Reading writers’ capsule biographies and listening to their anecdotes, it becomes clear that at least one quirky or impressive day-job is a prerequisite for a successful career. Helicopter fireman, merchant marine, shrapnel-riddled war correspondent, apprentice haberdasher, what have you. A former U.S. Poet Laureate once told me about his college job as a sweat-study subject. He would be covered in talcum powder and put in a hot room so that deodorant researchers could see how each pore was activated. It seems that any writer worth his salt must, at some point, earn that salt by toiling in a salt mine as an honest-to-god salt miner.
My job history has mostly been brief office gigs alternating with cute retail jobs. I like to claim that I was the board-game sommelier at a toy store, but I mostly just rang up bouncy-ball purchases for nine-year-olds. So, in an attempt to earn some writerly cred and (more importantly) some money, I took a job about a year ago as a ghost writer for an internet dating service.
The job seemed absolutely ideal: I love the internet, I love dates and dating, and I really love putting words in other peoples’ mouths. And that’s what I did. Our clients would fill out a questionnaire or sit through an interview, and for about $12 an hour, I would take their responses and make them sexy and irresistible. I was in charge of the profiles, so I would write all the text for OkCupid, Match.com, PlentyOfFish, and some of the more niche sites: JDate, Elena’s Models, MillionaireMatch.
The majority of our clients fit a similar mold: a middle-aged white guy who had been successful and divorced, who wanted to get back into “the game” but wasn’t sure if he had the time or creativity to handle it all himself. There were other types, too. We worked with a lot of young, techy dudes who felt that if they had automated or outsourced everything else in their lives, romance shouldn’t be any different. I even had a few female clients, who were always surprisingly confident and attractive and who, everyone agreed, probably didn’t need my help. But if they could pay, we didn’t turn anybody away.
And what did they pay for? It depends on what they wanted. For a relatively low fee, I could rewrite your internet profiles in ways that our company “research” suggested would yield more dates. I tried never to lie, but I certainly finessed the presentation of the facts. I always created a witty, confident persona, one that was often a far cry from the stiff and awkward responses in our client interviews.
If they wanted to pay more, we would actually do the messaging for them, too. I didn’t do this much, but it was actually pretty fun. It involved blanket-sending form messages to a list of potential matches, and then responding quickly with some fast-paced, semi-personalized flirting. It turns out that I’m really good at making cheeky comments to women based on the mixed drinks they’re holding in their profile photos.
The premium and executive clients could dictate a minimum number of dates a month, and we would do everything we could to make sure those clients went on those dates. If we had to wheedle and cajole the women for their phone numbers, if we had to photoshop an ex-wife out of a picture and spray a tan onto the guy, if we had to play the sugar-daddy angle way up, we’d do it. And the majority of our clients seemed pretty happy with the results.
I stayed with the company for a bit over six months before I buckled under the overwhelming deadlines and the underwhelming pay. That’s probably not enough time to get a sense of our long-term success. I always had the fantasy that one of my profiles would lead a client to his dream girl, and that I would be invited to the wedding as the silver-tongued matchmaker who made it all possible. Of course, the obvious question here is whether or not the client would ever admit that he’d hired a ghostwriter to do something that is, by its very nature, supposed to be an opportunity for self-expression. The more obvious question is how long it would take the woman to figure out that her date was not the same pun-loving fellow who’d been emailing her over the past week. You’d think she’d be able to tell right off, right? I just assumed, though, that so many people feel an inherent shame about internet dating that they willfully forget all communication before the first date. If they enjoy that face-to-face chat over a macchiato at Starbucks, then that’s how they met, and stylistic inconsistencies cease to matter. People want to fall in love, and they will always let themselves be fooled for it.
That job was, at best, ethically dubious. I was essentially hired to help procure women under false pretenses for the romantic (and sometimes unabashedly erotic) fulfillment of men who were generally older and wealthier. I created several profiles for men traveling or willing to travel to Eastern Europe; I became part of the sex-tourism and mail-order-bride industries. I pretended to be someone other than myself, and I turned these men into people other than themselves; I did it for money, they did it for something like love.
Romance is hardly ever an honest thing. It requires conscious presentation, a clever curating, the limited and intelligent release of information. Flirting, seduction, poetry—it all requires putting the right word into the world at the proper moment, and keeping everything else back for some other time that might not come. I know this and I know that trust is built over time and intensity, and I know that there is no real expectation of full forthrightness in an OkCupid profile or a Match.com message. But I still felt like I was doing a heartless thing. Worse yet, I was making myself jaded. I still want to be able to look at some sweet, funny profile on the internet and think, “this could be real, and wonderful, and anything is possible.”
So I quit the job, but I got a quirky line for my bio and a reliable cocktail-party story. And of course I have the occasional fantasy about writing a novel, presenting myself as an updated version of Cyrano de Bergerac. In the film, my character, probably played by Paul Giamatti, would quake with rage at his hidden table in the sweet little bistro where he sent Jennifer Lawrence on a first date with his client, the semi-literate self-storage mogul played by Mark Wahlberg. My character would watch them eat their scallops and chat awkwardly and maybe laugh a little, until Wahlberg would say something like, “I feel like we know each other already,” and she would glow, truly, truly happy. And the audience would think, “yes, that’s right.”