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

Friday, August 19, 1983

8 PM. I got out of my depression today even though again there was no mail and there were no phone calls. I have to curb my sense of helplessness and rely on my self-confidence more.

Last night I read Sylvia Plath’s Journals, and of course I saw that she struggled with the same indignities and rejections that every writer or artist must face; I really did feel with her when she finally got that New Yorker acceptance, though.

Maybe my desire for fame in this cheap age is practically immoral, but I feel better about myself when I see my name in newspapers and magazines or when other people hear or see me on radio and TV.

I once read something that Ginger Rogers, of all people, said: that if you want to have something or be somebody, act as if you already have it or are that person. You don’t fool yourself, but you set up a kind of expectation in others’ minds, and probably in your own mind as well.

I want to be a celebrity. I love seeing my books in stores, having people recognize me. I also think this is solid ground for serious study in fiction. And it’s fun.

I’ve got to get rid of the little man inside me who equated fun with sinfulness. Even yesterday, telling Dad about my new shoes, I felt I had to explain how old my other pair were until Dad remarked, “You don’t have to justify buying shoes. You’re entitled.”

If I remember that I’m a creative guy capable of doing what I set out to do, I’ll feel better. And sometime in 1984 I’ll be in People magazine, too.

Why do I seek celebrity? The main reason is the freedom it will bring. I long ago decided that freedom was the ability to make choices, and my depressions have always stemmed from a helplessness that comes from a lack of choices.

If I get myself into the mindset that I’m just some nebbishy graduate teaching assistant, that’s what I’ll become. If I act like a Presidential candidate and distinguished writer – well, I may be carted off to the nuthouse, but at least I’ll be happy.

I had a long talk with Josh last night. He wants me (and Crad, too) to send him a piece for the next Grinning Idiot. I told him I didn’t have much but he said to send what I do have.

Josh said he feels it will take time for the New York Times review to help. He did give me a boost by telling me that my book was prominently displayed on the “new books” wall of the St. Mark’s Bookshop. I always wanted a book there.

I called Ed, who said that Boston bookstores still have the book in their windows. Ed was pleased I got the book around in Miami stores. The new hardcovers will be in next week, and they’ve got about 65 back orders. And both distributors have ordered a second batch of 50 copies.

This morning I felt crappy, but I forced myself to go to Broward and do things. I had a hard workout at the gym, got a $350 cash advance on a MasterCard at Landmark Bank and deposited it into my credit union account. (Since today was after the billing date, it won’t show up till next month’s bill).

Later, I had a good talk with Mom, who did my laundry, and I hung around Davie most of the day.

Lisa said she got a call from BCC-North about a “position,” but since her roommate took the message, she didn’t know if it was part-time or full-time. This is Desperation Week at the colleges.

Patrick took a one-semester full-time temporary position at BCC-South, and his wife said he was at the school when I called.

After using up the money the legislature allocated for teachers on 5% pay raises to administrators, BCC offered faculty a 1.7% pay increase. Fuck that shitty school.

UM is probably no better; the American Philosophical Assn. just censured them for firing an excellent philosophy teacher who criticized Suntan U.

But I’ve got to use my anger to advance my career. This may sound pathetic, but at least it’s better than lying inert and depressed.


Saturday, August 20, 1983

5 PM. It’s another brutally hot and bright day. Except for a fruitless trip to the post office, I’ve been in my bedroom all day, and I intend to hide out here until it’s dark.

Patrick called last night and said he told Betty Owen that he wouldn’t take any Saturday or evening classes and she gave him a better schedule, one where he goes from 8 AM to 2 PM every day. The position is for one term only because a black person has to fill it in January.

Patrick is refusing to go to the breakfast for new faculty or to be introduced at the general faculty meeting. He’s very cynical, of course, and figures they will think he’s “uncooperative,” but there’s no reason for him to be cooperative.

He asked Betty about UM’s graduate program in English and discovered she’s taken only three courses.

Betty said, “If you think BCC is chaotic, you should see UM,” where they’ve had three chairmen in the past two years, and several different coordinators of the graduate program and freshman comp. (I noted that Kathy Bell is acting comp director.)

