A 26-Year-Old’s Diary Entries From Mid-September, 1977


Sunday, September 11, 1977

8 PM. Today was the first real autumn day. It’s quite cool now and it’s already dark. I’m going to miss the sleepy sensuality of summer, but I am starting to feel the brisk energy of fall.

This week I will find out whether I have a teaching job at LIU. I found an ad in today’s paper announcing a vacancy at Wagner College in Staten Island, and I answered that immediately.

I feel a tremendous need to be in a classroom again. I’d like to try out some new ideas I have in teaching writing, such as using the daily newspapers as models and getting students to discover themselves through writing exercises such as those enumerated in a book I bought today, Identity Through Prose.

I want to teach students to write clearly, to think critically, to sharpen their skills – and yes, I want to teach them subject-verb agreement, too. I define myself as a writer, but I am a teacher, too: that’s a part of me.

I don’t want to give up. If there is no job – but I don’t want to think about that yet; I’ll begin to make alternate plans after this week.

This morning I finished a rather slight story called “A Man, A Plan, A Canal, Panama”; probably the best thing about it is it palindromic title. But the important thing is that I’m writing.

As William Meredith said at Bread Loaf, if you do something long enough, you begin to improve. That’s why I think people fool themselves when they say they will write when they have more time (as Josh does) or that they need a class or workshop (as Harvey does) or that they’ll “just get back to it someday” (Simon).

I could give my students the five basic rules to improving their writing:
1. Write.
2. Write.
3. Write.
4. Write.
5. Write some more.

I could see myself becoming the Billy Graham of writing, going on the lecture circuit extolling the joys of writing and the rewards it can bring. So what if 90% of what you write is shit? If you write enough, the 10% that is not can add up to quite an oeuvre.

Amazingly, writing is one of the few areas in life where you actually can make yourself better through practice and sheer will power. I know I’ll be a writer of note someday because I can taste it and because I’m going to write everyone else under the table. I did that in the MFA program and became the star, leaving Simon and the others far behind in terms of output.

I was so glad to see Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon get a rave front-page review in today’s Times: there was an interview with her, too. And Hilma Wolitzer’s In the Flesh was also praised.

I don’t know why, but I feel proud of these people; because of Bread Loaf, I feel a kinship with them. And when I read Gardner’s blurb for Wolitzer or Morrison’s praise of Gardner’s work, I know I’m heading into a community.

And of course the only thing I’ve ever really wanted was to belong: in LaGuardia Hall, at Brooklyn College, at LIU, in the literary world and the world at large. I want to be both an individual and a member of a group: one of the many delicious paradoxes of my life.

Today, at the Barnes & Noble Sales Annex, Josh and I were confronted with thousands of books. Just looking at their titles caused eyestrain which, six hours later, still makes my head pound.

Even remaindered books selling at B&N for 49¢ will find their readers – and doing that will be enough for me. Last night I began my fall offensive, sending out half a dozen stories to six big-little magazines.

Today Marc and Deanna returned from Pennsylvania Dutch Country, saying they had a good time and bringing back delicious apple butter and Hershey, Pennsylvania, chocolate.

I feel surprisingly optimistic even though tomorrow will probably be a depressing day.

Monday, September 12, 1977

8 PM. It’s Rosh Hashona, the new year. I can’t remember the number of the year. Dad and Jonny are at services in shul. Outside, a dog is barking. A little girl is shouting, “Daddy!” There’s a breeze from the open window. It’s black outside. Cars are driving by.

It’s definitely fall. Today was the first day in a long while that I wore a long-sleeved shirt and didn’t turn on the air conditioner at all.

I just wrote a short-short mood piece, “Footsteps,” about a man meeting a woman who married his former lover. The husband/lover is dead. It’s not a very good scene, but I tried for a trick, hoping the reader would first think the man and woman to be former lovers themselves. But now I’m sure the whole piece doesn’t work at all.

