What's below was published in Contemporary Authors, Vol. 210 (2003), 121-138. I wrote it at the beginning of 2003:
A Writer in Spite of Myself
“You should call it ‘A Writer in Spite of Himself,’” said my current therapist – my seventh since I was a teenager – of this autobiographical essay. “You know, like Moliere’s A Doctor in Spite of Himself. Tell how despite your distractions and your self-doubts, your lack of confidence and your extreme self-consciousness – your mishigass, as we say in New York – you managed to become and remain a writer.”
We were sitting in Dr. Koncsol’s office of The Psych Team in Davie, Florida, and I had been telling him how I had this mass (and mess) of “and then this happened, and then this happened” material but my that essay needed a theme.
I had been thinking of calling it “Travels of an Agoraphobic” – after a book by another neurotic, Oscar Levant’s Memoirs of an Amnesiac, because in many ways I am still that anxiety-ridden 17-year-old who barely left his room for a year.
But perhaps my therapist’s idea is better than mine. After all, his title does come closer to the sensibility of the self-conscious fiction I write, about the impossibility and desperate necessity of telling stories and the overriding fear that I’m not going to get it right.
I was born Richard Arnold Ginsberg in Brooklyn on June 4, 1951, two years after my parents, Marilyn and Daniel, had married. When I was six months old, Mom and Dad changed our Jewish last name to the ethnically neutral Grayson.
My parents had met as teenagers in the bungalows of Rockaway Beach, Queens, where their parents were summer neighbors and friends. My grandparents – Nathan and Sylvia Ginsberg, Herbert and Ethel Sarrett – had spent most of their lives in Brooklyn, but all had been born in the shtetls of Eastern Europe and had immigrated as children.
Both sets of grandparents had known each other a long time; as a boy, Grandpa Herb lived with his family next door to the family of Grandma Sylvia, many years before they would become machetunim (Yiddish for “co-parents-in-law”).
When I was born, my mother was 20, my father 24, and my grandparents in their forties.
As the psychologist who interviewed me at 15 said, first memories are often unreliable but revealing. My first memory, I told Dr. Machover, was being held up to the window and watching cars go by on Ocean Parkway. I guessed that meant I saw myself as an observer.
A story my mother tells:
When I was two, Mom left me alone with the TV on in our apartment’s “front room.” She returned to find the word Tide written in crayon on a piece of construction paper.
“What’s that?” Mom asked, startled.
“It’s Tide,” I said. “I saw it on TV.” I had copied the word from a commercial for the detergent.
My mother read to me constantly, mostly little Golden Books like The Tawny, Scrawny Lion. I would make her read them aloud over and over until I could interrupt her and recite the rest of the story from memory.
A neighbor who was a first-grade teacher brought me schoolbooks, and somehow I taught myself to read – or so I was told.
I loved books and was crazy about maps. My Uncle Matt Sarrett had given me his boyhood set of the Britannica Junior Encyclopedia and a world atlas as big as I was –an edition published during World War II which featured a large Nazi Germany which took up much of central Europe.
I memorized the capitals of the 48 states and then foreign countries. In restaurants, Grandpa Herb would show off my talents to the other diners. He wanted me to go on the kid quiz show Take a Giant Step, but I was too nervous.
I was always “nervous.” I was afraid of school, traveling, dentists, swimming, vomiting, bridges, airplanes, suffocation, and getting up on stage. My problem with anxiety is probably partly genetic, and partly a result of my overprotective family. It resulted in a fearful childhood, panic attacks and agoraphobia in adolescence, and a diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder when I was almost 50.
In the fall of 2000, the nurse-practitioner in Arizona who diagnosed me said, “I think you’ve had this your whole life.”
My two brothers are Marc, born in 1955, and Jonathan, born in 1961.
Since coming to America at the start of the twentieth century, our family had worked in New York’s garment industry. My father and Grandpa Nat owned Art Pants Company, manufacturers of men’s dress slacks. My maternal grandparents met in an underwear factory where Grandpa Herb was the foreman and Grandma Ethel sewed. My great-grandfather Max Shapiro was a furrier; my great-uncle Harry Ginsberg manufactured men’s clothes; and my first job as a teenager was in The Slack Bar, a downtown Brooklyn pants store owned by Uncle Matt and his father-in-law, where Grandpa Herb worked as a tailor.
We spent summers in at the beach in Rockaway bungalow colonies, where within one block I could find all four grandparents, my step-great-grandmother, several sets of great-aunts and great-uncles, and various in-laws of other relatives. After the bungalows were torn down in 1968, my grandparents moved from their apartments in Brooklyn to oceanfront high-rises in another part of Rockaway, across the street from one another.
In 1957, my parents moved us to a small, newly-built brick row house on East 56th Street and Avenue O, where we’d stay for the next 22 years. In 1970, New York City’s first enclosed shopping center, Kings Plaza, opened a few blocks away, and our mostly Italian and Jewish neighborhood took the name of the mall. My mother worked there, in The Pants Set, a women’s clothing store owned by Dad and Uncle Matt.
I went to New York public schools, first P.S. 244, then P.S. 203 and Junior High School 285, where I was in the SPE (Special Progress Enrichment) program. I met my friend Linda Konner, an author and literary agent, in second grade, and we were in the same classes through our graduation from Midwood High School in 1968, except for tenth grade, which I spent at a private school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Nearly always the shortest boy in the class, I was considered a gifted student – besting sixth-graders in geography quizzes when I was in kindergarten, reading at a tenth-grade level at age 7, writing a 70-page research paper in ninth grade – until my emotional problems caused my marks to slip into the high 80s.
When I was 15, I began having severe panic attacks daily. I would get nauseated, my heart would beat wildly, I’d sweat and shake and feel like the world was ending. The term “panic disorder” was not then known, but I realized that my problem was psychological, so I asked my parents if I could see a psychiatrist.
