A Writer’s Diary Entries From Mid-September, 1987

Friday, September 11, 1987

5 PM. I feel pretty unproductive. Hopefully, I’ll write at least one other story while I’m here at MacDowell.

Why is it that I am less interested in fiction than I am in reading newspaper stories about society, such as a New York Times article that appeared today which explored how Hispanics are being squeezed out of the area between West 100th and 110th Streets – Manhattan Valley – by Yuppies?

Anyway, that’s a phenomenon I’ve seen for myself.

If only I could find a way to get my concerns about contemporary society and culture into my fiction. I did it in “I Survived Caracas Traffic” and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Citicorp.” I’m just no longer interested in my own little world, as I was in my narcissistic stories of ten years ago, but the larger picture.

Of course, that does boil down to people’s individual stories.

Take Bill, whom I’ve come to know in my trips into town. He and his wife are both 59, at a time in their lives when they thought they could take it easy, but they’re working harder than ever to stay in the same place.

Bill’s 85-year-old father is in failing health, and his stepmother finds it difficult to care for him, so she’s called Bill and his siblings, who are going to have to put the old man in a home.

Bill’s daughter got into some trouble with the law years ago, and although unmarried, she has a five-year-old son. Both live with Bill, as does his 25-year-old son who’s come home after four years at college.

In the 1950s, Bill could support his whole family, but today his wife works and his daughter works a night shift while her parents care for her son, and they’re all just scraping by.

It sounds like the story of my own parents: people concerned about and responsible for their elderly parents, yet still providing a home for their adult children.

Surely there’s a story in that. My own father feels like a failure because he can’t support everyone the way he did 25 years ago, but Dad doesn’t fully realize that it’s not a personal failing, that he’s in the midst of vast economic forces that make supporting a family on one salary impossible.

Today’s a cloudy, chilly day. I feel kind of sleepy right now. I’ve got some clothes in the washing machine and need to put them in the dryer soon.

The Key Federal MasterCard arrived, forwarded from Florida to New York to here. I got a couple of bills and an announcement that the next International PEN Congress will be in early December in San Juan.

Maybe I’ll go. Puerto Rico isn’t that far from South Florida, and the theme is the American (including Latin American) novel’s hero.

Tom wrote that he loved Wolcott’s Vanity Fair piece about the Yuppie writers, and said, in response to the reaction here: “Little Meg is protecting her own turf. She should fuck herself in the ass.”

I hate the angry bitterness in that. Tom takes literature too personally.

To me, it’s like being in politics: you can still be good friends with a conservative Republican even if you’re a liberal Democrat.


Saturday, September 12, 1987

1 PM. I can’t seem to write anything new though I’ve been sitting at my typewriter and trying to force myself to work.

The weather is dark, gloomy and chilly. Last night I didn’t sleep well because I was dizzy and my capped tooth was wobbling badly.

Is that enough kvetching for you? All I’d like to do is write one more major piece before I leave MacDowell, but I don’t know that I can bring it off.

Tomorrow is my last day at Schelling Studio; on Monday, I move into The Lodge Room. The Lodge will be further away from Colony Hall, but my room and my studio will be in the same place, so I won’t have to feel so guilty about not being in my studio.

I haven’t liked most of the recent dinners – porkchops, fish – and tonight we’re having sausage and chowder, not exactly my favorites. Even though I’m loading up on dessert food, I don’t think I’m gaining weight. Today I didn’t eat much of my lunch, either.

I’ve been reading the new issue of Gargoyle that Rick sent; it’s an incredible achievement, with good interviews and first-rate fiction, poetry and artwork.

We had a good discussion at the dinner table last evening, and afterwards I finished doing my laundry.

Later, I watched TV with Barbara Hammer and a new arrival, the painter Anne Tabachnick. (They put the TV here in a glorified closet with only a few chairs because, I guess, it’s considered gauche to watch it.)

Not someone who plays pool or poker or can understand either game well enough to enjoy watching it, I returned to my room around 10 PM, hoping to fall asleep early, but I didn’t have much luck.

