A Writer’s Diary Entries From Mid-April, 1988

Sunday, April 10, 1988

10 PM. “One of your dreams will prove profitable,” read the fortune cookie I opened after this evening’s Chinese dinner.

I’m certain that fortune will come true. Why? I don’t know. I just have this feeling that for a while, at least, money will come to me easily if I do what I want to do.

In a letter to Tom today, I said that that my writing is almost a hobby now – an urgent hobby, to be sure, but certainly I’ve never expected to make money from my fiction.

Although I may have secretly had some hope of a comfortable literary career, when I was in the MFA program, my models were the Fiction Collective authors, all obscure academics.

I, too, am an academic – or rather, a teacher – only now I teach mostly computer education workshops. I could probably teach other subjects, too.

With his letter to me, Tom sent along an essay of his from a little magazine, a sort of introduction to Robert Walser, stressing his self-effacement.

Walser, too, suffered great disappointment with the bleak sales of his early books and “increasingly he had to rely on his own will to create with the full knowledge that his writing would likely never see publication.”

Tom quotes Walser’s letter to Max Brod, who in 1927 was interesting in doing a book of Walser’s:

“I find the idea of publishing a book fine and interesting as long as it hasn’t happened. Every book that has been printed is after all a grave for its author, isn’t it?”

Walser “wrote himself into oblivion,” Tom says, and he did so willingly.

I’m not going to do that. Writing doesn’t obsess me in the same way, probably because I have other interests and enough skills to do okay in life apart from the world of fiction and poetry.

If I think of myself as an amateur (literally, someone who does something for the love it), then I’ve succeeded pretty well, haven’t I? How many hobbyist writers get an entry in Contemporary Literary Criticism?

Besides, I have to look at my life from the vantage point of the neurotic, frightened, whiny agoraphobic high school senior that I was twenty years ago.

But am I only making excuses for myself? For “downsizing” my ambitions?

Hey, enough mental masturbation – life is to be lived.

After reading the Sunday papers this morning, I exercised for an hour, watched the interview shows (it’s incredible, but old Nixon was on Meet the Press – the man is disgustingly irrepressible), did laundry, took a shower, watched Blake Edwards’s semi-funny Blind Date, read, got diarrhea, brought food from Kanton Kanton over to my parents’ and watched Susan Seidelman’s semi-funny Making Mr. Right before coming home.

Last night Teresa phoned, telling me I should call Josh and ask if he wanted to live in her empty apartment on York Avenue. Tomorrow she goes to contract on it.

Oddly enough, a few minutes later, Josh called to find out if I could recommend a good divorce lawyer in Miami for his brother.

Josh’s sister-in-law took off with the kids and most of the possessions in a move that Josh claims was orchestrated by her witch of a mother in New York, with whom she’s now living.

Apparently, this move was long-planned. She’s trying to get the North Miami Beach house, but the only thing Josh’s brother wants is to be able to see the kids.

Josh said his brother is too dumb to be able to handle this without help. So I mentioned it to Dad, and he said he’d ask Irv Littman, who knows every lawyer in North Dade.

You’d think Josh’s brother would be used to divorce after two earlier ones, but I guess the guy is very messed up.

Josh said he probably couldn’t stay in an apartment without furniture or a telephone but would call Teresa tomorrow to see what was cooking.


Wednesday, April 13, 1988

8 PM and the sun is just setting. I feel terrific tonight.

Last evening when I got home from Riviera Junior High, Dad left an obviously contrite message on my machine: he wanted to know how I was feeling, he hoped I’d be over for dinner, and he gave me the name of a divorce attorney for Josh’s brother from Irv.

Feeling mollified, I walked over to my parents’ house, and we made up. After having Italian food with them, I came home to call Josh, who’s now moved out of his apartment and is staying with Harry until his co-op deal is finalized.

“I have no home,” he said, a bit self-pityingly. I told him that’s been my natural state for the past four years.

Josh said that the lawyer Irv got was probably too expensive, but it was okay because his brother’s doctor had gotten him an attorney.