In the late 1960s, anxiety disorders and depression were rarely treated with medication; instead, psychoanalysis was the norm. Although I learned a lot about myself in sessions with Dr. Lippman, my panic attacks kept getting worse and more frequent. I soon began avoiding going out in public and skipped events like family weddings and my own high school graduation. The traumatic national events of my last year at Midwood H.S. – the turmoil of the Vietnam war, the assassinations of my heroes Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy – only made things harder.
I had been accepted to Brooklyn College, which then had free tuition like all City University of New York campuses. I never considered going anywhere else. I knew I could not leave my parents’ home, and BC seemed as safe as any college could be, since I walked through its campus on my way to high school.
But as it turned out, I couldn’t even handle BC. In late August, after watching antiwar protestors get beaten in the streets of Chicago during the 1968 Democratic convention, I was unable to sleep for days and began to shake uncontrollably. Mom called my pediatrician, who made a house call and prescribed the tranquilizer Librium.
A couple of weeks later, on the first day of classes, I just couldn’t face the nausea and panic I knew I’d have to endure, and I told my parents that I wasn’t well enough to go to college. I then entered a period where I gradually cut myself from the world. I stopped taking phone calls from friends, as I was too ashamed to tell anyone about my panic disorder. My agoraphobia got more severe as winter came and I rarely left the house. Yet even the safety of my little bedroom didn’t stop the panic attacks from occurring several times a day. My main refuge from anxiety was reading.
I had always loved books. Starting when I was about 9, I began collecting a huge number of paperbacks, which were then available for 25 or 50 cents. On my birthdays my parents would give me $20, which I’d take to a bookstore and buy an armful of Bantam and Signet and Pocket Books. I read voraciously – everything from books about psychology and history to trashy potboilers to classic literary works to American fiction writers I idolized: Salinger, Roth, Pynchon, Vonnegut, Updike, Mailer, Malamud, Bellow, Cheever, Baldwin, Vidal, Flannery O’Connor, John Rechy, Carson McCullers.
I also was a big fan of superhero comic books. I proudly possessed the early issues of Justice League of America, Green Lantern, Spider-Man, and Daredevil. At 11, I would pretend to be The Flash – Fastest Man Alive – as I bicycled around the neighborhood, playing hooky from Hebrew school. (The one kind of reading I did not like was in Hebrew, since we were not given the English translations for the prayers we had to recite. Reading without meaning seemed totally pointless, especially since I was an atheist like Grandpa Herb).
By the end of high school, I outgrew comics, and Mom threw out my carefully catalogued collection. I held on to the paperbacks and the hardcovers from the Book-of-the-Month Club and The Literary Guild.
I also adored movies and plays, but my panic attacks eventually stopped me from going to theaters. One of the last films I went to see before that time was Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the adaptation of Edward Albee’s drama. The movie was considered so “adult” that even in those pre-rating days Dad needed to accompany me to the Canarsie Theater.
Housebound by agoraphobia, I was forced to get my dose of dramatic narrative from TV. Starting in junior high, I got caught up in the convoluted plots of soap operas, which have remained a guilty pleasure. I have watched some daytime dramas for over 30 years, and as a teenager I developed the theory that these slow-moving shows were the form of narrative that most closely resembled real life – except, perhaps, for the diary.
My panic attacks reached a crescendo in February 1969, and Mom insisted that my psychiatrist prescribe some medication. Although at the time it seemed a coincidence, Triavil – a combination of a tricyclic antidepressant and a tranquilizer – slowly helped relieve the anxiety. As spring approached, I started going out little by little. I still had panic attacks, but every day I would force myself to ride buses and then subways, seeing how far I could go before anxiety overwhelmed me. Eventually I could go all the way to Manhattan.
By summer, soon after my 18th birthday – when I had to register for the draft – I was well enough to start college. It was as if I had been re-hatched into a world that was new and exciting in the summer of Woodstock and the Stonewall riot.
Not only did I get an A in Political Science that summer, but I worked in New York Mayor John Lindsay’s re-election campaign and in the Manhattan headquarters of the Vietnam War Moratorium Committee. I saw plays like The Boys in the Band, The Indian Wants the Bronx, and The Toilet. I went to movies like Easy Rider, Alice’s Restaurant and Midnight Cowboy. I discovered Greenwich Village and psychedelic music and love beads and incense. I read Ramparts, The Village Voice, and The East Village Other. My hair grew long and I hung out with hippies by the fountain in Washington Square Park. I got my driver’s license and explored New York’s art museums and parks. A 23-year-old guy from the neighborhood fell in love with me. I wore fringed vests and tie-dyed shirts and a pair of bellbottom pants that my parents got for me on London’s Carnaby Street. I was still something of a nervous wreck, but even that seemed normal and maybe something to be proud of in the summer of ’69.
Of all the new things I did that summer, maybe the most important was to start a writing habit that would last a lifetime.
On Friday, August 8, 1969, I went with Jeanette, the 8-year-old daughter of our Haitian cleaning woman, Jusele Feron, to watch a young street theater group perform on the BC campus. As we walked back to Flatbush Avenue, I saw a red, book-like 1969 diary on sale at a college bookstore. Because the year was more than half over, it was cheap.
That evening, over a cup of tea, I wrote my first diary entry, and I also went back over the first seven days of August and wrote what had happened on those days and how I had felt about it. For over a third of a century, I’ve been writing daily diary entries in the same format. The diary company has changed hands several times, but the product is still basically the same one it was in 1969.
For me, what’s neat about the diary is that I’m able to go back to any day and see what happened then and what I was feeling. Sometimes I use the diary to work out ideas for stories and article ideas, though I usually use notebooks, and more recently, computer files, for that purpose. In 1980, I experimented for a while writing my diary entries in the third person (“Grayson walked across Miami Gardens Drive to Grandma Sylvia’s car; he loved being in Florida in January”), but mostly I’ve kept pretty much to the style (or lack thereof) I had in 1969. Although I wince at some of the observations of my 18-year-old or 25-year-old or 42-year-old selves, the artless, spontaneous writing in the diaries has been an important part of my life. Currently I store the diaries – now totaling over six million words – in boxes in the walk-in closet in my parents’ house in Arizona. I will eventually use them as reference material for a series of memoirs.