Judy Cofer’s position is one of those “three years and out” gigs, so this will be her last year teaching at UM. I guess I rather hope UM is chaotic and third-rate; it will take a lot of pressure off.

Classes at FIU begin Wednesday, so if I don’t get a call Monday or Tuesday, that’ll be it. Maybe everything will work out okay.

As I told Mom, I haven’t suffered through these hot months (ten weeks down, ten weeks to go – approximately) just to leave South Florida in the winter. I want my reward of good weather from November to March. That’s the only thing that makes this endurable.

I ache all over from Friday’s workout. I’m lonely and horny and bored.

It’s six months since Grandpa Herb died. In my dreams he’s still alive, and I’m in New York, and it’s cool.

Although I’m very much at loose ends lately, it’s no wonder I’ve been upset because this has been one of the most unsettled times of my life.

Right now I feel almost serenely fatalistic, and I’m ready to go where life takes me.


Wednesday, August 24, 1983

8 PM. Although I had thought something would “rescue” me from graduate school this year, no deus ex machina came my way, and today I began my career as a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Miami.

The jury will be out for several months, folks, but I can give some first impressions.

At least I slept well last night. My morning dream was about our old house in Brooklyn and how Wesley and Marla moved into it after we left.

It made me think about when my family sold the house just about four years ago this time of year, in the summer of 1979.

It was a strange time in my life: Mom and Dad announced they were moving to Florida after he got that job with Ivan’s family’s company; my book had come out and was getting reviews; my Vice-Presidential candidacy was making the papers; Wesley left Taplinger and started performing.

Unmoored and upset about the changes in my life, I started therapy with Dr. Pasquale. And I decided not to go to graduate school in Albany.

And here I am, four years later, finally in grad school at Miami. Am I a failure?

Hardly: I’ve grown up a lot and my career has moved along steadily. It’s circumstances, not my own faults, which have caused me to be doing something less than what I feel I should be doing.

The loss of status is a bit jarring. When I arrived at the meeting, the composition program director, Kathy Bell, mistook me for the janitor and started telling me to clean up the room before I explained who I was.

All the other teachers – grad assistants, lecturers and full-time faculty – seem to be older than I am although I assume that at least some of them must be younger.

John Paul Russo, the new English chairman, is a nerd and looks like one, but at least he seemed somewhat friendly in a stuffy way. The new grad studies director, Steve Mailloux, is a youngish guy who seems overwhelmed by his job.

(Whenever you have a situation in which everyone in new in his or her position, it probably means a lot of disorganization and lots of conflict in the immediate past.)

The meeting was the usual academic first-day routine. Around campus, freshmen were going through orientation, and others were returning from summer vacation.

I think I felt nearly as lost as any 17-year-old from Ohio.

My meeting with Mailloux was at 2 PM, and I told him frankly that I’m very cynical and bitter toward academia. For a while, he wondered why I’m at UM.

I explained that a Ph.D. might help me get creative writing jobs, that I needed time to write, and that I didn’t get any other offers.

We decided that I’d take one course on Faulkner immediately after my own class on Mondays and Fridays, and I also wanted to take – of course – Advanced Novel Writing.

For that, I had to get permission of the creative writing director and the novel-writing professor himself, Lester Goran, a big, blustery man who intimidated me and tried to cut me off with brusque questions: “What makes you think you could write a novel? What writing courses have you taken?”

I collapsed into little-boy nerves. Oddly, I thought I’d be more obnoxious, but because he treated me as if I were a nobody, I acted like one.

“I’m a writer,” I said. “I’ve written books.”

Published books?”

“Yes, books of short stories.” My hands trembling, I showed him the Times Book Review review.

If I expected him to drop dead, he didn’t. His expression didn’t change as he read it, but when he was done, he said, “This is impressive. You shouldn’t be so shy. Of course you can sign up for the tutorial.”

It was funny: Arrogant me suddenly had felt like a nobody in the presence of Authority.

The novel writing course is exactly what I need, although I don’t know if Goran is the man who can help me.

Hey, what am I saying? I am the only one who can help me. I’ve got to avoid being sucked into that student mentality.