*

10 PM. I’ve just come back from Carolyn’s studio at The Lodge – which will become my studio on Monday after she leaves tomorrow – unsuccessfully trying to get her printer’s ribbon in.

For the first time, I used my flashlight in the woods, and as I shone the beam from tree to tree, I said, “Having a flashlight makes you powerful.”

“Not as much as you think,” Carolyn replied, and we cracked up.

After I left my studio this afternoon, I went to Colony Hall, where Barbara showed me a New York Native review of her latest work, which will be shown at the Gay and Lesbian Film Festival.

I called Grandma Ethel in Rockaway. She said she was fine but worried because she didn’t hear from Marc, who told her he would call when he arrived back in Florida.

Grandma wouldn’t let me speak past the minute mark because she didn’t want me to put more coins in the phone, so I just said I’d call her next weekend.

I read the Times and then watched a baseball game with David and Mike. It was fun to hang out with them even though the Mets stink (they lost to the Cards, 8-2).

Before dinner, I spoke with Edmund and Louise on the patio.

The sausage and chowder was as yucky as I expected, but at least the company at my table was good: Carolyn, David, Helen, Matthias, Deb and Alan.

Deb and Alan’s reading in Colony Hall went well. It was a pleasure to listen to their poems. They kindly rescheduled it from tomorrow night at Carolyn’s request because she didn’t want to miss it.


Sunday, September 13, 1987

3 PM. Today is chilly and extremely rainy. There have been so many gloomy days that a sunny day here seems like something special.

Carolyn left today, and she was very weepy and nervous. Part of it, she said, was that she’s so pregnant, and part of it was that she was leaving MacDowell, where she’s an artist, for New York City, where she has the role of wife and mother-to-be.

I stayed with her for the two hours before she left, providing what comfort and assistance I could.

“You’re a sweet guy, you know that?” she told me.

“Just a nasty rumor,” I said.

She was nervous that the computer would get damaged and that Todd and Matthias would drive too fast, so I helped them get the stuff into the car gently and took Todd aside and told him about Carolyn’s anxiety.

Todd had planned to leave on Thursday, but he decided to go today with Carolyn and Matt in the car they rented; Matt is driving it back here Wednesday.

When I got to my studio after watching them leave for New York, I ate my lunch (today I liked it: tuna sandwich and carrots) and decided it was so wet that I wanted to come back to my room.

Since I have to leave the studio tomorrow anyway, I took all my things with me: papers, typewriter, manuscripts, books, etc.

In case I can write, my typewriter’s here with me. But I can’t seem to get it together. It’s not quite writer’s block that I have; it’s that I can’t see how to relate my ideas in the form of fiction.

Maybe I’m coming to the conclusion that I am only incidentally a fiction writer. The book project that interests me is about my undergraduate days at Brooklyn College, but I don’t want to start it until I have my 1969-73 diaries in front of me.

And that will probably be a memoir rather than fiction; I’ll change people’s names for privacy’s sake.

See, that’s a project I can work on in an orderly fashion because I have a chronological pattern already laid out for me.

Who says fiction is superior to nonfiction, anyway? My newspapers columns I consider works of art, not hack writing.

David Lang said he enjoyed the stories in I Brake for Delmore Schwartz, and he was especially glad to see that most of them weren’t funny.

Earlier, Carolyn told me, “David says you’re a good writer and he gave me ‘Robin, Remontant’ to read, and I thought it was great.”

I have a hard time accepting praise, especially for a story that embarrasses me.

Well, I suppose I can rationalize not writing by saying that I come to a colony not only to work but to be with other artists.

Or I can say that I produce works quickly, in spurts.

Or that I’ve published a lot and I expect all the work I have written at MacDowell to get published, meaning I work less but more efficiently than most people.

However, a lot of it is just that I’m lazy or that I can’t figure out why I’d want to write the kind of short story I wouldn’t want to read in a magazine.

“So what?” is my reaction to reading most contemporary fiction – that is, if I can get through it at all.

My columns prove that my creativity hasn’t dried up.

I’ll call Mom later and see if I’ve got anything in the Sun-Tattler this weekend. I wish I could find a publisher for my collection of columns.


