A shorter section from “Withholding.” (Term-Paper Writer.)

Term-Paper Writer—1985-1989

In the spring of 1985 I was taking a class with a guy with whom I’d gone to high school. He offered me $25 to write his term paper for the class. I took him up on it.

Before long, this became a major business for me. I made some decent money, and it beat the hell out of minimum wage service industry jobs. Naturally my [family] was opposed to this, and tried to scare me away from it, telling me that I’d be discovered and the university would expel me and cancel all my college credits.

Term paper writing was what I had instead of journalism school. I learned how to write quickly, on a deadline, in different styles and voices, and often on topics with which I was unfamiliar. And I was pleased when I learned that Winston Churchill and Truman Capote used to write papers for cash when they were in school.

Some people used to lecture me that what I was doing was immoral and unethical, doing someone else’s work for them. But I wasn’t selling drugs, no one was getting physically hurt by what I was doing, and I was giving my customers a high-quality, well-written product. I had one rule that I wouldn’t violate—I wouldn’t write a paper for a class taught by a professor I personally admired. That to me would’ve been an act of disrespect.

This was by no means a perfect job. In those early days I sometimes put in unbelievable hours, staying awake 35 hours in a row, until my eyes were as baggy as Robert Mitchum’s and I was hallucinating. The business was feast or famine—sometimes I’d rake in good money, sometimes I’d not work for weeks. And invariably people would insult me by trying to talk me down on my price, especially if they were repeat customers.

I once flunked a course in English—my major—because I was too busy writing other peoples’s term papers to take time to write my own, and that paper counted as a final exam.

I didn’t guarantee grades. This was because I always spent my fees before the clients got their papers back from their professors, and also, since I wasn’t attending my clients’s classes, I didn’t know what their professors were like, or what those professors expected from their students. I had no way of knowing if a professor would notice and become suspicious of the fact that a student who had previously turned in two “D”-grade papers in a row, had now suddenly submitted one that was clearly worthy of an “A.” And I had no way of knowing if the student was even giving me the right assignment.

There was one guy I knew who had fucked off in school so badly that he was on academic probation. Whether he got kicked out of school or not depended on how he did this one semester. He fucked that up so badly the whole semester depended on how he did in one class. And that one class depended on one term paper, which he hired me to write.

The topic was the history of the Mafia.

This was a subject on which I was well-versed, and I didn’t even have to do much research on it. The paper was a joy to write. The guy turned it in, got a “0,” rather than an “F,” flunked the class, flunked out of school, and flunked out of life. He wound up getting a job at a gas station.

The next semester the guy’s sister came up to Huntsville, and made a special point of looking me up to chew me out, bitching to me how I’d ruined her brother’s life and cost him his whole future. But I pointed out one little fact that her brother told me as he was moving out of the dorm. The reason he got a “0” instead of an “F” was that he gave me the wrong instructions. The actual topic of the paper was not the history of the Mafia, but it’s organizational structure. I had devoted one page to the organizational structure, but that was it. The problem was not that I was a poor writer, it was that I was a poor psychic.


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