Tomorrow I register at 10 AM. At least I’ll have lots of free time this fall. There’s not much else of anything I’ve got, however, and things may get rough.


Thursday, August 25, 1983

8 PM. I’m calmer now, but registration at UM had me worn to a frazzle. I’ve never seen a college registration so complex and degrading to the student since I was a freshman. And the old days at Brooklyn College were much more humane than Miami was today.

Last night I couldn’t sleep because my mind kept racing with all the images of my new school. I finally drifted off at 4 AM or so, but I was awake shortly after 7 AM with a bad headache.

The rain had brought with it a delightfully cool morning, and the drive to Coral Gables was literally a breeze. Once on campus, however, I went through a grueling four hours.

I hesitate to render the sequence of events in boring detail, but the blisters on my feet attest to the walking I did from building to building.

The whole process was barbaric, illogical and very demeaning. At times, as I waited on lines for hours, being unable to find anyone to help me – no one there seemed to understand the process – and I wanted to walk out and say the hell with it.

Not only did I feel degraded, but the process was even more degrading to the undergraduates, who are paying plenty of money for their education and deserve to be treated better.

Luckily, I had Dawn Carlton, the other new TA, a 23-year-old Vermonter, with me for companionship and shared griping.

Lester Goran told me to come to his 1 PM fiction writing class on Monday and listen to him give “introductory remarks,” and then we’ll make a schedule up.

I had to pay $30 for a parking decal, but apparently my other fees are covered by UM. Before I left, I got the keys to my (shared) cubicle from Fidel, the department secretary, who is gay and quite cute.

As I drove home on I-95, there was a half-hour delay because of some horrible accident – a truck sliced open a compact car – and I came back to North Miami Beach feeling furious, headachy and disoriented.

When I discovered that the post office had now forwarded my parents’ mail along with mine, I became even more upset.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve seen example after example of incompetence. Mom and I compare notes about this incompetence on a daily basis, and my friends – like Stacy in her latest letter – have noticed this phenomenon, too. Why doesn’t anything work right anymore? Maybe in Japan, things work, but not in this country.

Anyway, after lunch at Corky’s, I undressed and cooled down in bed: I watched TV, exercised, and checked my mail.

My Publishers Weeklys and Village Voices have finally arrived, and there were bills from credit cards: the Mellon Bank, Sears and Mobil.

I just don’t worry about money anymore. I keep paying the minimum on my credit cards and I keep charging.

Bobby Frauenglas selected eight of my “Brooklyn-oriented” stories from the batch I sent him and plans to request funds from the New York State Council on the Arts to do a book by me. This may be the first tangible result of the “Uneasy in Brooklyn” review in TBR.

The stories Bobby chose are probably better off being uncollected, but I don’t think Somrie Press’s grant proposal will be approved – unless, of course, the grant panel is impressed by my review. Bobby certainly was.

Ronna told me that her grandmother had come across the review quite by accident and showed it to her mother, who said, “We have that book.” So now Ronna’s grandmother is reading I Brake.

The manuscript Josh sent me, Getting It – a hardboiled, misogynistic guide to getting laid by beautiful women by the pseudonymous Harry Hardman – is funny, silly and very well-written, and I told Josh to publish it.

He plans to do it under G.I. Press (Getting It, Grinning Idiot). “I think I can sell the books to morons who read the classified ads in the National Enquirer and the Star,” Josh writes.

He’s also preparing a new issue of the magazine. The text of the book certainly looks great in the printout from Josh’s computer, even with dot-matrix lettering.

When I phoned Teresa last night, she and Juliana were just about to have a Sichuan dinner. She was very upset because she’s back at the World Trade Center – the MTA Inspector General sent her out of his office because she “didn’t fit in” – and now, at the DOT, they’ve asked her to be a secretary.

Indignant and insulted, she’s refused. They’ve told her to behave like a nice little girl and she won’t. She’s had it up to here with the Cuomos, and she’s definitely not going to become a civil service/state-employee secretary.

Rightfully, I think, Teresa feels the job is beneath her; it isn’t even something she does well. So now – since they can’t fire her – she plans to collect her salary until she and her friend Micki from the Berkshires go to Europe for September.

