A 24-Year-Old’s Diary Entries From Mid-January, 1976


Thursday, January 8, 1976

11 PM.  Another semester has ended, and I have the rest of the month to myself. I’ll try to make good use of the free time and not squander it with ennui or meaningless activities.

Last night’s final exam was fairly straightforward. I didn’t give Prof. Murphy a postcard, but he’ll probably give me an A in the class, as I’m sure Baumbach will for both the Workshop and the Tutorial.

The people at the Junction meeting last night were me, Marie, Donny, Michael Malinowitz and Debra Quinlan. The first issue came out, and it’s quite handsome, although I wonder about the quality of the writing, especially the prose.

We’ve got to have another meeting when all the copies arrive, and Marie wants us to have a publication party, too. She showed me a photo of myself she’d taken in the office, and I couldn’t bear to look at it.

In the meantime, I’ve got the submissions for the prose for the spring issue. From this experience as a literary magazine editor, I’ll probably learn to tolerate rejections more easily.

Today I got a rejection from American Review for “Au Milieu Intérieur,” but they wrote, “Try again,” which is the first encouragement I’ve ever received from that publication. I’m going to try to get into some bigger markets now, and ones that pay, too.

This afternoon Simon implied that his own stories were too good for the little magazines and that he wouldn’t deign to send things to the places where I’ve been accepted. “Maybe my weakest stories,” he said. Simon is still so infuriatingly patronizing!

I’m going to send out a batch of stories tomorrow, and then I’m going to cool it and concentrate on my writing – which is, after all, the important thing.

Last night I slept well after getting home too late for Marc’s 21st birthday cake: the family, Bonnie and Steven were here. I can still remember the morning in January 1955 when I learned I had a brother; I was so happy, and if I did feel any jealousy then, I’ve repressed it.

Marc and I haven’t been the closest of brothers – he and Jonny are closer – but we have always respected each other. Today he asked me for advice about a personal problem, and I was flattered, as I was when Dad came to me last week.

Fern is home from school, and Marc thinks she doesn’t want to see him because she’s going through some emotional difficulties, something akin to what I had. I guess Marc still cares for Fern and wants to help her; I find that admirable.

Last night I dreamed of Jonny as a baby. Now that he’s a teenager, I’ve forgotten how much I adored him when he was a toddler. I used to think he was the greatest child in the world, and the feelings came back to me in several dreams last night.

My final class at LIU this morning was both a letdown and an anticlimax. At least Willie Rodriguez showed up to take the final; Mrs. South didn’t appear Tuesday or today, and I’m going to have to give her an Incomplete.

Mr. Cato, Mercedes Pessoa, and Arnold Batta didn’t come in to write their final paragraph today; I’m probably going to fail Arnold, who got a 38 on the test.

With the exception of a few students like Guilaine Richard and Daisy Soto, most of them didn’t do any work. I probably let them get away with too much because I wanted to be a nice guy.

But being easy doesn’t really help them to learn anything; still, I was gratified by the remarks Guilaine and Daisy wrote at the end of their finals, and by the comments Guadalupe made on Tuesday.

It was the first time in college for all my students and the first fall term teaching for me; hopefully, we’ll all improve as we go along. I wouldn’t take back the experience for the world.

In our last Fiction Workshop today, we went over a story of Sharon’s. It will be good to take a break from the class before our last term in the MFA program.

On campus, I ran into Linda, who looked very well, with a deep tan from Puerto Rico. She said she’s almost through with her course work at the Graduate Center and will begin her dissertation soon.

Tuesday, January 13, 1976

5 PM. I don’t know if it’s the cold or what, but I feel so depressed, so listless, as though I haven’t any energy. It’s probably a complex combination of things.

I know enough about myself to know that my physical illnesses are very often somatic reactions to changes in my life, and mostly those changes having to do with loss.

My last illness, the stomach virus, came at a time when I knew Ronna and I were breaking up; since then, I really haven’t had any significant loss – or any significant illness, either.

The day after Rochelle Wouk told me she was leaving me without a therapist, I caught the flu. With Mrs. Ehrlich, my reaction when I had to stop therapy was almost entirely emotional, but I was prepared for that loss.

Now I am facing a new year fraught with change, really significant change. For while I may be light-years away from that 17-year-old boy who holed himself up in his room eight winters ago, the fact remains that we both are children living in our parents’ house.

