A Writer’s Diary Entries From Early September, 1987

Wednesday, September 2, 1987

11 AM. I felt queasy and had diarrhea for a few more hours yesterday, and then I started to feel better. At dinner, I didn’t eat much of the vegetarian chili but instead had a lot of bread and iced tea.

I’ve had a rocky stomach here not only because of nerves, but also, as Chris suggested, because of the change in diet. My stomach isn’t used to digesting anything but cereal for breakfast, and at home I never eat soup, nor mayonnaise, nor other foods served here.

From now on, I’ll be careful about what I eat. I can just imagine my stomach wondering why it’s not getting skim milk, diet soda, pizza, bagels, hamburgers, Sichuan food, tuna and pasta.

Carolyn, an East Village writer, returned from New York after going there for a medical test (she’s pregnant). I like her because she’s funny and nice and says, “Oy gevalt.”

When I showed Meg my copy of The Worst Canadian Stories, she remembered how Crad would come to her house on Long Island for writing workshops with her mother.

Someone like Meg could never really understand what motivates Crad. She couldn’t even imagine why he wouldn’t use his real name, and when I told her that Crad sells his books on the streets of Toronto, her look was one of revulsion and pity.

I don’t think Meg can understand me, either, and I’m pretty sure she doesn’t like me, but that’s okay; it’s also hard for me to understand her seriousness about a literary career. Actually, she’s a regular person and very nice.

Walking to Olivia’s new studio (she had to move) with her, Carolyn and Brenda, I learned that the people here over the summer were much more cliquish and intense than the newcomers.

Priscilla, Heidi, Steve and others have already left, and by next week there’ll be a noticeable changeover.

Back at Colony Hall at 8:30 PM, Chris showed an awful 1955 British film, A Prize of Gold, and a great Chaplin feature.

Chris is such a regular guy, it’s hard for me to believe that he’s got the same position that the aloof, icy Nancy Englander had when I was here in 1980.

After a good night’s sleep, I went into town with Bill after breakfast.

A nice newcomer is Jeff Long, a painter from San Francisco, with whom I ate with this morning and last night. His studio in a big warehouse was destroyed in a horrific fire last year, and he still seems to be recovering from that trauma (although he’s lucky to be alive).

I’m going over to my studio now. It’s cool and cloudy.

*

10 PM. I just came in after a decent day. I wrote another eight pages of my narrative about my college teaching career and am up to my first year at Broward Community College.

While I don’t know what the market for this article is, it’s important to me to make sense of my life in academia.

At dinner tonight, I talked about academia with Alan, who’s been on several hiring committees at UC Davis, and Deb, whose Iowa MFA doesn’t get her any interviews without a book or major poetry prize.

Earlier today, I didn’t like the looks of my lunch, so I ate sparingly; now I’ve got some cookies and ginger ale that I bought in town.

The weather started clearing up around 4 PM. I called Mom, and oddly enough, while I was on the line, she got a call from Marc, who had just arrived at Grandma Ethel’s in Rockaway. He drove up in my car.

Unfortunately, he has to return to Florida next week because Dad will be in L.A. and so Marc will be needed at the flea market.

It would have been nice if Marc could stay longer in New York, but I’m certain Grandma will be glad to see him after so many years.

Mom said they’d had a very bad time with China staying at their house. China has colitis, and her diarrhea ruined the seats in Jonathan’s car and caused a spot on the carpeting she can’t get out. Lhasa apsos are so high-strung, and the dog probably misses Marc.

The conversation was lively tonight at my dinner table with Alan, Deb, Mike, John and Olivia, who, it turns out, is very close to Claire Seidl, my Millay Colony friend.

After dinner, I played ping-pong, first with Olivia and then with Mike, and I read the fall announcements issue of Publishers Weekly.

Blood in the Streets continues to be an interesting book.

The authors expect communism, an economic system which never really worked and is incompatible with the computer ago, to soon disappear.

They say that will end the U.S. advantage over Russia and maybe even China, which until now have essentially removed themselves from real competition in world markets.


Thursday, September 3, 1987

4 PM. I had a bout of diarrhea again this morning. Perhaps it was the banana yogurt pancakes I had for breakfast. Tomorrow I’m going to stick to cereal and toast. But I didn’t feel nauseated today, and I didn’t let the diarrhea stop me from taking a walk into town with Carolyn.

