Thursday, November 05, 2009

Guest Blogger, Michael Atkinson

Today, I'd like to welcome guest blogger, Michael Atkinson.

Michael is the author of a new book, Hemingway Deadlights. He says, "The story is set in 1956 Key West, and the post-Nobel Ernest Hemingway ropes himself into investigating the mysterious murder of a drinking buddy, a path that eventually leads him to Cuba and rum in the jungle with Castro and Guevera. (Book #2, coming in 2010, goes back to 1937 Spain, when Hemingway and John Dos Passos investigate the very real murder of Jose Robles amid the wreckage of the civil war.) Book #2 is called Hemingway Cutthroat.

Michael is an award-winning poet. He's written, and still writes, film criticism, cultural attack, book reviews and essays, and has a number of books out about film. But, my favorite comment from Mike's blog is, "Lastly, I find pride in the fact that my children can find Timbuktu on a map." Welcome, Mike, and thank you.


Learning to Write via Fraud

I’ve been a professional writer for 20 years now, having written and sold just about anything you could name that's made of sentences, including obituaries, limericks, memoirs, interviews with starlets one-third my age, dirty-shirt satire, TV pilots, manifestos, confessional poetry, book criticism, travel guides, and straight-on movie reviews, by the thousands. That includes, at the moment, my first novel, a murder mystery "starring" Ernest Hemingway and the first in a series, but my point here is I never took a writing workshop, never took a class, never even got a master’s degree. I’ve just written, for my own pleasure, since I was a kid, and though that definitely helps, I think one of the best training experiences I’ve ever had involved writing for dirty money. I was a freshman in college when I began writing other students’ papers for them, for pay. It just went downhill from there.
I could’ve gotten kicked out of college, and thereby been forced into a nowhere working existence in the south-shore blue-collar lowlands of Long Island, where I probably would’ve kept on writing. But I didn’t. The people paying me could’ve gotten kicked out, too, and to my mind probably should’ve, at least when compared to me, who was simply providing a service. I mean, I didn’t say they had to actually hand those hot pages in.

I began by taking a case of cheap beer as payment. I would take papers on any topic, and required only that the scofflaw hiring me provide the source material. I guaranteed a B, which for most of my clients was perfectly adequate. I never had to refund anything to anyone – it was simple, really, just take the premise, find our four or five things in the books to support it, rephrase those things at least twice each, and suture the paragraphs together with transitions as you go to make it sound like a coherent argument.

What I was doing, of course, was teaching myself expository writing, and since it was fun as well as profitable, I went at it with a certain amount of zest, shruggingly aiming to make the tone of each paper just a little more interesting than the last.

I’d recommend this highly to college students everywhere.

I used an antique Royal manual, a Depression-era inherited from my secretary mother and made of cast iron, in the day when electric typewriters were the norm. I typed with one finger, fast (I was clocked at 75 words-a-minute on job interviews), and with a certain amount of force, given the machine, and so you could feel the letters on the back of the paper, like Braille. The periods and sometimes the Os were cut clear through, leaving holes. This turned out to be of no particular consequence to anyone, despite the papers’ unique look and feel. Once I wrote three cinema papers for three dorm co-inhabitants in the same class and with the same teacher; they had three choices for their essay, and I did all three, each with the periods allowing light through like bullet holes. The teacher never noticed.

Soon, of course, I asked for cash, first three dollars a page, and then, as the 1980s wore on a bit, five dollars, and then ten. This was my college job, and I never hurt for money. Some semesters I made hundreds in the weeks papers were due, and almost every department at that college except mathematics and accounting received papers by me, including English, psychology, history, physical therapy, art, business management and marketing. I wrote about bone structure, advertising campaigns, Oliver Cromwell, Freud, Dickens, abstract expressionism and public administration. In effect, I spontaneously and often under severe deadline wrote in the neighborhood of 10,000 words a semester, for eight straight semesters. (Not including my own workload, which was occasionally neglected.) It continued after graduation – one girl I wrote for went on to a master’s in social work from NYU, and I wrote her thesis, for something like $25 a page.

I never had a moral qualm about any of this, having only a middling respect for the learning to be done in an academic setting in any case. I do however sometimes wonder if that social worker from NYU ever did any damage to her patients because she wasn’t forced to write her own papers and pass her classes alone. It’s an open question, but when I phrase it like that, I tend to doubt I could be culpable of very much.

Though ten dollars a page is a far better rate than anyone gets in the real world, I’ve never been tempted to return to my old profession. For one thing, I teach now, and have a hunting dog’s sense of smell for papers written by someone other than the student that handed it to me. But the larger sense of it is that if you need to learn how to make sentences, you learn by just making them, and whether they’re for journalism or novels or even poems, you’d be hard pressed to come up with a better scenario than my unscrupulous paper-writing business. MFA programs cannot measure up to it; that’d be like learning about bricks for two years instead of being paid to lay them to build walls, week after week. I picked up miles of facts and contexts about a great many things in the process, of course, far more than I ever learned in an actual classroom, but learning to construct arguments and paragraphs and make them readable was the real benefit. If I can sit down and write a book a year now, I think this is probably why.


Thank you, Michael, for taking time to stop by. I can tell you lead a busy life, and I appreciate your time!

Michael Atkinson's website is

Hemingway Deadlights by Michael Atkinson. St. Martin's Minotaur, ©2009. ISBN
9780312379711 (hardcover), 256p.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Great interview! I love hearing about lives that have been chock-full of writing.

Sounds like your background really helped you out as a teacher, too, Micheal.

Looking forward to reading your book--

Mystery Writing is Murder

Lesa said...

Thanks for the comment, Elizabeth. As with all guest blogs, I'm never sure when or if the author will stop by to answer, but I hope Michael will be by sometime during the day.

Mike A. said...

Thanks, Elizabeth -- I hope you dig it. Maybe someone should have their students write a report on it! Not me, though...

caryn said...

I read the book and really liked it. I wasn't sure I would because sometimes books written with real people as the protag turn out alittle hokey. This one was interesting.
I enjoyed the parts in Cuba. I've always wanted to visit Cuba and I think it's from reading about Hemingway's life there.
One thing about the book though...what is the deal with all of the commas in the first sentence? I did almost stop reading it right then. Glad I didn't though.

Mike A. said...

I'm glad too that you didn't stop, Caryn. Sorry if the commas bugged you. I find I sometimes use them in different ways than most writers (and editors) prefer -- I use them to insert breaths, to suggest the tone of voice you should hear in your head. And sometimes that isn't precisely correct, grammar-wise.

Lesa said...

Thanks for stopping by, Marry!

Lesa said...

Thank you! I hope you continue to like my blog.

Lesa said...

Thank you, Viko. I'm glad you enjoyed Michael's guest blog.

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Thank you.

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Thanks, Elizabeth -- I hope you dig it. Maybe someone should have their students write a report on it! Not me, though...

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