Josh told me that he felt very weird, and I said that I could understand that: Between his being in apartment limbo and his brother’s situation (plus, Josh said, “I think my father has finally run out of money), he was definitely in a lot of emotional distress.

Later in the evening, I called Ronna to wish her a happy birthday. She thanked me for the card I’d sent.

Ronna had just finished the first session of the adult literacy class she’s teaching at the St. Agnes library on Amsterdam and 81st. It went pretty well, she said, but she wanted to talk to me later about reading materials.

I didn’t want to keep her on the phone because her sister was over. Tonight, to celebrate their birthdays (Lori’s is Friday), Ronna and Lori are going out to a play.

Up early, I went over to my parents’ at 10 AM and worked out. After returning home to shower and dress, I drove to North Miami Beach, where I had lunch at Corky’s.

In Little Havana, I had my last session of the workshop at Flagler Elementary. This class was one of the most enjoyable I’ve taught because of the nice people – Cubans are generally very sweet – and because of the riches of CAI material in the computer classroom. Along with my students, I got to see some very good software.

Before leaving the school, I finished all the paperwork to make sure all the teachers get their credit (and salary bump), thus closing out another workshop.

Yesterday’s session doing Appleworks word processing at Riviera Junior High also went well. On Monday, I begin a new, twice-weekly workshop at Coral Gables Senior High School – my last teaching gig of the school year.

At BCC this evening, I xeroxed some personal material as well as stuff for Saturday’s creative writing class.

Sally told me that she’s moving to Durham, North Carolina, where her family lives. She turned down the offer to interview for a full-time job at South Campus because she doesn’t want to waver in her decision to leave Florida.

Sally filed a sex discrimination suit against the English Department for hiring three men instead of her this winter, and she figured they were just trying to placate her by giving her this interview at South.

Later, when I was alone in the office, Dr. Grasso came in and mentioned Sally’s lawsuit.

I think she made a good case when she said that the previous six appointments the department made were all women, that she hadn’t hired a man for a full-time job since Bill Senior.


Saturday, April 16, 1988

9 PM. Last evening, after having dinner with my parents at the Best Deli, I returned to my apartment.

I fell asleep toward the end of Nixon in China. I couldn’t see it because my 15-year-old black-and-white TV gets only the sound, and not the picture, on Channel 2.

In spite of that – or because of it – the opera haunted my dreams.

Still, I got some quality sleep and felt alert when I awoke this morning.

In my creative writing workshop at BCC, we went over a ten-page story by Tim Murphy, probably the most talented member of the class.

Tim had written some incredibly elegiac scenes, and overall his piece was moving and wistful.

An IBM employee in his fifties, Tim is interested in taking other creative writing classes and today showed me some information he’d received from Les Standiford about FIU’s new MFA program, which is expected to be approved this fall.

The class discussion of Tim’s dialogue was intelligent and appreciative, and it zeroed in on some of the problems of the piece.

The tone of Tim’s work apparently inspired Rob Fletcher, another man in his fifties, to write a moving essay about a schizophrenic employee of his who committed suicide last week.

As Rob read aloud the part about preparing the payroll and having to cross off the 25-year-old guy’s name, Rob’s voice cracked and he had to stop until he regained his composure.

Gil Braiman and Joe Goldstein both handed in poems – flowing love poems that rhymed, although Joe had consciously written an Elizabethan sonnet in imitation of those he’s been reading in Sally’s English 102 class.

During the break, I xeroxed their poems and looked for a literature text to find examples of contemporary or at least modern poetry, but all I could find in the English Department office was the little magazine, The South Florida Poetry Review, from which I xeroxed several pages of poems.

Luckily, they were pretty good poems by people like Edward Byrne (my old MFA classmate, now a professor at Valparaiso University), Jeanne Larsen (whom I knew at VCCA) and Louis Rubin, and reading them stimulated my students’ growing realization of what poetry could be made to do.

“Reading these makes me want to try writing poems,” one student said.

I’ve devalued this term’s experience teaching creative writing because my students were older people without literary knowledge or literary ambition.