It took me a while to adjust to Brooklyn College, but by the end of my freshman year in the spring of 1970, I had gotten involved with student government and the newspaper. When the Cambodia invasion and the killings of student protestors at Kent State University led to a nationwide student strike, we took over the BC campus, ending the semester prematurely and staging a series of teach-ins and “liberation classes” about the war in Southeast Asia, feminism, racism, and the capitalist system. Things petered out as summer approached and students fled to the beach and cheap trips to Europe. Of course, my phobias prevented me from taking my backpack across the Atlantic, so I stayed in summer school that year.
At BC I met many of the people who would become my lifelong friends. Although it was a commuter school with no dormitories, I spent most of the day hanging out in LaGuardia Hall with other students who were active in politics, journalism, and cultural affairs.
For the first time since junior high school, I had peers with whom I shared nearly everything – from my panic attacks to my desire to be a writer, from tips on how to fail the draft physical (a letter from the psychiatrist did the trick for me) to the marijuana we passed around at gatherings like the Flat Earth Party, the Safari Awards, and the J. Edgar Hoover Death Celebration. (Alcohol was not a big part of our socializing, and I’ve always been a teetotaler.)
While I learned a lot and got good grades in my undergraduate classes, the more important discoveries I made involved my relationships with my fellow students and that my peculiarities were welcome among a community for whom the word “freak” was a high compliment. Although I knew I was mostly attracted to other guys, I found myself in deep relationships with women – some as close friends, but others as girlfriends who didn’t mind having a bisexual boyfriend as long as he was monogamous, which I was.
A breakup with a girlfriend at the beginning of my junior year put me into a funk – she left me for a friend she married a few months later (he, too, would later turn out to be gay) – but I eventually recovered from adolescent melancholy and began dating other people. In my senior year started seeing a girl I had been friends with for a while; we dated for two years before going back to being just friends.
Like many of the people I hung out with in LaGuardia Hall, Randy is still very much in my life – along with her husband and children. Luckily, my college friends have never given me too much flak for appropriating events in their lives for my fiction. To them, I was “Richie the writer” even before I’d published a single word.
When I was in high school, plays seemed easier to write than fiction because I didn’t have to deal with long passages of description. My stories have never been heavy on description of people and places. Rarely do I say what my fictional characters look like. Except for some stage directions, plays were pure dialogue and easier for me to write.
Most of my teenage plays were outright homages to Albee. A long one-act play I wrote at 15, Have You Seen Grandma Since She Got Rich?, featured a vulgar old lady – nothing like my beloved but prudish Grandma Sylvia and Grandma Ethel – and her teenaged granddaughter and grandson, the latter a vaguely effeminate intellectual. As a college senior in 1973, I submitted the play to the Ottillie Grebanier Drama Award competition and won first prize and a $150 check. Jack Gelber, the playwright/professor who judged the contest, said I should think about getting the play workshopped somewhere, but I assumed he was only being polite, and somehow I ended up throwing out my only manuscript. Other plays I wrote as a teenager were based on my dreams or on exaggerations of my family life – with sons who were afraid to leave the bathroom, parents who installed velvet ropes so that no one could come in their living rooms.
By the time I got to college, I had pretty much abandoned writing plays for fiction. In my freshman and sophomore years, I wrote a series of representational short stories about an extended family in Brooklyn, which were mostly autobiographical and mostly awful. Only one story remains from that group: “Reflections," an early version of which appeared in Brooklyn College’s undergraduate literary magazine at the end of my freshman year. Later, I revised it, and after garnering 24 rejections, it appeared in the London-based Transatlantic Review. It was the only undergraduate story in which I managed to attain an anecdotal, conversational, rambling style that was not dead on the page.
When I took my first creative writing class in college, I was so nervous about the class’s reaction to my work that I made sure I was absent on the day when the class was to go over my story. I later found out that the reactions had been generally positive, and my professor, Saul Galin, urged me to continue with creative writing courses.
Although I remained a Political Science major, I was soon taking more literature and writing courses. My Fiction Writing class with Jonathan Baumbach introduced me to the wonderful stories of Donald Barthelme and the start of my leanings toward “experimental” fiction. I discarded vague plans to attend law school and decided to apply for the first class of BC’s new MFA program in creative writing, to begin in September 1974.
I decided that in the year between my graduation with a B.A. in June 1973 and then, I needed to learn more about literature if I was going to be a writer. So I became a student in the MA program in English at Richmond College, a CUNY school then located in an office building near the ferry terminal in Staten Island. Given a new Mercury Comet for graduation, I learned to overcome my terror of driving over the monumental Verrazano-Narrows Bridge.
Richmond, now part of The College of Staten Island, was an innovative institution that didn’t have letter grades – just Pass, Fail, or Honors. All my courses were in the late afternoons and evenings, and during the day I hung out in Brooklyn College’s LaGuardia Hall, where my girlfriend was managing editor of the student newspaper and where my other undergraduate friends still congregated.
I owed this luxury of time to Dad, who was still paying my expenses. Although tuition for graduate school at CUNY was not free, my parents told me I didn’t need to work.
My friend Jerry Weinberger and I were two of the seven students in the first fiction writing class of Brooklyn College’s MFA program, where Jonathan Baumbach and John Ashbery were the directors in fiction and poetry. The first stories I handed in for our workshop were fairly traditional, like the ones I’d written as an undergraduate, but as I became influenced by metafictionists like Borges, Barth, Barthelme, Hawkes, Cortazar, Coover, and Gass, my work began to loosen up, play with narrative, and comment on the process of writing fiction.
While our workshops and my tutorials with Baumbach that fall were interesting, what I loved most about the MFA program was being in a community of fledgling writers, where students took their literary aspirations seriously.
I decided that to succeed as a short story writer, I would have to produce a story a week. Terribly lazy about editing – except in my head – I wrote most of my stories in one sitting, on the floor of my little bedroom, using the Smith-Corona electric typewriter I’d gotten in high school. I almost never rewrote my stories, even if I realized they didn’t work; instead, I’d just incorporate the best elements into a new story.
