A Writer’s Diary Entries From Early September, 1986


Monday, September 1, 1986

8 PM. I’ve been sitting for the last hour out by the pool getting down some notes and reading the first three articles in Fiction Writers’ Market: John Updike on the importance of fiction (I’m beginning to be convinced); Raymond Carver (Tom writes that Carver is the worst well-known writer on the planet, and that gives me hope) on influences and despair; and Gail Godwin on keeping a diary.

So naturally I want to run to my diary.

Edmund Wilson’s The Fifties, fourth volume of his diaries, is out now; it was reviewed in the Times Book Review yesterday.

I read The Twenties a decade ago when I was a student of literature and writing, before I was a published writer, before I began to lose interest.

Suddenly, it seems I want it all back. I want to be a full-time writer, I want to devote all my time to writing, reading fiction and literature, and working at my career: sending out manuscripts, querying agents, applying for grants and fellowships.

But I’m afraid it’s too late, that I’ve gotten out of the habit. What haunts me most is that “I Survived Caracas Traffic” will prove to be what “My Basic Problem” was: a fluke and not a breakthrough. Both stories came out of nowhere even though they’d been in my mind a long time.

I have terrible stage fright and performance anxiety now, and I fear a loss of nerve. For example, I’d like to write a story about the disillusionment of people like Alice, Josh and Scott, but I don’t have a form for the story, I don’t know where to begin, or how to structure it, or even what to say.

Maybe if I wrestle with it enough, consciously and unconsciously, a solution will present itself. Or maybe I should just start writing. Suddenly it feels as though I’ve wasted so much time on ephemera and that I cannot ever catch up.

It was pleasant, sitting out by the pool; it’s still not too hot right now.

A New York Times story by their Miami correspondent today reported that Labor Day is different in South Florida than it is anywhere else: here it is not the end of summer but the realization that one must survive two more months of hot, moist weather.

September, the reporter wrote, is the cruelest month in South Florida, and October is only a tease, offering no real relief. Then in November we’ve got six months of unsurpassed good weather ahead of us.

My sinuses have been clogged, so I’ve been sleeping heavily and well. I rented my Nissan Sentra for another two weeks this morning.

Then I drove down U.S. 1 to North Miami Beach and had lunch and read the papers at the 163rd Street Mall.

Am I lazy? I’ve thought so, but look at how much time I put in reading newspapers, writing this diary, playing around with my credit cards and bank accounts.

I keep fantasizing about The New Yorker or The Atlantic or Grand Street buying “Caracas” when I should know the odds are infinitesimal.

“But the story is so good,” I tell myself, and I feel good that I feel so good about it. If I put all my energies back into being a writer, I’ll probably get somewhere. I have to believe that.

I called Lisa, who’s teaching at the high school and also two late afternoon classes at FAU in Boca. (I wish they’d have called me, as they pay as well as Fashion Institute of Technology or CUNY).

Lisa said that her father had two heart attacks and almost died before he had a triple bypass last month, but now he seems to be okay.

I feel at home in Florida again, though it’s different than just being here in the winter.

Thursday, September 4, 1986

10 PM. I was productive again today. When I got to the Broward Community College computer lab at 2 PM, I didn’t feel like working on the stuff I did yesterday, so I began a new piece that’s basically impersonal, third-person satire.

Maybe it stinks, but I’ve got 11 pages of it. I worked on it till 3:30 PM, and then I went back to school at 7 PM and worked some more on the story and wrote a few letters and made hard copies of everything. George and I were the only ones in the lab.

Before coming home, I stopped at Publix to buy some cereal and then at the post office to get a roll of stamps (thanks to the new USPS vending machines that read $10 and $20 bills).

Last night Dad and I went to look at a car he’d seen with a for sale sign. It was a big silver Buick Skylark, but although it was in good condition, it was a ’69, and what do I need a 17-year-old car for?

The owner was a twice-divorced hard-drinking man from Long Island who met us at the local 7-11 with his totally blotto girlfriend (the fly on her pants was wide open).

Coming home, we were asked by the man next door if we had a rifle, for he’d “cornered a possum” on his patio. This development is now full of rednecks who either rent or have gotten the houses at foreclosure auctions.

My parents were concerned about the blacks who’ve moved in here, but I’m more uncomfortable with the white trash.

In New York I’m used to having blacks and Hispanics (mostly Puerto Ricans and Dominicans) in the neighborhood, and I’m accustomed to their ways; however, up North there aren’t any people like these white rednecks, and they give me the creeps.

Jonathan learned that the white trash woman next door told her children not to talk to him. “We should all be so lucky,” Dad said.

Well, I prefer living in my own world, as Jonathan does – except my world is in my writing and in books and newspapers and magazines. At least I can lock the door and be free here.

Dad saw another car today, a Camaro Berlinetta like Jonathan’s, and I’m going to look at it tomorrow. The owner wants $3900, more than I wanted to pay.

Actually, I could keep renting for all I care. Hertz lowered their Florida subcompact rate to $79 a week, and I made a two-week reservation starting September 15, when I’m supposed to return the Nissan to Budget.

I hate the idea of owning anything.

This morning I again got up at 9 AM, and an hour after breakfast I worked out lightly, concentrating on my legs; my shoulders are charley horse from yesterday.

Then I began getting cash advances at various banks and ATMs, finally depositing $900 in the credit union, where my balance is now over $20,000.

After lunch at Gaetano’s pizzeria, I went to the BCC computer lab. Feeling very comfortable using the PC-Write software on either the IBM PCs or PCjr, I enjoy working there more than anywhere else now.

As I said, I don’t know if the material I’m working on is any good, but at least I’m writing. Actually, I feel very much as if I’m at a writer’s colony.

When I went to MacDowell and got past the initial week, I began just heading for my typewriter at my studio every day and putting words on paper. I was very productive in a two-week period, producing “I Brake for Delmore Schwartz,” “I Don’t Want No Education,” and a few other stories that were later published.

The most important thing now is to make writing the most important thing. Basically I’ve run out of excuses.

Last evening I called Ronna, whom it was great to speak with. Just as I encourage her in her playwriting, she’s very supportive of my fiction writing.

Ronna and Jordan had a good visit with Pat and Russ. “It was cold in Pennsylvania,” Ronna said. Pat talked a lot about the death of her father, but Ronna thinks she’ll get through it fine. Russ is now a car salesman and making what is to him a phenomenal $36,000 a year.

Columbia-Presbyterian hasn’t called Ronna about their job yet, but she’s got other interviews lined up, and she’s definitely going to Orlando for Rosh Hashona. If she comes for longer than just the weekend, I’d like to go up to see her.

Teresa said she misses me, and in a way, I miss her and the apartment, but being in Davie is a good change for me.

At night the heat isn’t so bad, and I like the country smell of wet grass. The air is so much cleaner here than in Manhattan: day by day, my face doesn’t feel as dirty.

In the short run I may regret coming back to Florida, but in the long run I’ll be just as happy here.

Friday, September 5, 1986

8 PM. I bought a car today.

At noon in a Sunrise shopping center, Dad and I met the people whose Camaro he saw at the flea market.

The car is a black Berlinetta, an ’80 – a year younger than Jonathan’s and very much like it except this one has a sunroof.

The owner, Charlie, was an Israeli whose wife and daughter are returning to Israel on Tuesday; he’s going to Connecticut to stay with relatives before joining them in Tel Aviv.

They seemed like very nice people, and the wife told us she hated to give up the car but that in Israel they’d tax her too much for it.

She’s very religious, she said, and would give me, with the car, the little prayer-book she keeps in the glove compartment and the chai hanging from the mirror, both of which she said brought her good luck.

The car rode okay as I took it down University to Pine Island Road and back, and when we got back, Dad offered Charlie $3600 and he said “It’s yours” even though his wife called him meshuggeneh because he’d originally asked $3900.

I gave him a $50 deposit and agreed to meet him back at the shopping center at 3:30 PM with the money. Getting the cash out of the credit union proved no problem: the long line wasn’t that bad because Grace Scheer, who used to teach at BCC, was next to me, and we had a good conversation.

After lunch, I futzed around awhile. I did no writing today, though this morning I made four pages of notes for two humor columns for the Sun-Tattler; I think I’ve got good enough outlines so that writing the pieces will be a breeze.

Then at 3:30 PM, Dad and I went back to the Sunrise shopping center. Dad figures that we got a good deal, so I’m happy, I guess, but I’ve got a terrible headache because of the stress of the whole thing.

We had to go to an S&L to get the transfer to the title notarized and then we had to go back to get a notarized bill of sale in order to get my license tags (“plates” in New York).

Also, I had to call Mom from a pay phone and give her the vehicle ID number, and she had to call me back after she got an insurance policy number.

After getting more mazel tovs in one day since my bar mitzvah, Dad and I got to the auto tag agency five minutes before it closed at 4:30 PM, and there we went through the process of getting the car titled to me. (The papers will come from Tallahassee in a few weeks.)

I had to pay $157, which was less than I normally would have since Charlie (“you’re dealing here with two smart Jews”) wrote the sale price as only $2200.

So for the first time in my life, I have a car under my own name. I hate possessions, but now I’ve got one.

“Nice car,” said a teenage girl to me as I drove past her.

Saturday, September 6, 1986

8 PM. Last night Ed Hogan called me to discuss my ideas on promoting Zephyr’s new book, The St. Veronica Gig Stories.

I read the book this week, admiring author Jack Pulaski’s prose rhythms and his evocations of Jewish, Italian and Puerto Rican Brooklyn (mostly Williamsburg) in the ’40s and ’50s, but I found his style slightly incoherent at times.

Pulaski is 47 and he came to writing relatively late. I think he’s a little defensive about not having had a book out before. This manuscript was rejected by Houghton Mifflin, North Point and Godine, but Zephyr accepted it in two weeks. At that time they needed a book for this fall.

Now, Ed says, they’ve got lots of possibilities, including my manuscript. I’ve got to make myself believe they’re going to publish my book to get through the next six months or so, as I need the feeling that I’m making progress.

Last night I gave Ed some suggestions on reviewers, bookstores, libraries and Brooklyn contacts for Pulaski’s book. It got a typical raspberry from Kirkus; Publishers Weekly and Library Journal aren’t reviewing it.

Ed screwed up his courage, and to his surprise, he’s got meetings with editors from the Times and the New York Review of Books this week.

The Boston reading/publication party will probably be at Ed’s house, and for New York City, he’s thinking of Three Lives & Company, which I and others suggested.

Pulaski hasn’t lived in New York for many years, so Ed feels he needs another writer there to help build a crowd, and he asked me if I’d do it. While I’d love an official excuse to go up to New York, I told Ed he should first try a bigger name, like Frederick Busch, who gave the book a nice blurb.

Ed said he’ll see what he can do, and we left it with my saying I’d come if I’m needed. Of course, this is Pulaski’s book, not mine, and as ego-driven as I am, I wouldn’t want to horn in on his big night. Imagine how the guy must feel, getting a book out after all these years.

Grand Street rejected “Caracas” with a form letter and no comment, so I don’t think it has a chance at The New Yorker or Atlantic.

I’d better lower my sights; when the other manuscripts come back, I’ll send out five copies to little magazines and hope for the best.

The rejection made me wonder if I’ve misjudged the story; maybe it’s pretentious, sentimental and wrong-headed.

Also, I got a form from Georges Borchardt, who said his literary agency is not taking on any new clients. And I didn’t do any writing today.

Last night I had the world’s worst tension headache. The whole car business really wiped me out emotionally. I still have to think this through.

Part of me feels I’m not worthy of having such a sporty, sexy-looking car. I’m embarrassed to admit that, but it’s true: I feel don’t deserve it, particularly since I spent $3600 and don’t have a job and the money basically came from credit card cash advances.

Well, I’ve got to work on that and see how self-defeating that feeling is. I’ve got to be careful or I’ll unconsciously get into an accident to “prove” how unworthy I am of owning a car. I know my Freud.

This is fucked-up, but at least I’m aware of the feelings and so can deal with them. I don’t want to keep sabotaging myself.

I guess I’ve already done a good job of sabotaging my literary and academic careers: it’s the Impostor Phenomenon at work.

Last night I slept well. I shouldn’t admit this, but for a week straight, I’ve slept like a baby, and on this crummy mattress, too.

This morning I watched movies while working out for a couple of hours; I also got in some sun. How decadent.

Yeah, Rich, really you’re a wastrel and a playboy and a goldbrick. Come on. self, you deserve to do more than just exist.

The guy whose personal ad I answered never wrote back – as I expected. Wow, do I feel like a loser today.

Well, short of psychotherapy, I don’t think I’ll turn things around tonight.

Monday, September 8, 1986

9 PM. I just got home from Joe Cook’s first class of the term, and I feel worn out.

Last night I got to bed extremely late, and I didn’t sleep much, and my dreams were all horrible.

After midnight, I went downstairs and watched TV with Mom for an hour, and then I came up and read the first, title monologue in Spalding Gray’s Sex and Death to Age 14.

It gave me ideas for my own writing, but I didn’t write today. Maybe if I record “I didn’t write today” on every unproductive day, I’ll shame myself into discipline.

Spalding Gray writes that he kept a journal for seven years, every single day; I’ve done that for 17 years. Why don’t I think of this diary as an example of my discipline?

For one thing, it’s not hard to do; I need to write in it every day. Nobody would say they had discipline because they ate every day, would they?

Or is it just that anything I accomplish automatically doesn’t take discipline because I (an undisciplined person) have done it?

In her comments on my journals four weeks ago, Amy Heebner said my writing reminded her of Spalding Gray’s.

Tonight Joe Cook had the 15 of us in the class break into groups, interview one another, and then introduce the person we interviewed.

My interviewer, Genevieve Chung-Schickler, who works in BCC’s huge Allied Health Campus – she used to teach at LaGuardia Community College – asked me what my goal was, and I said to be a full-time writer or maybe to also teach creative writing at a university.

When she introduced me and said I’d written 150 “articles” (stories), another woman – Kandell Bentley-Baker, with the brand-new New World School of the Arts, Miami’s state-sponsored arts high school – said that having published so much at my age, I must already be a full-time writer.

Again, I responded by denigrating my achievements.

Joe Cook’s course is Learning/Instructional Styles in the Community College. As usual, he’s so laid back that he’ll probably play a lot of the term by ear.

Dr. Jack Pawlowski and Marina Burdick are in the class, and it tickles me to be a classmate of theirs, especially Pawlowski’s, who was my boss’s boss.

Most of the students in this class are BCC teachers, though I don’t know any of the others.

Today I looked extremely young. When I went down to FIU’s Tamiami Campus to get my rubella shot, I went to the bathroom after my inoculation and was amazed at my reflection in the mirror: I looked as though I could pass for 25, and I looked cute, too.

I guess I’m pretty narcissistic.

A review of a biography of S.J. Perelman that I read yesterday said that a comic writer’s best creation and only love is himself.

At least I won’t torture innocent children by being their father, the way Perelman did.

It was cloudy today, and drizzly, and at 3 PM there was a thunderstorm which, like the one on Saturday night, knocked out our electricity half a dozen times.

I had to go to the insurance agent and pay $260, two months’ car insurance. Now I’ve got a real expense every month.

The car rode okay today, but I’m antsy about owning it. Yes, it’s an asset, but it’s also an expense, and it’s as much a burden as it is a convenience.

Ironic, isn’t it, that I’ve laid out $3600 at a time when I have absolutely no income? Or maybe it’s stupid.

After seeing the insurance agent, I drove down to FIU. The front window on the driver’s side doesn’t open, which makes paying tolls a nuisance.

The wait at FIU was about an hour. The guy in front of me, an Israeli, was very nervous about the shot, but it was no big deal.

Still, I wish they hadn’t also given me a shot for measles when I’ve already had the measles, and my arm’s a little sore now.

(At least I’m not as bad a hypochondriac now as I was when I was about 15 or 16 and got a shot from Dr. Stein on a Saturday morning and then took the bus all the way back to his office on Eastern Parkway in the afternoon because, I told him, my arm was all swollen and felt hard. He said I was flexing my triceps.)

Part of me still wonders why I’m not in New York being an adjunct. Next fall I don’t plan to be back in Florida.

Well, at least this fall is a change of pace.

Tuesday, September 9, 1986

9 PM. Today I was fairly productive. Although I got up late, when I went out, I headed straight for the BCC computer lab, where I completed “I Saw Mommy Kissing Citicorp,” a rather silly satirical story.

After 90 minutes, I came home for lunch, but in the hour before our Software Development course met, I managed to edit and print out what I hope is a final draft of the story.

If it looks okay, I’m going to xerox some copies and send the piece out to magazines – just like the good old days a decade ago and I may be back in business.

Also, I wrote the first draft of a four-page humor piece for the Hollywood Sun-Tattler. All in all, I wrote nine pages today, and so I feel both relieved and grateful.

Someone at the Candida Donadio agency says that while they don’t think they’d be effective in selling trade paperback rights to my old books, they’d “be happy to see any new work.”

I’ll probably have to try to sell the trade paper rights to With Hitler in New York and Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog myself.

What I need to do is scout out in Literary Market Place the names of editors at the houses who have trade paper fiction series; a form letter on the computer, personalized for each editor, should do the trick, along with the Contemporary Literary Criticism article.

In addition, I want to apply to teach at writers’ conferences; I’ll use the CLC article, a “fiction writer” resume, and another computer-generated letter.

Dr. Sandiford’s class was brief tonight. She went over software design principles. Compared to what Anne Vollmer did with us three months ago at Columbia, this was kid stuff.

Jan Sandiford’s course is much “softer” than Anne’s was.

After we all went to eat (at Burger King; I had the salad bar), we drove to South Plantation High School to attend the Florida Association of Computer Educators’ (FACE) Broward chapter’s mini-conference.

I saw Jen Strickland and Pat Brown there, and probably most of the county schoolteachers active in computers. Dr. Sandiford seems to take it for granted that like Sue Spahn, Robert Buford and the others, I’m a specialist in computer education.

Really, I’m not a “techie” at all; I know about one-tenth of what the other students know, and at this point, I don’t think of myself as a computer educator – or a college instructor, which most of the students in last night’s course were. I’m a writer.

(Yesterday, when I went to fill out the new car insurance forms, the woman at the office asked my occupation. I gave it as “writer,” but she misinterpreted my New York accent and wrote down “rider.” I guess maybe because this is Davie, she thought I was with the rodeo. Do I actually look like a cowboy?)

The conference had two speakers, a teacher at a local high school who talked about software and copyright law, the subject of her Ph.D. dissertation, and a Florida Department of Education official who discussed the new certification procedure that’s coming by 1988.

For most people it will be more difficult to get certified because they’ll have to pass a test, but I think I can easily get certified in English or in the new field area of Computer Science.

I’m getting used to my new car and learning its quirks. It needs to be started up slowly in the morning or otherwise it stalls out.

Yes, I still miss New York and I feel lonely, but I’m trying to put all my time to good use. At least today I didn’t have a minute of boredom. I still hope that I can keep at my writing.

Funny how I feel young again. Yesterday I thought I looked 25, and in a way, I do feel I’m struggling the way I did back in 1976.