I was never excited about taking the job; in fact, the first time it was offered I refused it.
But this was Elance. The on-line freelancing website was not known for good jobs. Arguably it is the trash heap of the writing industry, a place where clients with insanely low budgets prowl the internet for cheap and eager labor. But I desperately needed extra money, and writing is what I do best.
In the email the client said he was impressed by one of my sample articles, a magazine article I had published just after college. He wanted me to write a blog post for him, just a couple of pages, but his budget was only 18 dollars. I turned the job down. 18 dollars was not going to do much to pay bills; I thought my time – and the renting of my brain – was worth more than that.
But the next day he wrote to me again. Would I please reconsider? I was one of the best writers he had seen on Elance, he said, and although budgetary constraints made it impractical for him to raise the pay, if I did well on the first job, he would offer future jobs in which he would consider paying more.
It was ultimately not the promise of new jobs that swayed me but my treacherous ego. I am swayed by flattery even when I know better. I am particularly vulnerable when it comes to praise of my writing. For me to work for praise and cookies may not pad my wallet, but it is just fine with my ego, who does not seem to know any better.
With a sigh I took the job, telling myself that I would only spend a couple of hours on it, and that would be that. But after I had signed on, I learned something about the job I had not known. It was essentially a fiction project.
In addition, the fiction was to be passed off as reality. The narrator of the blog was a “persona” modeled after my client, which meant I would have to adopt his point of view, narrating an incident that reinforced the theme of his blog. My challenge was to write a story, drawing from my own experience as inspiration, pretending to be him. The “him” was a retired grandfatherly gentleman.
The revelation was unsettling. I was fine with writing impersonal ad text for clients, but I had originally decided not to write fiction for other people. My fiction belonged to me. Second, I was uncomfortable with passing off fiction as reality; I had a moment of childish shock embodied in the absurd question: “You mean not everything you see on the internet is real?”
I considered writing the client and telling him I had changed my mind. I should have. But I did not, and for a strange reason; I became inspired. Dizzily, euphorically inspired, swept up into a nether-realm of possibility. The theme had ignited me. Characters sprang to life in my head; I could “hear” them speaking, could “see” what was in front of them.
Now that an idea had been born, not to express it would hurt; it wanted to exist. How could I not let it?
I hurried to my spiral notebook and sketched out my ideas. Text unfurled from my pen. I was caught up in a swirl of imagery and sound. I remembered. Transformed. Reflected. Time stood still.
By the time I had finished, I realized I had spent six hours writing the story: six happy hours but six, not the two that I had planned. But I reread my work and felt pleased. I had written two novels, but it had been years since I had written a short fiction story, which was an entirely different challenge.
I did a final polish and dashed it off to the client. I expected another upsurge of euphoria at a job completed and sent out for review. But it did not come. In fact the buoyant feeling dropped like a pebble from a high balcony. I felt sick. Queasy. What had I done?
The experience of writing the story had seemed magical. I had put all of myself into it. I had drawn from my memories, dipped into my well of personal insights, woven in my interests, and watched it all come together into something I loved.
And I had just given it away for less than my parents had once paid me to clean the bathroom. I had given part of my self away; I was letting someone take credit for being me.
I began to earnestly hope that the client would hate what I had done and reject it. I could close the job. The sacrifice of 18.00 would be a small price for the relief I would feel. I could publish the story on my blog and feel far wealthier sharing it for free than I would at getting paid a pittance for someone else to claim it.
No such luck. The response the client sent to me was a rave. “Incredible,” he wrote. “You have far exceeded my expectations! It was almost perfect! I love how smoothly you closed in on the theme at the end! Excellent job!”
My treacherous ego was not displeased with the compliments, but the queasy feeling remained. The word “prostitute” came to mind. Miserably, I marked the project as “complete.”
More praise followed, with promises of more jobs if I wanted them, and my client said he would even consider raising payment. As he promised, he came to me with job offers during the months that followed. I turned them down.
I knew I had been right the first time. I could “ghost write” technical information or ad copy, but any personal project that required creativity such as my fiction belonged to me. Was me. And no one should be able to take credit for being me: my memories; my interests; my personality; my feelings; my mind.
But I had to admit: Without the job, without the theme, I would not have written that particular story. It was hard to regret that the story existed; I was proud of it and it had proven to me that I could write a short story in six hours. Considering all the unfinished stories I had written in high school and college, that was a triumph.
Telling myself that consoled me. I had an entire future of creative writing ahead of me and new confidence to fuel my efforts. But in the future I would write the new stories in my own way. For myself. As myself.
With my soul intact.