I jumped at the opportunity when Baumbach asked me to work as an editorial assistant at the Fiction Collective, an authors’ book publishing cooperative he had founded along with another of our MFA professors, Peter Spielberg, and such experimental writers as Ronald Sukenick, Steve Katz, and Raymond Federman.
At the Fiction Collective I dealt with everything from handling queries from authors and writing catalog copy to planning publication parties and sending out review copies. Another aspect of my job was running the system that selected new books for publication. In order to be published, a manuscript had to get four “yes” votes from the various author-members. I sent the manuscripts out a maximum of seven times, and sometimes books were published that had gotten three “yes” votes and three “no” votes and got a final deciding “yes.” I read all the manuscripts myself to find out what other writers were doing.
I was also the preliminary judge for the Fiction Collective’s First Novel Contest. At the Manhattan office of our distributor, the publisher George Braziller, I found an office stacked top to bottom with over 400 manuscripts. My task was to whittle them down to fifty for the three final judges. Most of the novels were so badly written that I could put them aside after the first few pages, but it took weeks to cull the manuscripts. A few were so atrocious that they were actually funny. Our ultimate winner turned out to be a woman who’d recently been released from a mental hospital.
In addition to working at the Collective that first year of the MFA program, I also held a series of minimum-wage “real” jobs to help my parents defray expenses, as Dad could no longer afford to be as generous as he had been. The recession of 1974 had hit his business hard, and Art Pants ultimately couldn’t survive in the face of cheap imports and the trend toward jeans and casual pants.
I found I didn’t have the patience to stay in any of these jobs very long, but despite the bad economy, it was easy to find work for $2 an hour. I worked in the law library of the white-shoe Wall Street firm of Sullivan & Cromwell and in a Rockaway adult home for the mentally disturbed; sold pants (the same cheap double-knit polyester imports that were killing our family business) at Alexander’s Department Store in Kings Plaza; was a deliveryman for Midtown Florist and Canarsie Laundry and a messenger for the display advertising department of the Village Voice; and I shelved books in the Flatbush branch of the Brooklyn Public Library.
In March 1975, I was working in the library when I got a phone call from Eric Spector, a friend from high school and college, who said his father wanted to speak to me. Dr. Spector, chairman of the English Department at Long Island University in downtown Brooklyn, explained that a professor had died a few nights earlier on his way home from an evening composition class. Knowing I had finished my coursework for my MA in English, Dr. Spector thought I might take over the professor’s class and asked me to come in for an interview.
Wanting to make a good impression so I could get the job, I feverishly did everything I could to learn about teaching writing, from rereading Jonathan Baumbach’s book Writers as Teachers/Teachers as Writers to consulting Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, the novelist and poet who was my MFA adviser that term. But it turned out that I needn’t have bothered: I already had the course. When I walked into the chairman’s office at LIU, Dr. Spector said, “Mr. Grayson, your students are going to eat you alive!” That was my introduction to the main criteria for hiring adjunct instructors for freshman English: one needed a master’s degree and a body temperature approaching 98.6 degrees.
My class met on Tuesdays and Thursdays after our afternoon fiction writing workshop at Brooklyn College. My students were all working adults older than I. At 23, I still looked very young, but that might have been a plus: at the end of the semester, a student told me the class assumed I had to be brilliant to be a teenaged professor.
Like many college instructors, I had no training at all in teaching methods, and I was incredibly nervous the first few sessions. At first I sat behind the desk, needing a barrier between the class and myself. Gradually I started standing up in front of the desk and relied less on The Harbrace Handbook to rule my lesson plans. Over the next three years, working at LIU, as I learned to trust my instincts and that sometimes the best classes came out of spontaneous “teachable moments,” I gradually gained confidence and began to enjoy teaching more than I’d ever thought possible.
That first semester of teaching I decided to keep my morning job at the library although it was jarring to be treated like a high school kid at one menial job and respected as a college professor at another. The dissonance finally became too much to bear one Saturday when one of my students came in to do a research paper I had assigned. A librarian ordered me over to fetch a book for my puzzled student. When I quit later that day, the head librarian said, “I guess you’re leaving to take a job at the new McDonald’s.”
LIU never paid me more than $600 per course, and given preparation time, office hours, and time spent grading papers, I sometimes wondered if flipping burgers actually was a better deal than being an adjunct. I’m sure that even today, many part-time college teachers have the same thought.
In the spring of 1975, not only did I start teaching college English, but I also had my first story published in a literary magazine, New Writers, which featured work by students in graduate writing programs. For weeks, I walked around with the letter accepting my experimental story, which said that the editors liked it “although it is a bit artsy-craftsy.”
Most of my stories were from four to twelve pages. From Writers Market I learned the format for fiction manuscripts, and from The International Directory of Little Magazines and Small Presses, I gathered the names of places to send them to. Although most magazines said they did not accept simultaneous submissions, I figured the odds of two magazines accepting the same story were very slim. So, upon finishing a new story, I’d take it over to the Flatbush Copy Center near BC, and for a nickel a page, I’d make five copies, which I’d then send out in manila envelopes, including the all-important stamped, self-addressed envelope.
I often tried The New Yorker or The Atlantic or Harper’s first, but except for an occasional handwritten comment on a rejection notice, I knew my chances of my getting noticed by the slick magazines were not good because of the number of submissions they received and the quirkiness and quality of my fiction. I have never fooled myself about my place in the literary food chain, and I knew I didn’t match up to “real” writers like those published in The New Yorker.
My strategy, therefore, was based on quantity rather than quality. I’d read how William Saroyan once had written thirty stories in a month, sending each one of them out to a magazine. While I couldn’t be that prolific, I tried my best. In the late 1970s there were numerous literary journals, thanks to generous government arts funding. Sometimes instead of just getting copies of the issue my story appeared in – the usual remuneration – I received checks of $25 or $50, because grants from the National Endowment of the Arts required payment to contributors.
