The Freelancer’s Journal: Tales from the Writing Trade (No. 1)

In a message dated 5/22/2003 ______ writes:
I have to apologize about canceling this Saturday in Brooklyn. I still have the flu, and I thought I would be over it by now.

Subject: Re: My book [Editing job]
Received: Thu, 22 May 2003
From: Adam E.
To: ___________

Please get well soon, and let me know when you can meet at the appointed place.

Subject: Re: My book
Date: 5/23/2003
From: _________
To: Adam E.

Dear Adam,

I'm sorry I lied to you about being sick. The truth is as follows: Five years ago I was renting a room in a house out on _____. My landlady never checked or had her oil burner inspected for six years, and I spent a whole winter breathing in carbon monoxide. Finally, I went berserk and assaulted a man in the subway, thinking he was from outer space. I was sentenced to two years in jail. I'm out now but still on parole, and my parole officer told me yesterday I'm not allowed to go to New York City at all. I'm confined to ____ and ____ counties, so I can't meet you in Brooklyn—much as I would like to.

I didn't want to alarm you with this story, so I just said I was sick. Actually, I'm a very nice guy, an Ivy League graduate. This was my only act of violence ever. And I generally tell the truth (sorry).

If you still want to meet, please let me know. But it would have to be in _____. My parole officer has approved that. I will pay you for your time. This weekend is fine.

What do you think? And feel free to ask any questions you like.

# # #

Need writer, editor, lawyer or. . .
Date: 2003-06-16
Reply to:

anyone in the book biz who can link me to a literary agent who is interested in adventure. My novel is based on a true story, about a group of quasi Marines who are tracking murderous poachers in East Africa. You must like high adventure and not be bothered by a little cursing and some violence. Very good pay. But I will NOT pay up front. Once I sign on with an agent, you will be paid. If you like good, realistic fiction, with a strong feel for Africa, get back with me.

# # #

Need ghostwriter to write my Autobiography
Date: 2003-06-25
Reply to:

Need ghostwriter to write my Autobiography. Required: 1) Watch "Little Big Man", starring Dustin Hoffman; 2) Read "No One Here Gets Out Alive: The Biography of Jim Morrison", by Jerry Hopkins; 3) Respond to this ad with your quoted price for a 500 page manuscript.

The manuscript will turn into a book and movie. Experience with publishing, screenwriting, and the movie business is a big plus!

# # #

Blog Ghost Writer
Date: 2003-07-11
Reply to:

High-end children's furniture website has a job opening for a ghost writer for their blog and other copy. Please send samples of your work: 300-400 words describing baby's room for a boy and 40 words describing a changing table.

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The Freelancer’s Journal: Tales from the Writing Trade (No. 2)

Versatile Writer for Hire:
Never at a Loss for Words

August 19

Business has been slow lately. My last job was a best man’s speech for a guy from Long Island whose brother was getting married. His only instructions to me were: “I wanna see tears.” . . . You don’t have to dig too deep to find the gold in this man—it’s all right there on the surface . . . Let me tell you something about Dave: He doesn’t believe in half measures, or taking the middle ground. Whatever he does, he does it full throttle or not at all.

Four straight days over 95. Worst heat wave all summer. It’s miserable—especially in this place, with no windows in the living room. It must be ten degrees hotter inside. I live right above two restaurants, soul food and Chinese. Sometimes the bathroom smells like roast pork. It’s like living in the belly of a pig . . . Roaches everywhere—on the soap, under the sink. I took down a shelf in the bathroom and unscrewed the brackets; beneath one there were two dead roaches frozen in copulation, one mounted on top of the other.

August 22

I get a lot of inquiries from people who think they have a story to tell, but don’t have the words to tell it. Some of these people have genuinely moving stories, full of sadness and loss. But after hearing so many of these tales, it’s hard not to be cynical. These people never have any money, yet they’re all passionately convinced that their story is so amazing it will make a big splash, and then we can split the profits that will surely roll in. I get so many calls like that.

I politely explain that I operate, without exception, on a straight fee basis—cash paid for time worked. Still, I see the pathos in their stories, and I appreciate that they’re coming to me with a degree of urgency, if not desperation. They’re at the point where all they have left is their own story; all their hopes are riding on it. Before we ever meet, they’ve decided the written word is their best shot at redemption, yet it’s beyond their grasp. They need my words—or some writer’s words—to realize their dreams.