But now I see it’s probably more important to teach people like them than it is to deal with today’s savvy MFA students or coldly ambitious literary undergraduates with their eyes on getting published by Knopf or The New Yorker.

Hopefully, my experiences teaching creative writing this term will make me a better Writer-in-Residence if the Rockland Center for the Arts grant is approved.

Back at my parents’, I found a letter from Richard Kostelanetz announcing that he’d finally found a publisher for an American version of his USIA book based on the radio shows of American Writing Today. (By law, the USIA book can only be distributed abroad.)

There’ll be no royalties, but I’m glad that my discussion with Steve Dixon, Ken Gangemi and Carol Emshwiller will be featured in the big $50 volume. Perhaps the book might even get reviewed somewhere.

Last week I sent out copies of With Hitler in New York to some of the writers in the Michigan Quarterly Review symposium. I was too shy to include a note or even a return address, but Clarence Major found me and sent a letter I got today that was both kind and complimentary.

Perhaps other writers also looked at the book.

I’m starting to feel more like a writer these days. Huh, maybe I’ll even do some writing eventually.

After lunch, I paid my bills, read the papers, and exercised to the Body Electric show I’d taped earlier today.

Very tired following my workout, I lay down for a couple of hours before going out for the Sunday Herald and also the Village Voice, which I haven’t read in months but which is good preparation for returning to New York.

It’s still quite chilly up there, Teresa said when she called me from Douglaston, where she was looking after her niece, nephew and grandmother while her sister was attending a Women’s Bar Association conference in Lake George. (Their parents are still in Florida.)

When Teresa showed up for work on Monday, she found that Frank had hired a receptionist. Basically, that leaves her with little to do at the office, and after a big blowup, Frank told her not to come in.

Now, maybe they’ll straighten it out, but I don’t see Teresa working for Frank and his partner Ceil for very much longer.

But Teresa needed the extra money she got from that job.

She still doesn’t have the lease for the Fire Island house, and she’s afraid her landlord will take advantage of her late payment to jack up the price for the summer.


Monday, April 18, 1988

8 PM. I feel very tired now, probably a result of the sinus infection which kept me glued to my pillow all last night; I was barely able to rouse myself this morning. Part of my exhaustion also may be due to the stress of a new workshop.

At noon, I left home and had lunch at Corky’s in North Miami Beach. Then I went to Coral Gables Senior High School, reportedly the wealthiest high school in the Dade school district – and the campus, students and faculty all look it.

At the main office, they had my workshop materials – most of them, anyway – but no one there was certain what room the class would be in.

Finally someone told me she thought it was in room 220, so I went up there, getting permission from the math department chair to use the room and getting instructions from the classroom teacher on how to close up.

But after ten minutes, no one had shown up, so I figured I was in the wrong place. After closing up, I returned to the main office, where a secretary said she was busy and would be with me in a minute.

Then a woman came by, asking, “Are you the computer teacher?” It turned out the class was being held in room 266, only no one had bothered to tell me.

So typical of the Miami public schools, I thought.

I have about 15 students, and we’re meeting in a business classroom without any computers that have software for the subject areas (language arts, math, science, social studies) that the course is supposed to be about.

And only a few of my own CAI programs worked because their computers didn’t have graphics cards.

I can see this course having the same kind of problems I had at Hialeah-Miami Lakes High School, where I was entirely on my own.

Anyway, I began by talking about the basics: the parts of a micro, input and output, peripheral devices. Then I had them boot up DOS (at least I had a supply of DOS disks) and get a little into BASIC.

Though nobody seemed really lost or upset, I felt the session went poorly. For the novice user, IBM PCs are so much less friendly than Apples.

But two-thirds of the teachers are English teachers, and they seem to want to learn word processing, so perhaps I can teach them PC-Write or another easy program.

We’ll see. I have to think about it and how best to adapt myself to the group and the setting.

Getting home on U.S. 1, I-95 and the turnpike was the typical rush hour nightmare. On Wednesday, I may just have dinner in the Grove and drive home later.

Back in Davie, Jonathan had made pasta for me and Mom. (Dad was still at the menswear show, and I caught him only as I was leaving.)

