least they called her in at twenty minutes to 5 PM and told her to look for a new job in the next month because her work was unsatisfactory.

Naturally, she’s traumatized: it’s a blow to her ego and to her self-image. Poor Stacy. She writes that maybe she isn’t cut out to be a number-cruncher after all.

It seems that, like me, many of my friends are having career problems. Stacy’s been fired; Ronna’s out of work; Teresa feels unused; Josh is miserable; Alice is desperate.

Last night Lisa called and said she’s starting to come out of the depression. She thinks she wants to go on for her Ph.D., not because it will help her get a job, but for her own satisfaction. Perhaps she’s right. Who knows?

She said she’s gotten used to being spoiled with her car and apartment and charge cards, but she can also get used to living like a grad student again.

What troubles me about Ithaca is mostly the cold; I don’t know if I can stand a bad winter upstate. However, if I had a manageable class load, a decent salary, and a stimulating intellectual environment, it might be worth it. As Lisa pointed out, I could go for my doctorate at Cornell up there.

I got a letter from the NEA saying that PEN members can now apply for their newspaper syndicated fiction project. I’m going to rewrite “Pac-Man” and enter it. It’s the only story I have right now, and it’s so offbeat it might appeal to a general readership. For some reason, I feel full of energy again.

Last night I reread my diaries for this time last year. Last year was a fluke, because so much was going on – Crad’s visit, the Davie election, the Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog reviews and publicity everywhere, plus the trips to New Orleans and Cocoa Beach – that I have never been happier.

Two years ago I was unsure of myself, living at my parents’ house, relaxed and yet nervous about my future. Three years ago I was sick, broke, alone and depressed in Rockaway – yet even then, in my saner moments I realized that getting through that trauma would make me stronger.

I do have a P’an Ku meeting on Sunday, but Monday is a holiday, and I don’t have much grading to do over the weekend. So I plan to enjoy myself.

*

11 PM. I might as well write because I’m so wired. I probably won’t fall asleep till 4 AM.

I feel great. My creative writing workshops make me feel I’m a terrific teacher. The class went well tonight; it’s the students’ doing as much as mine, but we seem to have become a coherent unit.

I left here at 5 PM and stopped at the Broward Mall, figuring I’d catch a quick dinner at Danny’s. At Waldenbooks, I found a $3.99 copy of Lolita and began skimming it at the counter over my burger.

Lolita! What a wonderful book – reading the first pages was like seeing a dear old friend. And in the afterward, Nabokov said he began the novel in Ithaca. I’d forgotten he had taught at Cornell.

In the department office at BCC before class, I asked Rosemary, who’s from upstate New York, if she knew anything about the town and Ithaca College. Rosemary said it’s a wonderful place, very intellectually stimulating.

Dr. Grasso came by and added that she’d heard Ithaca College was a fine school. So I’m beginning to get excited about it. My student Marty Leskowsky told me his wife went to Ithaca and was very happy there.

Tonight we went over two pretty good stories, and as I said, I felt I was perceptive and intelligent in critiquing them and leading the discussion.

I also felt handsome and muscular. Why am I feeling so terrific tonight? I guess I shouldn’t complain.


Friday, February 18, 1983

6 PM. No, there’s no need to complain today, either, but I will because I’m feeling lousy. I didn’t get to sleep until after 5 AM again, and I’m not very good on two hours’ sleep. I managed to get through my classes today, but I had made a 1 PM appointment for a haircut and so I had to wait around.

The mail brought a letter from Dr. Erlich at Ithaca College; it seems that for the interview, they want me to make a half-hour presentation on some aspect of composition to members of the faculty. Shit! What a pain!

I have to call him on Monday to make an appointment, but who wants to get off a plane and give a lecture on a subject I don’t really care about? An interview is difficult enough.

I’m beginning to think this job is not for me. Don’t ask me what job is, though. Right now all I want to do is sleep.

Pam yakked all through my hair styling when all I wanted to do then was close my eyes and rest. Traffic going home was bad, and I had errands to run, and the car’s temperature light went on and then the car began overheating.

I managed to get to the credit union, the cleaners and the supermarket, but I can’t deal with the car right now. I’m totally exhausted and need sleep badly. My biceps, calves, triceps and pectorals ache terribly from the workout yesterday. My head is throbbing.

I arranged for Sunday’s P’an Ku meeting, which is the only thing I have to do for the next three days because Monday is a holiday. Tomorrow I could happily sleep through the entire day, and as of now, that’s what I intend to do. My mind is so foggy that I can’t concentrate.

Sometimes falling asleep is the only thing you can do that makes sense.TC mark

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