I didn’t distinguish between the more prestigious university-sponsored journals and the homemade little magazines of cranky or brilliant individual editor-publishers. I got tons of rejections – many form rejections, others cruel or condescending, some encouraging – sometimes as many as ten a day, but eventually there were a lot of acceptances, too.
So I published in places as relatively well-known as Epoch, Shenandoah, and Texas Quarterly and as obscure as Nausea Review, Street Bagel, and Coffee Break. I had stories in Webster Review, Westbere Review, and Westerly Review; Canadian Jewish Dialog, Mississippi Mud, and Nantucket Review; Writ, Iron, Mati, and Ataraxia.
By my second year of the MFA program, I was no longer writing for my classmates. It took the sting out of negative criticism of my work when I could end the workshop by telling my classmates that the story they had just disparaged had already been accepted by California Quarterly or Panache.
Within a few years, I had published over 100 stories in little magazines and caught the attention of people in the small press scene, which in the 1970s was largely a counterculture movement whose Woodstock was the annual New York Book Fair, held in places like the old Customs House downtown, the Huntington Hartford building on Columbus Circle, the basement of Lincoln Center, and the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue. I loved these events, as I got to meet the poets and fiction writers and editors with whom I’d corresponded or whose works I’d found in the same journals I had been published in.
Year-round there were good places in New York to find little magazines and small press books, giving me an advantage over fledgling writers in other parts of the country. I would often prowl the shelves of Frances Steloff’s Gotham Book Mart on West 47th Street, on a block otherwise filled with diamond merchants; E.S. Wilentz’s Eighth Street Bookshop, owned by the father of a Midwood classmate; and the free library in the offices of the Coordinating Council of Literary Magazines, where I worked in the summer of 1976 as the preliminary judge of their college literary magazine awards.
Publishing in obscure magazines gave me a sense of freedom. I didn’t really think anyone would actually read my work, so I could make embarrassing revelations about myself or avoid changing the names of my friends and family. I could take my stories in crazy directions – like admitting at the end of one that the story was falling apart and asking the editor to take pity on me and publish it anyway. The playfulness and vitality in my naïve early work would become hard to replicate once I began thinking of myself as an “author.”
Although I’d driven to Miami Beach with friends for the 1972 Democratic convention and to a Washington, D.C., vacation with Randy, I still had fears of traveling and rarely left the New York metropolitan area. But in 1977 I got a National Arts Club scholarship to the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in Middlebury, Vermont. A year out of the MFA program, I sort of missed writing workshops, and I was looking forward to attending classes with famous authors like led by John Gardner and Stanley Elkin.
However, I got off to a bad start when, following Elkin’s lecture on the craft of fiction, I piped up from the audience of a hundred novice writers to ask, “Mr. Elkin, does a story need a beginning, a middle and an end, and if so, should they be in that order?”
“That’s the stupidest question I’ve ever gotten in all my years of teaching writing,” Elkin replied, and the crowd snickered.
Given the fiction I’d been writing, the question had seemed eminently reasonable to me.
While I thrilled to hear John Irving and Toni Morrison read from the novels-in-progress that would eventually become two of my favorite books, The World According to Garp and Song of Solomon, I was too socially inept to make any connections with the established writers at Bread Loaf.
I felt more comfortable with my peers in the small press world. In the summer of 1978, George Myers, Jr., who had published one of my pieces in his X: A Journal of the Arts, wanted to use some grant money to do a special issue of his magazine devoted to my work. The magazine – six stories I called Disjointed Fictions – was rather raggedy-looking, but I was still proud of it. A few years later, George reprinted the issue as a chapbook with a more professional-looking typeface and format.
As I was typing up Disjointed Fictions, I got a letter from Louis Strick, the president of Taplinger, a commercial publisher in Manhattan. He had read one of my stories in Epoch and asked if I had a book manuscript. I wrote back that I assumed he was interested only in a novel and that unfortunately, I wasn’t a novelist – but that I did have about 150 stories of varying quality.
Mr. Strick replied to what he called my “diffident” letter – I had to explain to my parents what “diffident” meant – by asking to see a manuscript. I then sent him all the stories I’d ever published: photocopied pages from the magazines, in different typefaces, plus the typed manuscripts of the stories I hadn’t yet placed. Not discouraged with this unprofessional-looking mass, Mr. Strick told me he’d turn it all over to his son, Wesley, who had just graduated NYU’s publishing program and was joining the firm as an editor.
Wesley Strick called in September and asked to meet me. By then I’d left LIU to teach remedial writing at CUNY schools. On Rosh Hashona, as I climbed the stairs to Wes’s Upper East Side apartment, I had the irrational thought, “This could be a trap.” At a nearby restaurant, Wes showed me a paper containing title With Hitler in New York and Other Stories and the table of contents for the stories he’d selected for the book. I was flabbergasted.
When our waiter came to take our order, I recognized him as a former P.S. 203 classmate. After telling him who I was, I introduced Wes as “my editor.” I felt foolish, but saying it made it sound slightly more real to me.
Over the next month or so, Wes and I worked on the manuscript sentence by sentence. One disadvantage of publishing in little magazines was that the editors almost always took the stories as I’d written them. No one before Wes had pointed out the problems in my published fiction, like the way I often didn’t know how to end a story. During the editing and book production process, afraid of disappointment, I wouldn’t let myself believe it was really happening – despite evidence such as the whimsical cover designed by Wes’s sister Ivy, the promotional copy in Taplinger’s spring catalog, and the payment of my $500 advance in two installments.
One May afternoon, after I’d given my spring remedial writing course at Brooklyn College its final exam, Wes called to say that the book was in. I zoomed into Manhattan. Upon seeing a copy of Hitler, I blurted out, “It looks like a real book.”
“We’ve cleverly disguised it,” Wes told me.
The back cover was blank, because other Taplinger editors thought my photograph made me look too babyish – a drawback at a time when publishers rarely emphasized the youth of their new authors. Wes gave me the six author’s copies specified in my contract, and in my room that night, I put them on my shelves among books by what I still thought of as “real” authors.
