A Writer’s Diary Entries From Late March, 1988

Tuesday, March 22, 1988

8 PM. I started to feel better about myself last evening after I’d had dinner, gone grocery shopping, and read the Publishers Weekly article about the short story “boom” that Nat Sobel had sent along with his letter.

Basically, the article stated that despite the hype, no one can make a living writing short stories; even Ann Beattie said she would earn less than $10,000 if she published only short stories.

I wrote Sobel back, not a nasty letter but a kind one, explaining that I didn’t wish to write novels, and certainly not novels to order, but that I appreciated his interest.

In the letter, I exaggerated my financial situation and said I didn’t need income from my writing. Actually, that isn’t far from the truth.

Even back in the MFA program, I never expected to make money from my fiction because I could see that Baumbach and Spielberg and all the Fiction Collective writers didn’t.

It’s only with the advent of Raymond Carver and Bobbie Ann Mason, Ann Beattie and Jayne Anne Phillips, and all the hype surrounding the young Brat Packers that literary fiction writers have become high-paid celebrities.

Of course, that’s exactly the thing I was mocking in my work a dozen years ago: I had fun with the idea that a short story writer could be a media celebrity. And I further poked fun at money and fame and power with my publicity stunts and political pranks.

While it appears the joke may have been on me, I suspect I may hang out long enough to get the last laugh.

After catching up on my magazines on Monday night, I slept really well. This morning I got up late, read the Times, deposited $1400 in ATM cash advances into the bank, and picked up my mail: several credit card bills and the two issues of the Michigan Quarterly Review on contemporary American fiction, edited by Nicholas Delbanco, that I had ordered.

Tom said the issues of the magazine weren’t worth it, but I want to take the measure of the field circa 1988. I skimmed the writers’ symposium and was pleased to see even a brief mention of my name and work (by Richard Kostelanetz, God bless him), and I cheered on one of George Garrett’s diatribes against the Star System.

Garrett said that in his experience, all the Big Names are really self-serving nasty people, and I’m sure he’s not lying.

At this point, I feel I don’t need literary success. At Bread Loaf in 1977, I was unwilling to play the game and suck up to the big shots, and I’ve always felt uncomfortable with literary politics (or worse, academic politics).

As a former Presidential and town council candidate, give me real politics any day.

Driving along the Turnpike Extension this afternoon, I thought about my life and career and how I’ve adjusted to whatever disappointments I’ve had. Of course, I’ve also had a lot of joy and pleasure along the way.

Perhaps, having accepted the fact that I’ll only be published in little magazines that no one reads, I can recapture that sense of freedom and playfulness my writing had when I was first starting out.

Also, I know that for nearly a year, I proved that I could write a decent humor column in a newspaper. Even if nobody but myself, my friends and family appreciated my Sun-Tattler columns, it can’t be said that I didn’t write a lot and get published.

My class at Riviera Junior High was marred by learning about the theft of another printer last week. The custodian claims I left the door unlocked, but I know that’s not true.

Mr. Friedman, the classroom teacher, told me he thinks it’s an inside job and they’re setting it up to make it look like I was careless.

But I am troubled by even the hint of suspicion on me, or even on the teachers in my class.


Wednesday, March 23, 1988

9 PM. All day I’ve had a bad pain in the middle of my stomach, just below the breastbone: the kind of irritation I associate with heartburn, ulcers, hiatus hernia and gall bladder problems. Tonight Mom gave me a Tagamet, and perhaps that will help.

It was 4 AM or later before I drifted off to sleep, and I was up before 8 AM. (I did have one nice dream about being a tourist in Chicago, though).

Although I forced myself to work out for half an hour, I wasn’t sure how I’d get through my class at Flagler Elementary.

Before I left, I had only a little yogurt for lunch, and on the ride to Miami, I felt very uncomfortable. But once I started teaching, my mind was occupied, and we had a rather nice session, which ended with individual explorations of CAI software.

Back in Davie, I went to Broward Community College to pick up my measly paycheck and to xerox the surrealistic story, “Things Are Closer Than They Appear,” which I began writing during my last week at MacDowell and which I completed last night.

Sally Drucker and the other English adjunct, the older woman from St. Louis, told me that the three full-time teaching jobs all went to young men who had less experience and worse credentials than they did. Two of the unsuccessful candidates have begun a legal action against BCC, charging them with age and sex discrimination.

It just shows that things never change at the BCC-Central English Department.

Despite my stomachache, I went out to Wendy’s for baked potatoes with my parents.

If I feel sick again tomorrow, at least I have the day off and won’t be missing any work.