Monday, September 14, 1987

9 PM. With the help of my trusty flashlight, I’ve just walked back here to The Lodge.

Carolyn found it spooky here, and I agree. Instead of feeling as though I were in a house, as in The Eaves, I sort of feel I’m in the middle of the woods.

Alan has a bedroom here, so I’m not totally alone, but I don’t expect to sleep much tonight. I hear all sorts of animal noises.

I’ve just come back from Brenda’s studio – Alexander, the medieval French chapel – where I saw her installation, a very dynamic work.

Deb is now ill with the same virus that Barbara had when she first arrived; she has a fever, headache and nausea.

Supposedly this virus is going around New Hampshire – and of course I’m afraid I’ll get it while I’m here, or even worse, on Friday, when I have to endure a long bus ride home.

I almost feel like making a narcissistic deal with God: it’s okay if I don’t write any more while I’m here, just don’t make me get sick.

I feel bad for Deb, who looked paler than usual (though not less pretty).

This afternoon, I exercised and read and sat out in the sunshine. Although I’m a bit anxious, I actually feel pretty well.


Tuesday, September 15, 1987

2 PM. My anxiety level is still kind of high, but I’ve just taken a walk, first to Colony Hall to return my lunch basket and mail some letters, and then to the graves of Edward and Marian MacDowell. Chris will be showing a short film about them tonight.

I walked down High Street, admiring the leaves, and came back on MacDowell Road, the way Carolyn showed me last week.

My stomach is jumpy, and I’m still concerned I’m going to be ill. I can’t relax enough to write – at least that’s today’s excuse.

Today Wendy left, and a group of seven colonists went on an expedition to climb Mount Monadnock – reportedly the second-most climbed mountain in the world, after Mount Fuji.

Last night I didn’t get to sleep until very late, and I felt cold and a little spooked. (Tonight I’ll make sure I turn up the heat; it was 54° in the house this morning.) However, I did eventually get more sleep than I thought I would.


Wednesday, September 16, 1987

2 PM. I’m listening to the Constitutional bicentennial ceremonies on radio; the President should be on soon.

Yesterday I lay down and realized that I could probably get the Senate confirmation hearings for Robert Bork. I found them on WBUR, a Boston station, and listened for a while as I did some busywork. At 4 PM, I walked to Colony Hall and saw how Bork looked on TV.

Edmund Pennant asked if I would join him for a walk, and I agreed. We set out for the gazebo with its clear view of Mount Monadnock and sat on the grass for a while.

Edmund has photographed wildflowers for many years, and he could point out New England and New York asters, wintergreen (which smelled great on my fingers when I crushed the leaves), fungi and other aspects of nature I was ignorant of.

For most of his life, Edmund has been weighted down with crushing responsibilities which have made creating poetry difficult, and his visits to MacDowell are a haven for him. He wanted to go on an expedition to find the pond, and for once, I felt up to an adventure.

It was a long walk, but I got to pass Wood Studio, where I was in 1980, and Edmund and I talked about many things: biology, possession, adaptability, creativity. At one point he said, “Richard, how did you get so wise?” – which embarrassed and flattered me.

We finally found the pond, partly by using the map, but mostly by using our own instincts; I have a surprisingly good sense of direction. It was nearly 6 PM when we got back, and I felt tired, but I had only about twenty minutes before going to dinner.

Last night’s dinner was my favorite: tacos, with terrific beans, onions, peppers, pickles and sauce. I sat at the “no smoking” table with Jeff, David, Helen, and Jean Stewart, a new colonist, a writer from California who’s in a wheelchair. (There’s a new ramp on the back porch.)

The climbers said their expedition to the top of Mount Monadnock was exhilarating.

At 8 PM, Chris showed a film by Barbara Hammer – a very innovative and exciting piece based on the idea of negative space – and then Lady in the Wings, a 1954 Hallmark Hall of Fame TV drama about how Marian MacDowell founded the Colony.

The show had been presented live, and it seemed a most primitive and corny drama; it was hilarious when they tried to show the passage of time by a hand ripping off the dates on a calendar and the pages kept tearing in half.

And Rosemary DeCamp was terrible in the role.