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The Freelancer’s Journal: Tales from the Writing Trade (No. 3)

August 24

I got a call last week from a woman in Rochester with an extreme tale of woe. She raised a son born with muscular dystrophy, and he died at 15. She has another son, an Army officer, who developed a neurological disorder following a tour of duty in the Gulf War. He continues to undergo treatment, although his doctors are still baffled by the condition. It has left him severely debilitated.

The book, as she envisions it, would also include flashbacks to experiences she had as a young Holocaust survivor. And there’s more: her older sister, also a Holocaust survivor, suffered a stroke 10 years ago and has since moved nothing but her lips, right index finger, and eyelids. Supposedly she has all her feeling and comprehension but is “locked in.” When discussing her sister, the woman perked up.

“She’s the primary motivation behind my wanting to write this book. I want it to give hope to others suffering from incurable illnesses. I also want to create a page-turning story that makes the reader feel like he’s reading a novel. Ultimately, my concept is for a book that weaves together tragedy, self-help, and humor.”

“Humor, really?” I said, failing to detect any in what she had just told me.

“Life can be humorous under many strange circumstances, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Yes, absolutely. I know what you mean. I think the book you’re proposing sounds extraordinary.”

She got the idea in the middle of one of her typical days—taking her son to the hospital, visiting her sister in the nursing home, waiting at the pharmacy to get a prescription filled.

“It just hit me, a voice inside that said, ‘Is this it? What’s the point of it anyway?’ It made me so depressed, but then I realized all of this would make a great book.”

It still surprises me how wildly different these stories are in their details but basically the same in their motivation. They’re part of the endless quest for alchemy and redemption, the urge to make something out of nothing. In this case, transform an obscure, miserable life into a compelling tale, available to the public.

I’ve been led astray and disappointed so often by these people, so I don’t get my hopes up when I hear from them. Still, it’s impossible to remain blasé. There’s a gravity to their schemes, no matter how ridiculous. Any writer who got involved would bear an immense responsibility—giving value to someone’s pain, even facilitating their catharsis.

“Every life needs a mission,” I said to her. “It seems to me this book is yours. Do you have a budget in mind for the writing?”

Not surprisingly, she didn’t have any cash. When I gave her my terms, knowing it was hopeless, I felt something more than pity. I felt remorse, which was unusual. Here’s a woman, I thought, who has more pain than she (or anyone) has room for. Without a book, an absorbing diversion, where’s it all gonna go?

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The Freelancer’s Journal: Tales from the Writing Trade (No. 4)

August 26

I had an interview for a job writing an infomercial for a “naturopath” named Dr. Sharp, peddling something called the Total Health Matrix (THM). He got my card from a bulletin board at the Soho Wellness Center. THM, I learned, is “a complete system, a new approach to optimizing health, nutrition, and life.”

I visited Dr. Sharp in his modest West Village apartment, where he greeted me almost as if I were a close friend returning after years abroad. He shook my hand robustly while holding half an unlit joint in his other hand, then put his arm around me and led me into the living room.

The place smelled like pot and incense, with an underlying odor of a vitamin store. Rows of blond-wood shelves, filled with potions and pills in bottles of all colors and sizes, occupied the otherwise sparse apartment. It felt less homey than functional.

Two people were already there—an attractive woman, about 30, with black hair and black clothes, including a miniskirt and lace-up boots that went past her thighs; and a big rustic guy with a beard, wearing blue jeans and dirty beige hiking boots.

We sat on a blue leather couch that clashed with the spartan digs. Dr. Sharp sat in a straight-back chair in the middle of the room. He was big, about 50, maybe older, with straight blond hair down to the middle of his back. His feet were bare and he was dressed in faded blue jeans and a loose white cotton shirt. He was sprawled in the chair, legs spread, holding the joint loosely between his thumb and fore finger.

“Thanks for coming. This is Sandi and Roger.” We all nodded hello. “Sandi’s going to produce the infomercial and Roger’s doing the tech. We’ve been building up to this project for a while. It’s a synthesis of everything I’ve been doing for the last five years or so. Let me tell you, the Total Health Matrix is about to ERUPT—it’s ready to explode, man. It’s just the start, too. We’ve got plans in the works, lots of stuff happening.” He smiled conspiratorially at Sandi. I noticed his hands were always moving, but in a relaxed, loose-wristed manner. He was at ease; he had held forth like this before.