Friday, March 25, 1988

8 PM. Early this morning I headed across the street and exercised for an hour to a couple of Body Electric tapes even though my legs and shoulders were still a bit sore from yesterday’s workout.

I’ve come to crave exercise, and I like the changes in my body even if no one notices them. (Yesterday Dave did ask if I’d been working out after noting that my neck looked big; I told him it was just fat.)

When I came downstairs, Dad had brought in the mail, and there was a nice surprise for me: a brand-new Citibank Preferred Visa with a $5000 credit line (of which $3000 is available for cash advances).

For years I’ve been trying to get a gold Citibank Visa, and even though I got a “pre-approved” notice (not here, but at the Upper West Side address), I didn’t expect to get one from this application.

Considering all the credit cards I have and all the money I owe on them, it surprises me that I was able to get another card. Yet perhaps being a good customer (I pay on time every month, and I roll over excessive balances) outweighed my humongous credit lines.

I’ve just updated my spreadsheet of credit cards, and I’m  now up to $135,000 in unsecured credit.

I used my new gold card – Visa is dropping the old “Premier” labels soon, but my card still carries the old format – to take out a $1000 cash advance, which I deposited in my California Federal account, and to order $500 worth of travelers’ cheques from Thomas Cook

I also used my new card to pay my rent for April at the rental office, where I also gave notice that I’m leaving at the end of the month.

Citibank is supposedly sending me a set of cash advance checks and an ATM PIN code as well.

Anyway, I was thrilled. It had been six months since I’d gotten a new credit card, and I feel my strategies are paying off.

It turns out that I’ll be making another $800 by staying on an extra day in Florida to do a Monday/Wednesday TEC workshop for FIU at Coral Gables Senior High School. It starts April 18 and ends May 4.

Originally, it was supposed to end May 9, but I told Sophie I couldn’t stay until then and suggested they tack on another twenty minutes to each of the six sessions before that.

Since my flight is currently for the morning of May 4, I’ll have to postpone returning to New York for one day, but I think it’s worth it.

I’ve already taught the workshop, Computers in the Secondary Subject Areas, and this afternoon I xeroxed all the handouts I gave to the students at Hialeah-Miami Lakes High School.

(The best thing about continuing to teach at BCC is having access to a xerox machine. I must have made about 500 free copies of workshop handouts, plus my own stories and other junk.)

Between all my TEC workshops for FIU and my four BCC classes between last term and this one, I’ll have taught the equivalent of six or seven classes this academic year. That’s a full-time professor’s schedule, but my salary is so pathetic. And of course, I get no benefits.

When I saw Dad this morning, he told me the bad news he got from his accountant last night: Dad owes $16,800 in taxes this year. His high income put him in the 33% tax bracket for 1987.

But Dad knows his future earnings prospects aren’t bright. Although he’s having another good year now and he’s managed to save some money, Bugle Boy probably won’t be hot very much longer, and at Dad’s age, it’s unlikely he’ll ever get another “hot” line.

That’s why he’s almost glad he and Mom haven’t bought a new house yet: “At least now I can sleep at night, knowing I can meet my expenses.”

The Dow Jones average fell 90 points in the last two days.


Monday, March 28, 1988

10 PM. Last Monday I was upset by that literary agent’s letter, but over the past week I’ve read the Delbanco-edited issues of the Michigan Quarterly Review on Contemporary American Fiction and the tenth anniversary issue of American Book Review, both of which contained symposia on the state of literature today, and I see that my problems are not unique.

Raymond Federman said that while he was exhilarated and excited by the fiction coming out in the late ’60s and early ’70s, today’s stuff is merely competent and quite boring.

Other writers commented on the current lack of passion in contemporary fiction and the lack of concern with social issues, public life and cultural values. The minimalist/neo-realist Brat Pack/New Yorker writers are mostly coolly looking inward.

In yesterday’s Fort Lauderdale News, Chauncey Mabe had a column on Ethan Canin, the latest of Knopf’s short story collection authors. He’s 27, just out of medical school, Ivy League, polished – everything I wasn’t at his age.

I started to feel bad, but then I thought back, not ten years, but twenty years.

What prospects did I have in the summer of ’68, when I graduated from Midwood High School? If my classmates had known anything about me, I probably would have been voted Mostly Likely to End Up in a Mental Institution.

While I don’t like to use my emotional problems as an excuse, back then the agoraphobia and panic attacks made my life very difficult. In a way, I’m lucky I’m still not housebound and a neurotic wreck.