On June 15, I went to the beach in Rockaway with some lesbian friends. “Today’s the book’s official publication date,” I told them. “Don’t you think something should be happening to me today?”
“It is,” one friend said. “You’re getting sunburned.”
When Hitler came out in 1979, publishers brought out only one-third the number of books published today. The New York Times then published a listing of “Recently Published Books” – which now seems as musty a relic as its daily listing of ocean liners’ arrivals and departures. (I’ve been a New York Times reader ever since ninth grade, when our English teacher, Mrs. Sanjour, regularly quizzed us on the Sunday paper’s contents.) The listing was the only mention my book got in the Times, but – shy only in person and not in letters – I pestered gossip columnists and book editors at other papers to mention or review Hitler. Taplinger was not a major publisher, and I wanted to make sure my book got noticed.
Late one night, my friend Stephen LiMandri, who ran the newsstand at the Abbey-Victoria Hotel, called to tell me I was in Liz Smith’s column in the next day’s Daily News. Liz Smith called my book “really funny” and compared me to Steve Martin. Quoting my letter, she said she couldn’t resist an author who said he lived with in Brooklyn with his family, “poor but honest and gossip-loving people.” Unfortunately, the plug didn’t help sales, as Hitler was not yet in any stores.
When my book finally arrived in the Waldenbooks in Kings Plaza, my parents kept going into the store and buying copies, believing it would somehow stimulate demand.
Following a series of business reverses – the demise of Art Pants Company and The Pants Set stores, bad investments in a racehorse that constantly needed surgery and a Catskills hotel my parents had to sell for a dollar to the Mafia (who made an offer they couldn’t refuse) – Dad was hired as the Florida sales rep for a clothing company owned by the father of one of my friends. Grandma Sylvia and Grandpa Nat had moved to their South Florida condo several years before, and in 1979 my parents decided to sell our Brooklyn house and buy a townhouse in Davie, a Fort Lauderdale suburb.
I had to figure out what to do with my life, as my prolonged adolescence seemed over. I applied for full-time positions as an English professor, but the only job offer I got was for a one-semester gig as a visiting writer-in-residence at Texas Women’s University. I probably should have taken it, but I was too scared to go off by myself to Denton, Texas, even for six months.
I decided to stay in New York City, where part-time teaching jobs were plentiful. In the fall of 1979, I found a studio for $240 a month right on the boardwalk in Rockaway. It was far from Manhattan – where I’d be working at the School of Visual Arts – but it was in familiar territory, with Grandpa Herb and Grandma Ethel less than a mile away. My brother Marc rented a basement in Brooklyn, near Kingsborough Community College, where I was also teaching. Jonathan, who had just graduated from high school, went to Florida with our parents to start Broward Community College.
Although I was 28 years old, in many ways I was still a boy, and it was hard for me to live on my own that fall. After spending my Christmas vacation at my parents’ new townhouse in Davie, I returned to the cold winter of New York and developed labyrinthitis, an ear infection, which left me with severe vertigo for months. Expected courses hadn’t materialized for the spring term, and I was teaching only one course each for the School of Visual Arts and for Touro College, where my paychecks bounced. Money was scarce, and as the summer of 1980 approached, I was dizzy, depressed, unemployed, on food stamps, and unable to write.
A welcome respite was a residency for June at The MacDowell Colony in Peterborough, New Hampshire. My studio in the woods was the same one where Thornton Wilder had composed Our Town. After a rocky start in which I could not write at all the first week – and gnashed my teeth so much that I had to see a local dentist – I dreamed an 18-page story which later won a magazine contest and then produced a story a day for the next seven days. I also had the stimulating company of other writers, as well as composers, painters, sculptors and filmmakers. MacDowell made me feel like a creative artist and not a poverty-stricken nobody. Future residencies at MacDowell and other artists’ colonies continued to have that nurturing effect.
But the rest of the summer of 1980 was difficult, and in the fall, to aid my finances, I took on as many adjunct courses – all in remedial writing – as I could. On Thursdays, for example, I would leave my apartment in Rockaway at 7 a.m., drive over the bridge to teach an 8 a.m. class at Brooklyn College, take the subway to teach two classes at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan, return to BC to teach a class in the early evening, and then drive to a Brooklyn high school to teach a continuing education course for Kingsborough, getting home after 11 p.m.
By then I was used to the low level of my students’ writing – that term I had to explain the difference between a, an, and and – but I was constantly grading papers and did not have time to write.
By then With Hitler in New York was long out of the stores, and Wes was leaving his father’s publishing company to work on his own career as a writer. (He would eventually have great success in Los Angeles as the screenwriter of such movies as Cape Fear, Arachnophobia and Return to Paradise.) On one of his last days on the job, Wes told me that Taplinger’s scheduled trade paperback edition of Hitler had been canceled. That was the day I decided to leave New York and move to Florida once the hectic fall semester was over. I needed a change and I missed my family.
In January 1981, my friend Nina Mule threw me a surprise farewell party in her Manhattan apartment. I handed in my final grades, put my furniture on a truck headed for Florida, and left Rockaway to join my parents in the Fort Lauderdale suburbs.
I’d always hated the cold and snow of winters, so I was thrilled to be in South Florida. My room at my parents’ house had a screened-in terrace overlooking a brace of palm trees. Davie was then more rural than suburban, an old cowboy town filled with rednecks and horse farms. Jewish senior citizens and snowbirds dominated neighboring towns.
I somehow walked into a job teaching composition at Broward Community College, taking over a class a few weeks after the semester began. The pay was minimal, but so were my expenses. I still enjoyed teaching, but now I also had time to work on the collection of stories that Kevin Urick – another writer/editor who’d published my fiction in his literary magazine – was considering for his White Ewe Press.
Florida was glorious in the winter, but the heat and humidity were less attractive by May, when the term at BCC ended. I returned to New York and spent two months at Marc’s apartment in Brooklyn and Nina’s on the Upper West Side before a July residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.