But at the end of the program, Mrs. MacDowell, then 96, gave a little speech, and it was exciting to see her.

Despite the corniness, the spirit of the MacDowell Colony did come through, and Marian MacDowell’s motives were selfless and noble, probably even in real life.

When I got back to The Lodge, I made certain to put on the heat (the thermostat was in my room all the time) and I fell into a deep, dream-filled sleep.

In fact, my dreams were so weird that I wrote down notes for a story that I started writing in longhand after lunch. The story, naturally, is surrealistic, but I like where it’s going after nine pages.

This morning I was glad to see Deb at breakfast; she’d been sick all yesterday but said she felt better.

I went into town with Bill, and at the post office I mailed some books and papers to myself in Florida.

Then I came back to my room and lay in bed for hours, listening to the radio and daydreaming.

At noon I exercised a bit and then took a shower and had those parts of my lunch that appeared edible.

Right now I feel sleepy again, but it’s a bright, warm day, and the anxiety I felt yesterday has gone.

*

11 PM. This afternoon I listened to the Bork confirmation hearings, took a walk in the woods, and at 5 PM went over to the Savidge Library.

The fellows were invited to meet the Board of Directors’ Colony Committee – those members who live in New Hampshire – for wine and cheese. I spoke with a couple of the board members and with Elizabeth and Chris and his wife.

Just about everyone says this is the absolute best time of the year here at MacDowell, with good weather. I’ll be sorry to miss the blaze of glory of the fall foliage as its peak and also even the start of the winter, when the leaves fall off and you can see the woods.

But everyone says November is a dreary month – and of course, November is just the opposite in Florida, where it’s the start of cooler, drier weather.

Dinner was great again tonight: delicious meat loaf, baked potato and salad, with brownies topped with vanilla ice cream and chocolate syrup for dessert.

At 8 PM, we all returned to Savidge Library for an hour of Louise Talma’s music. She is extremely good, and I enjoyed her pieces very much.

Afterwards, Louise proposed a toast to her great teacher Nadia Boulanger, whose 100th birthday would have been today.

The last thing Louise played was a 1943 piece for piano called “Four-Handed Fun,” which she wrote during her first stay at MacDowell; Lukas Foss loved it, and after hearing it, helped launch her career.

Louise is quite a remarkable woman.

We all chatted for a while, and at 10 PM I went alone to the TV room (really, not more than a closet) to watch the season premiere of St. Elsewhere.

With my trusty flashlight and the blanket of stars, I managed to find my way back here.

It turned out that I really didn’t have to move to The Lodge at all because Mona Simpson canceled.


Friday, September 18, 1987

9:30 AM. I’ll be leaving MacDowell in about half an hour. Today is similar to the day I arrived three weeks ago: a cold, hard rain is falling.

Last night at dinner, I passed around the traditional placemat with room for everyone to sign their names and addresses. By now, I feel so at home here, at least with my fellow colonists.

“You’re a fixture here,” Helen said. That made me feel great, as did the genuine feelings of affection I got at breakfast this morning. I hugged John, Deb, Suzanne and Edmund; David said he’d buy all my books; Mike, Louise and others shook my hand and wished me well.

Barbara left early this morning because her film will be shown tomorrow night at the New York Gay and Lesbian Film Festival, but of course she’s flying into New York. With this bad weather, I’m happy to be riding the bus.

Last night I slept very well, about the best night’s sleep I’ve had here, and my anxiety seems to have lifted.

Luckily, given the rain this morning, I caught a ride to Colony Hall with Alan and his rental car; he, too, is leaving today, to drive to Boston and spend time there before he returns to California.

Chris asked me to write a little self-appraisal of my time here, and at the bottom of the form, he handwrote, “Hope your next stay here is soon.” I do plan to come back, but not for at least a few years.

Back in the spring, I wanted to come to MacDowell to feel like a writer again and to change my usual pattern of life – and I did both things. Maybe I wasn’t as productive as I would have liked, but I did some decent work here, and the AIDS story will get published eventually.

I met some very good people here, got to experience fall in New England – at least the beginning of it – and I forced myself to become more flexible and adaptable. I’m definitely happy I came.

