Agonizing First Published Article
In New York, I went to see the managing editor of Argosy, Milt Machlin. During the next twenty-four hours, I learned more from Milt Machlin than I did from all the books I had ever read.
“I’ll tell you what,” Milt said in his office when we first met. “I will pay you five hundred dollars for your story, and one of our staff will rewrite it.”
Five hundred dollars, and I was broke. I didn’t even know where I was going to sleep that night. “I am sorry, but I can’t do that,” I said.
“Five hundred dollars for a kill fee,” he replied.
“I can’t,” I said, again. I explained that more important than money was my determination to learn to write. Milt invited me to lunch. In the next hour, I got my first true lesson in writing. “I know you are angry at the French, and you have a right to be, but you can’t debunk paradise. Tahiti is planted in the minds of every man as that perfect escape haven. You can’t take that away from people. You can say what you want about the French and the atomic bomb, but you have to go through the back door.” I wondered what he meant. We had another Martini. Milt continued. “What about that famous South Seas bar, Quinn’s Tahitian Hut.”
“Yeah, I know Quinn’s, but what does that have to do with the French and the atomic bomb?” I said, confused, He asked me to tell him about Quinn’s. I told him about some of the outrageous incidents that happened at Quinn’s on a regular basis and explained how the French Foreign Legionnaires had taken over the place and that they had arrived with the French military to fend off the atomic bomb protesters. I mentioned how thrilled the Tahitians were that the French were planning to give them a grand fireworks display on Bastille Day. “There you are,” Milt said. “Write about Quinn’s and add all the other bits and pieces you just mentioned.” That night, Milt put me up on his sofa in his front room. Two months later, my story was the lead article in Argosy, including my photograph of Susie No Pants on the cover.
With that lesson in mind, you’d think I would have learned but I hadn’t. “Damn, Stephens, you still haven’t learned,” Milt said after he had rejected my second story. I was even more disappointed than before.
It so happened, after Tahiti, when the French began their nuclear tests, I decided to move to new ground and chose Singapore where living was cheap. To get there from New York, I wanted to travel overland. So with the little money I had, I bought a second-hand, four-wheel drive Willys Jeep. I booked aboard Queen Elizabeth, and for an extra fifty bucks put my Jeep into the hold and sailed for Europe. In Paris, I found a travel office that boasted it could arrange visas anywhere. I applied for one to drive across the Soviet Union and got it, but two weeks later I was arrested in Russia. The visa was a fake.
After a few months, the Russians, for reasons I still don’t know, released me. I was certain I had another story for Argosy. I wrote it up and sent it to Milt Machlin. He rejected it. I went to New York the second time to see him.
“Look,” he said, “I already told you not to be too heavy.”
“Too heavy,” I stammered. “A Russian jail isn’t a party, you know.”
“Hell, Stephens, you don’t learn, do you? Readers don’t give a damn about that,” he replied. He then asked me to tell him in detail what had happened when I was arrested. I mentioned that while standing in front of an officer and his armed soldiers, I had been stripped down to my drawers. A woman interpreter was present. The officer told me to take off my drawers. The woman looked at me and said, “Never mind. I’m married.”
Milt smiled, and that became the opening for my article that appeared two months later in the magazine. I collected my five grand. After that, I wrote a couple of stories a year for Milt. I learned to laugh at myself. But still, that didn’t mean writing got any easier. I learned that it doesn’t matter how many degrees one might have in journalism, or what your writing credentials are, or how many stories you wrote before, editors are only interested in what you put on their desks. It’s that simple. The trick is learning what editors want and then giving it to them. I hear the argument over and over – “It’s easy for you. You have published and the editors know you.” I have to disagree. The editors may know me, but that doesn’t matter. What is important is that they know that I can produce for them and I write what they want. That is the bottom line.
That said, what follows is not a treatise on how to become a writer. To answer the question as to how I became a writer I am merely telling how I got started. That’s all. I have no secrets to pass on except to say that what I have learned came through experience. There is no special talent I have. There is no special gift, other than fortitude, and that I have more than good sense. And God did not grace me with a gift for writing. Writing is a trade, a trade that I had to learn. It took hard work and, above all, it took determination. I learned that if one is determined, one is likely to succeed. I found the best way to learn to write is to follow the examples of those who have made it. And as my father used to say: “Just listen, and do as I do.” He wasn’t a writer though; he was a farmer. It’s the same, farming and writing.