I’d been applying to universities for creative writing jobs, but the only job offer I had for the fall was as my friend Tom Whalen’s half-time assistant at New Orleans’ arts high school, NOCCA, where I’d guest-taught in his rigorous creative writing program. In early August, I returned to Florida, uneasy about my prospects.
A few days after my arrival at my parents’ house, I was reading The Miami Herald at breakfast and spotted a news item announcing state arts council fellowship winners. When I saw “Richard Grayson, Davie, $3000,” I started jumping around and yelling so much, Mom thought I was having some kind of attack. I had forgotten I’d applied for the Florida fellowship, assuming I’d have no more success than I had in my many grant applications in New York State.
I would have to remain in the state to accept the fellowship money, but giving up the part-time job in New Orleans was no problem. After reading a newspaper interview with me about my grant, the BCC English Department head offered me a one-year position as a full-time instructor. With the fellowship and my $13,000 teaching salary, I could afford to get my own place, a rented condo among elderly neighbors in Sunrise Golf Village.
I stayed on at Broward Community College for three annual temporary contracts. As an English instructor, I taught twelve classes a year, almost all of freshman composition or remedial writing, with nearly 30 students in each class. I sometimes felt as if I was constantly grading essays. I loved the classroom, but marking papers infringed on much of my free time.
Because I still thought of myself as a writer, I chose not to apply for BCC’s permanent full-time English Department positions. I lived one year at a time, with at least part of the summer off, to spend in New York or at artists’ colonies. The early 1980s were a fairly stable period in my life, but the deaths of Grandma Sylvia and Grandpa Herb made me realize that I needed to stop thinking of myself as a kid.
In 1982 White Ewe Press brought out my second hardcover collection, Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog. Later that year, Jerry Weinberger’s Grinning Idiot Press published my satiric chapbook, Eating at Arby’s: The South Florida Stories. I provoked some outrage by using my fellowship money to fund these banal vignettes critical of South Florida told in the style of a first-grade primer. Generally, however, local readers got the joke, and the book sold out after I appeared on Neil Rogers’s popular radio show.
The next year, Zephyr Press – run by my friends Ed Hogan and Miriam Sagan from the Boston literary magazine Aspect – published I Brake for Delmore Schwartz. I flew to New York in March 1983, staying in Rockaway with Grandma Ethel, for my first publication party and reading, at the B. Dalton store in the Village. Seeing a whole window display dedicated to my book and having Dad and so many friends from all different parts of my life at the party made me feel blessed.
In New York in the late 1970s, I had started doing what I called “publicity art” by sending out press releases commenting on issues in the news. In 1979, I filed with the Federal Elections Commission to run for Vice President of the United States, a stunt that got me into The New York Times and The National Enquirer. NBC President Fred Silverman and Gloria Vanderbilt tried to sue me when I formed political committees touting them as candidates for, respectively, the Presidency and the United State Senate.
Other publicity stunts followed. When New York Mayor Ed Koch prevailed on the city’s public radio station to air “The John Hour,” in which men arrested for soliciting prostitutes would have their names read over the air, The New York Post printed the story of how I wanted my name read on the show despite not having been arrested “because I deserve to be publicly humiliated.” In another self-manufactured scandal, The Post supposedly exposed me as a “literary imposter” trying to publish a defamatory article about respected authors called “The Weird Sex Lives of Jewish-American Novelists.” The Post’s Page Six gossip column soon began referring to me as “playful prankster Richard Grayson.”
While my grandparents were still alive, I formed “international” fan clubs for them and sent out press releases that resulted in media attention. Grandpa Herb and Grandma Ethel told their life stories on Barry Farber’s nationally syndicated radio program. The Miami News published a story on the Sylvia Ginsberg International Fan Club on its front page while The Miami Herald printed a photo of me kissing Grandma Sylvia – who hated to be kissed, believing it spread germs.
Campaigning for the Davie Town Council in 1982, I advocated giving horses the right to vote. My platform consisted mainly of bad puns, like pledging to vote “neigh” on everything till horse suffrage was passed, offering the town a “more stable” form of government, and in the end forgoing campaign speeches because I had “become a little hoarse myself.” I got 26% of the vote as the media routinely covered my antics.
In 1983, I registered as a Presidential candidate, and articles about me appeared in dozens of periodicals, from People and USA Today to Time and The Wall Street Journal. I churned out one press release after another: starting the Committee for Immediate Nuclear War (which for years was listed in the reference book The Encyclopedia of Associations); advocating that the U.S. capital move to Davenport, Iowa; supporting the admission of El Salvador as the 51st state; proposing a Devil Broadcasting Network to compete with religious TV stations. On the Florida primary ballot as a candidate for delegate to the Democratic convention (supporting myself), I received over 2,000 votes – but Mom, whose name I had put on the ballot as a candidate for alternate delegate, got twice as many votes as I did.
As the decade wore on, my publicity stunts dealt more and more with the economy. In 1988, I panhandled in front of the New York Stock Exchange, begging for $27.5 billion dollars so I could launch a hostile takeover bid for RJR Nabisco; Business Week called my stunt “social commentary on Wall Street.” Two years later, I appeared on CNN and in The New York Times, touting my Pauper Magazine, the poor man’s answer to all the “lifestyles of the rich and famous” publications. I also got media exposure as the head of the Donald Trump Rescue Fund, formed to help out the real estate magnate during his time of financial difficulty.
A prank in the spring of 1984 – a letter I’d written to Florida state senators on Broward Community College stationery asking for their participation in an academic study I called “Legislators in Love” – led to political outrage, threatened cuts to BCC’s budget, and a banner headline in the Orlando Sentinel (“Prof’s Love Quiz Stirs Only a What’s That?!”). Knowing I wouldn’t be asked back to teach at BCC in the fall, I gave up my apartment in North Miami Beach at the end of May, put my stuff in storage, and went to Manhattan to apartment-sit for Nina for six weeks while she toured Europe.