Now I feel ready to drop off, but I can’t imagine going to sleep this early.

Today the U.S. and Iran have been fighting in the Persian Gulf: another mess Reagan’s got us into.


Wednesday, April 20, 1988

9 PM. I started feeling better last night.

I was glad Dukakis won 53% of the vote in the New York primary, with Jackson at 38% and Gore far behind. Koch’s endorsement of Gore and his subsequent vicious personal attacks on Jackson backfired, as even the Mayor admitted last night.

Although everyone is disdainful of Dukakis’s plodding style, I admire his grace and cool spirit, and I’m glad he’ll probably be the Democratic nominee.

I doubt Dukakis can beat Bush, but at least he’ll be a fairly effective candidate and give the Republicans a run for their money.

After waking up feeling refreshed, I worked out to a Body Electric tape featuring aerobic dancing.

Afterwards, I was so sweaty that I had to read the paper and prepare for today’s workshop for half an hour before I could cool down enough to take a shower and know I wouldn’t come out of it sweaty again.

(That’s South Florida for you.)

Taking the rental car down I-95 and U.S. 1 to Coconut Grove, I had lunch at The Great Tropical Pizza Company (where the CocoPlum Cafe used to be).

It’s nice to be able to spend time in the Grove and the Gables among the kind of people I might see on the streets of Manhattan’s Upper West Side or Lower East Side.

On the Miracle Mile, I even did a little shopping and some banking at the First Nationwide Savings branch there.

My class at Coral Gables High School went well today. After a brief lecture on the history of computers, I had the students use an Introduction to the IBM PC disk, a tutorial the business teacher showed me they had.

All that took up nearly two hours, and then Ms. Simon took us to her room, where AT&T has set up 20 terminals for their system, which is UNIX-based and has Writer’s Workbench.

The teachers, having been given logon names and passwords, were able to get into the system and go through the tutorial.

I was fascinated by the style checker/prose analyzer that Ms. Simon showed me. She printed out a report analyzing the opening section of Gatsby, and the results were fascinating.

AT&T assembled this system as a trial in the hopes that the school will buy it. Although Ms. Simon likes it, the program has been hard to learn and the hardware has given her some problems.

Leaving Coral Gables at 5:30 PM, I took Bird Road into the Palmetto and got into Broward via I-75.

It really is interesting to see different schools all over Dade County and learn about the different methods and styles used in teaching.

I learn a lot more from watching Writer’s Workbench in operation in my job than I ever could by taking a grad course.

At my house, I switched cars and went to BCC to pick up my puny paycheck and to xerox “You’ve Got to Give Me Credit” (which I got back from the Writers at Work competition) and other stories.

After grabbing a sandwich at the BCC snack bar – even at 7 PM, it was warm and sticky out – I went over to my parents’, where Mom had a surprise for me: in advance of my birthday, she bought me a 4-inch Watchman TV.

I’ll probably make good use of it, and I appreciate the gift – although since Mom has been hinting about it, it wasn’t totally unexpected.

Unfortunately, the TV didn’t play, so we had go to Service Merchandise to exchange it for another Sony Watchman.

I still need to buy an adapter at Radio Shack so I can plug it in when I’m indoors.

Back home, I read the letter I got from Tom in today’s mail.

Responding to my saying I didn’t really feel a part of the literary world, Tom wrote that he wishes he could get away from it.

But his job at NOCCA keeps him in that world – even as the Dalkey Archives rejection (he sent a copy of it, along with his response) convinces him that no literary press will publish one of his books.

Meanwhile, USA Today touts “THE hot young writer,” 24-year-old Michael Chabon, whose Mysteries of Pittsburgh has gotten him the same raves, movie deals and great P.R. as the other Literary Brat Packers.

I can only look on with bemusement, but one thing I have to remember: I, too, published my first book at an early age.

I was just 27 when With Hitler in New York was published. Nothing can change that.

So nobody read it, and it sold only 500 copies: it’s still an okay book. I hope that some of the writers I sent it to last week take a look inside.TC mark

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