And for the last seven years, I’ve been going to college, where I did well, where it was easy for me to succeed academically, socially, politically. But last night I registered for my final semester of college; for the first time, there will be no “next semester” in the fall.

I don’t regret not going on for my Ph.D.; at this point, I think that would be a cop-out. Last night, expressing her reaction to my not continuing my education, Sharon said, “But, Richard, you’re a student!”

The future is very, very uncertain. I have no job, no place to live, nor any idea of what I am going to do with my life. Deep down, there is a demon suggesting that without college studies to keep me going, I will have a breakdown, as I did in ’68-’69, the last year in which I did not attend school.

After graduating law school in Seattle, Sindy wrote that she misses being a student already, but I’m not yet out of school, and already I miss it.

Things are also so uncertain with my family. Dad is ruining his health worrying about his business; he just cannot seem to make up his mind what to do, and it’s costing him financially, emotionally and physically.

Dad took Joel back at his old exorbitant salary, knowing Joel won’t produce at work after he quit so hastily back in the fall. Mom says it’s because Dad wants Michael to get Joel’s support money.

Mom was angered by something Aunt Sydelle said yesterday about Grandpa Nat being “torn” between the business and Florida; Sydelle said that Grandpa Nat had intended to go back to Miami Beach yesterday, but Mom disputed this.

Last year, when Dad had a chance to go partners with that guy in his building, Grandpa Nat vetoed the idea, feeling that he still wanted to work. As it turned out, the man’s business failed and he’s gone from 87 Fifth Avenue, but who’s to say it wouldn’t have worked out better if Dad had gone in with him?

Dad claims he can’t go out of business because then his customers wouldn’t pay him their debts, but I’m not sure that makes sense. And he seems so willing to follow Lennie into anything when it’s so patently obvious that Dad has never made any money in his dealings with Lennie going back for years.

So Dad just plods along half-assed, taking Marc into the business or not, taking tranquilizers, smoking, and overeating. But I’m not in much better shape.

Last night Mom said she and Dad would pay my way if I wanted to fly down to Florida for a few days. That is tempting, the idea of sitting in the sun . . . But I don’t know if it would solve anything.

I’m bound to come out of this blue funk within a couple of weeks; I’m already wishing that February were here. I even think it’s February; I bought Alice a birthday card, knowing her birthday’s on the 16th, but forgetting that it’s a month away.

Well, maybe I’ll have to go through another week or two of this depression until I reintegrate my circuits to cope with the changes coming in my life. The daily rejection notices do not help much, I have to admit. And I cannot seem to write a line.

Wednesday, January 14, 1976

Slowly my strength and spirits are returning. I went to LIU this afternoon and completed all my marking. It was a great deal of work and quite a chore, but I’m glad it’s all over. I love teaching, but the clerical work that is part of final grades is a total bore.

I handed Margaret all my keys and told her I’d be available next semester if anything turns up. There were pluses and minuses to this term, but on the whole, teaching at LIU again was a rewarding experience.

Last evening I called Ronna after deciding I was being foolish in not speaking to her until she called me first. She was on the other phone, her sister told me, and would call me back.

Half an hour later, Ronna called, saying that I was the second of two calls she was planning to make that night. She had been talking to Ivan before me.

“How’s Ivan?” I asked.

“Fine,” she said. “He’s still working, still seeing Vicky, and that’s about it.”

I could tell from the matter-of-fact way she said it that something was wrong, but I passed over it as Ronna told me her big news: she was accepted into the American Studies program at Penn State.

She got the letter at home on Friday, and her mother called her at the office; naturally, Ronna burst into tears when she heard.

She was accepted for the winter trimester after it had already begun, so she wrote them, asking to be considered for the fall term. (Ronna hopes to work for a summer stock theater company this summer.)

I was so happy to hear Ronna’s good news, as I feel I share in her good fortune. Till the time comes, Ronna will continue to work at Telenet, although they’ve asked her not to leave.

I told Ronna about some of the things I’ve been doing and then said, “I think I’m beginning to be a garrulous old bore.” Ronna said she liked hearing me talk.

I said, “So you don’t call Ivan back either?” and she said, “Well, we went out before Thanksgiving, and he didn’t call me since then.”

Then the other phone rang, and Ronna excused herself; I could just barely make out that she was talking to Susan. I heard Ronna say, “Why did I tell him? I felt so foolish . . . that night in Neponsit.”

