A 26-Year-Old’s Diary Entries From Late June, 1977


Wednesday, June 22, 1977

11 PM. I just returned from Teresa’s apartment on West 85th and Riverside. I like having a more active social life these days. Tonight I could have gone with Alice and Dolores and Janice to the Russian Tea Room (if I had the money) or to the movies with Mikey and Larry.

It’s fun to be with friends again. Last evening Mikey called, and we chatted about this and that. He renewed his hack license; so far no other job offers have come up, so it’s likely Mikey will have to resort to driving a cab. He needs money, too.

When I got off the phone with Mikey, I discovered that Alice was downstairs. She was interviewing Mom and Dad about taking out the garbage and other household chores of married couples for some article she’s writing.

In contrast to all the younger couples Alice interviewed, my parents are traditional in their roles. Mom accepts doing the housework and wants Dad to help out only if he can.

Alice and my parents and I sat around the kitchen table shooting the breeze for a couple of hours. She gave us some of the lyrics she’s writing for the musical’s title song, rhyming “the Alice in me” with “normalcy.”

Kenny Uhnak is so enthusiastic and likes every word Alice writes. That just makes her suspicious and leads her to wonder why he’s letting her do the libretto. If his aunt has so many contacts and his music is that good, wouldn’t he prefer a professional?

I wouldn’t tell this to Alice, but I don’t think she should get the gown for the Tony Awards just yet. (Of course, she’d just wear it with the tag inside and return it on Monday anyway.) As Dad said later, “Stranger things have happened than Alice writing a hit musical.” But she hasn’t really started to write the lyrics yet and is still in the enthusiastic stage.

This morning the mailman brought eight manila envelopes. Six out of the eight were rejections, but Thomas and Grace Masiello accepted “Sixteen Attempts to Justify My Existence“ for the first issue of their new magazine Incus and Philip Zitowitz accepted (although he wants to do some edits) “Hold Me” for his new magazine, Westbere Review.

Two acceptances in one day, three magazines coming out with new stories in the last week, the scholarship to Bread Loaf – and I still feel I am not getting anywhere with my writing. It’s funny how jaded we can become with our successes.

I was disappointed, too, that I didn’t get on the Poets & Writers list in time to be listed in their 1977 Directory Supplement, which also arrived today. It hurt to see people like Henry Jacobs, Robert Matte and others listed when I know I’m as good as them. Well, I’ll wait for the 1979 Directory; meanwhile, I’m listed in the Poets & Writers files.

There was a lot of traffic on the way to Teresa’s this evening, but I found a parking space right on her block, and that was a godsend. Teresa has moved into a newly-renovated building – and is, in fact, one of the first tenants.

She likes everything about it except that she misses her yard – the photos of her California house that she showed me told me why – and she worries about the welfare hotel next door.

Teresa looked very well, having shed all that extra California weight. Her boyfriend Don, the New York Times Books vice-president, is in Reykjavik now, meeting with some generals about an audiovisual project.

Don kept saying he’d move in, but when he left for Iceland, he was still living in suburban Pennsylvania with his wife and four kids: three older girls and a 10-year-old boy. The oldest and the youngest have cystic fibrosis, and that complicates things.

Don wants a divorce, but Teresa says “he wants to be Superman and make sure everyone’s completely happy and financially secure.” Her old lover Ted ended up in a marriage of convenience with Teresa’s friend, a Swedish Communist who needed her green card and so had to get married.

Teresa’s grandfather is very ill, and she has problems with her mother (who knows nothing of Don).

Spring called while I was there – I was sorry that I missed her last time – and when I got on the line, she told me that she was finishing Barnard.

Spring’s old boyfriend Sean came over for dinner this week and told Teresa she had sold out by working in advertising for the Wall Street Journal. Sean also mentioned that Melvin and Costas are living only a couple of blocks away from her, in the West 90s.

For our dinner, Teresa made a delicious meal of steak, potatoes and broccoli, and after we ate, we began to plan the party for Avis. It will be at Teresa’s on Saturday night, July 23.

Then I went with Teresa across the street to a West 85th Street block association meeting, which was interesting. They are trying to maintain the block’s trees, and each tree gets a person to be its “tree parent.”

There was a lot of back and forth about the welfare hotel, with some taking the side of the poor people who live there while others, like Teresa, being against them for their noise – especially loud music on Saturday nights – and other stuff.