Yesterday, at Barnes & Noble, I picked up Puig’s Heartbreak Tango in hardcover for a dollar. After dinner, I was looking at that book and probably that influenced my writing. I can’t hold a candle next to Puig’s light, though.

Recently I’ve been speaking to friends. (Yes, I have friends.) Mikey likes a few of his classes in law school, but after twenty years he’s tired of being a student. He had a slight cold and is home in Rockaway for the holidays; at Cardozo, they get off even the most minor Jewish holidays, like Succoth and Shmeni Atzerath.

Gary is doing the shit work at Merrill Lynch with a smile, and it’s getting him motivated. Soon he may be doing more interesting work, like interpreting data, and perhaps he can one day wrangle a full-time position. He’s off unemployment insurance and has stopped job-hunting. Gary says Betty hates her immediate supervisor at work, but she likes being at the Girl Scouts and hopes she can change to a different boss.

Josh is going out on a friend’s oil truck every day and taking truck-driving lessons; his road test is on Yom Kippur. He tells me that Allan Cooper has moved to one of those new buildings in the West Village; Allan is doing temporary work and is living with a Japanese guy who Josh says is his lover.

Josh is not satisfied with his girlfriend and says, “I need about ten more girlfriends.” Simon, Josh says, has gotten thin, now has a girlfriend, and stays at his job at the hospital because it’s safe.

This morning, after getting my hair cut, I drove into the city, to the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines office, to use their library. Jane Buchanan was very friendly, telling me how hectic things are for her. They’re having a meeting this fall in Seattle and she’s working on that.

Jane said she’s in the middle of the CCLM college contest; this year Ron suggested a girl in Colorado as a pre-reader. “I hope she works out,” Jane said, “but I miss the face-to-face contact I had with you last year.”

Nick Nieri, the new CCLM executive director, was on his first day on the job. I wished him good luck. “I’ll need it,” he said. He and others in the office kept having to call Eleanor Shakin at her new job heading the Henry Street Settlement to ask her stuff.

I spent an hour looking at various magazines, taking down addresses and the names of stories or poems and their authors so that when I submit to a magazine, I can praise their last issue and they’ll know I read it. That should help somewhat.

Suzanne Zavrian was also in the office, making arrangements for the New York Book Fair next month; I hope to meet some people there.

Back home, I sent out another ten submissions; I guess I’m beginning my fall offensive. In the next few months I’m not going to have many stories coming out. Although I feel my work is getting better, I still get quite a few rejections.

In the public library this afternoon I read this interview with the anthropologist Ashley Montagu in which he said that “maturity” is a myth and the happiest people are those who are able to extend their childhood the longest.

This must be true. I want to stay a child forever. Most of all, I like being playful, and I think it’s important not to be afraid to look silly. I don’t have to act a certain way because I’m 26; I don’t see why I can’t behave as though I’m 16.

Actually, a person of 16 like Cousin Wendy can seem older and more stodgy than me. Last week she was too embarrassed to put on a funny hat on the steps of the Fifth Avenue library, but I wasn’t.

Thursday, September 15, 1977

10 PM. I’ve got a raging sinus headache, but it’s in its second day and I’m trying to ignore it.

For months, Mom has been nagging me to clean up my closet, and this afternoon we went out a bought a two-drawer file cabinet for all my stories and papers.

The only problem was that we didn’t realize the closet floor was slanted in the back (because of the stairs), so Dad, Mom and I have been sawing, hammering, measuring, and putting up a shelf for the filing cabinet to rest on.

Meanwhile, I threw out so much stuff. I hate to throw out anything, so I just poured things into giant plastic bags: old notebooks, grade school papers, photos and other memorabilia and trivia that I’ve managed to collect over the decades.

Dr. Tucker phoned this afternoon to ask if I’ll be available if courses opened up; of course I would, I told him. Registration isn’t until tomorrow and he can’t be sure of anything until sometime next week, but the chances seem good that I’ll be called.

