"A WRITER IN SPITE OF MYSELF"
In my second year of law school, I began teaching courses in writing and literature for Nova Southeastern University and Santa Fe Community College. It was good to get on the other side of a classroom again. My law school grades continued to put me near the top of my class, but I made no attempt to interview for any legal jobs. Never one to give much thought to the future, I concentrated on enjoying my law school classes, my teaching, and my writing and new publicity projects.
Several newspapers covered my plan, proposed before the state reapportionment commission, to draw legislative districts in the shape of an alligator, a palm tree, and Mickey Mouse. I also wrote a couple of new stories, contributed op-ed pieces to The Gainesville Sun, and wrote about the “Legislators in Love” scandal for The Miami Herald’s Sunday magazine section.
In May 1994, I graduated with high honors from UF law school, but I merely continued teaching my adjunct courses for NSU and SFCC. Although I’d moved to increasingly smaller, cheaper apartments during my three years in Gainesville, money was still tight.
Luckily, in October 1994, I got a position at The Center for Governmental Responsibility, the think tank at UF law school headed by one-time Florida House Speaker Jon Mills. Hired as a staff attorney in the Center’s social policy division, I had a grant-funded position as a consultant on legal issues in educational technology to Schoolyear 2000, a program of the state Department of Education. It seemed like an ideal way to combine my interests in the law and computer education.
Although this was my first full-time office job, the atmosphere at CGR was informal and friendly, and I worked with people dedicated to public policy research on the environment, health care, and other important issues. I enjoyed churning out memoranda on education law and computer law, and I also branched out to work on fields like historic preservation, genome sciences, and water management.
We got many requests from the local media, and since I was a whiz at doing research, I became a short-notice expert on a variety of subjects. Often quoted in newspapers and a guest on radio and television, I became an “authority” on affirmative action, the legalization of marijuana, Presidential disability, anti-tobacco legislation, and the rising influence of Hispanic voters.
Since part of my job was covering the new Republican majority in the state legislature, I found myself opposing many of their conservative initiatives, such as mandatory drug testing for public school students, forbidding gay student groups at state universities, making welfare recipients refund any state lottery winnings, bringing back prison chain gangs, and making it harder for people to declare bankruptcy – and I was not shy about expressing my opinions in the op-ed pages of Florida newspapers.
My work at CGR did not stop me from engaging in my other interests. Excited about the possibilities of the Internet, I got a part-time gig writing weekly humor columns for New Jersey Online, the website of several Garden State newspapers. I also returned to teaching NSU classes on weekends and evenings. Because of my varied background, I was able to teach numerous subjects; I’d be the business law or public policy professor one night and then return on Saturday to teach the very same students American literature or essay writing.
In the 1994 election, I ran as the only opponent to Congressman Mike Bilirakis in a write-in campaign. I called my political action committee God Hates Republicans. Although endorsed by the National Organization for Women and an African-American newspaper, I received less than 200 votes.
Meanwhile, religious right activists in Gainesville had placed a referendum on the ballot to repeal the county’s gay rights law. Their TV commercials presented vicious stereotypes and lies about gay and lesbian people. I felt I couldn’t ignore this, so I became a volunteer in the “No on 1” campaign.
After our election defeat, I was asked to be a board member of the local gay rights group, the Human Rights Council of North Central Florida. Once I was surprised to see myself on the 11 p.m. news with the label “Gay Activist” under my name. We were ultimately successful in getting a pro-gay rights majority elected to the Gainesville city commission.
As I abandoned some of my earlier experimental strategies, my short stories began to be more about gay relationships. In Gainesville, for the first time I had close friends who were African-American, Latino, Asian-American, and Arab-American, and my characters were no longer all white. My fiction also began to deal with food and diet – I had successfully lost nearly 50 pounds by completely changing my eating habits – and the new culture of the Internet. I started submitting my fiction to Web-based literary magazines, where I didn’t have to deal with manuscript hard copies, postage, and envelopes – and where I could sometimes send a story on Tuesday and find it “in print” in a webzine a few days later.
I found a publisher for my next book of stories, I Survived Caracas Traffic, mostly pieces that had been published years before. Martin Hester, the founder of Avisson Press in Greensboro, North Carolina, had known my work from literary magazines. After 13 years, it gave me a thrill to again publish a hardcover book, but even a fairly favorable review in The New York Times Book Review didn’t sell many copies.
Always restless – if not anxious – I left Gainesville and my job at CGR in the spring of 1997, moving my raggedy furniture to my parents’ garage in Fort Lauderdale while I spent a few years in flux. I taught some classes in creative writing and literature for NSU and other universities in South Florida. In 1998, Florida awarded me a third fellowship in fiction writing for $5,000. I wrote a monthly column for The Boca Raton News, and after countless attempts, finally managed to sell my first op-ed article to The New York Times.
