A Young Writer’s Diary Entries From Mid-February, 1984

Saturday, February 11, 1984

10 PM. I didn’t get around to grading papers at all today, but I did have a relaxing time and I don’t have much to do tomorrow.

Last night at 11 PM, Lisa called and we talked for a couple of hours. She told me about all the jobs in academia she’s applied for. What a waste.

When she got her last paycheck from B’nai B’rith Youth Organization and saw it was only $375 for two weeks, Lisa burst into tears. She said she spent the whole rest of the day in the library, looking for teaching jobs.

I’m pretty much convinced that by now Lisa realizes she’s never going to make it as a poet. It is a shame, I guess, because she does have the talent to succeed – but not the will. And I can tell you which is the more important.

Still, look at a guy like Michael Blumenthal: When I met him at MacDowell in 1980, I knew he was going places. He was already published – by Coco Gordon’s exquisite Watermark Press – but you could see he was almost ashamed of that.

I remember how he was getting a fellowship at Bread Loaf and how he just burned to make connections. He barely talked to me, since I was neither a woman he could make a move on nor someone he judged could help him with his career.

And now here he is, staring out from the front of the new Associated Writing Programs Newsletter, the author of the most pompous article I’ve read in a long time: a sanctimonious, smug, toadying piece, “Letter to My Students.”

He’s a Briggs-Copeland Lecturer at Harvard, and his new book is not by a small press but by Viking/Penguin.

Oh well, it all comes out even in the end. The point I’m trying to make is that an excess of determination and will to succeed can be a pretty bad thing, too, if all you are is a careerist.

I didn’t get to sleep until 3 AM, and so I awoke fairly late today. Except for a trip to the post office, I was in the apartment until 3 PM, reading and taking care of business.

The latest Publishers Weekly has a long section on Software Publishing and Marketing. Publishers – as well as writers and agents – are heading pell-mell into software, but the industry doesn’t even make sense yet, mostly because nobody really knows if there’s a steady market, or if it will be a passing fad, as video games now seem to be.

Still, while the industry is shaking itself out and developing patterns of distribution, marketing, etc., people are making lots of money – and I kind of think it would be fun to get in on the ground floor of something new.

But it’s truly a future-shock business, hardly a couple of years old, and evolving into what, nobody knows.

It seems very hardware-dependent right now: Apple or IBM or AT&T could come out with a new machine and make all your software obsolete overnight. Very risky.

But then, that’s what venture capitalists are for. Venture capitalists: when did we first hear about them? And “robust, friendly” software?

The trouble with being a fiction writer and trying to be up-to-date is that the world moves so fast. My characters in “I Brake for Delmore Schwartz” would never be so ignorant about computers in 1984, so already the story’s dated (taking place in 1979 or 1980 at the latest).

Maybe I would do best to set my novel in the long-ago days of 1971 and 1972.

I applied to Ragdale for the fall and also filled out a letter of recommendation for Ragdale for Susan Mernit, who wants to go there this summer. I need all the options I can get.

“What will you do when you don’t have the whole state of Florida to play straight man for you?” Susan asked me.

An interesting demographic fact: for every two people who move into Florida, one person moves out. Florida is actually a large out-migration state, like New York or Michigan.

The growing population statistics hide this counter-trend: a lot of people who move to Florida don’t like it enough to stay.


Sunday, February 12, 1984

4 PM. I’ve finished all my grading for tomorrow. My students don’t write all that badly, but ooh, they can’t think! Of course, there are always a brilliant few.

Today’s News/Sun-Sentinel published my photo along with my letter, “Survey of Love a Work of Art,” on their editorial page.

I come off slightly pompous because I said I’d written five books which have gotten reviews in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, but I wanted to get across that I’m not completely a flake.

I quoted Walser on Cezanne (they somehow changed “the Swiss writer Robert Walser” to “the wise writer Robert Walser,” apparently assuming I’d made an error, as there are no Swiss writers), gave the results of my one survey response from a state senator, and said it was all “a triumph as a work of art” because “I succeeded in drawing the wrath of high-minded individuals.”

I guess I’ve milked this for all it was worth, with no bad repercussions – and I did get my name in the newspaper three times (four, if you count the Broward Community College paper).

I also was in the Political Scene column of the Broward edition of the Herald, as the writers said, “If South Broward voters look hard, they can find a homegrown candidate for President, Richard Grayson, in the primary.” They called my campaign “absurdist,” a label I like.

This morning I was up at 9:30 AM and read the newspapers till noon, going out only to have lunch at Pumpernik’s.

About an hour ago, I started trimming my beard, and I guess I just went overboard a little. Then I had to keep cutting to make it look even, and the end result is that I don’t have much facial hair anymore.