He said he had a fine summer being pampered at the MacDowell Colony. I told Dr. Tucker I hoped I’d be seeing him soon. So – if there is a large enough registration (come on, kids, get out there and register!), I’ll have a course or two. Things couldn’t be better.

And if by chance I don’t get a class, I still have my unemployment checks. Also, I’d like to try doing more freelance nonfiction like the Joanne Vincente biography for The People’s Almanac.

Last night I awoke at 2 AM with an idea for a story: a sort of science-fiction-y thing about creatures on a distant planet who somehow receive TV waves from on Earthling series, The Forsyte Saga on BBC.

Couldn’t these aliens be spellbound by the plot and adopt the saga as their religion? There’s room for some twists in there, I think, but it will take a while for the story to take off in my mind.

I got this little mag called Seven Stars in today’s mail, along with their newsletter, which reviewed, among other things, the issue of Writ in which “Joe Colletti” appeared:

“Two very excellent pieces, a short story by Richard Grayson and poems by Stapleton, make this a good candidate for poetry collections. A few good poems also, and lots of mush can make you want to count your change first and maybe decide to wait for a book by Grayson.

Heady praise from strangers, eh? But I bet there will be a book soon; at least there are the first nibblings. George Myers, in thanking me for the books and mags I sent him, said he’d love to do a book by me – if only he had the money.

George showed me a brochure for his new book of “biofiction” (great term, isn’t it? I wish I’d thought it up) with a blurb from Paul Fericano and one from me:

“Richard Grayson (of the Fiction Collective) writes: Myers is ‘full of energy, color and fresh inventiveness. Myers’ sly images and vibrant resonances shine like a flashlight in the dark.’”

George is into biographies and he’s toying with the idea of doing mine (!) and maybe two others in a little book.

Dana Neugent loved his cross-country trip and sent photos of the Mohave Desert and Northern California which make those places look beautiful. He stopped in Eugene, Oregon, to see Ken Kesey:

“I helped him and his son take in the hay on his farm and stayed for dinner. He wasn’t too talkative. Mostly all he did was grunt. He’s really pissed at the treatment he got from the Kirk Douglas clan on the movie royalties of Cuckoo’s Nest. He really got screwed through his own ignorance of royalty laws.”

In Santa Monica, Dana worked out in Gold’s Gym, where all the bodybuilders go: “I felt like a toothpick next to those guys. . .” It’s so nice to have made friends through little mags.

I got word that I was accepted into the prose workshop of The Writers’ Community, a non-profit, non-tuition organization whose ad in Coda I answered. I’m not sure if I want to attend the workshop, which meets every Tuesday from 6:30 PM to 8:30 PM with Leslie Epstein. But I will attend the introductory party on Tuesday evening. It’s so nice just to be accepted.

James Cervantes of Porch wrote to say that my two stories will appear with the work of two other fiction writers as a special supplement to Porch #4. Good enough. I promised I’d help Jim get Porch sold in New York City bookstores, so maybe I’ll make a pitch to Laurie and get the Eighth Street Bookshop to take some copies.

Christine Conte, the Fiction Collective coordinator, called me to say that writer Ulf Goebel wrote me a note saying he’d lost his cab-driving job due to an accident and could I please get him a job teaching English at Brooklyn College? Sure, I’ll use all my influence. . .

Obviously, I told Christine, I was in no position to do Ulf that favor when I’m something approximating persona non grata with the English Department myself. Chairman Gelernt dislikes me, and I’m on the outs with Baumbach and Gelber.

Peter Spielberg’s still my friend, but if I know Susan Schaeffer, she’d probably like me to just go away; of course that could be all in my head. I asked Christine how things were at the Collective – hectic, she said – and told her to say hello to Jon for me.

In Kings Plaza to cash my unemployment check, I noticed a guy in a store window. From behind, he was very cute – good body, jeans, sneakers, flannel shirt – and then I realized it was Carl Karpoff.