People also felt the same way about the place we were in, “The Bridge,” a drug treatment program, but most were not as vociferous about it.

Saturday, June 25, 1977

Noon. My day has barely begun: I’ve taken a shower, had breakfast, made my bed. But I need to write now – in my diary, knowing this at least will not be rejected.

I dream about rejections, and then, still half-asleep, I find my mailbox filled with them. Harpers, Paris Review, Michigan Quarterly Review: all form rejections. How did I ever get into a business where rejections and acceptances are so important?

I have grave doubts about my writing abilities. Sooner or later, I will have to come to the conclusion that I’m third-rate. God knows why I made myself believe that I had anything to say to the world.

I really can’t write fiction anymore. It’s quite a writer’s block; at this point, I just don’t have anything to say. Now, of course, when I don’t have any outside pressures like teaching, is the perfect time for me to be turning out short stories: I have a little money coming in, I have nothing but time.

Yet the fiction I do manage to produce in such a niggardly fashion is either insubstantial, irrelevant or both. Perhaps I should stop trying to write.

But if I do that, what then? My life is nothing without my writing. I put all my eggs in one fictional basket, and without them, my cholesterol count is probably dangerously negative.

Last night’s opera at Marine Park – La Bohème – should have been a wonderful experience. And it was, except that I kept trying to tell myself I wasn’t uncomfortable.

Robert and Judy were snuggled up together, and Alice and Andreas were wearing one sweater between them, one they’d bought in a He-Man Shop, and I spent the evening feeling chilly, listening to the opera, and telling myself that I was an individual and didn’t need to be part of a couple.

But it was a case of protesting too much, even internally, and I felt lonely and wretched. (I started to spell the last word without a W, “retched” – are wretched and Richard homonyms?)

The singing, the grass, the sky, even the delights of Zabar’s raisin bread and brie and pastries and wine – none of it really helped. I wanted someone to be hugging me against the cold.

In the crowd, I saw one of my former teachers: Bart Meyers, with his family. I saw one of my former students, Maura O’Brian, who was with her friends. I saw my neighbors Jerry and Jo Bisogno, who of course were together. At least I saw Evan, and he was alone.

All the good intellectually-known stuff about the stupidity of “couple-fronts” and about the integrity of the single person faded in my mind. Alice and Andreas, whatever their problems, have their own secret world of two; Judy and Robert probably share a universe together.

Still, when I stopped thinking about myself, the night was pleasant. I had fun and laughed and ate too much and saw friends and watched poor Mimi and Rodolfo and felt a part of a community. Maybe I can’t write because emotionally, I’m empty. If I can’t give to another person, how can I give myself up on paper?

This morning I feel too fat and bloated to go outside. My hair is too long and dirty. My clothes look terrible.

I was reading, of all things, John Stuart Mill’s autobiography, the part about his mental crisis, where he finally decides that the secret of happiness is to never consider the question “Am I happy?” and to just set yourself a task and try to derive some pleasure from that and from whatever daily occurrences you can.

I have to admit this: for two weeks, ever since her call, I’ve been fantasizing about Ronna. She’s coming back this week and I have been expecting to see her and to get close to her and to love her again. When will I learn – as Gatsby never did – that you can’t repeat the past?

She’s had years to get over me, and now I don’t matter to her: not in the present, anyway. Ronna forgot my birthday because I wasn’t important to her, just as Shelli never called me to say goodbye before she went back to Madison.

I hear Rilke louder than ever now. I must change my life.

Sunday, June 26, 1977

8 PM. My confidence has come back, as I knew it would. This weekend turned out to be quite pleasant after all. I even wrote. Yesterday came a nostalgic boy-girl story, “Cheap Sentiments,” and today a short but (I think) funny piece, “Mistakes and Lies: A Chronology.”

The point is that I’m writing again. Doubtless I’ll lose confidence in my work and then get it back from now until the day I die. The important thing is not to give up.

Late in bed last night, I decided that if I’m going to be a failure – well, then I’m going to be a significant failure. Like the two writers in that book last year, Ross and Tom, someone will do a study of me and try to analyze just why I failed. Or someone will publish my diaries as a psychological study of failure. Or at least there’ll be an obituary in the Brooklyn College Alumni Bulletin.

John Stuart Mill, in his autobiography, had the right idea. From now on, I’ll stop asking myself if I’m happy. Thomas Carlyle said, “The Fraction of Life can be increased in value not so much by increasing your Numerator as by lessening your Denominator.”

And it’s true: without expecting to, I found little pleasures this weekend. Yesterday I went out to Rockaway, where it was windy, cool and dark, and I found Grandpa Herb and Grandma Ethel at Great-Grandma Bessie’s, along with Uncle Sidney and Aunt Claire.

Claire and Sid have been visiting their children, first in Silver Spring with Randy and Karen, then to Lynbrook with Susan and Bernie, and after that in Hauppauge with Lynne and Ben.

Great-Grandma Bessie’s apartment is very nice, one I’d enjoy having myself.

Uncharacteristically, she hugged me tightly when I arrived, and then gave me milk and cookies, which made me feel like a child; even at 26, that’s a nice feeling to have for a little while.

After I sat with the old folks for an hour, trying to be as cheerful and as pleasant as possible, I drove to Belle Harbor to visit Mikey and his mother.

It was a quiet afternoon, just idle talking, but it was very homey, you know?

It’s important in my life to have a place to go: to my grandparents’, to Alice’s, to the Judsons’ kitchen, to Brooklyn College, the Eighth Street Bookshop, the Floridian Diner, the beach at Rockaway, the Brooklyn Heights Promenade, Junior’s, LIU – places where I can be comfortable and feel I belong.

Last night I stayed in, reading and exercising and watching The Pallisers. This morning I woke up relatively early and left for the beach after writing that little story.

At the Sarretts’, Grandpa Herb showed me poems he found in Uncle Abe’s wallet, poems about Aunt Annette that Abe wrote and typed up. They were highly sentimental and so pathetic I could barely finish them without crying.

Michael and Eddie were coming over later on their way to see their father at the nursing home; Grandpa Herb is worried about them.

Leaving the apartment, I drove down to Riis Park, picking up a hitchhiker on the way.

Once my car was safely in the Riis Park lot, I started walking to Belle Harbor, watching bodies. In the gay section there were mostly older men I’m not attracted to.

Further on, I saw some nice younger bodies, male and female, but it’s funny: on the beach, with everybody half-naked, nobody ever stands out as looking fantastic and really sexy.

I suppose I have an average build, and that’s nothing to feel sorry about. I walked along the beach until I saw a familiar face at Beach 134th Street. It was Ivan, and I tapped him on the head and sat down with him on his blanket.

He’s really very sweet. We had a nice talk, and I began to realize – again – that Ivan is just an ordinary nice guy, not the god I built him up to be when he was Shelli’s best friend and then Ronna’s ex-boyfriend so many years ago.

I no longer feel in competition with Ivan. He told me he broke up with Vicky, and he seemed kind of sad about it: “We went together almost as long as Ronna and I did – not that that counts because we were eleven years old.”

When I said that every time I see him, he’s with a different girl, Ivan said, “They’re just friends, mostly – from the neighborhood.”

In August, Ivan is moving to a house he bought on the beach block of Beach 129th Street. His parents sold the house in Neponsit and are taking larger quarters on Sutton Place. All their kids are grown now.

I know Ivan works hard, so he deserves the money he’s got; I don’t begrudge him his house. In fact, I’m glad, because it probably means I’ll still be getting to see him.

We chatted about Shelli and about Ronna – who hasn’t called him since December; I said I’d tell her to phone him if I got to talk to her – and about getting old, and by the time I got up to keep walking, we parted as friends, I think.

Tuesday, June 28, 1977

9 PM. I’ve just been dipping into a reader in physical education that I picked up at one of the college bookstores for 59¢. I wish now that I had taken some phys ed courses in college.

For so long I concentrated on my mind and neglected my body. Now I’ve been exercising every day for the past 2½ years. I crave the exercise now; I’ll have to take the Bullworker with me to Vermont in August. Muscle tension, sweat, that slight charley horse: they make me feel so good.

And even though I’ve been overeating, I still manage to look decent. I’m reconciled to keeping my slight paunch forever – but I’m never going to let it get too noticeable, and I’m the first one to notice it.

Hmmm. How’s this for an idea for a story: a physical education instructor is appointed Secretary of State and proceeds to extend the “creative tension” theory behind isometric exercise to international relations. . . As always, the possibilities are endless.