It may look stupid, but I don’t want to cut off my beard, because I know it hides my double chin (if there actually is a chin there).

Anyway, it will grow back. But if I am going to be more and more in the public eye, I’ve got to improve my appearance. I hate looking like a fat schlump, and I’m a bit worried about the color photos that will be taken for the Sunshine article.

I’ve definitely got to concentrate on losing twenty pounds. I just hope Scott Eyman doesn’t describe me in the article as “pudgy” or “chubby” or “a real porker.”


Wednesday, February 15, 1984

7 PM. It’s a gorgeous evening: mild and breezy, with a full moon peeking through the clouds.

The world – according to Dan Rather and the CBS Evening News – is going on as scheduled: the Winter Olympics, the unraveling of Lebanon, the Presidential campaign, the succession of Chernenko in the USSR.

I feel dissatisfied with myself today. Have I become smug? Once I found it hard to take definite stands, but lately I seem to make pronouncements on everything and everybody. I’m not as smart or as special as I’ve been pretending.

(The MacArthur Fellowships were announced, and probably I’m not on their list for good reason.)

I’ve become arrogant and obnoxious to some people. With Legislators in Love, I went further than I ever did before, and I wonder if my judgment is as good as it was. This is something I need to figure out for myself.

This morning I was so annoyed with the thick-headedness of my students, who think Flannery O’Connor’s stories are “stupid.” I try to put myself in their sneakers, but I can’t help feeling superior and a little contemptuous. And today they sensed it.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become more patient in every way except one: I find it harder and harder, and next to impossible, to suffer fools gladly. Yet, everywhere I go, I seem dissatisfied.

In New Orleans, while I loved being with Tom and his students at NOCCA, I worried that they were a little too removed from the real world. When I go to artists’ colonies, I often feel the other people there are pretentious; at VCCA, I used to buy the supermarket scandal sheets as an antidote to the arty atmosphere.

This afternoon I drove into downtown Miami – that first glance of the skyline from the I-95 overpass at 69th Street always thrills me, just as the skyline of lower Manhattan does – to see “In Quest of Excellence,” the opening show at the new Philip Johnson-designed Cultural Center’s Museum for Fine Arts.

It was exciting to see great paintings from collections all over the U.S.

There was that great anonymous French painting of a young girl holding a scroll, the one I used to have a print of that I’d bought at the Met and which I put up in my bedroom in Brooklyn when I was 18 or 19. It was like seeing an old friend.

There were familiar Brancusi statues, Picassos, Dalis, Rothkos, and my favorite pen-and-ink drawing of the crucifixion by Martin Schongauer, on whom I wrote a term paper in Renaissance Art in Northern Europe at Brooklyn College thirteen spring semesters ago.

But I was annoyed by the typical – and loud – ignorance of the woman who couldn’t understand “why the modern stuff was art” and who said she could do just what Jackson Pollack did.

I snorted and I made sure the woman saw me express my disdain.

Did she deserve it? I still feel she did, and I wonder if that isn’t some sign that I’ve lost my humanity.

At least I should find her funny and not get angry. But I can’t help feeling very angry at the junk culture all around us.

Today I told my students I knew most of them would never read literature after they left my class, and no one disputed this. How can I not feel frustration when so many people ignore what is my life’s work?

God, I sound pompous!

Hey, Grayson, maybe your “frustration” isn’t all so high-minded. I saw you looking at all those great-looking boys on campus today.

You even flirted with a couple of them: the soulful one with the cutoff sweatshirt (nice, sinewy arms) who said he was having so much trouble – Kip, his name was – and he sunk his face down to the floor and you told him not to look so pathetic.

And Frank, the blond guy you think is gay: he came up to you after class to ask if you’d seen or read Celebrity.

Well, you got me dead to rights, copper. I do feel awfully sexually frustrated. Coming into contact with dozens of teenage boys, most of whom are great-looking, with there being no hope of ever repeating what I had with Sean: it can get to me.

Oh, I’m getting so vain. Here’s something I’m ashamed to admit: I sent away for one of those “tummy trimmers” – and it arrived today.

When I put it on, I saw it was a girdle, really, and I felt foolish and embarrassed – as I should have. Obviously I will never wear it. I just feel very self-conscious about my weight.

Hey, there’s no question that I have to diet – but I also have to get back to people my own age, people I can relate to, people who read and think and do things.

Look, Broward Community College isn’t the worst place in the world, but if I stay there, it will be death for me. Say I just need a change. Rilke’s words: “for there is no place / which does not see you. You must change your life.”

But how? I’m beginning to get scared.

Last night someone from the National Council of Teachers of English called, asking me why I haven’t renewed my membership. “Because I’m not an English teacher any more,” I said, an answer which satisfied her.