Then, when she comes back rested and in a good frame of mind after a month on the continent, Teresa will quit and look for a job in P.R. or real estate. It sounds like a good plan.

Teresa can sympathize with my loss of job status because she’s going through the same thing. I guess I should try to be as adaptable as Teresa.

Jeane Dixon says in today’s horoscope for Geminis: “Job hopping will work against you in the future. Settle down.” So I’ll settle down at UM. At least I should have plenty of free time.

Jean Trebbi called and invited me to do another TV show; we’ve scheduled it for Thursday, September 8, at Selkirk Studios in Fort Lauderdale. Jean said she’s glad I hadn’t left South Florida, “as had been rumored.”

At the North Dade library, I did some research. Lester Goran is Dad’s age, and he published five or six well-received novels in the late ’60s and early ’70s. His last book, the first volume of a Jewish family saga, appeared in paperback in 1980.

Patrick called. While he’s delighted to have a full-time job teaching at BCC’s South Campus, he said everything there is very disorganized under Betty Owen.

He also said that some pretty flaky people are working in the English Department there. But at least Patrick has some good, small classes for the semester.


Friday, August 26, 1983

8 PM. I’ve decided that I’m going to enjoy myself as much as possible. It doesn’t pay – and is not cost-effective – to spend hours worrying about my finances or my career. Going to UM, I’ll have lots of free time to pursue my interests, and I intend to do as well as I can.

Last night I had a good long talk with Lisa. She’s adjusting to her new job with B’nai B’rith Youth Organization, but she still feels strange working there. The people she deals with are nice, intelligent Jewish community members, and I’m sure they’ll take to Lisa, given her wonderful qualities.

But she feels a little lost outside of teaching and writing, and what scares her is that she’s going to stop being a poet. It’s certainly possible.

As for myself, I’m not sure it would be such a terrible thing if I stopped being a writer. After all, ambitions do change. Yes, I could see myself not being a writer – at least not being a fiction writer. I’m not certain I was ever that dedicated to writing, though I suppose fourteen years of this diary attest otherwise.


Monday, August 29, 1983

8 PM. I just returned home. These are the times I appreciate my bedroom the most.

Having survived my first day of the term at the University of Miami, I feel exhausted but not totally drained.

As Prof. Guttenberg, my Faulkner teacher, said, nobody sleeps well the night before a semester, and all you need to do on the first day is get through it.

I didn’t sleep at all well last night: first I had insomnia, then cramps and diarrhea, and then a series of uncharacteristic nightmares.

However, yesterday I did sleep from 2 PM to 5 PM, which was a good way to while away the afternoon. In the evening, I read, thought about stuff, and watched The Godfather.

This morning I went to the P.O. to get my mail. Landmark Bank raised my Visa credit line from $1000 to $1400, allowing me to get deeper into the hole. Funny, but I seem to get nothing but bills.

Oh, wait: the huge Fall Announcements issue of Publishers Weekly arrived. More and more, I think of going into book publishing as an alternative to teaching.

After all, I love books, already know the industry pretty well, and think I could do a good job. I’d be willing to start low if I knew I had a chance to go higher.

If this all sounds like ominous talk on the first day of grad school, I don’t mean it to be. I always knew I would never get my doctorate from UM, and I certainly know it now.

It’s very hard for me to sit in a classroom again, even for introductory lectures. Can my own students have felt the boredom that I felt today? And I actually think Profs. Goran and Guttenberg are very good teachers.

Goran gave a good lecture, and he told the class about my book’s review in TBR. He did seem open in one way: he said it doesn’t really matter whether he likes a student’s work or not.

But he does seem to have some prejudices dictated by the marketplace. He’s close with Isaac Bashevis Singer and has been translating (co-writing?) his recent stories, and he used Singer as an example of a novelist numerous times.

Although I like the way Goran tries to get students to write out of their own experience, he does appear to be somewhat prescriptive.

He wants me to come up with a novel outline by next week, and probably the deadline will force me to do some work.

My own comp class started at 4 PM during the rain. I spoke only briefly and had the students write diagnostic essays about their major goals for the year.

This is the first time I’ve ever had a class of all young freshmen away from their home and parents for the first time in their lives.