We got to talking at breakfast, and she asked if I wanted to go with her. It was good to talk with someone I feel I could be friends with outside MacDowell. Carolyn is unpretentious, and I liked her a lot because when she found out I grew up in Brooklyn, she said, “I bet your friends call you Richie.”

Carolyn is 31, got her M.A. in creative writing at CCNY, where she’s now an adjunct teaching English and humanities. She left home at 15 and now lives in the East Village with her boyfriend Jed, who’s a computer genius; their baby is due in February. Her father is a bestselling novelist, and her family moved from Manhattan to a Connecticut town where they were the only Jews.

Carolyn walked her bike to take it to the bike store. As we strolled, I told her about my agoraphobia, my publicity stunts (she was the first person here I thought would appreciate them, and she did), my weird publishing record.

I’d like to know more about Carolyn. Like Olivia and Brenda, she said she was unhappy when she first arrived here because everyone was so cliquish. I gather Glenda Adams, who preceded me in Schelling Studio, was at the focus of one group, and Heidi another, and that Meg and Steven were a tight unit.

The new people, Carolyn said, seem more relaxed. I like Deb and Mike and Alan and John David and Jeff, who are all low-key but friendly. Carolyn said that it’s odd because we’re all so dependent upon one another for support and companionship.

In town, I accompanied her to the bike store and a dress shop. At Stella’s, I bought newspapers, and we visited the library – and its bathroom, which I desperately needed.

I wrote only four pages of my narrative about academia. I’m up to my University of Miami fiasco, so I don’t have much more to go.

Mom’s Monday package arrived, and it was a joy to see my column in the paper. They didn’t change anything – or if they did, the changes were for the better. This week there was no room for my photo, but I don’t care.

In the office, I xeroxed the column, and I’ll paste it up and make copies I town. What I like about his column is that it’s one nobody else could have written. Who else would have formed a PAC to promote a Florida state income tax? Who else would pun about “sitting up with a Sikh friend”?

I’m proud of my Sun-Tattler columns and I guess I should think twice before quitting the paper. It seems unbelievable to me that some Florida small publisher wouldn’t want to make a book of them. They’re just too good – and that’s from a writer who usually doesn’t have much confidence in his work.

Also in the mail was a replacement gold Visa card from Chevy Chase S&L, two credit card bills, my Discover Savers account statement, the new Poets & Writers, and the Tropic story by Dave Barry, the funny “Can New York City Save Itself?: A City Beset by Garbage and Yuppies,” a response to the article about Miami in The New York Times Magazine.

I just wish my stomach would calm down and not be so spastic and gurgly. I find I’m starting to get homesick for Florida. I think I’ll probably leave MacDowell in two weeks, as originally scheduled, rather than stay for the extension. Three weeks is enough.


Friday, September 4, 1987

4 PM. I just came in after sitting around Colony Hall with David, Carolyn, Brenda, Olivia, Alan, John David, Jeff and Sherry. About half of them have come since I arrived, and after a week at MacDowell, I feel like an old-timer.

Cassandra, Adrian and Meg left today. I didn’t get to say goodbye to Meg, who barely spoke to me the last few days. Definitely I got the impression she thought I was an asshole, but I suppose from her point of view, I am.

The other night Meg seemed annoyed that David Lang (her friend) and I were decorating our paper placements at dinner with ink drawings and punctures with our forks and knives.

I think she felt I was a bad influence on him, getting him to act “childishly.” Ten years ago, at Bread Loaf, she was a teenager accompanying her mother there, and while I didn’t really have any contact with her then, she seemed very “adult” and “mature”: things I guess I’ve never been.

A filmmaker, Barbara Hammer, arrived tonight, as did Louise Talma, the eightyish composer who’s been coming to MacDowell since the early 1950s. She’s supposed to be quite a dragon, and I’ve been warned to keep the bathroom we share tidy.

Last night’s dinner and tonight’s were both enjoyable; I’ve heard a lot of interesting talk, particularly from the visual artists. It’s interesting to get the perspective of people from San Francisco and Chicago.

Deb showed me the August issue of Poetry with three of her very good poems in it; on the cover, she appears first in alphabetical order: Allbery, then Ashbery. Because she’s lived in Iowa City, I gave Deb the Editor’s Choice anthology, and she said she liked my story.

This morning I decided to have only cereal for breakfast, and I felt much better. I returned to my room to lie down for an hour; then I exercised for half an hour. Showered and dressed, I went to my studio, where I wrote six pages, completing the first drafts of my 28-page piece on my college English teaching career.

