Lately Russian bots have been crawling my blogs. This reminds me of my early days as a professional writer and editor.
In the early 1980s, while Canada was in the midst of a recession, I reluctantly joined the ranks of the unemployed. With the jobless rate in the double-digits I decided it would be a good time to get an education, hoping that when I graduated there would be more work opportunities.
University was costly for me. Of course, tuition fees were expensive and the menial labour I had to do to support myself left me living in poor lodgings and eating cheap food. I was broke and indebted.
After completing my university degree I naively thought the days of despicable jobs were over. I was educated, I had paid my dues, I assumed it was time to reap the benefits.
I soon realized that employers were not easily impressed with my diploma: they wanted candidates with a degree AND experience.
With Canada slowly recovering from recession and nobody willing to hire me, I turned to freelance work.
The first job I found was writing essays for students who lacked the discipline to attend their classes but did not want to break their parents’ heart by flunking their courses.
With the name of their professor, the subject of the essay, and the bibliography and syllabus of the course, in two days I could whip out a decent 15-page paper for nearly any of the liberal arts.
First I would go to the university library to dig up the professor’s doctorate thesis to get a feel for his character, beliefs and writing style. All the while noting any of his ideas that I might be able to recycle to flatter his ego.
University libraries usually carry the doctorate thesis of all their faculty. That's where you will find what your professor sounded like when he or she was sitting on the other side of the lectern.
Then, I would read the introduction and conclusion of all the books in the bibliography connected to the subject of the essay I was to write, skimming through the content and taking notes in the process.
The speed-reading course I had taken one summer became a sound investment.
Then I would write for fifteen hours straight, peppering the document with any bit of general knowledge I had that seemed appropriate.
Without having attended any of those classes, I never got less than a “B” grade and my satisfied customers started referring me to their slacker friends.
Unfortunately, this kind of hack writing is only profitable around mid-term and at the end of a semester.
One evening as I was waiting for a customer in a university coffee shop, I met an adult student who was taking Russian-language classes and worked as a writer for the Soviet embassy press office. We became friends and after meeting a few times, she asked me if I would be interested in a position with her employer.
Starting to work in a potential Russian spy nest was somewhat frightening since the Cold War was still raging. However I had a powerful incentive for wanting that job: my landlord came straight out of a Fyodor Dostoyevsky novel and cared about the working class only if they paid their rent on time.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky was a 19th century Russian writer known for his lengthy novels, dependence to alcohol and poor gambling skills. Hate him or love him, he is considered as one of Europe's major writers and certainly his works should be part of anybody's general knowledge.
The interview I had with the press secretary went well and he offered me a part-time job as an editor. The Soviet embassy press office was located in two contiguous apartments on the 15th floor of a large residential building. Office furniture consisted mainly of ordinary chairs and tables crumbling under piles of papers and publications. The table that was assigned to me faced a bay window which gave me a splendid view of the city.
My job was to rework stories originally written in Moscow and render them printable for Canadian publications.
I do not know if this is still valid, but since time immemorial Russian writers had been paid by the page: the longer the text, the more money they would get.
Once you know that, War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov start making sense.
The stories I was to edit were translated from Russian to either French or English. Regrettably, translators were also paid by the page and already long bland articles were getting stretched further in the process. I quickly became quite adept at turning a 4,000-word piece of logorrhea into a 300-word somewhat adequate news story.
I say “somewhat adequate” because the subject matter of the texts I received was often a hard sell. Canadian papers did not care much about the Komsomol (Communist Union of Youth) nor about the use of pesticides to boost agricultural reform in Turkmenistan, one of the Soviet republics.
From time to time however interesting stories would appear. Papers about the Soviet space program, medical research, natural wonders such as Lake Baïkal and so forth could be respun and placed in Canadian media.
Months passed and one day, looking through my window, I noticed building cranes had appeared in the skyline. Construction was picking up, a sure sign that the economy was getting back on track.
The construction sector is considered as a barometer of the economy. Commercial and residential building projects create wealth through job creation, accommodation for new or expanding businesses and lodgings for new homeowners.
One morning, 18 months after I began working for the Russians, the press secretary called me for a meeting and told me how satisfied he was with my work. However decisions had been made higher up to modernize. They were going to replace the typewriters everybody was using with computers. This meant efficiencies had to be gained elsewhere. That was the first time I heard that euphemism meaning I was being laid off.
But in that year and a half, my freelance worker status had improved and I was no longer writing essays for students. The experience I had gained was valuable and some of my clients, learning I was available, started providing me with more work.
I had gotten myself a career.