But today, the AWP Job List arrived, and I applied for six possible positions which may not actually exist, which surely pay poorly and which I surely won’t get anyway.

Why can’t I just cut myself off from teaching? Even a guy like Leon Alford says, “Get out while you still can.” But go where?

Have I made myself unemployable? Well, there’s only one way to find out, and it’s scary, but you’ve got to do it – or else you can hide at BCC forever, buddy. Everything seems so up in the air.

Last night I dreamed I was in a car in Brooklyn, in the passenger’s seat with no driver, and the car wouldn’t stop: the brakes failed, so did switching gears, and even taking the key out of the ignition. The car hurtled on.

Am I going to crash? he wondered. Am I an accident waiting to happen?

Or are these Scrooge’s “shadows of things to come” – which can be changed. But how?

Enough with the questions! The truth is, I envy people who don’t have to think.


Thursday, February 16, 1984

8 PM. Last night I left a message for Alice, wishing her a happy birthday today. She phoned late last night, thanking me but saying that her birthday probably wouldn’t be a very good day.

“Something wrong?” I asked.

Everything’s wrong,” she said. After six years, she and Peter and breaking up. He doesn’t know it yet, but Alice has come to a firm decision.

Last October, Alice began therapy – she swears she told me, but I don’t remember – in order to work on a number of issues in her life: her feelings of depression, work, the apartment, her weight.

“The irony is,” Alice said, “that I began therapy convinced that the one perfect thing in my life was my relationship with Peter.” Instead, therapy made her see that she resented Peter’s not working and his not contributing to her household.

I guess for years, Alice’s friends – myself included – wondered why she let Peter live off her, but I never inquired after her financial arrangements and always assumed that Peter’s being there for her was worth any money she shelled out for their life together.

Of course, in the beginning, in 1978 – remember when Alice first moved to Manhattan and I stayed at her mother’s house briefly? – Peter was the aspiring playwright who was going to make them rich and famous with his Bambi Tascarella musical.

Now, I guess, with Peter having given up on the theater and instead working on his novels for young adults (on which he’s never made more than $10,000 – “and the household never saw any of it”), it’s different.

Alice urged him to get a job – “not a $50,000-a-year job, but any job . . . even if he just became a substitute teacher” – but Peter refused, and he blamed therapy (naturally) for Alice’s new attitude.

Alice said things got so bad that Peter decided to go to his mother’s house in Boston for two months – while she’s in Florida – to show Alice how much she needed him.

But finally, this week, Alice decided that unless he changes – and she thinks that’s unlikely – she’s going to ask him to move out and go back to his apartment, which he’s sublet all these years.

It’s going to be very hard. Her apartment renovations are going very slowly – Alice feels she’s living in a construction site – and last night, when she looked at Peter’s Playbills, she started crying.

This weekend she’s going to Boston but is not going to tell him “because I want to enjoy one last weekend together.” He’s going to be very hurt and very angry when she tells him, and I know Alice is going to go through a hard time, too.

Six years of living together is a long time, and so much of her life has been wrapped up in his. Alice is strong and will bounce back, I know. She now has the support of therapy, which she finds a great help.

Remember how Alice used to be so anti-therapy? People change . . . thank God.

Today was okay: I had decent classes and everything went smoothly. For a long day at BCC, it wasn’t bad.

Rich has been devastated by a robbery in his house, and then, the next day, his wife’s purse was stolen. The thieves got so much of their stuff, the Rosenbaums feel “violated.” Such good people don’t deserve that treatment.

From 4 PM to 5 PM, I read by the pool. It was a gorgeous afternoon.

I still have time to grade Tuesday’s papers, but I probably won’t. To say the least, I’m not looking at them very carefully, as I’m basically grading this batch holistically (and over-generously). Who cares?


Friday, February 17, 1984

8 PM. Another perfectly gorgeous day: mild (about a 78° high), dry, breezy and nearly cloudless. This, in February, is the main reason to live in South Florida. I feel happy to have a three-day weekend in front of me.

Last year at this time, it was pretty awful because Grandpa Herb died. I can’t see how this year’s holiday weekend could possibly be any worse: a year ago I was more depressed than I have been since.

Driving to work this morning, I thought of Grandpa Herb and how I’d like to tell him how I’m doing and to see his reaction.

My classes went well, as we had lively discussions of Vonnegut’s “Harrison Bergeron” and the notions of equality and affirmative action.

My energy level was high, and I felt happy at work, in contrast to Wednesday. An article I read during my break – about computer department chairmen at colleges who go begging to recruit faculty members – made me wonder if maybe I should go for a master’s in computer education.