Those six weeks turned into six years, as 350 West 85th Street became my part-time address for the rest of the decade. The Upper West Side in the 1980s was an exciting place, and Nina was an incredibly generous host and roommate. Since she spent most of the summer at her beach house in Fire Island, I had the apartment to myself much of the time. When she was home, I slept on the living room couch or a futon on the floor.
Congenitally lazy, I spent the rest of my thirties like the retired South Florida snowbirds who came to Fort Lauderdale to escape the Northern winters but who returned to New York when the summer heat and humidity started to get uncomfortable.
I survived financially by relying on income from adjunct courses, student loans, unemployment insurance, state arts council awards from Florida and New York, and credit card cash advances. At one time I had over 40 MasterCards and Visas; I wrote articles about this (“You’ve Got to Give Me Credit” and “Guess How I Got Rich Without Working”) for national magazines under the pen name Gary Richardson.
I had my New York City life and my South Florida life. I taught English courses part-time in both places, more because I enjoyed teaching writing than because of the still-pitiful adjunct pay. I even went back to BCC in 1987, teaching in the evenings and later as an occasional full-time substitute instructor for professors on sabbatical.
My first stint at BCC had given me the opportunity to learn how to use personal computers. As my interest in using computers in education grew, I started taking graduate courses in the subject. From 1984 to 1990, I earned over 50 graduate credits in educational technology from Teachers College at Columbia University and two Florida universities.
This interest led to a part-time job as a facilitator of teacher training workshops in computer education in the Miami public school district. I traveled to schools in Little Havana, Miami Beach, Coral Gables, and Liberty City to instruct teachers on the use of the Apple IIe and the IBM PC computers. I taught word processing, spreadsheets, databases, and educational software as well as programming in the Basic and Logo computer languages.
It was a thrill to empower computer-shy teachers who started off worried they would break the machines by turning them on. These workshops didn’t require me to mark papers or give final grades, so I had the pleasure of teaching without the drudgery.
I took less pleasure in writing fiction. It seemed easier and more rewarding to write a satirical People article on an alleged celebrity shortage or my humor column for The Hollywood Sun-Tattler. Still, I managed to produce occasional stories when I felt I had something to say. For a Computers and Writing course at Teachers College, I wrote a long story about an AIDS death, “I Survived Caracas Traffic,” which appeared in The Florida Review and helped get me a second individual artist fellowship from the state of Florida in 1988.
That same year I scored a Writer-in-Residence Award from the New York State Council on the Arts. Working for the Rockland Center for the Arts, I went into schools in suburban Rockland County and experienced the joy of teaching children. My second-graders produced delightful, cleverly naive stories that we collected into a book.
The late 1980s were fun-filled years. My father was doing well as a salesman for such designer labels of men’s clothing as Sasson, Bugle Boy and Guess. Mom and Dad bought a large four-bedroom house. They also followed Jonathan’s lead and became strict vegetarians and animal rights enthusiasts who gradually acquired a dog, three cats, and two rabbits. When I was in New York, I made regular visits to Rockaway to spend weekends with Grandma Ethel, and I was an unofficial member of Nina’s close Italian family and got to share in their celebrations of holidays, birthdays and anniversaries.
But these fun years were coming to an end. I realized that my credit card chassis – paying off one card with a cash advance from another – would ultimately end and I’d have to declare bankruptcy during the next recession. I assumed – correctly, as it turned out – that I could do so in a time when so many others were going broke that my filing would hardly be noticed. Nina had decided to give up her Manhattan apartment and move to Long Island. Grandma Ethel also was moving to Long Island, into an adult home in the Five Towns where she lived out her life happily, her lifelong depression successfully treated with medication. Watching Grandma Ethel establish new friendships after age 80 convinced me that it’s never too late to make a new life.
In the fall of 1990, I moved in my parents again and declared bankruptcy. My computer training jobs had dried up, but I got a full-time position back at BCC, taking over for a professor on sick leave. I attended a series of Fort Lauderdale obscenity trials involving the rap group 2 Live Crew, an experience which led to an article in New York Newsday, kindled an interest in hip-hop culture, and revived an ambition I had put aside years before: attending law school.
In April 1991, while I was on my first trip to California, visiting friends and teaching at a Long Beach State writers’ conference coordinated by Linda Konner, Dad called with the news that the University of Florida law school had accepted me. Luckily, I managed to get a scholarship that would help defray expenses.
I spent one last summer in New York. Grandma Ethel had held on to her subsidized apartment in Rockaway, and I lived there for several months, visiting her at the adult home and taking the long subway ride into Manhattan to visit friends. I was very nervous about moving to Gainesville in North Central Florida, but every change in my life – even short trips – had engendered anxiety.
At dinner at a sidewalk café in the Village, I told Linda I had no intention of ever practicing law.
“Then why are you going to law school?” she asked me.
“To have fun,” I replied.
Linda looked dubious, and frankly, I shared her skepticism. But I figured I would try one semester of law school and leave if I didn’t like it.
Law school turned out to be more fun than I could have imagined, and somehow I easily adjusted to life on my own in a classic college town. The life of a new law student is so hectic, I had no time to think about being away from my friends or family or have regrets about not being a writer anymore.
Law school courses were harder than any I’d ever taken – often I had trouble keeping up with class discussions – yet they provided incredible intellectual stimulation. I also liked being in a community of students again.
After the first semester, returning from a three-week Christmas vacation in New York, I discovered that my grades were good. I won book awards, prizes for the highest grade on a final exam, in Criminal Law and Jurisprudence.
While I loved law in a theoretical, intellectual sense, this didn’t mean I wanted to practice law. I didn’t want to dress up in a suit and tie, putting in long hours doing what seemed like drudgery. In spite of myself, I still longed for the life of a writer.
Near the end of my first year in law school, in response to a call for stories about Barbie for an anthology edited by my friends Rick Peabody and Lucinda Ebersole, I produced “Twelve Step Barbie” – the first fiction I’d written in two years. When Mondo Barbie received enthusiastic reviews, some of which singled out my story, I realized I could still be a writer – sort of.
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