Because I could leave most of my belongings with my parents, I was able to travel a good deal as my desire to live in different parts of the country trumped my fears. I spent long periods living with Nina and her husband in their home on Long Island and mooching off other friends and relatives in Brooklyn, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Philadelphia. I also took advantage of residencies at artists’ colonies in suburban Chicago, in Silicon Valley outside San Jose, and on a cattle ranch in northeast Wyoming. At these places I managed to complete a new collection of gay-themed stories that would be collected in The Silicon Valley Diet, published by Los Angeles’s Red Hen Press in the summer of 2000.
In the fall of 1999, I began a one-year visiting professorship teaching undergraduate legal studies at NSU’s main campus in Davie. It was probably the happiest year of my teaching career, as I was able to teach courses like Constitutional History, Private Law and Modern American Thought, and Political and Civil Rights, as well a multicultural studies class in which I taught the fiction of Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz, Bharati Mukherjee, Gish Jen, and Sherman Alexie. I would have loved to apply for a permanent full-time position, but I didn’t have the necessary Ph.D.
That same year, my parents and Jonathan left South Florida and moved to Arizona to join Marc, who had gone there two years earlier. The four of them bought a house in Apache Junction, at the eastern edge of the Phoenix metro area, right by the Superstition Mountains.
I was unsure what to do when my year as a visiting professor was up, so I relied on a formula that had worked for me in the past: return to school and follow my family. After a summer with friends in the suburbs of New York and Los Angeles, I found an apartment in Mesa, about 20 miles from my family’s house and an equal distance away from my old college friend Satnam Khalsa in Phoenix. My plan was to get yet another graduate degree, at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University. I’d also be teaching two sections of composition at ASU and one at Mesa Community College, up the street from my apartment.
But adjustment to a new life in the desert was difficult, and I soon found myself waking up at 2 a.m. with uncontrollable worries. I had severe insomnia, trembling, sweaty palms, agitation, and other symptoms. Except for a course in Arizona Media Law, I didn’t enjoy my graduate classes, and while I still liked teaching, I felt faceless on the vast ASU campus. Working as just another drudge teaching composition – a job also performed by 22-year-old teaching assistants just starting graduate school – I was isolated in an English Department that housed a respected program in creative writing that I could not be part of. Although The Silicon Valley Diet had gotten the best reviews of any of my books, it didn’t achieve my overblown hopes that it would be a breakthrough for me.
Diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and “adjustment disorder,” I entered therapy again and was treated with a variety of drugs that didn’t seem to help. Being mugged and beaten outside my apartment one night exacerbated my anxiety. At times I felt quite desperate and began to experience panic attacks like the ones I had as a teenager. Finally, I stabilized with the help of one medication that worked – the Triavil that was first prescribed for me in 1969. I realized that at 50, I was too old to be a student again and that I was not cut out to be a journalist.
When the academic year in Arizona ended in May 2001, I put my things in storage and traveled for six months, hoping to heal. I went to the artists’ colonies of Ragdale in Lake Forest, Illinois, and Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, where I met the young novelist Brian Pera, who cheered me by telling me how important my books had been to him. I also stayed with my parents and brothers in Apache Junction and with Aunt Violet Anenberg in Miami. And old friends – the Sawyers in Los Angeles, the Cirellis on Long Island, the Tunkels in Philadelphia – allowed me to be part of their families for unconscionably long periods of time. I am nobody’s father or uncle, but I have been lucky enough to share good times with my friends’ children. I’ve always been crazy about kids.
Unable to get a full-time job teaching college English – I feared I was too old to be hired as a full-time instructor – I got lucky and in December 2001 landed a position as director of the academic resources program at Nova Southeastern University’s law school. I supervise teaching assistants who help law students navigate the difficulties of first-year courses; conduct workshops on such skills as briefing cases, taking notes, and writing essay exams; help prepare graduates for the bar exam; and tutor and counsel students having academic difficulties.
I am back in the land of almost-perpetual summer, South Florida, living in a rental complex where I had four previous apartments during my nomadic 1980s and 1990s. I live just across the street from where my parents owned their townhouse, and within walking distance of the NSU and BCC campuses. In this quasi-urban sprawl, I feel like an old-timer who remembers the town of Davie’s rural past.
The adjustment to a new life in the law school environment caused me renewed problems with anxiety – but time, therapy, and medication have all helped. So has the ritual I began as a boy in Brooklyn at 18: confiding in my diary every night.