“Eventually we’re gonna have resorts, Sharpville resorts, where people are gonna pay a lot of money to stay. Right now I’m working on a few video projects, and of course there’s my private practice. It’s about calculated steps up this plateau of a unified vision. There’s no doubt it’s gonna happen. This is just one step, a big one, but there’s a lot ahead and I’m gonna need people I can work with in different capacities, like you for example, as a writer. I’m gonna need PR, packaging copy, speeches, other scripts. It’s gonna soar, man, and my people are the wings.”

“Cool,” I said.

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The Freelancer’s Journal: Tales from the Writing Trade (No. 5)

August 26 [cont.]

Dr. Sharp spoke slowly, stretching almost every syllable to its limit, but within the mellow cadences unwavering conviction resounded. He continued to tell me about his growing operation as Sandi interjected details about the infomercial, or, as she called it, “paid programming.” She spoke in purposeful staccato sentences.

“We’re gonna go with a three-camera setup—probably use a Steadicam for the walk-and-talk. The display’s gonna be framed by a flashing call number, with purchase ops every seven minutes, interspersed with some real people. We’re gonna do alternate versions, too, ‘cause the Spanish market is crucial. As far as the writer‘s concerned, the copy really has to hit the product. Ultimately, though, we’re looking to go network.”

“Yeah, network, of course,” I said.

She and Roger, who had been quiet to that point, had a brief jargon-filled aside: post-production, online/off-line, Avid fully loaded, zero-gravity jib arm, flicker-free video. Then Roger said he had another appointment and Dr. Sharp showed him to the door.

We resumed our interview and I foolishly admitted that I had never written for television. They would have found out soon enough, though. My attempts to answer Randi’s question, “What approach would you take to the infomercial?” were sadly inept. I was mired in ignorance, too deep for my impromptu bullshit to even dog paddle. I kept repeating some variation of the phrase, “I think we should orchestrate Dr. Sharp’s charisma.” I foundered deeper: “As I see it, the dialogue should cloak the pitch in entertainment,” I gesticulated sharply for emphasis, “and Dr. Sharp’s engaging presence.”

It didn’t matter at that point. I knew the man was a sham, unmitigated. But I enjoyed listening to him. His voice was soothing, his rap was infectious . . . He spoke as if success was a birthright, and that struggle was for suckers only. I could have listened to him for hours. Maybe it was that slow, uncannily self-assured way he tossed off essential THM dictums: “Just let it happen, man. Don’t worry about it, dig?” Or his parables, a sham(an) raconteur’s stock-in-trade.

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The Freelancer’s Journal: Tales from the Writing Trade (No. 6)

August 26 [cont.]

“I was at this Hollywood party, right, and I saw this cat I knew. He had two fine girls with him, really hot. I would like to have thrown either one of ‘em over a chair,” said Dr. Sharp. “He came up to me and said ‘Rich, I need you to help me out. I need you to get me in to see Spielberg.’ ‘Cause he knew I knew him. I said ‘Okay, I’ll get you in to see Spielberg, but you gotta do me a favor.’

“He said ‘What is it, Rich? What’s the favor?’

“I said, ‘You know, just do me a favor. I get you in to see Spielberg, you do me a favor some time.’ And the guy said, ‘What is it, Rich, what’s the favor?’ You know, he kept asking me. So I said, ‘Just a favor. I’ll get you in to see Spielberg, but you gotta do me a favor.’ And the guy said, ‘Yeah, Rich, you know, anything, but what favor?’

“‘All right, listen. If you see me lying on a park bench in filthy clothes, I want you to buy me a jelly donut.’ And he said, ‘Rich, if I saw you on a park bench like that, I’d buy you a big gourmet meal.’ So I said, ‘No, I wouldn’t want a big gourmet meal, I’d want a jelly donut, because you don’t see many people in parks buying gourmet meals, but I’d sell that jelly donut and I’d get 10 more, and I’d sell jelly donuts to every asshole like you who comes to the park, until I’m a millionaire.’ And he stared at me, the guy just stared at me.”

He chuckled and looked at me with a mischievous smile that said, You know what’s up. We’re kindred spirits. You’re not like the Hollywood asshole. I laughed along with him, but whether at the Hollywood asshole or Dr. Sharp’s quizzical logic I wasn’t sure.