Freshly deposited at UM from Singapore, Taiwan, Kuwait, New Jersey and Rhode Island, they are much more confused and disoriented than I am. I feel almost scared for them, like I want to protect them from the world.

Almost all the students in my class are boys, most of them seem to be in the music, architecture or oceanography schools, and many of them have foreign names with letter combinations I’ve never seen before.

Prof. Guttenberg decided that except for the next two weeks, we’ll have class only on Monday nights from 5 PM to 7:30 PM. (Next Monday is Labor Day.)

We’re reading ten books by Faulkner, doing one oral report, one 5-to-10-page paper due at midterm, and one 20-page paper due as a final. I don’t know how I’m going to get through the work.

Guttenberg is sharp but pedantic. He actually said that Faulkner’s psychological problems must have been caused by his having been 5’3”: “I can’t imagine how one that short must suffer!” Huh?

I drove home in the rain, stopping off for a bite in the 163rd Street Mall, where my books were nowhere to be found in B. Dalton.

Hey, Richie, you’re not cut out to be a scholar. But try to get through this year and give yourself a chance.


Tuesday, August 30, 1983

8 PM. Maybe in my stupidity and helplessness, I’m doing the right thing after all. Today sure did feel good.

I was awake most of the night but was unable to see any trace of the space shuttle blasting off when I went outside at 2:15 AM.

When I finally got to sleep, I didn’t awaken until 10 AM, when I got another call from Miami-Dade Community College offering me adjunct classes. I told them I was “booked up.”

It serves them right if they’re having trouble finding part-time teachers even after the term has begun. I hope that courses at all the colleges go uncovered until administrators realize we’re not a dime a dozen.

For a change, the mail brought no bills. President Volpe of the College of Staten Island thanked me for sending my books. He read With Hitler in New York and congratulated me on the New York Times review.

In a probably tacky reply, I thanked him and enclosed my résumé, noting that I was unemployed.

I got a fan letter from a Nancy Galbraith of Washington, D.C., who wrote that she’s “squirreled away with all your books from the stacks of the Library of Congress, where I work.”

Nancy wants to write and asked my advice. Don’t!

Last night Rick Peabody phoned. He and Gretchen had just gotten back from their cross-country marathon, during the course of which they met dozens of small press writers and editors from Ohio to Oregon and placed Gargoyle and Paycock Press volumes in bookstores everywhere.

Now they’ve got a mound of mail, including – and this is why Rick called – a letter to me marked “Return to Sender.” I hope that’s not happening often.

Rick did not know about my NYTBR review and said he’d look for the back issue. He told me that Scott Sommer had written him, agreeing to an interview for Gargoyle.

Last night I also spoke with Teresa, who was resting a hairline fracture of the foot she got while dancing with Bill Breitbart on Fire Island.

Her cousin from California was visiting her and brought in kiwis and cheese and champagne while we talked.

In recent conversations, Teresa and I have been “stepping on each other’s lines” and pausing awkwardly; I’ve since read that this is due to a 1½-second delay in the satellite transmitting our low-cost long-distance calls. I’m glad that Teresa and I are not otherwise out of sync.

She had a terrible weekend at the beach because her friend from the Berkshires, Micki, got drunk and viciously attacked a visiting Amira. The two of them didn’t get along from the first time they met, that first weekend I was in New York in May.

Can that be four months ago? The second third of 1983 moved so quickly for me. May the last third of this year move as fast.

I had a decent workout at Bodyworks, where I was able to handle more weight than ever before. It’s funny (although it’s in accordance with the Nautilus principles of recovery time), but I make better progress when I exercise less frequently.

At Mom’s, I showered, watched TV and had lunch; then I went to the credit union to deposit my lovely $125 unemployment check – which really comes in handy.

Jonathan came back from FAU with two anthropology books. He’s taking two anthropology courses this semester and will be reading some of the same casebooks (e.g., The Yanomamo) that I remember from Brooklyn College.

It rained most of the afternoon and evening, and I read and exercised and relaxed. After dinner (spinach salad) at the Aventura Mall, I looked in their B. Dalton’s and couldn’t find my book there, either. Perhaps they’re hiding it.TC mark

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