A Young Writer’s Diary Entries From Early January, 1984


Monday, January 2, 1984

5 AM. I can’t sleep, but I guess I feel better. After writing yesterday’s entry, I got into bed and slept for several hours.

Perhaps it was the three Triavils I took on New Year’s Eve; I may not be used to them anymore. Anyway, I read and ate and still lay in bed the rest of the day.

Alice called at 7:30 PM and we talked for an hour. She said she’s coming down to Florida in February and we’d get a chance to meet. But her conference is in Orlando, and she seemed stunned that it was so far away from Miami.

Despite her world travels, Alice has never been great on geography; one time, she couldn’t understand why her plane trip from Los Angeles to Honolulu would take so long, since she believed Hawaii was just off the coast of California.

That got me thinking: Alice, the editor-in-chief of a big New York magazine, doesn’t know something that some of the dumbest students at Broward Community College would know. That suggests intelligence is relative, or maybe there are different kinds of intelligence.

When I told her about my presidential campaign and said that most people didn’t understand what I was doing, Alice said that most reporters probably did.

Then she suggested I get myself a “slick press kit, so the really big media will take you seriously,” proving that Alice, too, doesn’t understand what I’m doing.

If I have a slick press kit, then how am I different from anybody else? Alice has been so immersed in the corporate Manhattan world that she’s trapped in that mindset.

That got me thinking about what I am doing and the value in it. Mom said that Cousin Wendy got a $4,000 bonus and a $2,000 raise. Wendy, a stock analyst, helps rich people get richer, and that’s what society rewards.

But teachers? I make half Wendy’s salary, one-quarter of Alice’s.

This will sound stupid now, but I remember thinking, when I was in college, that it would be odd when one of our generation got to be President, because then the President wouldn’t wear a suit and tie.

I couldn’t imagine that ten years later, my friends would only be too happy to dress themselves in suits and ties to work at Goldman Sachs (Elihu), Citicorp (Gary), or other big corporations.

What happened? All of us seem embarrassed to even think about when we were in college and the things we believed in – like the demonstrations against recruiters from American Express, who did business in South Africa. We all sold out.

Now, I don’t want to sound like some burned-out “hippie” (as the media would say), but you cannot tell me that we didn’t lose something.

We may have bypassed the suburbs-marriage-and-children cookie-cutter life of our parents, but we have become even more ardent consumers than those of the 1950s.

It’s really not much of an improvement, and I think deep down, a lot of us know it and are sometimes filled with self-disgust, especially when we can – in those rare moments – see past our job projects and money market funds, our VCRs and MasterCards. I’m as guilty as anyone.

But what is the answer? Surely not to join a cult, as Avis did. She may have preserved her ideals more than most, but only at the cost of her mind.

My sociology teacher at Brooklyn College, Shoko Katayama, once said (and this is one of the few statements from a professor I remember verbatim): “To be free is to be an intellectual. And to be an intellectual is to pay the price of loneliness.”

Even to me, that sounds corny now, but isn’t it the truth?

Oh, what good can come of all this nonsense I’m writing? That’s the main question.

Tuesday, January 3, 1984

6 PM. I’ve just gotten off the phone from a radio interview on KOB in Albuquerque. It was fun; I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed doing my schtick on radio.

The reporter from Common Cause also called, saying she’d send a copy of the latest issue, with the article about me. (That may trigger some interest in itself.)

Well, life seems to be back in high gear again, and despite my trepidations, I think I do well under stress and pressure.

Last evening Teresa called, and so did Mikey. Teresa has a bad cold, making her feel even worse about her job situation.

The Governor’s Appointments office turned Richie Kessel down flat when he requested a transfer for Teresa, so obviously they’re not going to give her another job.

Right now she plans to stick it out at the Department of Transportation. She’s already been there the look-good-on-a-résumé year, and she needs the income.

Frank may eventually be able to use her as he strikes out on his own as a political consultant; he’s handling Fritz Hollings’ New York campaign.

Mikey said he and Amy will be coming down here Saturday, January 21, and it appears they’re staying at my house. (I’d better clean up the apartment before they arrive.)

Amy’s parties for the New York Public Library went very well although Mikey wishes they had given her credit in the New York Times article.

He’s been doing his crazy schedule in court, but Mikey’s also looking for another job. Unfortunately, his experience with Legal Aid is all in criminal law, and there aren’t many openings in that field.

I know the feeling: I got turned down for the job at BCC-North. A letter from Personnel informed me they appointed someone “with better qualifications.” That’s bullshit, but at least I know the score.

I was worried that because of low registration, I wouldn’t be back at Central, but it looks like that won’t happen. Dr. Grasso did change my schedule around, and it’s still not definite, of course, because the spring term always has a lot of shifting around.

For now, I have 102 sections at 8 AM (groan), 10 AM and noon on MWF, and my Tuesday/Thursday classes are scheduled for 11 AM-12:30 PM and 2-3:30 PM, so at least I can sleep late two days a week.

On Tuesdays from 4-7 PM, I registered for a graduate course, PILOT for Educators, at Florida International University.

That’s going to mean a lot of work, but PILOT is the prime language for educational software, so I figure it gives me a chance to learn how to write programs that might prove valuable. (What I really mean is lucrative).

Today it felt somewhat comforting to see everybody back at BCC. On my way home, I stopped off at South Campus, to see Patrick, who was with Greg (mutual dislike pervades our meetings) and Phil.

Patrick was futilely trying to see about his classes for the term. He still has that one comp class at Florida Atlantic University and is taking a grad course he needs to keep his high school certification.

Patrick said he spoke to Bob, who’s moved to New York (“in Queens, near Kennedy Airport”) and hopes to adjunct there. Hopefully his mental health will improve, although adjuncting probably won’t help that.

When Patrick mentioned that Scott Forrest also didn’t get the job at North, I knew I would find the rejection in my post office box.

I did get a nice postcard from Libby, who’s training horses in L.A., where she loves life – and Grant, whom she may “make an honest man of” later this year.

I also spoke with my brothers today. Jonathan seems very happy. He loves his job at the army/navy store, and at the Christmas party, the boss told him to treat the store like his (Jonathan’s) own. He’s taking his usual two classes at FAU this term.

Marc got an A and B last term at BCC, and this term he’s also taking two classes. He enjoyed the weekend wedding, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he and Adriana got engaged soon, though I wouldn’t be surprised if that didn’t happen, either.

My own plans? They’re up in the air right now. I’ve got this semester, which ends April 27, and then I’ll head up North to MacDowell.

But if I’m not going to teach the second summer session at BCC, I might as well close up my apartment and put my things in storage; although I’ll lose my deposit by leaving early, I’ll save two months’ rent.

Then I can stay in New York until I figure out what to do. Well, tomorrow will be hectic with the start of the spring term.

Wednesday, January 4, 1984

7 PM. One of my goals for 1984 was to get my name in People. I’ve already done it. On the final (“Chatter”) page of the new issue, the first item, entitled “Draft Dodger,” begins:

“A Florida humorist [I like getting called a humorist in the Time Inc. publications] and unemployed English teacher. . . ,” etc.

But they’re the first to get Jane Wyman’s reaction to my naming her as my running mate:

“‘Why, it’s absolutely incongruous,’ sputtered Wyman when she heard of Grayson’s proposal. ‘The only thing I can say to that is a big laugh.’ Would Jane ever run for any office? ‘Never!’ she replied in no uncertain four-year terms.”

Nice writing, nice photo of Jane (caption: “No dumping”), good position in the magazine – and it mentioned the Wall Street Journal article, so maybe some enterprising people in the media can track me down.

I heard I was in People from Dr. Grasso at 7:30 AM today. I didn’t get the magazine until I’d left BCC at 1 PM, but an hour later, at Bodyworks, I ran into some of Mom’s neighbors who’d seen it.

Naturally I’m pleased, especially since I didn’t make the Florida primary ballot: only the big eight Democrats and Reagan did. I may try to run as a delegate if it’s possible.

But maybe I’m better off just campaigning in the media. Look at Jesse Jackson, whose Syrian mission resulted in the release of our captured flyer.

Jackson, like his mentor, Martin Luther King, knows how to attract attention – and it works. He’s a media master, like President Reagan and unlike the other Democratic candidates.

Back down to earth: Tom called last night. He had a bad cold and was already busy with his Film as Literature course, but at least the pipes in his house didn’t break during New Orleans’ holiday freeze.

Tom’s scheduled my appearance at NOCCA for Thursday and Friday, January 26 and 27, and I’ll leave on the Wednesday before. The pay is only $250, and I hope this visit isn’t a disaster. My previous stints at NOCCA went so well that I can’t possibly match them.

After being on the ground so long, I’m nervous about flying – especially since I arranged a cheapo flight on Northeastern that’s lengthened by a stopover in St. Pete.

Today was hectic. Up at 6 AM, I drove in darkness to BCC. My 8 AM and 10 AM English 102 classes have made with about 18 students in each so far (surprisingly few former students), but my noon class has only 7. “Wait till Friday,” said Dr. Grasso.

Although I didn’t do very much today, it was very stressful, and I’ve got my usual start-of-semester sore throat. It’s hard to believe that I’ll soon be beginning my fourth year teaching at BCC.

While you would think it would get easier with time, the confusion at the beginning of the term upsets orderly me.

Yet I have to admit that a change in time schedule and classes (and even rooms: I’m in a music classroom, with a piano, in Bailey Hall) does energize me. So does the chilly weather.

Although I showered after a brief but hard negative workout at the gym, I was still sweating as I went about my errands at the credit union, the post office and the supermarket.

At least tonight I can relax a little. Can I say I’m proud of myself about the People mention?

Life sure has taken on a life of its own. (What?)

Thursday, January 5, 1984

7 PM. Today was a far cry from the glitter of People magazine. I’ve begun to talk to myself quite frequently, which is surely a sign that I’ve got to change my life.

Today I met with my 102 class at 11 AM and my 101 at 2 PM; neither seems like a particularly interesting group of students.

But then, as I’ve been observing – or have been the victim of – human stupidity and ignorance today, I have a negative view of people (lower-case, not italicized).

Four months from now, when I’m at MacDowell, I hope I don’t come down too hard on my fellow Fellows for being too removed from the hoi polloi; they’re right to be removed from them.

Or as my esteemed colleague Lynn asked me today, “Why did you go into the creative writing business anyway? It doesn’t seem to have been very lucrative for you.” Indeed.

My horoscope said that a good lunar aspect should coincide with “spiritual values, education, travel and possible publishing project. It may be necessary to revise, review and to tear down for the purpose of rebuilding on a more solid base.”

I can take this as another indication that I have to change my life. When I came home exhausted and wondering how I’m going to get through this semester, it finally occurred to me that most of my torment is self-inflicted.

Since I’ve got my full-time job for the rest of the semester and since I’m not going to be back at BCC, I can let up and not try to be Mr. Chips; instead, till May, I can sit back and let the Chips fall where they may.

The Word Police can come and arrest me, but I’m not going to strictly enforce the Gordon Rule with its 6,000-words-per-student-revisions-don’t-count. Will my students complain about less work? Not likely.

What do I have to lose by slacking off? Not much. Self-respect? Even at cruising speed, I do a better job than most teachers. So take it easy, Richie, and do yourself – and your students – a big favor.

I know I’ve taken this rationalizing route before, but this is definitely my last term at Broward Community College. There’s no reason to stay around.

And Jim Hall’s form letter telling me that I was still under consideration for the FIU job doesn’t fool me; I won’t get hired there, nor at FAU.

The smart move is North: first to the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire, and then back to New York City for the rest of ’84.

If I end up on the skids, I can crawl back to the warm parental nest next January – and I’ll make another go of it in South Florida.

I can’t rely on Guggenheims or NEA grants to rescue me; I’ll sink or swim on my own – with a little help from my friends.

So, taking the long view, I should do my best this term, but take teaching slow and easy. I just wish I could end up out of debt, but that’s just not gonna be.

I do admit that I’m flattered by students transferring into my sections once they’ve tried Hulewicz or Lanshe or other teachers. Hell, I coulda been a BCC contender, but now I don’t have to worry about my future there; I’ll just concentrate on me and my students.

Sunday, January 8, 1984

7 PM. A hectic week starts tomorrow. But really, it doesn’t have to be any more hectic than I make it. Where is written that I’m not allowed to enjoy myself at work?

Today I’m all excited about this series of articles on “The Writing Problem” in the New York Times Educational Survey.

Exciting developments are taking place in the field of teaching writing, a field the Times said really took off with Mina Shaughnessy’s appointment as head of the CUNY Instructional Resources Center in 1974.

Remember who was the student representative on the committee that hired her? At that point I never dreamed that one day I’d be involved in teaching writing.

Using word processors, peer tutoring, journals, “thinking out loud,” and deemphasizing grammar for its own sake – everything we don’t do at BCC – seems a hundred times better than Dr. Grasso’s strait-jacket approach, which only encourages dishonesty and plagiarism.

But can’t I try some of these innovative techniques which seem to work better than the tired old methods? In English 101, I don’t have to go through You Can Write page by page, and in English 102, I can be more creative.

Lisa called today after learning that her course at Barry College was canceled due to low registration. And at BBYO, because of some foul-up with her withholding, she’ll be making only $200 a week for a while: barely enough to live on.

“I’m sick of seeing my BBYO high school kids drive around in Corvettes while I literally can’t afford to buy toilet paper,” Lisa said. “I just went to my mother’s to get two rolls of ScotTissues.”

I tried to help but wasn’t of much use, I’m afraid. Lisa is an idealistic dreamer – she talked about how she wants to make a film about Brooklyn – and I think she doesn’t have what it takes to be a writer. Do I?

In an essay in the Times Book Review, Frederick Busch surveyed all of America’s slick magazine fiction for a month and found upper-middle-class formula stories with the kind of cardboard characters we’re accustomed to from TV, and increasingly these days, movies.

I don’t want to write that kind of commercial fiction. One thing I’ve never done – never been able to do – is write to order for some commercial market. Thank God I’m incapable of even attempting that.

In an article in the Times Magazine – the $2.50 for the paper was really worth it today – Alice Walker says writing can improve a person’s life and character if he or she doesn’t begin to write for money or for fame.

While I did like seeing the other customers at the Albertson’s checkout counter reading People and knowing that I’m in it, that’s separate from my serious writing.

I know I’m not a novelist. Let’s face it: I don’t even read novels anymore. I bought Jennifer Levin’s Water Dancer, which I’m sure is a terrific book, but I stopped reading it after 25 (good) pages and have no desire to pick it up again.

Novelists are no longer the people who tell us how we live our lives – and I want to be one of the people who defines and comments on the important issues of our time.

I love ideas, and fiction isn’t hospitable toward them. “Novels of ideas,” as Huxley pointed out in Point Counter Point, don’t really work.

I know I’m a genius, with a special way of seeing things; over the years I’ve gathered a lot more self-confidence. (Maybe too much?)

People like me have trouble in life, but we rarely starve or end up broken. Sadly, I’ve wasted so much energy on the trivial; I’m using about only 1% of my potential.

I just went out today for groceries and to buy two pair of 34-inch-waist (gulp) Lees at Jonathan’s army/navy store. He’s such a mensch there, it made me proud of him.

Look: I know life is frustrating, but it doesn’t have to be as frustrating as it usually is.

Monday, January 9, 1984

8 PM. Luckily, I had a very high energy level today, so this was a great way to start the week.

Last night I had a fine talk with Jonathan, who’s really the only person around here with whom I can discuss ideas. Jonathan knows a lot about philosophy and psychology, and he’s open to new ideas.

In the four years he’s lived in Florida, Jonathan has turned into quite an intellectual. Our conversation last night was the most stimulating I’ve had in quite a while.

Although I slept well, it’s still hard to get up at 6 AM; I think the pitch-darkness has a lot to do with my discomfort, and as daylight begins to come earlier, I may feel better about waking up at that hour.

The day at BCC went very well. The noon class “made” with 15 students, and my other classes are filling up with former students.

The classes seemed to respond to the essays by Orwell (“A Hanging”) and Maya Angelou that I went over. Even Mercy’s 9 AM remedial class, where I subbed, was quiet and respectful.

To me, the boys at BCC just seem to keep getting better-looking; sometimes I get distracted by all the cute guys sitting in front of me, but I try really hard just to be professional.

Maybe my high energy level these days is making me friskier than normal. I’ve got a hunch I’m going to meet someone, and not just because my horoscopes have been hinting at that.

I’m now over Sean. In my mind, I’ve forgiven him for any hurt he caused me, inadvertently or not, and now I remember only the quality times we spent together, and I want to try for something like that again with a new relationship.

Today I got another letter from “Big Bad Blah from So. Calif.” – that’s how Blair signed himself. He saw the Time quote and thought it was “pretty GODDAM funny.”

Blair apologized for being a space cadet because he’d gotten drunk the night before and was then left alone while “this really luscious cool guy” he’s been hanging out with slept with Blair’s own friend, a girl.

“The big news is that I am going to be in Florida around the end of February. Fort Lauderdale, to be exact.” He’s going on a cruise to Jamaica. (With a friend? With his parents?)

Blair will be moving to Santa Cruz to start school and live, and he’s “¾ of the way excited about that.”

I am ¾ of the way excited about Blair because I’m a little in love with him though I know he’s probably no good for me.

All the same, I still can’t wait to meet him.

Stacy said St. Pete at Christmas was cool – she uses the word in a different way than Blair – but that she enjoyed her trip to Florida, “which is really a different and probably a better place to live. How does one get a job there, though?”

Stacy said she’s glad I’m coming to New York and said that she and Jeanne have finally signed a lease at 77 Bleecker Street. And the new job seems okay so far; she wrote me on her office word processor.

I miss Stacy and hope that she, too, will come to South Florida before spring, as she suggested she might. Grandma Ethel told me that it’s snowing again in New York today, so maybe Stacy and other friends will want to get out of winter and visit me.

This could be a fun winter after all!

The rest of today’s mail: Josh sent an order for Eating at Arby’s from Baker & Taylor, and I got an invitation to Miriam’s book party at the Grolier on January 17. Of course, there’s no way I could get to Boston even if I had the money and a place to stay there.

When I got home at 2 PM, I lifted weights for an hour, working up a good sweat (and getting a great pump on my biceps). Then I read the papers, made up my syllabi for the term, went to the Hallandale library, had salad and chicken at Burger King for dinner, and wrote Barney Rosset at Grove Press, asking if he’d be interested in publishing my books in paperback.

I feel very “up” tonight, as if I’m totally on top of things. It’s so pleasant to have such a productive, non-frustrating day. And I felt smart and handsome today. Sometimes I wish I could always feel this way, but then life would be boring, no?

I have this sense that something very good is about to happen – the opposite of my usual negative neurotic premonitions. For a change, I actually like myself. I like other people, too.