I don’t know what I’ll do with the narrative, but I’m glad I wrote it. Every day here I’ve written at least four pages; now I have to start some new project.

Lunch – a BLT on whole wheat – was good, and at 3 PM, I drove into town with Bill. Today was a gorgeous day, sunny and warm enough to wear only a t-shirt without a jacket. As Bill said, it was a perfect day to “dub” in town.

Peterborough, as I’ve said before, is a picture postcard-perfect New England village, and I like the genteel atmosphere, so different from New York City and Florida. Everyone is so courteous, but not in that Southern “have a nice day” way.

The brick buildings seem to have an integrity lacking in the stucco of Florida. The big church in town is Unitarian, not Southern Baptist as in Florida, and the public library is, as it says, the oldest tax-supported library in America.

In the library, reading today’s Times. I was very upset to see that three black teenagers who worked at a Ralph Avenue supermarket were set upon in front of the bagel store on Flatlands and East 81st Street by a gang of 25 bat-wielding white kids from the playground across the street.

Canarsie, like Howard Beach, is a horribly racist place, and it’s a neighborhood I grew up in. Those kids in that playground were always hoods, but I just think the 1980s and the Reagan administration’s “blame the victim” policies encourage racism.

The Dow Jones average fell 71 points this week; today the Fed raised the discount rate, and the banks their prime rate by ½%. But Blood in the Streets says that inflation isn’t the problem, deflation is.

I did my laundry today.


Saturday, September 5, 1987

10 PM. I’ve just walked back from the library with Louise Talma, who did not seem to approve of all the “impermanence” of the artwork of Brenda, Jeff and Sherry that we had seen exhibited tonight.

On the other hand, I thought the work was wonderful: Sherry’s pre-industrial sculptures from cast paper and her wood and neon pieces; Brenda’s performance art and her installations that are half-painting, half-sculpture, with driftwood and spray-painted leaves; Jeff’s large canvases of organic shapes that reminded me of Georgia O’Keeffe’s work.

Today was another sunny and mild day. Up early, I again stuck to bread and cereal for breakfast. Instead of lingering at the table to talk, I returned to my room at 8:15 AM and lay in bed for 90 minutes, listening to Weekend Edition on NPR.

I showered and dressed and read the Times in Colony Hall before heading out to my studio. There I dawdled quite a bit, writing letters to Miriam, Susan and Teresa, and I fooled around with my 2½ pound weights; I’ve been exercising just enough to keep from deteriorating.

Sleepy after lunch, I returned to my room at The Eaves, deciding that I could afford to take a day off from writing.

But almost as soon as I lay down (probably inspired by the packages of mail, mostly about my new credit cards and credit lines, that I received from Mom today), I got this idea for a column about banks, debt, and credit cards, and I began scribbling notes.

Returning to my studio, I cranked out a five-page first draft of the column. Obviously, I didn’t discuss my own credit card schemes but wrote about changes in the banking industry in Florida and about affinity group credit cards.

Tomorrow I’ll see if the column is as good as I thought it seemed today.

I really shouldn’t give up the column because it provides me with a creative outlet that satisfies me in a way that fiction does not.

Mom sent the $20 check for my August 15 column. The pay is an insult, like the adjunct wages at Broward Community College. But I don’t mind yet.

Needing batteries for my typewriter, I was lucky enough to get a ride into town with Sherry, who was buying wine for the artists’ presentation tonight.

Two new people have arrived: Edmund Pennant, an older poet, and Matthias Kreisberg, a composer.

I sat at dinner with Todd Brief and David Lang, who are very funny, as well as Helen, Kristin, Brenda and Jeff. After eight days at MacDowell, I now feel very much like I fit in.

Carolyn hasn’t been around much lately; she again had dinner in town with her friend, and I didn’t see her today.

The black teenagers beaten up on Flatlands Avenue were received by Mayor Koch, who seemed stunned when they said they bore their white attackers no ill will and didn’t want them punished.


Monday, September 7, 1987

9 PM. It’s been a gloomy Labor Day. Last night I slept fitfully and had erotic dreams.

When I woke up, it was to an overcast sky which lasted till darkness. In just the last few days, the trees here began to turn that crimson-salmon color. I’m glad to get to see that, as I have never spent fall in such a northern latitude.

Funny, it seemed to me as if summer ended when I came to MacDowell, and this year – like my Labor Days in nearly seasonless South Florida – I don’t have that feeling of Labor Day as the start of the new year. That will probably come when I leave here and go back to a New York City where it’s no longer summer.