When Ronna returned to the phone with me, I said, bluffing, “You know I just heard every word you said. Do you want to talk about it?”

She was horribly embarrassed and said, “I didn’t want you to know . . . I feel so foolish.”

Tonight she told Ivan that their last date, their only date in the past four years, had stirred up feelings and hopes that had only led to disappointment. Ivan didn’t say much. When Ronna asked, he said he would probably marry Vicky.

“Didn’t you realize I knew about your feelings for Ivan already, before you told me or before I overheard you talking to Susan?” I told Ronna. “I know you, Caplan; I know your feelings by now, and if there’s anyone you shouldn’t feel foolish with, it’s me. After all, I’m in a similar position.”

(And, to avoid feeling foolish myself, I mentioned my feelings for Avis, not my feelings for her.)

“Why should you feel foolish?” I asked Ronna. “Because you were honest with yourself and with Ivan? You did a very difficult thing, and I admire you for it.”

Finally she said she felt somewhat better. It’s a comedy, really – or some bad Chekhov play. I love Ronna; Ronna loves Ivan; Ivan loves Vicky. But there’s little Ronna can do to get Ivan, and there’s little I can do to get Ronna. She told me, point-blank, that I can’t give her what she needs.

This afternoon, I spoke on the telephone with Richard Kostelanetz, the young poet and critic whose new book, The End of Intelligent Writing: Literary Politics in America, has stirred such controversy.

I agreed with many of his conclusions, particularly on the “death” of the novel, and I wanted to tell him so. He was very kind and told me that I should come to one of his readings around town and introduce myself.

I want to break into the New York literary scene, and modeling myself after Alice, I decided to be direct and pushy. Because Peggy said there wasn’t much work today, I didn’t go into the Fiction Collective office.

Saturday, January 17, 1976

2 PM. I feel like I’m drowning in depression. I haven’t been like this in years. It seems absolutely everything is going wrong. Little things make me cry. I am lonely. My life seems a waste. Nobody loves me. I pity myself. But the pain is real; it is.

For a while I thought today would bring me out of it. Last night I was so desperate that I called Ronna. She was not home, of course, and her brother thought she was with Henry, and all evening when the phone rang, I hoped it would be Ronna calling me, but every call was for Marc.

Finally, at 11 PM, she called, after I had fallen asleep with the help of the four tranquilizers I swallowed all at once hours earlier when I thought I could not get through the evening. Frankly, I was surprised that she called, though I’d never given up hoping.

I was really a jerk on the phone, telling her how lonely and upset I was, and if I could just see her, it would make me feel so much better.

She said she had to do the Alumni Class Notes tonight, but I told her that if I came over, I would not interfere or be any bother – how I hate myself for being so obsequious! – and finally she said all right, I could come over for a little while.

All day it was the only thing I was looking forward to; I even bought a new shirt to wear tonight. And half an hour ago, Ronna calls: I knew why immediately, and she must have sensed it, for she said, “Is anything the matter?”

I knew the gist of what was coming; the specifics were that she had been informed this morning that there would be a party at her grandmother’s tonight, and attendance is compulsory.

The Class Notes, which had been so important that she couldn’t make a date with me, suddenly can wait now, and of course, so can I. I hung up without giving her a chance to finish.

Why do I waste my time and energy on that girl when she’s made it patently obvious by her actions that she couldn’t give a damn about me?

I don’t care what Ronna says: about missing our date that night because she “forgot about the time” in talking and drinking with her bosses at Telenet and about not returning my phone calls and now this.

I know that if it were Ivan coming over tonight, her grandmother’s party would not count for much. And if he had called while she were out last evening, she’d run to the phone immediately upon getting the message.

If Ronna were honest with herself, she’d know it, too. I can’t ever have a relationship with her again.

As Avis said to me the other night, “I’ve learned that there are people you can have a relationship with, and other people with whom it is just a one-way street.”

I’ve got to learn what Avis and Libby have learned. Libby, by the way, wrote Avis a long letter from Cardiff, where Les had taken her along on an interview. She’s so happy with Les in England and feels as though she’s been there for her whole life.

And his parents treat her wonderfully, and Leslie himself seems to be so sweet – and very talented too, with a chance of getting into the Royal Academy of Art.

One evening, while Libby and Les were sitting on the floor, her knees pressed against him, she heard him ask her to marry him, and then heard herself say “Yes.” But they don’t think about that now; they just want to enjoy the time they have together.