Now I have get myself to Colony Hall to meet Jeff at 10:30 AM. He came back early from the gym in town he goes to with a back injury from lifting weights – I know the feeling – and he kindly offered to drive me into Keene.

I’m all packed and ready to go . . . almost.


Saturday, September 19, 1987

Noon. Yesterday’s bus ride was very unpleasant. Jeff got me into Keene at 11 AM, and I called Florida on a push-button phone before I left in the van that took us to the bus in Brattleboro.

Although the day was rainy and raw, we made good time through Massachusetts, and I bought a sandwich in Springfield. In both Springfield and Hartford, it was interesting to see the new downtown construction and renovation.

The trouble started around 4 PM in New Haven when we started running into incredible rush-hour traffic. I-95 was bumper-to-bumper all the way to New York State. We made an unscheduled stop to eat at a Bridgeport McDonald’s, and then it was murder as we hit Stamford’s office center.

All in all, we were two hours late, and I spent eight hours on the bus. It took nearly 90 minutes just to get through the Bronx and Manhattan, and by then, I felt as if I’d been on that bus all my life.

At Port Authority, the lineup for cabs was long, but somehow I finally got one – traffic was bad even on West End Avenue – and I felt exhausted when I got here at Teresa’s.

Teresa left a note that she’d be in Fire Island and left me mail from Mom. After I went to the American diner for a bite to eat, I brought home some milk and orange juice.

When I got back, I paid the seven or so credit card bills I’d gotten, including my first Optima bill. Chemical Bank increased my MasterCard credit line from $1500 to $2500, so that’s another $1000 in new credit I’ve got.

I fell into a deep sleep fairly early. This weekend will be rainy and chilly here, and in a way I’d rather be in the city than at MacDowell in this weather.

On the other hand, New York City looks so gross, with such filth and creepy people, that I’m glad I’m going back to Florida soon.

I spoke to Ronna, who said she’d had a terrific time in St. Louis with her cousin and her family. Ronna said her mother is coming up from Florida on Wednesday for the Jewish holidays.

*

9 PM. I’ve just come back from dinner with Josh, who’s been having a lot of heartache lately. At one point tonight he said, “I’d like to have a chunk of your life.” I feel bad for him, but I do lead a wonderful life.

I’ll be glad to return to Florida at the end of the month because it’s getting colder here in New York and because I think it’s wise never to get too much of a good thing – as with MacDowell.

Today I spent catching up with my life. When the mailman saw me on Broadway, he said, “You’re not here,” because my letters are now being forwarded to Florida.

However, Mom is addressing my mail directly to Teresa, and I got more of it today: bills and a letter from Paul Fericano. I spoke to my parents tonight, and they said they hope I’ll bring cooler weather with me because it continues to be 92° every day there.

Before I called, they hadn’t looked to see if my column was in today’s Sun-Tattler, but when we were on the phone, they looked, and sure enough, the paper had run my piece on banks and credit cards that I wrote two weeks ago.

This tells me that the paper isn’t going to run any of the other six or seven columns I’ve sent them, and that I probably will have to write another one before my next column appears.

In a way this angers me, but it also frees me of having to come up with a column every two weeks. I don’t mind them appearing on an occasional basis, not after 22 columns have been published already.

I’ll try to find other markets for the pieces the Sun-Tattler doesn’t want, or maybe I’ll rewrite some of them.

I feel glad that I’ve got another column in print, particularly because I’d written it at MacDowell, but even if nothing had appeared, I wouldn’t feel bad because this afternoon I found the new issue of Between C & D at Shakespeare & Company.

My name is on the cover, along with those of Pete Cherches, Tama Janowitz, Catherine Texier and others.

It feels good to be in the company of cool young New York City writers in a hip East Village magazine.

For once, I feel almost fashionable, and maybe I should start thinking of myself as a failure – Freudian slip – as a success and not a failure.

(See how deep these things are?)

I bought four copies of the issue and I imagine other people seeing my story in it and thinking, “This is good, who’s this Grayson guy?”

Anyway, Mom and Dad sounded okay, and I told them in detail about m stay at MacDowell.