I wrote myself four pages into a memory-story today, but I don’t know where to go with it, and the material seems a little forced.

I’ll force myself to write every day while I’m here, but I feel as if my imagination and creativity have dried up.

Today seemed an especially long day – because it was so dark, and a holiday without the possibility of mail or a trip into town.

After having breakfast and reading the Times – due to the holiday, it was a small paper – I returned to my room and tried to give myself a workout akin to those on Body Electric. At least I worked up a good sweat and my muscles felt fairly sore.

Following a shower, I read Vikram Seth’s Golden Gate, which I finished about an hour ago. Despite being kind of a game or trick, Seth’s story in verse had some substance beyond mere cleverness – and actually, the cleverness alone would have been enough for me.

Alan said he felt the poetry in Seth’s book was doggerel and the characters stereotypes. There’s something to his point of view, but the book swept me along with it.

I also finally read Tama Janowitz’s Slaves of New York. Her stories are funny and sweet, and they have a good subject – the downtown art scene – but Susan Mernit was right in saying my best stories are the equal of Janowitz’s.

In fact, I was surprised that her stories didn’t seem formalistic and “well-crafted” in that Iowa Writers Workshop way. (Probably I’m being unfair to Iowa, but I associate the school with a certain type of story.)

I walked in the woods, ate my lunch, did push-ups, listened to the Peterborough rock station, and thank God, when I returned my lunch basket to Colony Hall, it was 4 PM and not 2 PM.

I sat at a dinner table with Wendy, who’s working on a musical, and four composers, including Louise Talma, who seems to be trying to be friendly.

Someone told me Carolyn’s boyfriend was here; I haven’t seen her since Friday. And poor Barbara Hammer is ill with a fever of some kind.

Today was the closest I came to going stir-crazy; I started longing for a walk on Broadway or a visit to a shopping mall. If I had a day, I’d go exploring around here. Actually, I suppose I could rent a car for a couple of days and maybe even go to Boston, but I don’t want to spend the money.

Tomorrow I’ll definitely go into Peterborough. I’ve been here ten days, and if I leave when I was originally supposed to, I’ll be here another ten days.

I’ve been putting off a phone call to Mom, saving the contact with the outside world as a special treat.

Whatever happens in the rest of my stay here, I’m definitely glad I decided to come to MacDowell. I do feel more like a writer again.


Wednesday, September 9, 1987

2PM. I’ve just returned to find that my room has been cleaned and that I’ve got fresh sheets and towels. Nice.

Last night Chris brought out his movie projector and showed Bonnie and Clyde, which was a pleasure to watch. It brought back memories of the time in which the film was made. I don’t think a sympathetic film about Depression bank robbers could get made in the pro-business, conservative 1980s climate of today.

This morning I was in Colony Hall with David Lang and Barbara Hammer, who are both interesting to talk to, when Brenda came by and said that Darrell was driving into town at 10 AM. I decided to go along with him, Brenda and Mike.

I’d never been to Peterboro Plaza before, and it was a refreshing change to be in a strip shopping center. I walked around, bought the New York Times, Wall Street JournalUSA Today and some cereal and toilet paper at the A&P, and got a cash advance with my new Mileage Plus Visa at the bank.

After we all met up at Friendly’s, we drove into the center of town.

Brenda had to get some film developed, and while browsing in the Toadstool bookstore, I found a copy of I Brake for Delmore Schwartz, complete with bumper sticker. Naturally, that made me feel good.

For a while, we sat leisurely at the Folkway and had coffee, tea, or in my case, a can of 7Up.

Reading the local paper, I saw that a town businessman (and convicted felon) is announcing his candidacy for Vice President at a Wendy’s in Concord today. The papers run schedules of which Presidential candidates will be campaigning in which town every day.

Although New Hampshire has conservative Republican elected state officials, by Florida standards this Monadnock region seems amazingly liberal to me.

Perhaps it’s just Yankee mainline Protestantism as opposed to the Southern Baptist mentality. Contra aid, for example, seems far less popular here than it is in Florida.

It just occurred to me that apart from Cassandra, I have not seen a single black person in New Hampshire.

Back in my studio, I read Michiko Kakutani’s savaging of Tama Janowitz’s new novel, A Cannibal in Manhattan in the Times; the review called her talented but not especially so and “widely publicized.”

The younger writers like Janowitz, McInerney and Ellis are coming in for a barrage of heavy-duty negative criticism these days. Well, I guess that’s Emerson’s law of compensation.