After my last class, I took the turnpike up to Boca and stopped at the Palm Beach County Library on Glades and Boca Rio to get a brochure about the Friends of the Library Luncheon (co-sponsored by the Miami Herald) because I’d forgotten the date.

It’s Tuesday, March 6, and I’ll be speaking along with Robert Tolf, as we did a couple of years ago in Cocoa Beach; he’s a charming, witty man, and we contrast well.

I looked for ads about the luncheon in the Palm Beach edition of the Herald, but it’s probably too early. I think I’ll talk about “The Writer as Prankster” and read from some of the articles about me.

I arrived at the Boca Lago condo of Bert’s parents just after he and his family had returned from the beach, and we went to pick up Alice at her parents’ on the other side of Boca Lago, where she left their son.

Alice is in her seventh month of pregnancy and looks great.

The Boca Lago development is almost all Clevelanders, including the Teamsters’ boss Jackie Presser, who was washing his Caddy in the driveway of his condo next to the Strattons’.

Bert and Alice are very good people whom I like very much. We went to the Off Broadway restaurant, which I was surprised to find was managed by Dad’s next door neighbor, Larry.

Over deli sandwiches, matzo ball soup and key lime pie, we talked for several hours. Last June, Burt quit his job with the suburban papers and has been doing only one story a week for them.

He‘s been writing a thriller/mystery novel, which is “86% finished” and based on his experiences as a reporter when he spent lots of time with cops.

Bert asked my advice on how to break into New York publishing and whether going to Bread Loaf might get him a contact.

He and Alice had seen my publicity: the New York Times Book Review review, the Wall Street Journal article, the quote in Time.

I didn’t have much good advice for Bert, I’m afraid. After all, I can’t break into the New York book publishing world myself.

Case in point: When I got home, I found a letter from the Grove Press editor to whom I’d sent my books. She liked them, “quite a lot,” but couldn’t convince the publisher.

They had no criticisms, but they just felt they couldn’t succeed with any short story collection. She ended by writing, “I wish you good luck in getting these books reprinted. You deserve it.”

At least that made me feel good.

Anyway, Alice and Bert and I had a great talk about things like his old teacher Ted Berrigan’s death last summer; about his friend Harvey Pekar, the brilliant Cleveland comic book writer who deserves to be famous (Josh’s putting his stuff in Grinning Idiot #2); about Scott Eyman, “one of the few freelance writers able to survive in Cleveland,” who sold his stuff to the Plain Dealer’s Sunday magazine and who, Bert said, should do a good story on me in Sunshine.

We went into a bookstore – Bert reads a ton of current fiction – and he made me a present of a copy of Jimmy Breslin’s last novel. See, you can be literary outside academia.

Probably Bert’s novel is not that good – I hope I’m wrong – and he says he’ll give up if it’s not published. Sigh. Another writer may bite the dust.

(This evening in Publishers Weekly, I read about William Kennedy’s remarks on the acceptance of the National Book Critics Circle Award in fiction for Ironweed; he said the book had been rejected 13 times.)

I came home about 4 PM, sat outside reading, went grocery shopping, paid some credit card bills, read a letter from Stacy (who seems to be doing fine), got my refund from South Carolina’s income tax people, and reveled in the three days away from BCC.

I have about 50 papers to grade, however.

Steve Eliot of the Art Department shook my hand today and said, “I just want to tell you a lot of people support what you’re doing. It is art.”

Yesterday Patrick told me he’ll be teaching both summer sessions at South and everyone assumes he’ll get the job of retiring Don Rigg.

About my job situation, Patrick told me: “It seems you’re where you were a year ago.” Almost – but last year I was committed to staying in South Florida.


Sunday, February 18, 1984

10 PM. It’s pleasant to know that tonight isn’t the last night of the weekend.

Last night I called Josh, who got over the flu in a couple of days. He told me that Candy called him after a long silence and said that her father is dying of cancer in Sunrise. I guess she’ll be down here more.

Joyce, Josh’s boss – the woman who was played by Cissy Spacek in Missing – read my book and said I was an “ingenious writer.”

Grinning Idiot sample copies arrived from the printer in Austin, and Josh said they look okay.

I spent most of the day in Broward, at the health club, at the FIU computer lab at BCC, out by the pool and in my parents’ house.

This morning I talked with my brothers. Jonathan told me that he’s considering moving to the FAU dorms in Boca, which probably would be good for him.

Marc said that he dropped his computer class (“I don’t have time for so much work”) and asked if he could stay over here Tuesday night to study for a big math test; I gladly agreed.

I phoned Rockaway and talked to Grandma Ethel, who wasn’t feeling well and said it’s been a lonely year since Grandpa Herb died.

I feel pretty sleepy now. Here’s where I’m supposed to write “And so to bed,” right? TC mark

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