My first job: Writing in cubicle fourMore Info
I was 21 years old and ready to launch the major career. First published at 14, then six years as a theater reviewer and personality columnist for “The Nine Times,” a community newspaper published in Bayside, Queens, had prepared me for greatness. I had interviewed Henry Fonda, who talked mostly about his daughter Jane and my review of her performance in a Broadway play, Anthony Newley, who talked mostly about his wife Joan Collins, and Rita Tushingham who talked mostly about missing her flat in London. I was ready.
When I answered the ad in the New York Times and went to a suite of rooms in an older brick building on Third Avenue in the upper thirties, I was prepared to say yes to a regular job writing for a small publisher. The waiting area (not really a room) had paperback covers plastered all over the walls. The titles were not known to me, nor were the names of the authors. The covers were bright and lurid, women being subjugated by brutes, bare breasts and limbs exposed, the occasional indication of torture and blood splashed across the illustrations. I waited for about 15 minutes before the publisher called me into his office for the interview. He had my resume and my samples in front of him.
I sat on a small divan not exactly in front of him. It was covered in a dark, velvety cloth, but not velvet, something synthetic. “I read your stuff,” he said. “You can write.” I started to thank him, but he went on oblivious to my gratitude. “Here’s the deal. We give you a title, a list of characters names and a list of words. Each of those words has to be used at least the number of times you see in parenthesis next to each of them. We give you a basic plot but you can go any way you like as long as you reach the ending we need. Understand me?”
I nodded, not really understanding much of this. “You get six days to finish the book. You come in here at 8 ayem (he said that with a soft “u” and a “yem”) and you work until you’ve written at least 2,000 words. You do that every day until you’re done. When you hand in the manuscript we give you a check for $1,000. That’s a grand every week, do you understand me?”
That part I understood.
This was 1967 in New York City. This was a real job bringing in more money in a week than most people saw in a month. It was writing and writing fiction with a guarantee of publication. This was the career I had dreamed about.
Or was it?
I started the following Monday, arriving before 8 and being taken to a cubicle with a typewriter, a lamp and a small table. There was no window, little air and distinct odor of cigarette smoke and something else, more savory, less pleasant. It was one of six similar cubicles all in the same room. I sat down and waited and before too long a secretary, bright, perky, red-haired, brought me a sheaf of blank pages and an envelope with the words “Blank Stares Are Basically Bare” on it: the title of my first book, my first “work for hire.”
I opened the envelope and took out the lists that had been promised. I read the character descriptions first: Blank Burton, a fireman in Brooklyn, 38, unmarried and horny; Andrea Franklin, 19, a virgin, a waitress in Brooklyn, Sam Shelton, a married man with a mission — to find a mistress willing to dominate him. Burton, called Blank because he could only shoot blanks (a phrase that meant nothing to me at that moment), was the main character, the hero I called him in my head. Sam, the villainous guy with the mission would be my heavy. Then I looked at the word list.
“Cunnilingus” appeared eleven times. I had to look that one up but my portable, paperback dictionary didn’t include it. “Beat-off” and a slew of words I knew but had never spoken aloud were to be used at least twenty times each. My mother’s least favorite four-letter word was given seventy uses. I think that was the moment my 21-year-old mind realized that I was writing pornography.
Typewriters were clacking away all around me, so I put the first white page into mine and began to create my book. My personal experiences were limited at 21 and so my first chapter was a cautious one. Blank, back from fighting a blaze, burst into the diner where Andrea worked and ordered lunch. He couldn’t help notice her breasts which threatened to break through the flimsy fabric of her uniform. I remember writing that they were firm and hard and that her nipples (use 22 times) were visible through the thin material. One twitched if I recall. When he ordered his second cup of coffee he reached up and tweaked it and it twitched some more.
Two thousand words flew out of my fingertips by 4 that first day and I handed them in to the same secretary who never thanked me or even gave me a nod of acknowledgment. I was in at 8 the next day and continued to flog my way through the plot. I had spent an hour at the New York Public Library with a few words I’d copied from the list (you weren’t allowed to take these things home with you), poring over the much larger dictionaries on their shelves. I understood what they meant and was ready to continue my work, educated and aware.
I finished the first book on Saturday, 12,013 words, and I received my check. Monday morning, I slipped it into the deposit slot at my Queens, New York bank as I headed into Manhattan to start my second work of pornographic art. It was the same ritual, an envelope with a title (“Bad, Bad Beauty”), a new list of characters and another list of words (much the same as the first one but catering to a lesbian story instead of a straightforward heterosexual rape and rescue tale). I set in to work.
It’s embarrassing to note, although remember my youth, that there was a sense of arousal in writing these books and I soon understood the acrid odor I had noticed on that first day of work.
Once again I worked through the week, completed the book and handed it in with the exchange of manuscript for check. I repeated this for a third week and then handed in my notice.
I honestly didn’t think I could write another sex novel, use those words again in an inventive way after the third one. Titled “Beat Me, Bitch, Beat Me,” it was the story of a masochist and his mother who took out her sexual frustrations on her supposedly impotent son. On the fourth day of that third week I had gone into the office of the man who had hired me and asked him two questions. When could I see my first book? When could I take a week off?
The work was intense, 12,000 words minimum each week of salacious porn is not an easy task. I was told that there were no weeks off, that if I wanted the job I had to stay with the job. I was also told that I would have to find that first book in the marketplace myself when it came out. He wouldn’t tell me when that would be but he did tell me that my name wouldn’t be on it, and that the title would be changed to something that wouldn’t remind me of the working title. I never did find a single copy of any of my three porn books.
When I took that third check from the secretary I told her I wouldn’t be back on Monday, that I was done. She simply said, “OK” and nothing else and I left with the $1,000 in my pocket and a sense that I had actually accomplished nothing. I felt that I had used every sexual word as often as I possibly could and that I might never be able to use any of them again. In truth my attempts at more mainstream fiction for the next decade or so had absolutely no sex in them at all and they never saw publication.
The major career was over. But a lot of better work lay ahead.