A good sign is that I have begun to write fiction again. Although I have accepted the fact that my talents are modest, I’m proud that I haven’t given up writing despite the many real, imagined, and self-inflicted obstacles in my path. I’ve traveled further than an agoraphobic has a right to expect.
Somehow I managed to publish books in the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s. My goal is to publish another book – even if it’s not a literary masterpiece – in a fifth decade, the 2010s.
Inshallah and in spite of myself, I may do just that.
The worst book review I've ever gotten
December 15, 1979
HOW BAD ARE THESE STORIES?
With Hitler in New York and Other Stories, by Richard Grayson (Taplinger, 190 pages, $7.95)
Reviewed by D.G. Wnek
For weeks and weeks I have tried to think of an ingenious way to say “With Hitler in New York” has no literary merit whatsoever. Inferior quality, unfortunately, does not inspire ingenuity. To put
it bluntly: this is the worst book I have read in my life.
Richard Grayson’s anthology of short stories is unbelievably bad, bad, bad.
How bad is it?
Well, after a writer reviews his chosen book, he gets
to keep it…I am not keeping this one. I want to give
it to someone I really despise.
If that sounds harsh then consider this: the author himself refuses to accept responsibility for writing these stories. Grayson blames their existence on “the anarchist’s bomb that killed Czar Alexander II in Petersburg in 1881 (which) led to Russian pogroms and to the anti-Semitic May laws of 1881.” These events, he says, eventually led to his presence in this country as a writer. He also advises readers to address negative criticism to the anarchist who planted the bomb—not him. How fortunate for him and his mailman.
Grayson’s stories have no real plot, no meaningful action, no memorable characters; they do little more than exist. In “Infant Sorrow” a celebrated weightlifter feels unloved and remembers when he was constipated. In “Notes toward a Story for Uncle Irving,” the author begins a tribute to his uncle, then ends with, “And it’s a shame on you, Uncle Irving, you ignorant, boastful, cowardly, neurotic, foolish old man.” In “Princess from the Land of Porcelain” a married woman finally finds contentment in her dreams—as a lesbian. In “The Mother in My Bedroom” a mother who once hid under her son’s bed as he entertained various lovers, must spend the rest of her life in her son’s bedroom. And in “With Hitler in New York” Hitler returns to America to smoke joints, watch television and eat at McDonald’s.
The remaining 22 stories—sometimes confusing, usually boring, and always absurd—impart nothing of any significance to the reader.
Grayson writes about meaningless lives, meaningless actions, trying to uncover something meaningful. He never does. He only shows that those who embrace the monotony of existence become monotonous figures.
Even his better stories, “Chief Justice Burger, Teen Idol” and “Classified Personal” are not, in fact, short stories. They are nonsensical fragments, inchoate exercises from his coffee-stained notebook, perhaps funny little things Grayson, instructor of creative writing, might show his classes at Long Island University and Kingsborough Community College. Grayson knows this. He also knows that his other works, those which most resemble short stories, are decidedly fifth-rate.
In “A Thousand Other Worlds,” Grayson the protagonist writes a short story of the same name that literally comes to life. The story, a touchy thing on a low-cholesterol diet, sees a Truffaut double bill at the Carnegie Hall Cinema with its author, then demands to be sent to The New Yorker. Grayson obliges. The story is rejected.
The following week he takes it to the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference where John Gardner criticizes it: “To me, it’s just nonsense. And it’s not only nonsense, it’s immoral. Immoral.”
So the story bites him in the leg.
So Grayson realizes his anthology is a cornucopia of crap but would rather laugh about it. He would rather write another silly little story that parodies his own work than accept the responsibility of working harder to express meaningful ideas written in traditional literary form. Gardner was right: this nonsense exemplifies stream-of-consciousness with no conscience.
Call it avant-garde departure from traditional literary structure. Call it playful exercise with traditional literary form. But do not call such nonsense literature, for such literature makes “Betty & Veronica” a selection in The Classics Club.
And now, I must find someone I really despise.
D.G. Wnek, a journalism graduate, is currently working for Northwestern Bell.
So whaddaya think?
I enjoyed your Lost Movie Theater article. A movie maniac, I used to go to almost all of those great movie palaces. Two I didn't see: The Culver off MacDonald Ave and the Beverly, Beverly Rd. near Ocean Pkwy. I really miss those days.
Because I am very new to New York, actually in USA also, I had no idea who is my teacher!!! After all the stories you told us in the class I decided to search on google for your name, and here I am on your web-page! You told us today that the bad thing on meeting famous people is that you don't know what to talk to them, I bet I will have the same feeling on the class session! I read your biography it's awesomenly honest and amazing story not just a biography!
I am very glad I got to meet you and to have oportunity to be taught by you!
Thank you for your hard work you are doing wor the class!