A 27-Year-Old’s Diary Entries From Early April, 1979


Sunday, April 1, 1979

8 PM. This morning in the shower, after having read the reviews of three short story collections in the Times, I decided I would have to begin to “cultivate a sense of indifference” towards how my work is treated by the public. I tried to remember that “significant learning” of Dr. Carl Rogers: “Evaluation by others is not a guide for me.”

A couple of hours later, I found myself on the second floor of the Eighth Street Bookshop, chatting with Laurie, when I noticed a copy of Aspect’s Double Fiction issue on the bookrack.

When I opened it, I found that not only my story “Roominations” (a rather poor piece) leading off the magazine, but also Susan Lloyd McGarry’s essay, “27 Statements I Could Make About Richard Grayson.”

I continued to chat with Laurie but I was excited to see what Susan had written. Leaving the store, I went to call for Alice, who came down and went with me to Washington Square Park, where we read the copies I had bought.

At first I was exhilarated, but now the fact of it is beginning to sink in, and I feel slightly ill; in fact, I’ve had an upset stomach since I came home, and I now have diarrhea. I also had a bad ride back from Manhattan: my muffler went again, and I kept worrying about it falling out for a second time.

And driving down Flatbush Avenue – I was afraid to take the parkway – depressed me enormously. I am shocked by the decline of Brooklyn, the rape of the neighborhoods I once loved, the potholes, the boarded-up stores and abandoned movie palaces.

I want to leave Brooklyn. Ten years ago, it was a different place. In the summer of 1969, I could take a bus to Church and Flatbush and browse in any one of three bookstores; now there are no bookstores, and they’d have to drag me to Church and Flatbush kicking and screaming.

I suppose I’m getting off the subject, but maybe not. (Trust yourself, you’re the writer, and it says so in Aspect.)

I know why I can’t write. It’s in the “Forrestal Lecture,” the last story in Hitler: fear of success. That’s why I have diarrhea. I want to go upstate to Albany and become a student again and start all over, the way I did in 1969, forgetting all about everything that’s happened since.

Rilke’s “You must change your life” is more important to me than ever. I’m sick of being a writer and thinking about “being a writer.” I want to be me, but now I’m not sure who that is. If most of my stories are, as Susan Lloyd McGarry says, “about sex or identity, or sexual confusion, or confusion of identity,” and if “he creates a fiction and then exposes it as a fiction, claiming to speak in his own voice, but that voice is another pretense, another fiction,” where the hell does that leave me – the me of this diary, and not of my damned fictions?

Right now I have Susan’s essay spread before me. It’s well done, the statements:

1. My mother thinks he’s funnier than Steve Martin . . .

5. After reading some of his work, it’s easy to believe that you know all about his personal life. On the basis of stories . . . we had all sorts of theories about him. A middle-aged accountant. A hustler. A recluse . . .

11. He sometimes invokes the famous as one might invoke the gods. Often . . . we perceive [his] famous people in the same way that the audiences of Ancient Greece would perceive the protagonists of the classic plays . . .

13. His logic is that of a dream . . .

14. His characters don’t fail to understand or share. They are too involved in their mental landscapes to try . . .

17. Grayson is obsessed with self-indulgence . . .

Of course. No wonder I have diarrhea. But this is the diarrhea of a person, not of “a writer.” Do people actually think I’m a male prostitute?

Following the article was my bibliography, which almost made me feel that I wasn’t reading about myself. And no one I know understands this feeling.

Tuesday, April 3, 1979

4 PM on a chilly and dark afternoon. Last night after I exercised, I began to feel much better: calmer and more confident. This morning I awoke at 9 AM to an empty house, and I potchkeyed around all morning.

On my way to school, I stopped off at the public library to discover if my book had been reviewed in Library Journal or Publishers Weekly; it hadn’t. My car is still rattling, so I’m not certain Bob fixed it yesterday – but then he never seems to get it right the first time.

Picking up my mail at the English Department, I discovered a letter from the Dean of Humanities notifying me that I’d been recommended to the Board of Higher Ed for reappointment for the semester beginning in September and ending in January 1980.

How strange. For the first time since I’ve been teaching, I’m assured of a job for September, and I won’t be taking it. I had to think about it, of course, and I’ll probably think about it more – but I do think going to Albany will be for the best.