“Don’t think, act,” he said, as he pointed to his head and wiggled his thumb as if cocking a pistol.

“So, I was in L.A. the other day, talkin’ with Tom Cruise, right. He had a cold. Yeah, he had a bad cold—couple weeks. It was really messing up his work. He said, ‘Rich, man, you gotta help me. Only you can clean me up.’

“This is Tom Cruise, right, I mean his time’s money. This guy’s time is money. Listen, he makes—I figured it out once—he makes 35 grand every 45 seconds. Look at the guy, he’s money. He had a cold. When Tom Cruise gets a cold, that town stops, all right. The whole town just stops. So, being a naturopath to the stars, I said, ‘Listen, I’ll help you out, Tom. I’ll help you out, it’s no problem ‘cause I like you. I like your work, I like what you do, I like what you’re about.’ So I gave him my patented tincture of echinacea with a cinnamon infusion. Very good stuff, worked like a charm.

“So he said, ‘What do I owe you Rich, let’s settle up.’ I said, ‘Tom, you don’t owe me anything. ‘No Rich, I insist,’ he said.

“‘Okay, here’s what you owe me: Next scene you do in that movie you’re working on, you just think of me, and when I see the movie, I’ll know what scene it is. I’ll just know. That’s worth it to me.’ Tom Cruise, he’s money. Guy gets a cold, the town comes to a standstill. When Tom Cruise gets a cold, that whole fuckin’ town comes to a standstill. You know what I’m sayin?

“When you got your health you got everything. Health and money, yesssss. Let me tell you something, I knew J. Paul Getty; met him about five years before he died. J. Paul Getty was the richest man in the world for a long time. Nowadays, you got Bill Gates, Oprah, all these other billionaires. But there was a time when J. Paul Getty was the only billionaire around. There was no one who had a billion but him—he was the man.

"You know what J. Paul Getty said to me? He said, ‘Rich, I have two billion dollars, but I’d give a billion dollars to take a good shit.’ He had really bad constipation, J. Paul Getty.”

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The Freelancer’s Journal: Tales from the Writing Trade (No. 7)

August 26 [cont.]

Sandi was making a long phone call while Dr. Sharp told his tales. We talked a little while longer, or actually he talked and I listened.

“You’ve probably never heard of me before, but I’ve been doing this for years. I’ve been all over TV, the daytime talk-show circuit; in magazines too. I have lots of famous clients—actors, musicians—so I got this reputation as a doctor to the stars, that kind of deal. A guy from a magazine was over here once, interviewing me, and, you know, he’s thinking I’m this celebrity doctor with this crazy life, and he asks me, ‘So what do you do to relax or for excitement?’ And you know, the guy’s expecting to hear like hang gliding or rock climbing or African safaris. And I said, ‘Hey man, I like to stay home and watch TV.’ His jaw dropped, I mean he was stunned. It’s true. I just like to watch TV, smoke a doob, you know, maybe have a girl over, play for a couple hours, kick her out and watch some more TV.”

I would have stayed longer, but he said he had patients to see and bid me farewell. The last thing I remember him saying, in the same mellow but deeply commanding way, was: “I’m gonna win a Nobel Prize and a Pulitzer. I don’t know when, and it might be thirty years between them, but I’m gonna win both. Believe me, I’m gonna do it.”

August 27

I’m not too confident about the results of my meeting with Dr. Sharp, but I know he’s someone I want to work for. For the money and personal amusement certainly, but a part of me also wants to become immersed in his enterprise. At the very least I could hone my promotional skills.

Fearing the worst about my interview, I wrote him a letter anyhow:

Dear Dr. Sharp:

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to meet with you and Sandi about the infomercial. I imagine you’ll probably go with someone more versed in the form, which is understandable, but I hope this won’t preclude me from further participation in your sprawling empire to-be.

While I realize that selling products is your primary objective, I think it’s crucial that you employ your charisma to the fullest extent possible. Perhaps this charisma will come through no matter who does your writing. Please keep in mind, though, that I am attuned to the strength of your rhetoric and its potential appeal to a wide audience. I would welcome any future opportunity to contribute some of my ideas to the cauldron of excitement that is the Total Health Matrix.

To be continued . . .

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