REMEMBER THAT PBS SHOW Ghostwriter? I never watched it, but I do remember seeing its intro before scurrying outside because Bill Nye the Science Guy had ended. And while I wasn’t intrigued enough to ever actually sit through the show, I never forgot the mysterious, thrilling notion I developed of ghost writing, of writing as a ghost writes.
Over my scholastic career, my career plans changed occasionally, and by the time I enrolled in college all I knew was I wanted to spend my coursework getting better at writing. Armed with my English degree four years later, I decided to go out into the world and “make it” as a writer. I settled for a job as an internet marketer at a local mortgage company. Eventually I started making a name for myself as a writer-for-hire on the internet and before long phased myself out of my “real job.”
For the most part, the people contracting me didn’t care who wrote their copy. They just wanted to sell stuff. I was getting hired to write people’s “personal” blogs, webpages, sales letters, press releases, ads, etcetera, plus a few occasional more interesting jobs ghost writing erotica or (I’m actually more ashamed to admit) college essays. All of these clients took my writing and either posted it to their site with no author source at all or promoted it as their own. I was a ghost writer, and there was nothing romantic about it: no ’90s-era CGI color-blob ghosts, no high-top fades, no kid detective plots, just SEO and zero appreciation from the maybe dozens of people who have unknowingly read my work. In fact, I don’t even get to know how many people have read my work. This figure might be in the millions, including whoever is reading this.
When I realized this, I began to care less about what I wrote; if it was good enough for the German pyramid-scheme entrepreneur, it was good enough for me. I pounded it out and I sent it off, praying clients wouldn’t ask for a rewrite.
This is dangerous territory for a writer; once you stop caring about how good your writing is, you start allowing careless writing to become your norm. I was still doing my own “creative writing” in my off time, but even that was getting published in literary journals (if anywhere), not the types of places that legitimate freelancer-friendly publications can use to get a handle on my work. I realized that in order to keep from writing thoughtlessly what people could actually identify me with, I would have to start keeping my writing brain separated: one side for my writing, one side for other people’s writing.
While this was helpful in keeping me from lapsing into writing poems using “high”/“sky” rhymes, it wasn’t helping me write fulfilling work for a living like every writer dreams of doing. I called myself a freelancer, but I was more like a prostitute. I could still enjoy writing what I wanted to write, but doing something enjoyable for a living on someone else’s terms turned it into something cheap and mindless, something for me to do to earn some cash and then stuff it in my pocket, find the door, and head home to what (or whom, if you’re keeping up with the metaphor) I really wanted to do.
When someone would want to see samples of websites I’d written, I would have to provide a link and say, “It doesn’t have my name, but trust me, I wrote it.” Once I started looking into doing “real” freelance writing, pitching ideas to magazines and writing articles I actually chose to write, I had nothing on the entire expanse of the internet to put my name to. The closest I had to marketable journalism came from a company that hired me to write blogs under a fake profile, but I couldn’t exactly write to Slate editors with a pitch and say, “For my writing sample you can just check these links to blogs I’ve written; I know it says Jennifer Bindt wrote them, but trust me, I’m Jennifer Bindt.”
I wouldn’t write anything I could be truly, unwaveringly proud of because no one would know it was me anyway. This doesn’t mean I wrote sloppy copy for my clients; I wrote them the best copy, blogs, scripts, emails, erotica, etcetera that I could, but under the handicap of coming from the part of my creativity I had quarantined to keep from infecting the part that came up with what I wanted people to know me for.
So is it really worth it? If it’s any indication, I still do this work today. I want to write for a living, and as hard as I try I can’t imagine living life with a non-writing “job.” Right now this is the only way I know how to make that happen, and until a better alternative comes along (book deal, screenwriting, “real” freelance writing), this is the only job I can do.
While I can’t get my name connected to probably 99% of what I put out there, I’ve realized I may not want to. My name is on this piece because I care about it, because I wanted to write it. I’ve learned that ghost writing for clients isn’t just a crappy way to make money doing the only thing I’m remotely decent at; it’s an opportunity for practice.
If you’re a writer in the same position I am, whoring yourself out to self-help authors and Bangkok nightclub promoters and meat thermometer salesmen, don’t make it only about them. Ghost writing is a unique opportunity to get paid to practice, something only professional athletes, musicians, and actors get to do. The most important things are to find a way to not let your business writing hurt your personal writing, to find a way to do this without providing paying clients with shoddy work, and that you don’t ever stop writing your own stuff through it all.
Maybe this is the only way I can justify taking on a job writing stuff that people are using to spam your inbox with, but I’ve learned to see ghost writing as a way to refine every single technical aspect of writing without people being able to identify me when I’m writing about shea butter treatments or two-for-one drink specials. Ghost writing may make me anonymous, but sometimes that’s what a writer needs.