How long can I continue to work as an adjunct? I don’t really want to teach at Brooklyn College again in the fall. Still, it’s good to know that I have a job if I want it.

I’m scared of moving to Albany; that’s probably the main reason my stomach has been acting up lately – but, my God, I have to cut loose sometime.

I had lunch at Jentz with Pete Cherches and his friend Marty, an undergraduate who’s with Zonepress. Pete’s funny and nice although he is so bland and unmemorable-looking that I never think I’m going to recognize him from one meeting to the next.

Literary gossip depresses and enervates me. All these bright, young, ambitious writers on the make: it’s fun to talk of who’s published what where, but in the end it serves no purpose.

I don’t feel comfortable in the literary world, and while I like my friendships with other writers, I still cherish more highly the relationships I have with people who don’t give a hoot about my literary career: Teresa, Mason, Mike, Mikey, Brad, Ronna.

When authors become famous, they obviously can never be sure if people would have liked them if they didn’t have reputations. At Albany, I intend to make friendships outside of the D.A. program; I’d like to know people who don’t care about writing.

When writers hang about only with writers all the time, it creates decadence. Sure, I’m ambitious, but I also know that it’s folly to think that anything except the work matters.

Whatever the faults of the story I wrote yesterday, it is not self-conscious, and I want to get most of that early self-indulgence out of my work. I do feel that I can begin writing stories freely again.

Yesterday’s experience has given me confidence. I wrote that story about Brad, not for publication, but because I had to get it out: it seemed worthy of putting on paper.

I want to write a story about Great-Grandma Bessie and how she wants to die just to spite her son Uncle Jerry for moving to Florida. She doesn’t eat, doesn’t clean, walks around with a dirty handkerchief in her hand, and spends all day watching TV.

It’s a pity that Grandma Ethel, the stepdaughter she was least close to, is stuck with the aggravation. Grandma Ethel was upset when Great-Grandma Bessie gave her diamonds to Aunt Claire and nothing to her.

Since her only other child besides Jerry, Uncle Herbert, is apparently very ill with cancer in West Virginia, and Jerry and Claire are in Florida, everything falls on Grandma Ethel. When she called on Sunday, Great-Grandma Bessie didn’t know what day it was.

Dad and Mom paid a shiva call to the Lubel family last night, and Dad reported someone telling him, “There were 63 cars at Jack’s funeral – and most of them were Cadillacs.”

Dad also told me that Grandma Sylvia’s only friend in Florida is a woman whose husband shot himself because he had cancer.

I had a surprisingly good lesson in my veterans’ class today.

Friday, April 6, 1979

5 PM. I’ve just come back from the library, where I’ve been surveying about a dozen magazines, paying particular attention to the book reviews. I’ve begun reading Publishers Weekly religiously, learning about the business and keeping an eye out for reviews; PW’s interview this week was with Taplinger author Colin Douglas.

One thing that surprises me is the large number of short story collections coming out: each review of these books has the obligatory mention of the short story’s death. I’m not unique, and some books coming out seem very similar to mine in spirit and theme.

There have been a number of good collections published recently – by Ann Beattie, T.C. Boyle (who used to kindly reject my work for Iowa Review), Henry Bromell and others. So maybe I’m part of a trend; I hope so.

It’s hard not to wish for celebrity when I read magazines like People, Us, and Feature, all concerned with famous people, especially the up-and-coming, many of whom are younger than I. But I’ve got to remember that celebrity means nothing.

Oh, come off it, Richie. It means money, for one thing. Can that be bad? Today, when you paid $10 to fill up your gas tank with regular, didn’t you feel a bit ill? And wouldn’t you prefer a nice new car to your rattling junk heap?

I don’t know how to respond to that. Do I have to? No? Well, I’ll go on . . .

Last night I finished reading the Gospels, marking passages here and there. I want to get into the Bible again. Suppose some innovative fiction writer were to publish the Bible today. It could be a fictional tour de force, a masterful collection of varied narrative strategies, repeated themes, and resonant scenes.

Actually, I look at the Bible as a work of art, and I enjoy it. I also like to freak out people because, well, after all, we sophisticated intellectuals and artistes don’t read the Bible, do we?

Last night and today, I had my classes write, so I’ve got a lot of marking to do this weekend. The night school paper said that the English Department is having trouble finding enough qualified teachers for their new two-step freshman composition course.

Lou Asekoff told me that the other departments are giving English their adjunct money. I spoke with Bruce Chadwick, who also got a letter of reappointment; evidently everyone did.

For the first time, I could be certain of having a job with BC in the fall. I could probably support myself in an apartment. But do I want that? Not really. I’m so tired of teaching basic grammar, sentence structure and paragraph organization. I’m tired of New York City. I need the change Albany will provide.

It would be easier to remain at Brooklyn, but the campus depresses me now. At night I’m sometimes afraid: the other night, a black boy whizzed past me and shortly after that, security guards came by in pursuit.

Attending BC was wonderful for me, but it’s not the same place anymore. I’m not the same person, and it would be too safe to stay on: an admission that I couldn’t make it anywhere else.

It’s very cold and windy today: a return to winter in April. Although I feel tired, I also know I look good. My hair is nice and long, my clothes are neat, my face is clean, and my body’s better than it’s ever been. So why aren’t I happy? (That’s a joke, son.)

Monday, April 9, 1979

4 PM on a rainy and cold Monday. This wintry weather is getting me down. It’s been much too cold lately; we’ve had steam every night, and it actually snowed a bit yesterday.

It doesn’t seem at all like spring. The trees are still bare, and I haven’t yet put away my winter coat. This year, March was more springlike than April has been so far.

I’ve marked most of the papers that I had to. Tomorrow is the last day before vacation. I won’t have any work to do for two weeks, and I hope I won’t go crazy. There’s not much to do when all my friends are still working.

This afternoon I went to the movies in Kings Plaza and saw The Champ, which made me cry a little – but everyone around me was sobbing furiously. Of course, I’d prefer to be writing, but last week I did get 25 pages out, and I can’t hope for miracles.

I spent time exercising and reading the New Testament; yesterday I finished The Acts. The mail no longer contains much of interest. I haven’t submitted a story to a magazine in months, and the rejections which now come trickling in are of submissions mailed out a long time ago.

The other day I redid my bibliography, eliminating some stories which are obviously never going to see the light of day. About seven or eight stories are still scheduled to come out, but I don’t expect to see any of them soon.

I’ve got to learn patience; I can’t seem to wait for my book to come out – even though I’ve been waiting for almost 28 years, each day seems to be torture. For now, just seeing the book would be enough for me. I don’t care about reviews or sales; I just want to see the object, my words bound in hardcover.

I keep expecting Wes to call me with some news. But what news could he have?

I’ve got a hunch my Easter vacation will turn out to be a tedious disappointment. By Thursday I’ll probably be wishing I was back at work. My mind is out of New York City at this point; it’s in Virginia and in Albany. I’m anxious to start again, away from this house and my family.

I want to forget about loving Ronna. I want to become a new person, someone responsible and independent and able to handle every crisis and emergency. I want to start doing my own laundry, cooking my own meals, wearing new clothes.

I am tired of tiredness, fed up with emptiness, bored by the things that have always interested me before. I want to have affairs. I want to learn to ski. I want to sit on a beach at 2 AM and not think of how late it is.

God, this sounds sophomoric. But, folks, you’ve got to realize you’re dealing with a very pretentious guy here. I’ve read too much about S & S – Sensitivity and Sensibility – and too often I forget I’m supposed to be ironic all the time. I can’t think of anything else to write.

Ronna likes the story I told her of how Leon refused to set foot in the state of Ohio because of Kent State and how, when he drove between New York and Madison, he would go out of his way through West Virginia and Kentucky to avoid Ohio.

At Ronna’s sister’s party, there was a guy, Paul Koenig, who reminded me of Jerry from the time I knew him back in 1971: same mouth, same nose, same glasses, same hair but it was blond.

Ronna said that by the end of a party he usually ends up on the floor, drunk, making out with some guy. I wanted to punch his face in, and that surprised me because I didn’t realize I could still get angry with Jerry after all these years.

This is all free association, you realize, and I can’t vouch for its resonance.