I spoke to Teresa in Fire Island, where she’s at war with her housemates whom she’s trying to lock out of the house. What else is new?

She’s gone to work for Norton and Pam at the chicken store, and just about everyone but me has told her that she should have stayed in personnel.

“But you’re Mr. Alternate Lifestyle,” Teresa said, “so it figures you’d like the idea.”

I just pray that Teresa can avoid her usual pattern. When she worked for Ed and Joseph or with Anna and Phyllis, it ended in a blowup which also ended the friendship.

Teresa has basically moved back here, and on Monday night, Eric will be over. He left a message for her from “Sid” – the nom de answering machine they made up – from London.

I figure that I’ll go to Rockaway on Monday then. Grandma Ethel says Aunt Tillie expects me for Rosh Hashona dinner on Wednesday night, so that may work out.

I’m torn between not wanting to be in Teresa’s way and not wanting to appear to be avoiding her. Because Eric is married, they obviously have to stay here in the apartment to be together. Well, I’ll play it by ear.

Grandma Ethel said that Marc’s ulcers and sinus condition were very bad while he was in New York City.

She told me she might be away, visiting Grandpa Herb’s grave, when I arrive at her apartment on Monday. Last night I dreamed I was having dinner with Grandpa Herb and we were driving over the Manhattan Bridge.

I worked out with Body Electric at 10 AM and didn’t feel I’m too out of shape; I don’t appear any fatter. In the late afternoon I did chest flyes and biceps curls with my 20-pound barbells. Gradually I’ll begin exercising more.

At 1:30 PM, I had my hair cut by Lourdes at The Upper Cut on 72nd Street; actually, my hair looked better long, but it feels cleaner now.

Across the street there was a rally against overdevelopment of the West Side. Speaker after speaker, including Josh’s friend Gene Russianoff, the mass transit activist, denounced Donald Trump’s plan for Television City.

Meanwhile, I noticed the Boulevard co-op on Broadway and 86th Street is going up fast.

After getting some cash advances at ATMs, I came home to read the Timestoday’s and yesterday’s – and watch the Bork hearings.

Reagan has announced that he’ll meet Gorbachev to sign a treaty reducing medium-range nuclear missiles; let’s hope it comes off.

I left a message for Alice, who’s in Boca Raton this weekend, and spoke to Justin, who’s been busy.

Justin told me that tonight’s Golden Girls would be about Alzheimer’s.

It turned out that Justin’s script on the same subject got to the director of the show the day before he taped this episode, and he called Justin to let him know and to say that Justin’s treatment rested on too many one-liners.

Justin’s week off with Larry was a much-needed tonic, and now he’s busy with numerous projects.

Last week, a reading of the Werbacher twins’ new play, What Would Esther Williams Do in a Situation Like This?, directed by Justin, went very well.

Meanwhile, Josh has really had a bad time of it while I was away.

He’d arranged for Simon’s sister to get him a courier job to London only to find out that Wanda, whom he’d hoped to see, suddenly dropped her friendly attitude and left a message saying she wanted to end their friendship and that Josh should never call her again.

Probably Wanda’s boyfriend freaked out and forced her to do it, but it was a terrible thing, and so undeserved.

Josh then got into hot water with Simon’s sister about canceling the trip, though in the end, no harm – except psychological – was really done.

Meanwhile, Josh’s neighbors are still harassing him, his landlord is stringing him along with promises of move-out money and co-ops, his mother – depressed by her blindness and Parkinson’s – is threatening suicide, and Larry keeps wondering if Blue Cross is going to fire him.

What Larry doesn’t know yet is that Josh told Joyce that he’ll go to work for her at the city Department of Transportation in November.

Joyce is someone that he trusts totally – unlike Larry – and she’s setting up an information center for engineers that will deal with PCs, local area networks, and CAD/CAM, all of which will look good on Josh’s résumé.

Besides, if he takes the position with Joyce, he can walk to work over the Brooklyn Bridge.

After we had dinner at Marvin Gardens, I walked Josh to the train and picked up the Sunday Times at the newsstand.TC mark

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