If I haven’t achieved my goals – and I need to remember that I, too, had my first hardcover short story collection published at 27 – I certainly have surpassed any expectations my family or friends had for me in 1968.

Besides, today I read a quote by Samuel Beckett to the effect that to be an artist is to be a failure. If I don’t risk failure, what’s the point?

And by the way, I finally have had an insight why, when there were so many of us in the teenage years in the 1960s, there were no teen movies, and why, when there were so many of us writing in our twenties, there were no publishers doing our books.

It was precisely the size of the early baby boom cohort that frightened the powers that be. We had a counterculture.

It was only when teens and young adults adopted the values of the ruling class in the 1980s and were too small a group to be a threat anyway, that we got our cinematic and literary Brat Packs.

If last Monday’s letter from Nat Sobel depressed me, today I was cheered by a letter from William Greider, whom I’d written after I finished Secrets of the Temple.

He liked my letter and “I Saw Mommy Kissing Citicorp” (which he “took the liberty of sending to Lewis Lapham at Harpers” ) and said I was “one of those interesting eccentric minds” that his book had brought him in contact with.

I feel flattered and gratified that Greider took my ideas seriously.

Boy, everyone’s excited after the Jesse Jackson landslide win in Michigan. What if Jackson has more delegates than anyone else after the primaries? Either the Democrats would alienate the blacks and his other supporters by not nominating him, or else Jesse gets the nomination and is destroyed by Bush and the Republicans.

Today I got up late and read the paper, took out another $1000 cash advance on my new gold Citibank Visa, had lunch at Corky’s in Lauderhill, listened to talk shows, cleaned out my closet and wrote letters to Miriam, Crad, Todd, Gretchen and Susan.

I got my ticket to Orlando, but Ronna hasn’t yet called to let me know what’s what.


Tuesday, March 29, 1988

10 PM. Ronna called late last night after returning from a reading by Albert Innaurato (he read a long story about last year’s Gay Pride parade) and told me her mother said it was fine for me to come.

Ronna herself is nervous about the plane ride. Unlike me, she worries about a crash. Today I got a return ticket for late Friday afternoon, but if I can get up early enough on Thursday morning, I may drive to Orlando instead.

While I’m a bit nervous about even this little trip, I’ve got to go – if nothing else, to make up for the New Orleans fiasco.

The flight from Fort Lauderdale to Orlando is very short, and it shouldn’t bother me that much. Ronna said someone could meet me at the airport. It would be nice to see Ronna and her family again.

After getting off the phone, I read Randy Shilts’s And The Band Played On till about midnight, and then I couldn’t fall sleep as my mind raced with a million thoughts, some of them about the horrors of AIDS.

It’s hard to remember when the disease entered into my consciousness, but according to Shilts’s book, the epidemic became official when the first mention of it appeared in the Centers for Disease Control’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on Friday, June 5, 1981, the day after my 30th birthday.

My parents were in New York City that Friday for Cousin Jeffrey’s bar mitzvah, and they took me out to dinner at Beefsteak Charlie’s in Sheepshead Bay – I guess they weren’t vegetarians then – and afterwards we saw Divine in John Waters’s Polyester (with those Odorama cards) at the Avenue U Theater.

A year later, I was having my first (and only) homosexual relationship with Sean. I felt embarrassed because I was so inexperienced and didn’t like anal sex very much. My distaste for it may or may not have saved my life.

I’m just lucky. I could never understand the attractions of anonymous, promiscuous sex in the back rooms, the trucks, and the baths. It wasn’t because I was particularly moral. It was a matter of taste, or maybe I was just scared.

Anyway, I pondered this and other things until I finally dropped off to sleep at 5:30 AM.

I slept briefly and lightly but did have one good dream, about being part of a community of three different tribes, who reminisced about how foolish they were in the old days when they constantly made war against each other.

This morning I felt fuzzy, and I didn’t get out of bed until Teresa phoned from the office. She’s over her cold, but there’s a flu going around New York that her mother and sister have.

Teresa decided to rent a half-share in Fire Island to this guy Tod, a writer and small-press publisher; now she still needs to find one more person for the summer.

Things at the office don’t sound very good. Teresa feels Ceil, Frank’s partner, is out to get her, and she doesn’t like Emory, the gay guy who works there. So I’m not sure she’s going to stay in the job.

My class at Riviera Junior High went fine today. I showed PFS:Write and Bank Street Writer on the TV monitor, and then I let them practice word processing with AppleWorks. As I told my students, mastering word processing is just a matter of practice.

I got my paycheck from FIU today – it came to $1495 – and also my MHT student loan application for the summer, which I sent off to Teachers College.TC mark

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