Carl said he’s selling real estate in Brooklyn Heights and making a fortune – $1,000 in two days – and he looks really good, like a magazine model. I told him about Vermont and he said it was too bad I hadn’t had his brother Alan’s address there, as Alan would love for people to visit him at his rural house near the New Hampshire border.

Monday, September 19, 1977

7 PM. My stomach hurt during the night, but I was still able to get some rest. This morning I called C.W. Post and left my name and qualifications with their Personnel Department.

Faculty members are on strike there, and the college is threatening to replace them all. They probably could, too. Their line was so busy it took me an hour to reach them. I figure every unemployed academic in Megalopolis was responding to their Times ad.

This unemployed academic got himself to the Professional Placement Office of New York State via a very hot and crowded IRT train this morning. My appointment was supposed to be at 1:30 PM, but I added an extra stroke to the form and showed up at 11:30 AM so I wouldn’t have to break up my day.

After I stood on line for five minutes, the man at the counter stamped my book and told me to report back in three months. I could probably collect benefits for a year without even an interview.

LIU didn’t call today, and I’m getting a bit anxious. Of course, there’s nothing I can do: Dr. Tucker will let me teach if students register for the courses. I’ll try to be fatalistic about this. After all, I’m getting half my salary – or what I would be paid for teaching one class – without working at all.

Well, whatever happens, happens. I voted in the runoff this morning – Koch for mayor and Bellamy for city council president – but I don’t have much hope for either of them.

We’ll find out the results later tonight. I can’t believe we still have to vote again in November. Counting the school board elections, I’ll have voted four times this year.

Gary phoned, saying he was a bit under the weather today. We had a nice chat. He and Betty are doing a lot of work with Betty’s tie-dyed and hand-painted t-shirts; I’ll bet they make a good deal of extra cash that way.

George Myers sent me a jiffy bag filled with little mags, and Tom Person wrote me about a book fair in Seattle, where he met James Cervantes, my friend from Porch, whom he said was nice although “he didn’t know what to make of me or the Bear.”

At the Seattle book fair, Tom spent most of his time talking with John Bennett – whom I knew would turn out to be a fantastic guy – about everything under the sun. It’s nice to have contact with all my small press friends.

And speaking of friends, Avis sent a long letter for me and Teresa. Avis has been so busy in Bremen that she feels as though she never left.

London was nice, she said, although her flight was “sickening” and Helmut had spent the previous night sitting in Victoria Station. Clive had a girlfriend with him “and there didn’t seem to be any of that ole magic between us.”

Avis got pretty drunk at a “super” Italian restaurant her first night in London, and the next night she went over to Leslie’s to get Libby’s sleeping bag that she left in England.

“Leslie’s really a nice guy,” Avis wrote. “His flat is beautiful: his pictures hang all over and I love his work. But he’s got another woman with him now. She’s even American! From Detroit! I kept thinking that Libby was supposed to be there, not this woman.”

Avis and Helmut were on the ferry the next night and arrived in Bremen on Saturday the 3rd. She’ll be in England again next month to be with her parents, who are going on a theater tour of London.

Back in Germany, Avis is waiting for her unemployment checks ($110 a week) which got screwed up because she was abroad. She got a part-time job at another language school (she can still collect), teaching twelve hours a week; also, she’s taking on private pupils (“So far no Nazis.”)

“I suppose you’ve heard of the latest terrorist antics here in Deutschland,” Avis wrote. “Well, whenever these ‘terrorists’ decide to do terror, the government changes the constitution by adding ‘emergency laws’ which contradict the bill of rights.”

She goes on: “Germany is slowly becoming a police state . . . worse than the States. Watch articles in the paper about Germany. You’ll see how no one notices anything is happening. Just like 1933 . . . But after all, life is good and we’re living in a prosperous country and if you think about all that stuff you’ll go insane.”

So I guess life goes on in Bremen, as it does here.