Mrs. Judson called me, which was so thoughtful of her. Avis and I will go over this week to help Mrs. Judson celebrate her birthday. Libby’s mother has become a good and unexpected friend to me.

Avis, like Libby, is also happy. Helmut has written her twice this week, and his letters are full of love for her. So Avis is definitely going back to Germany next month – very happily, I would assume. I’m so glad my friends are finding happiness, but I must admit to a great deal of envy.

Things have not gotten back to normal here. I still have a cold. My car is making a funny noise. I feel awful about the things I said to Grandpa Nat yesterday when I found out that Aunt Sydelle will be going to Florida and not me.

There’s at least one rejection notice in the mail every day. I have absolutely no money, no joy, no purpose to my life. For the first time in a long time, I feel unhappy most of the hours in the day.

Monday, January 19, 1976

4 PM.  I’ve been reading Richard Kostelanetz’s book, and while I’m only a quarter of the way through, I’m certain that The End of Intelligent Writing is probably the most important book I’ll read this year.

I must admit that I’ve been predisposed to accept Kostelanetz’s argument, but his argument is so compelling, I can’t see how anyone can refute it, outside of the New York literary mob – Norman Podhoretz, Jason Epstein, Irving Howe and the rest of the goons I called on Saturday night – who want to protect their fiefdoms.

I don’t think I’m using the book’s thesis to rationalize my own rejection notices, two of which came today. Magazines do not seek out new talent, nor do they wish to publish it when it comes their way; most of them use material which confirms their already-conceived biases and positions.

That’s why Simon is wrong if he thinks a good writer like himself can soon be published in Esquire, Partisan Review, The New Yorker or even magazines such as American Review or TriQuarterly, which seem to be open to innovative young writers.

The literary mob and the publishing industry censor work just as surely as the Soviets do; of course, they do it prior to publication.

Look, I know I’m a talented writer in control of his craft – but it will be impossible for me to ever gain any recognition as long as things are the way they are, for it seems that even the younger literary magazines are generally resistant to new things.

Not to sound immodest, but it takes an editor of discernment like Connie Glickman or Elliot Gilbert or Robert Steiner or Bill Hudson to see merit in stories like “Talking to a Stranger,” “Rampant Burping,” “Summoning Alice Keppel” or “The Unknown.”

So I really shouldn’t take my rejections personally; actually, either I’ve been extraordinarily lucky, or I have a great deal of talent, or both. A year ago, I got my first acceptance, from New Writers. Today I’m a much more sophisticated and realistic seller of stories, understanding the limits of the field I’ve chosen.

(I also hope that my writing itself has become more complex, innovative and resonant, and I think it probably has. I feel I have about fifteen stories in my files which are as worthy of publication as those I’ve already had accepted.)

I will probably never be a well-known writer, and if anything, I’m going to be downwardly mobile. I’ll make less money than my parents, live in a poorer house, in a shabbier neighborhood, and be less respected among my contemporaries.

But writing has become my life – whether it’s because I’m just another lonely, unfulfilled bastard who can use words, or not – and it’s what I want to do, at least for now.

And unless I face these facts, it is clear that I will have a very frustrating, disappointing life as a writer. Of course, those in power cannot live forever, but then neither can I sit around forever waiting for Irving Howe to drop dead. ‘Nuff said.

It’s been ridiculously cold these past couple of days, colder than it’s been in years, with temperatures in the low teens. My cold is finally starting to evaporate, but I don’t want to take chances, and so I’m taking it easy at home.

Yesterday I was in the Eighth Street Bookshop when I saw Avis walk in with Ellen and Wade; Avis had a terrible cold. They had been bargain-hunting with their parents on the Lower East Side.

Today Avis called on a break from work, and she sounded no better. We made plans to visit Mrs. Judson tomorrow night. Libby sent me a postcard (of Birmingham Cathedral) from England and wrote that she’s having a fine time and will spend a weekend at a cabin by the sea in northern Wales.

Last night I spoke to Alice, who had spent the entire day researching two stories, one dealing with the most popular names for babies in 1976, and the other an interview survey with hotel doormen around the city.

Alice’s brother is leaving next weekend for Norfolk, and starting this summer, he’ll be stationed in Washington at the State Department for at least two years.

Marc and Joel went on a business trip for the week – to Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington.