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


Monday, July 2, 1984

It’s about 2 PM, and I’m in my room in the Barn at Austerlitz.

The Millay Colony looks okay so far, but it’s going to be an adjustment. It’s much more rustic than the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and less posh than MacDowell. There are only five of us here.

On the train, I met Matt, the composer I know from VCCA, the guy who was involved with Cathy. We ran into another colonist, Claire, a painter, in the dining car.

The trip up the Hudson Valley was gorgeous and took a little more than two hours. Then Gail, the assistant director, drove us here, about 20 miles away from the railroad stop in Hudson, New York.

I have a pleasant room, but it’s spare, and upstairs I have a studio which I probably won’t make much use of because I’ve got everything I need here.

Basically, now I feel homesick already and wonder why I bothered to come when I could have stayed on at Teresa’s; she won’t be at the apartment for the next two weeks, and I could have been on my own there and spent time with Ronna, Josh, Justin and my other friends.

I don’t know how well I’m going to function here. Of course, if I don’t like it, I can always leave; this is Austerlitz, not Auschwitz.

Last evening I met Ronna at 6 PM at 72nd and Broadway and we walked to Diane’s Uptown for hamburgers. She looked pretty even if she’s a little fat, and I hope I look just as good despite my own fat.

We talked about writing, and I told her my fears, and she said she’s coming to the conclusion that she’s not a writer. That upsets her “because I’ve always said I was a writer and if I’m not a writer, what am I?”

When we walked back to Teresa’s place, Teresa had already gotten home and been to the movies and out to dinner. She was going back to Fire Island today – I had forgotten that July 4 is Wednesday – and I hope my unemployment check arrives today so that Teresa can send it to me.

Otherwise, Judy will have to take in the mail and send it to me. I hated to press Teresa on the point, but that $250 every two weeks is my only income now.

Ronna and I hung out with Teresa for a bit, and then I walked her home and came in for iced tea; I also helped Ronna change her light bulbs. It was really hard to say goodbye to her.

Teresa and I chatted most of the night. Her plans are to stay in Fire Island till Friday and then meet Deirdre at LaGuardia and take a plane to Atlantic City, where Deirdre’s parents have a summer home.

Teresa will spend a week with Deirdre in Atlantic City and Philadelphia and then return two weeks from today to go to Unemployment again.

I spoke to Justin, who said he’s “recovering” from that “disastrous “performance of Boundaries: he felt the play was done badly, the actors were miscast, and that they stretched the play out an extra hour beyond its normal length.

This morning Teresa drove me to Grand Central Station, where I fiddled with my luggage (it’s very heavy) and finally made it onto Amtrak.

I feel lost right now, following a tour of the place and lunch (which we prepare ourselves). I don’t know if I can do any work here.

I did get mail: USA Today and letters from Crad and Miriam. Crad is doing so well with the new books that he feels he can turn a profit soon; he’s already made $400 on a $1200 investment.

I just don’t feel comfortable here yet, but I’ve been here only a couple of hours; I have to give the place a week, at least.

There are only five people: me, Matt, Claire and two women I haven’t met yet – one painter and a writer. I think I’m going to lie down for a little while and try to get my bearings.

It’s a hot, muggy day.

Tuesday, July 3, 1984

3 PM. I got about four pages of dreck written, but at least that’s better than no dreck whatsoever. In a way I wonder why I’ve come here to Millay to torture myself when I think of how comfortable I was in the city.

This is a big shock after Manhattan, but I guess the others, all of whom live in the city, are feeling it too.

Last night at the 6 PM dinner, I met the remaining residents: Emily, a painter about my age, and Sue, an older woman who’s working on a book for children.

Every one of the four of them is friendly, but as usual, I feel out of place. There’s no one here I can really talk to yet, and I miss my friends in New York and my family in Florida.

After a spaghetti dinner, we went for a walk to the swimming pool, which has fallen into a state of genteel disrepair, and some tennis courts long overgrown with weeds.

Norma Millay, Edna’s 90-year-old sister, has a house on the grounds and presides invisibly over the colony. Ann-Ellen, the director, joined us for coffee and seemed less aloof than I expected.

At 9 PM, I went back to my room – so far I haven’t really used the studio upstairs – and read for about two hours.

My clock radio gets, at the very beginning of the FM dial, the audio from the CBS-TV affiliate in Schenectady, channel 6, so I can at least listen to the local news and network broadcasts.

I couldn’t get used to the animal sounds from outside, so I didn’t get to sleep until after 2 AM, but I woke up at 8:30 AM for breakfast.

We have to fix our own breakfast and lunch, and our weekend meals, so in that respect Millay isn’t as luxurious as MacDowell or even VCCA.

After breakfast, I went back to bed and actually fell asleep until early afternoon. I only just returned from lunch, which I ate by myself, with no one else around.

You really don’t see other people here all day, and I wonder how long I can stand that. As at VCCA two years ago, being here makes me feel that I’m not really a writer – or maybe I’m just not the type of writer who can benefit from colonies.

Still, I didn’t do any writing the six weeks I had Teresa’s apartment to myself, and in Florida this past winter, I wasn’t at all productive.

Miriam wrote that she attended a Zephyr Press meeting and learned that the hardcover of I Brake for Delmore Schwartz is again sold out, but Phil Zuckerman of Applewood Books advised them that libraries will accept the softcover edition if they send it.

The Zephyr Press first novel contest, as I predicted, turned out to be a disaster; Miriam says that’s the last time they’re going to get involved with something like that.

No mail today, but Mom sent me my credit profile from TRW. I went through it, and it’s actually very positive with no errors or negative reports.

As long as I have all this time to think on my hands (there’s a terribly misplaced modifier in there, but maybe it expresses the way I have been thinking), I should give some thought to my future.

There’s always the possibility I’ll be called for a job interview at some college, but I doubt it. (It would give me an excuse to get out of here, I guess.) I can’t stay at Teresa’s and I don’t really want to stay in New York beyond the fall.

If I’m back in Florida and not teaching, what can I do? I really think I’d enjoy a job in the real world for a change – in PR or banking or something.

It would take away a lot of time I’d otherwise have free, but I’d also be freed from grading papers, and perhaps I’d come home hungry for intellectual activity like writing.

Besides, I need money to pay off my debts. And also important to me are the computer education courses I want to take.

Wednesday, July 4, 1984

4 PM on a strange Fourth of July.

I’ve felt sleepy and feverish all day – probably mostly due to a bad sinus headache. I slept heavily from 10 AM till 9 AM, dreaming frequently – but I can’t remember my dreams.

Being here at Millay is close to torture for me; it’s agony trying to write. I’ve been reading Overcoming Writing Blocks and a book on writing on the right side of the brain, and I have produced about four pages each day, but nothing’s come together: I wrote four pages of a fictional reminiscence of my first encounter with Sean, four pages of a story that seems to be going nowhere, and four pages about my publicity stuff.

If thinking and worrying and agonizing helps, then I’m doing something good – but it’s torture, as I said before.

I feel very isolated and alone and peculiar. I’m now at the desk in my studio above my room, and I look out and see the woods on the left, an open field on the right; the wind is rustling the leaves, and it’s cloudy and mild.

I feel I have no purpose. I don’t know what it is that I want to accomplish. I’ve tried “blockbusting” techniques that help a little, but I need more.

Part of the problem is that I want to accomplish too much: a novel (the celebrated Modern Demographics), stories, essays, etc.

I need to focus. And the problem with an artists’ colony – the purpose of it – is the solitude, the endless time to ruminate. Keats used the term “tedious agony,” and that says a lot to me.

Emily said she has to go into New York next Thursday, and I’ve thought of going in with her – and maybe using some excuse so I don’t have to come back.

That, of course, would be giving up, but if I’m still banging my head against the wall a week from now, I’ll have to leave or go nuts.

Maybe I’m afraid to write, afraid to let go and immerse myself in writing fiction. Why? Perhaps because I’m scared nothing will come out. If I can’t write in these “ideal” conditions, I may as well admit that I just can’t write.

Oh, I can write in this diary daily, but it’s not the same thing. I can probably write for assignment, too. Both books on writing mention “the internal critic,” and I have a mean one.

I wrote so much more easily, more joyfully, when I didn’t worry so much what others would think. I feel I’ve lost both my creative impulse and the critical impulse. They are enemies in the beginning, although one needs his internal critic at the revision stage.

On Sunday night, I said I’d just been very lucky with my writing, and Ronna said no, I worked hard and deserved whatever success I had.

Is anything worth this torture, especially (here comes the critic again) since it’s just as likely to produce poor material as good?

It’s a month since my birthday, that carefree day when nothing seemed to worry me. I feel like screaming now.

Madness is close to genius, not in the usual dopey way, but in the act of creation. Image: the writing as being in labor, as childbirth.

I’ve been reading Christopher Durang plays today: he’s witty and wise, and I feel close to him, and I’d love to get to know him.

Am I afraid of success, afraid of being well-known? Well, it can’t be fear of celebrity, because my publicity stunts are no trouble to me.

Maybe I’m just lazy, but as Claire said, no one is harder on ourselves than us.

Remember how I got those terrible toothaches at MacDowell, and they turned out to be bruxism? I feel tight-jawed now.

I guess forcing myself to write like this is good, builds character, etc., but it’s taking a lot out of me. I want to lie down after writing every sentence.

Thursday, July 5, 1984

11 AM. It’s a dark, cool day as I write this at the desk of my studio.

Last evening, I came alive as we all went out after dinner. After two days of relative isolation, it was heaven to be out in the world again.

All of us piled into Emily’s car and we drove into West Stockbridge, just a few miles away across the Massachusetts border.

It’s a pretty little town, but almost too artificially touristy. At the package and general store, we bought some items; I got a few cans of soda and some Life Savers.

It’s funny how so little can make you happy when you’ve been deprived. I never enjoyed a roll of peppermint Life Savers so much.

We were looking for local fireworks, but we kept getting lost and ended up taking a very roundabout route, which was fine with me, because I got to see a lot of scenery and pass through the towns of Pittsfield, Stockbridge (the famous Alice’s Restaurant is now a pizzeria), and Lenox.

We ended up getting to the Great Barrington VFW just a few minutes before the fireworks were to begin.

Hundreds of people must have come from all over the Berkshires, and I was delighted to see such a big crowd: locals, New York summer residents, and cute teenagers.

We spread a blanket and watched the fireworks, which were pretty good for a small town.

It was a real Fourth of July in New England.

The little kids next to me squealed with delight at each flash and boom, and they would cry for “More pink!” or “Green now!”

Again, it’s amazing what pleasures there can be in small things. And on the way back, we stopped for ice cream – a real treat.

As we’ve gotten to know one another, Matt, the women and I are friendlier now. I like all of them a lot and hope they like me.

Again, I slept amazingly well, better than I have in weeks in Manhattan. I’m pretty cozy in my room.

This morning I got an unpleasant surprise in the mail. The Broward Community College personnel office notified me that I had sent an application too late for an English vacancy, so I would not be considered.

I hadn’t even known they’d posted a vacancy. I’m very upset about this. I wish Patrick had written me about it, but I guess he needs the position for himself.

Thinking about it, though, I really can’t expect BCC to hire me after all I’ve done, even though I’m positive I’m one of the best teachers they’ve got.

If this had to happen, it’s probably for the best.

Right now my worries yesterday – about not being able to write – seem so trivial.

After all, here I am, spending no money, living and eating for free, doing no work, and yet I can’t do anything but complain. Some ingrate I am! Why do I always expect so much?

Now, as to my future. . . the real world, I mean: What options do I have?

Well, I want to go back to Florida in early August. For one thing, Marc will be up here, and I can stay in his room in Davie and not cause unnecessary crowding in our parents’ house.

I will visit all the campuses of BCC and see if there are any temporary positions. If, as expected, there aren’t any, I can look for other kinds of jobs.

If I hear from Neil Schaeffer that he has fall courses for me to teach at Brooklyn College, I may just come up north, sublet an apartment, and run all over the city doing the adjunct bit at multiple schools.

And then, in the spring – or January – I can go to Florida and start the computer education program at Florida Atlantic University and try to scrape by somehow.

Or I might try to brave the winter in New York. One thing is certain: the second half of 1984 is going to be a lot more difficult than the first half.

So far, I’ve been extremely fortunate. I’ve been collecting unemployment all these weeks (I didn’t get my check – or my mail stuff – so I guess I’m going to lose out on extra money), and I’ve been having a ball living rent-free in a gorgeous apartment in Manhattan.

Now here I am living for free in the country in July.

My health is good, and I have had few worries or problems. Surely the law of compensation should take over and give me a rough time.

As the poster says, “When the going gets tough, the tough go shopping.”

I know I have a support system in New York – Teresa, Ronna, Justin, Stacy, Mikey and Amy, Josh – and I can survive there if I have to. And I have a good support system in Florida, too. I shall survive.


4 PM. If I can’t – or won’t – write fiction, at least I can get a couple of pages of journal writing done today.

Actually, today was the most pleasant day I’ve had at Millay, mostly because I haven’t been torturing myself with trying to write.

I think I’m just about to give up as a writer and go on to something else. It’s not the only thing in the world that I can do.

I’m sure that I’ll always be something of a writer – if nothing else, this diary attests to that – but whatever small powers of the imagination I may have possessed in my twenties are gone now.

Because I’ve written enough already, and because I’m a member of PEN and the Authors Guild, and because I can find my books in libraries and bookstores – as I did today with I Brake for Delmore Schwartz in Lenox – publicly, I’ll still be a writer.

Look at Ivan Gold, who reviewed me in the Times Book Review: he published only two books, the last more than a decade ago, yet he’s still considered a writer.

Anyway, maybe I’ve failed, but if I look at it another way, it’s a miracle I succeeded as much as I did on sheer will and energy.

And I expect I can turn out a few more books of stories and humor, enough to keep up a small reputation. But I have to accept that I’ll never be a novelist or major writer of any kind.

Now what?

At least I didn’t put all my eggs in one basket. In terms of a steady career, my best bet seems to go for the degree in computer education.

With computers booming and with a growing shortage of elementary school teachers, I can always take that up and find employment.

It will be fun to start something new, an expanding field rather than a closed one. I’m tired of doors slamming in my face; I want to be welcomed by prospective employers.

I’ve always loved kids, and they’ll be less trouble – in some ways – than college students. Or maybe I can be a computer trainer for adults.

It’s exciting, really: the way I felt four years ago when I first left New York. There’s something liberating about failing and then going on to start again. I’m not too old to change and learn just because I’m 33.

Today I read USA Today and then went to Lenox with Ann-Ellen, Matt and Sue. We again passed the deer on the road, and a dreadful thunderstorm started as we got into town.

I bought some newspapers (the Boston Globe, the Albany Times-Union), went to the wonderful Lenox Public Library, and walked around in the downpour.

When I phoned the house in Davie, Jonathan answered, telling me he’d just gotten his new contact lenses. Mom said that all is well and said she sent a new batch of mail.

Look: as long as I’m not ill, starving, or desperate, I should enjoy being here and try to make this a special time.

Freed of the pressure to produce, I feel really relaxed. I can read and write (a little) and think without having to feel like everything is useless if I’m not “a writer.”

Monday, July 9, 1984

3 PM. I’m in my studio. I’ve been happier today than any day since I’ve gotten here at Millay.

It’s been sunny since yesterday afternoon, when I lifted weights and did the first two chapters of the self-teaching text in BASIC; I find it’s exhilarating, doing the math and learning more about the BASIC language.

Last evening, I met Flo and Kurt, the caretakers, who were on vacation all last week, and Flo promised there’d be more food for us this week. I had lunch an hour ago, and we’ve now got peanut butter, rice cakes, tofu and other goodies.

Yesterday we all made hamburgers, and it was a riot watching five cooks running around a kitchen spoiling the broth – or, in this case, the beef.

The room got as smoky as a backroom at a 1920s political convention, but it was good to bite into a bun with beef and raw onions and ketchup.

Afterwards, Emily, who’d returned from her weekend wedding at 5 PM, was kind enough to drive us (all except Matt, who went back to work or to sleep) into West Stockbridge, the nearest town, just over the state border.

It’s not much but a tourist trap, having been bought a few years ago by a developer who decided to turn it into his idea of a quaint New England town.

The result is a kind of hokey, nearly horrendous, mixture of shops, restaurants and inns – in fact, exactly the sort of kitsch that’s a perfect antidote to the rustic austerity of Austerlitz.

We looked around a precious toy store and bought homemade ginger ice cream cones; then we walked past the town’s stream and its “art park,” where Vietnamese boys were playing ball.

In the general store, I bought some caffeine-free Coke cans and Sunday’s Hartford Courant, which had a fine article by elderly Martha Munger from our South Florida Book Club in the magazine section (edited by the guy who used to edit Tropic for the Miami Herald).

It was a real treat for me to be out in civilization and look at tourists eat dinner in the Shaker Mill Inn. The sky was darkening, and the green hills of the Berkshires were a stunning sight I’ll remember when I’m back in the flat terrain of Florida.

Back at the colony, I slept for ten hours solid, refreshing myself after being totally exhausted. This morning I got mail forwarded by Mom, and again, hearing from the outside world is a real treat, too.

I got rejected from a fiction job at SUNY Oswego; a guy in Oregon wanted my autograph for his collection of presidential candidates; Diane Kruchkow’s latest Small Press News (with a well-deserved salute to Rick Peabody) arrived; and Mom sent along the application from Lake City Community College.

I filled out the application and sent it back to them, as it’s got to be there next week. Lake City is forty miles north of Gainesville and sixty miles west of Jacksonville, and it has only 3,000 students; it’s probably Southern and rural.

I was even happy to get my first bills from my new credit cards, Goldome Visa and Citibank MasterCard. And I’ve got today’s and Thursday’s New York Times yet to read.

I like the crowd here: Emily reminds me a lot of Avis in the way she walks and moves. Claire is funny and hip, and Sue is 44, a bisexual typesetter who has run a women’s martial arts center.

Except for Matt (whom I’ve liked since VCCA two years ago), who’s got to complete his MOMA-commissioned composition by August, everyone here is pretty relaxed about her work, so I don’t feel guilty about not being productive or for goofing off.

Emily plans to drive to Manhattan on Wednesday after dinner and return on Friday morning.

I think it will be okay if I mail my unemployment stuff a few days late; it shouldn’t matter to the Florida labor department.

Tuesday, July 10, 1984

1 PM. In my studio again, I’m looking out at the field and watching Kurt, the caretaker, cut the grass.

Although I have a headache and my wisdom tooth has been paining me for days, I feel much better about life here at the Millay Colony.

I no longer feel the need to count the days, though that may only be because I’m going to New York tomorrow evening with Emily and Matt.

Yesterday afternoon I wrote a little, and now I have six pages of a pretty good story, “Thank You, Payne Whitney.”

I imagine if I could write just one story that could go into The New Yorker, I’d be more than ahead of the game.

Reading Publishers Weekly last night, I came across an interview with William Zinsser, an idol of mine because of his book On Writing Well.

He said that today “the action is in nonfiction,” and I think he’s right. It’s not so much that I don’t want to write; it’s that I don’t want to write fiction.

And for a long time now, I’d rather read nonfiction than fiction. What I’ve got to do is plan some book projects in nonfiction and send query letters to agents.

There’s the possibility of a book about my publicity stunts; or I could do a serious book of interviews, maybe with baby boomers; or a book about agoraphobics.

We had a fine chicken dinner last night, and early on, I retired to my bedroom to read and to listen on radio to the CBS TV station carrying the Miss Universe pageant from Miami.

There were a lot of descriptions of places in Miami, but instead of viewing them, I had to imagine them from memory. It made me realize that I miss Florida.

The producers of Miami Vice, a TV show for next year, said Miami is an American Casablanca, where one can get anything done for a price.

(Idea for publicity: I could picket the NBC building in Rockefeller Center, protesting the title Miami Vice.)

Because Flo, the caretaker, said she’d drive us to do our laundry this morning, I got up at about 7:30 AM, and we left in the pickup truck, making stops in West Stockbridge before we got to Great Barrington.

Flo said that Gordon Rose, the New Yorker who bought up much of West Stockbridge and made it touristy, is not liked by the old residents, most of whom are Italian and keep to themselves. She pointed out a house where Shaun Cassidy was spending the summer.

Speaking of celebrities, yesterday the actor Roscoe Lee Browne was laughing all morning in the office. He visits every so often, as he’s Norma Millay’s best friend. Flo thinks it’s likely that Roscoe will inherit Norma’s house.

Tom Selleck is another friend of Norma’s who visited last summer, and Roscoe is friendly with him and with the cast of Days of Our Lives.

In the strip center in Great Barrington, Sue, Matt and I did our laundry, though because neither of them does laundry regularly, they put in too much detergent. When we took our stuff out of the dryer, Matt and I had a problem figuring out whose black t-shirts and white briefs were whose.

I enjoyed being able to go to Kmart and a bookstore and a Radio Shack while the laundry was being done and while Flo was shopping for Norma.

At 11:30 AM, Flo, Sue and I went to Dos Amigos, the Mexican restaurant in the center, where we had delicious burritos, a real nice change of pace from Colony food.

The conversation was also stimulating, as Flo talked about her year here and how each month’s group is so different. In the summer, she said, you get people who work but who also treat their stay as a vacation; in the winter, people work continually.

We got home about half an hour ago. Today’s warm and sunny, but rain is expected tonight.

I’ll always be grateful I had the chance to see this part of the country. Being here – between Albany and the Berkshires – is a real education.