THE PLAN CAME TO ME IN SEPTEMBER 1991 as I lay in my hell-hot motel-style apartment, thinking about my life and my dwindling funds. My baby wasn’t yet a year old. Michael and I were both English majors, which meant that we would be lucky to land jobs at minimum wage. A recession was on, and freelance writing assignments were very far between. Then the plan hit me like the keystroke on a manual typewriter striking a fresh sheet of paper.
One hundred thousand college students live in Austin. Surely, some must need help with their writing. I had been assisting friends for free for more than half of my life. I would start a writing tutorial service. Not only would it provide income, but it would also give me a chance to stay home with my son.
I opened S&M Ink in October. The S stood for my name, the M for Michael’s. Taking out a $90 ad in the Daily Texan, the University of Texas student newspaper, I had the advertising department create not-so-subtle graphics that played up the company’s title. The artwork featured two hands tied together. The copy read, “In a Bind? Call S&M Ink for All Your Writing Needs.”
Waiting for the initial response made me a little nervous. My idea was to help students put together well-written papers. The services offered would vary from simply editing and typing to reading all background materials and coaxing a paper out of a student, one sentence at at time. But there was one thing I would not do. I knew that some clients would want me to write their papers for them. I swore to myself that I would not.
My first client was a coed I will call Lisa (I’ve changed all names and a few minor details to protect the guilty). She arrived at the appointed hour toting an epistle by the Italian poet Petrarch. For two nights we pored over the work. We also pored over Lisa’s family background; her hopes, dreams, plans, and schemes; and what she had for breakfast. By the time I dragged enough sentences out of Lisa for a five-page paper, typed it twice (she didn’t like my suggested wording on page five), and collected my $20, I realized I was earning about $1 an hour.
So when Bill showed up, hemmed and hawed briefly, then blurted out that he wanted a paper with none of his input whatsoever, my resolve collapsed. In fact, I sighed with relief.
A problem arose. The assignment was to analyze Joseph Conrad’s “The Secret Sharer.” I had studied the story to death in college. Having the gift (curse?) of a memory that loves to store useless information, I recalled microscopic interpretive details. I knew the resulting paper was far too good for a sophomore, but Bill was pleased—until he got it back without a grade.
Sure enough, Bill’s professor detected something rotten, and it wasn’t in the state of Denmark. He demanded a conference. Bill called me, panicked. This led to a phenomenon I call post-paper education. Prior to their meeting, I tutored Bill relentlessly. To help him understand the story, I created a modern-day analogy, changing the L-shaped ship’s cabin of Conrad’s invention to an L-shaped bar at a club on Sixth Street. The captain became the bartender; his questionable counterpart, a dozing drunk at the back of the bar. In that context I explained to Bill what the story was about. He learned more from that lesson than he had in any UT classroom. The professor let him off.
Tiffany was a lanky blonde, good-looking in a mall-clothes, store-bought-tan, expensive-makeup kind of way. Over the phone I agreed to tutor her, but I knew the second she walked in that my involvement would go further than that. While I looked over the assignment—it was Shakespeare—Tiffany pulled from her bag colored markers and a plastic whiskey flask. She employed the former to decorate the latter with catchy phrases like “Go UT” and “Beat OU.” Not being a native Austinite, I had no idea what an OU was or that this was a big football weekend. Her explanation brought the truth I had been waiting for. She was in a hurry to hit the road. How much would it cost to have me write the paper? I said $30. She didn’t bat a smudge-free- mascaraed lash.
Manuel netted me $75. Looking back, I think I would have preferred being dragged over hot coals. He was a foreign student, and I could barely understand his English. He needed help with a twenty-page marketing paper. I winced. Honestly, I told him, literature is my specialty. The price I quoted was an effort to scare him off. Unfortunately, he agreed to my terms.
The materials Manuel dropped off scared the hell out of me. I knew nothing of marketing, and yet I had to invent a product, develop a plan for execution, come up with selling strategies, and produce a two-year budget showing projected sales and income. After much thought, I created the Bike-a-Brella, a device to allow safer riding in the rain. Meeting after meeting, Manuel insisted on minute changes. I should have quoted him $300. Worst of all, I couldn’t get my computer to line up the numbers in the tables. Ready to quit and scrub toilets for a living, I spent 45 minutes trying to correct the problem and listening to Manuel shout frantically, “This one”—pointing out the misaligned digit—“he is all wrong!”
From that point on, I determined to stick to topics I had at least a clue about and to raise my prices to compensate for my time and misery. Nothing helped. Each paper created a new problem. The cause could be as simple as a printer malfunction or as horrifying as the realization that I really had no grasp whatsoever of my topic.
My steadiest client was the wheeler-dealer son of a New York corporate hotshot. Calvin, like so many of his buy-a-paper counterparts, came equipped with a set of ’92