This afternoon I completed a story, an 11-pager, third person, realistic non-reflexive story entitled “Yes Power,” after Dr. Wouk’s book. The story takes place during the college “election recess” of 1970 (which was a sop to activist students following a spring of strikes and demonstrations) and deals with a short-lived romance between a pragmatic sophomore Jack, who’s working in the Ottinger campaign, and Esther, a quiet girl who originally favors Senator Goodell.

It may not be for The New Yorker, but I like it, and that’s what counts. (Yes, it is.) More rejections from big little mags came today: Quarterly West, Carolina Quarterly, Massachusetts Review – but, determined as ever, I sent out new submissions to each of them in today’s mail.

Our mailman questioned Jonny about my writings, and my brother explained to him that I’m a fiction writer; I bet the mailman had thought I just got rejections and never acceptances.

In a way, I’m sorry I put out the poor guy: he’s forever delivering these self-addressed, stamped 9” x 12” manila envelopes marked “Special Fourth Class Rate – Manuscript” to me.

I did get an acceptance today, though not of a story: Buckle, a new little magazine out of the State College at Buffalo, said they’ll be putting my poem, “The Erosion of the Beaches, Late October 1971,” in their premiere issue, scheduled for August.

That was just a matter of being in the right place at the right time; I saw their call for submissions in Small Press Review. Speaking of SPR, Len Fulton sent me a friendly card acknowledging my letter and saying that the new Directory of Little Magazines, which I’d ordered, will be out in August. “It will be huge,” Len wrote.

Richard Hauer Costa of Quartet sent me a rejection beginning, “It’s hard to turn down someone so young and so widely published.” Oh well, at least I’m over Saturday’s gloom and doom.

This morning I signed for my check downtown. It took no time; it’s amazing how easy it is. Last week’s check lasted only through today, though. It’s impossible for me to live on $42 a week (minus $12.50 to help Mom pay Maud), but the unemployment checks will keep me from eating away at my savings in huge gulps.

The check for $200 for my work on the Conference has never arrived, and I wonder if it ever will. Perhaps I should take some form of action. I would dearly love to sue Jack Gelber in Small Claims Court, but I don’t know if that would be the most efficacious way to get the money owed me.

I had my hair cut this afternoon; the haircut was long overdue, and as always, very pleasurable.

Wednesday, June 29, 1977

11 PM. I was suffering from boredom and lack of stimulation this afternoon, but I conquered it by getting myself out to dinner and then to a showing of Robert Altman’s 3 Women at the Midwood.

It worked like a charm, for the movie haunted me enough that I was able to come home and knock out a pretty good (my opinion) story straight out on the typewriter.

Altman is a genius, and 3 Women is one of his more intimate films; he concentrated on only a handful of characters and the results are beautiful and macabre.

Shelley Duvall and Sissy Spacek are, as always, superb; I could eat them both up, but I’ve always been taken with Sissy Spacek’s odd, albino-like dumb beauty. God, I would like to spend the night with her.

Anyway, my story, a speck compared with Altman’s canvas, is influenced by him; called “Progress,” it’s a surrealistic and subtle (I hope) story of homosexual indoctrination.

I spent last evening on the phone with Libby and this evening with Alice. Libby’s mother was pleased to hear that I started getting unemployment checks and we had a nice chat before she put her daughter on the phone.

Libby – come to think of it, she has a Sissy Spacek quality – is back at work now, doing everything including taking tennis lessons. She was dismayed about the date of Avis’s party because Thomas asked her to reserve that date for him. Maybe we can work something out. Why can’t Thomas just come to the party, too?

Libby said Mason called her up from Jersey and told her he’s coming in for a weekend soon. “Where are you staying?” she asked. “With you,” Mason told her. Libby and I talked about Avis’s forthcoming visit and we agreed to see each other soon.

Tonight Alice told me she ran into the mother of Phyllis (who, having graduated law school, is taking the bar exams and has a job awaiting her with Legal Aid) and Harriet (married and the mother of a baby boy) and Judy (now divorced and graduating Brooklyn College); Mrs. Rappaport sent me her regards.

Alice sold several articles today for $325 and got a $500 assignment from Ladies’ Home Journal, but she’s so jaded by now, she doesn’t bat an eyelash. Her big interest now is the Alice in Wonderland musical, and she recited for me some songs she’s written. They were all quite clever, and she said Kenny Uhnak is quite impressed.

She read me a Seventeen press release about her promotion and June’s hiring; their credits and biographies sound so imposing, but I guess maybe mine would, too.

Alice is even more pragmatic and achievement-oriented than I could ever be. She told me she wishes she had started writing earlier because now she would be “ahead of myself.”

I couldn’t understand that, especially when she used me as a “for instance,” saying I “wasted a year” studying literature at Richmond College. Of course that year wasn’t a waste, and I can’t even grasp Alice’s concept of being “ahead of yourself.”

If I had wanted to write fiction that badly in those days, I would have. And I don’t really feel that there’s any kind of timetable for success. Alice says she hates the work of writing, she only loves getting the check and seeing her name in print.

For me, the joy is in the act of creation itself. I lose myself, I exist in my present state, when I am creating. Sure, acceptances cheer me up and rejections depress me, and I love seeing the expanding shelves of magazines featuring my stories. But that’s all frills to me.

Kenward Elmslie of Z Press told me to submit stuff to him next spring when he plans another issue; he said it’s always a surprise to get an unsolicited manuscript as good as mine.

Last night I had terrible insomnia and couldn’t get to sleep until 5:30 AM. I felt sluggish all day, stayed out of the sun, went to the bank, watched TV and put myself into a state resembling a coma until I snapped out of it late this afternoon.

Thursday, June 30, 1977

8 PM. This incredible creative streak I’m having is so wonderful it almost scares me. I’ve just finished another story, which I started this morning.

Mom told about a dream she had last night. Usually she doesn’t remember her dreams, so it seemed significant. It took place in my bedroom, and she was watching from my window as two men stole the milk from our milkbox and gave it to a woman for her baby’s bottles.

After breakfast I wrote down the dream and then I got the idea for a story called “The Mother in My Bedroom,” which I finished after dinner tonight. It seems to be good, but I’m just coming off writing it and so it’s much too early to tell.

I seem to be taking in everything that’s in my environment, filtering it, and exploiting it as fiction. Now maybe it’s time for a break. In one week, I’ve written six pieces, 35 pages in all.

Of course, most of my stories are very short, averaging six or seven pages. But I think I’m best at those things now. And just by writing, I feel myself getting sharper and sharper. I’m polishing myself, getting rid of deadwood, trying to shine.

Even in the summer doldrums, my creativity isn’t failing me. Of course, there’s always the feeling, even while the joy of each newborn story is still hot: Is this the last one? Will there be another?

Virginia Woolf had breakdowns and crushing depressions once each of her projects was completed. But perhaps these breakdowns were necessary: she was coming down, crashing after those wonderful, terrible highs.

I know what she was feeling when she wrote: “I cannot control my dizzying, boundless, sometimes terrifying openness to experience. . . I feel drowned by my brain. . .”

Eventually, of course, the dizziness drowned her completely, and I fear that for me, too. Emotionally, I’m fairly fragile. Just as Virginia Woolf was protected and nursed by her husband Leonard, I’ve been protected and nursed by my family.

Things are made easy for me so that I can deal only with my fiction. In this house, I don’t have to concern myself with laundry or cooking or other details and tasks that are time-consuming, energy-consuming, and quite necessary in most people’s lives.

Especially now, I am free to pursue my writing nearly 100% of the time. Sometimes I wonder if I have copped out of life, if I’m just back at square one where I started with my agoraphobia ten years ago.

But then I think: If I can make some significant contribution to literature, it will be worth it – even if I give only one poor graduate student in the future an article to publish so that he can get a teaching job, it will be worth it.

It’s a strange, wild, hermetic life, and maybe I’ll outgrow it or be forced to leave it, or maybe it will destroy me.

The first six months of 1977 are complete, and I can close my eyes for an instant. Last week I had to tear up a letter I was writing because I wrote “1976” for the date. It’s been a good year so far, but then again, they’ve all been good years. Just being here makes it good. (Question to myself: Is “here” the United States of America or the borough of Brooklyn or this house – or this journal?)

I slept well, woke up early, decided I must get out of the house for some external stimulation and so went to the Brooklyn Museum to see their new exhibit, Two Centuries of Black American Art, which was very good. If I tried to say more about it, I’d sound pompous and ignorant.

Back home, I was confronted by another rejection in today’s mail. I had lunch, sat in the hot sun, exercised, swam, and went to the library, where I read for two hours.

Teresa called from work. Her block association has provided no help in dealing with the welfare hotel next door, so she’s organized a tenants’ council in her building. I joked that soon she’d be running for Congress, and Teresa said she’d love to.