At the breakfast table, I argued for multiple submissions and writers empowering themselves instead of giving all their power to editors and publishers.

When I talked about my own experiences in publishing my work and told how I wrote the Newsday review of With Hitler in New York under my grandmother’s name, Wendy said, “Richard, you’re a survivor.”

I’m beginning to believe that. I know I’m not the most talented writer around, but I’m smart and well-informed and I’ve got perseverance and a sense of humor.

The sun is out now, and I’m going back to my studio to write. Or try to.


Thursday, September 10, 1987

10 PM. After nearly two weeks here, I really feel a part of the MacDowell community. Yesterday in mid-afternoon, I was about to return to my studio when Carolyn asked me to walk to town with her.

As we walked, I read to her from some of my clippings: the Grandma Sylvia fan club, my political pranks, and the John Hour, which she found hysterical.

We went to the Folkway and hung out there, as I had in the morning. Dave, the 20-year-old British boy who works there, was friendly and funny.

Then Carolyn asked me to help her pick out an outfit at the clothing store, something dressy for teaching at CCNY and NYU.

I’m getting to know Carolyn really well. She’s lively and cute, but she has a lot of problems.

Her father, after seventy hack novels – including his biggest bestseller, a novel about Frank Sinatra that led to the family’s having to hide from the Mafia – has not been able to write a book for the last ten years.

He’s returned to his small-town roots in Pennsylvania and is having an affair with the local librarian, the only one in the world who’s actually read all of his books. Carolyn’s mother filed for divorce after finding evidence of the affair this year. Carolyn ran away from home at fifteen, and her parents seem very unsupportive of her writing.

In the library, I found the review of Editor’s Choice II in Library Journal; it wasn’t very favorable but didn’t mention me.

We had a nice walk back to the colony after our trip into town.

At dinner I had my tablemates in stitches with the stories I had earlier told Carolyn.

Later, Carolyn gave me to read the part of her novel she thought she might turn into a story and send out. Her only published story appeared in the Mississippi Review.

I was disappointed to find her writing so bad. The style was terrible, and I couldn’t figure out what was going on. I gave her suggestions and comments, the way I do with students, but I don’t think Carolyn is a gifted writer. I only hope I’m proven wrong because I like her so much.

She’s been working on the novel for four years and says she can’t give it up and let go.

One thing I did realize tonight: I’m much more prolific – or at least more published – than any of the other writers here since Meg left.

Funny, in a dream last night, Meg told me that she and I had become close friends. Anyway, I slept very well last night.

After breakfast today, I read the Times, lay down for half an hour, and then did some lower body exercises.

It was sunny and warm, and I wore only a t-shirt and shorts today. At my studio, I wrote three pages of ideas and comments for my rooting-for-another-Great-Depression piece. Hopefully, I can pound it into shape later.

Mom’s mail included an Amoco Torch Club bill and a letter forwarded from Key Federal; I had to call them because their MasterCard was being sent to my New York address.

Then I phoned Mom, who said that Sophie from FIU’s Teacher Education Center called and said I should call her when I return.

Sophie must have some computer education workshops for me to teach. I tried to call FIU, but I think it was closed for the Pope’s visit to Miami.

If the classes are coming up soon, I’ll have to return to Florida after only a few days in New York City. I’ll phone Sophie again on Monday.

So today it did start to feel as if the real world was pressing in on me. I decided to tell Chris and Elizabeth that I now had to leave when originally scheduled, a week from Friday. I felt bad, but it was nice to see that they said they will miss me.

After being away nineteen weeks, it’s going to be strange to be back in Florida. Mom said she expected Marc back later today; he called last night from St. Augustine. Dad is still in Los Angeles.

After dinner tonight, I went with Suzanne to help her with her Kaypro, which had refused to print a file. It was weird to walk to her studio, just beyond mine, in total darkness, without a flashlight; well, the moon gave us a bit of light.

Suzanne’s using CP/M, an operating system I’m not familiar with, and WordStar.

Anyway, her story did finally get printed out, no real thanks to me. The computer just worked.

I did help with various suggestions and ideas; it interested me to see that some MS-DOS commands worked with CP/M and some didn’t. Suzanne was very grateful, but I enjoyed playing Dr. Computer.

Rick Peabody sent me the new double issue of Gargoyle, a Paris Review lookalike, with some great interviews (Michael Martone, Edouard Roditi) and other good stuff.

I feel very much at home here at MacDowell.TC mark

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