Writing

My First Paid Writing Gig

Cash in a parking lot.

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It took me awhile to figure out that writing could be a career. I was editor of my elementary school yearbook and the high school and college newspapers, but in none of my journalism classes did anyone ever teach the business of writing. Had to figure that one out on my own, and it was when my first kid was born nearly 20 years ago that the desire to work from home inspired my first paid piece for a local magazine.

That magazine piece wasn’t the first thing I’d ever been paid to write, though. Once upon a time in 1986 or ‘87, I was approached by one of the football players at my alma mater, Upper Merion High School in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. Not just any football player: one of the stars of the team who was quite adorable. I had the kind of crush on him that you have on the guy who’s way out of your league popularity-wise (though truth be told, I was dating the gorgeous captain of the football team from another school, in Maryland; he’s now my husband and father of our four kids).

Let’s call the hometown football player Sam.

So I’m trying to help Sam pass English because he would really like to graduate and go to college at a state school. I guess he asked me to tutor him because I was a straight-A Honors English dorky newspaper editor type. We worked together for a few weeks, and let’s just say I didn’t have much hope for his future in the mastery of grammar. Eventually, the senior paper assignment came up. He was nervous. If he didn’t get a decent grade on the paper, he wouldn’t pass English and couldn’t graduate.

One day Sam flashed his big blue eyes and gleaming smile at me and said: You know, maybe you could just write it for me. And I could pay you. Now as a hardworking girl with a mall job waitressing at Friendly’s, I immediately thought in enterprising ways: man, I could make a ton of money off the entire football team by writing their papers, but I’d probably get busted somehow.

So I pulled my gaze back down from his pleading eyes and rippling muscles to the English textbook before us. I considered the morals of journalism, the principles of ghostwriting, the ethics of academia. And I asked the only question that was really appropriate for the situation: How much?

I don’t know, he said, I mean like how much do you charge? I explained that as appealing as it sounded, I’d never been paid to write anything before. He proposed the following pay scale: How ‘bout like 60 bucks for an A? I asked what the fee would be for a B. He suggested $50. I agreed, filling in the blank that I’d get $40 if he got a C, and that I would take no money if he got a D or below. We shook on it (he touched me) and the deal was done.

Now I had an interesting task. How was I going to write the Senior paper of a football player who had never gotten an A before in a convincing enough way that the teacher wouldn’t smell a rat? Of course, these were the days long before Copyscape, or even computers. So it wasn’t like a teacher could run a cross-check, not that I planned on adding plagiarism to my list of offenses.

It was a unique challenge: get an A, but not too much of an A to raise suspicion. It had to be the perfect blend of high enough level non-Honors English reasoning and language with just the right dash of incorrect spelling and grammar to make it believable. Like he really tried hard and wanted to do well on the paper, but had never really done well on a paper before.

The topic? “Greed and The Great Gatsby.” Perfect. I could handle this. We’d read the book years before in my class, so I had a working knowledge of it. I wrote my heart out. I re-wrote sentences that had too many words in them, used “to” instead of “too,” drew slightly immature male-dominated conclusions that were half-baked but seemed reasonable.

And one day, in the parking lot of the school, Sam walked up to me. He flashed the paper in my direction: an A-. Perfect, I thought. And he handed me three $20 bills.

Mary McCarthy (@marymac) blogs at pajamasandcoffee.com.

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