by Elliott Eglash
Though I didn’t know it then, my first job was ideal work for an aspiring writer: lifeguarding at a country club where the children swam competently. I got paid poorly and berated regularly by patrons, but at least no one cared if I read on the clock, so long as I didn’t do it on deck while anyone was drowning.
My first summer there, I finished Moby Dick despite only ever reading it while on my breaks. Bartleby, the Scrivener would have been more fitting, I realized later. I was learning what work was: that which I would prefer not to do. When I first read the story, during my freshman year of college, I immediately looked up to Bartleby in the same way more ambitious adolescents do to Ayn Rand. The scrivener and his half-stubborn, half-shrugging rejection of his duties (encapsulated in what you could call his catchphrase, “I would prefer not to”) represented something I recognized as anathema to an entire culture, not to mention my parents, something revelatory and subversive, though if you had asked me then what that something was, specifically, I probably couldn’t have told you. But as I grew older, amassing new jobs against my wishes, new resume entries pushing older ones down the page and into the void, I eventually got the idea.
A few years ago, I moved to New York City to enter a graduate writing program. I lived far away from campus, though quite near Wall Street, where Bartleby spends his days working, or not, in a law office whose windows look out onto a brick wall. I thought of the story often. In my more idealistic moods, I saw in the scrivener (an old-timey term for “scribe”) something of a kindred spirit, an example to live up to: while others set to their tasks with briskly mindless efficiency, Bartleby remained a critical, destructive figure, simultaneously passive and defiant, an observer adrift in a sea of doers. Not a bad definition of a writer, I thought—at least, until I entered the writing program.
Most of my days were soon consumed either by writing or the guilt of not writing, and perhaps this was why I began to read Bartleby differently. I started seeing in it a double meaning, almost a roman à clef, with Bartleby as the region of the brain responsible for writing, and his boss (the story’s narrator) as the managerial ego, which knows it must wring some words out of its subordinate, yet cannot. In the story, Bartleby prefers not to work for so long that he lands in jail for vagrancy, and later dies after refusing to eat. This is precisely what writing was like: trying to get the part of me that’s meant to transmute thoughts into sentences to do its job, while it insists that it would prefer death by hunger, or at least a light snack, before coughing up another syllable.
Or maybe that’s adulthood for you: the process of locking your inner Bartleby in some dank mental penitentiary. Letting him starve, so that you don’t have to. When I first read the story, I could only conceive of starvation as a kind of metaphor, the sign of a pure spirit rid of earthly concerns. It took me a few more years to start seeing starvation as an actual prospect, a fate that could befall almost anyone, and especially those currently earning their master’s degree in a dying art, as the writing students liked to semi-joke.
That’s why, though I’ve gotten no better at convincing myself to write, I make a living compelling others to do so, generally against their will. In other words, I tutor, most often working as a college essay “coach.” People think this means that I help high schoolers write their admissions essays, and I do, but that’s not what the job is about. Mainly I peddle to parents the fantasy that their children, with a little bit of luck and direction, can follow in my footsteps, gaining entry to an Ivy League university despite their lack of legacy status, athletic prowess, and interesting or challenging life experiences.
Though my client base is largely parents, I often feel more like I’m working for the reject mill itself. The inscrutable authority of the admissions process augurs to certain parents an existential assessment of their progeny’s worth, and thus their own. With my credentials I represent an envoy of that judgment, and by employing me they hope to alter it, kind of like hiring a lottery winner as your financial advisor. Still, the demand for this service is fairly high, especially in New York, where I get away with charging rates that even I sometimes feel are a bit of a swindle. Of course, here there’s also a large and concentrated population of tutors who compete for clients. In the autumn months leading up to most colleges’ application deadlines, I often have enough clients to tutor full time, but in other seasons I’m often happy just to pick up an hour or two, even as another part of me would prefer not to.
That was the case the summer after my first year in the writing program: I didn’t have classes, didn’t have the motivation to write, and didn’t have much in the way of tutoring income, let alone a real job. Instead, I had a recurring feeling that my professional life, such as it was, had somehow lost its narrative momentum, and that my opportunities to revise its arc were dwindling. I feared a future in which, fifty years down the line, I would still be helping bright-eyed seventeen-year-olds perfect their admissions essays while my own writing languished in a save file somewhere.
Whether to quell or fuel this anxiety, I’d force myself to trawl through various job boards with peppy, affirming names, though I could rarely stomach more than fifteen consecutive minutes of the activity, formulating increasingly sad descriptions of my entry-level dream job and offering them up to the blank, impassive search bar: “editorial assistant,” “editorial intern,” “editorial lackey,” “technical writer.” After a couple weeks of this, I unwisely accepted the first bite: an unpaid internship with a photography magazine, writing fluffy gallery reviews as well as editing others’ to make them fluffier.
The bright side was, I worked from home: a sunny and spacious rent-controlled one-bedroom on the penultimate floor of a Tribeca high-rise, which would have been totally pleasant if it wasn’t also my boss’s home (a no-shoe home). Editor-in-Chief Andrea Blanch’s once airy living room was crowded by three large wooden desks, around which sat a constantly rotating assemblage of interns. We unpaid, unshod interns made up the entirety of her magazine’s staff. More than one of us was responsible only for wading through the voluminous spam piling up across Andrea’s multiple email accounts, while she observed from behind her kitchen island, holding court—and an espresso, and sometimes one of her several cats, tucked under her armpit. Other days, she’d stay in her bedroom, just down the hallway, where she’d summon us (via one intern whose sole duty seemed to be summoning other interns) for private interrogations, while she reclined on a towering mound of purple pillows.
I was summoned several times, accused of various minor misdeeds that I mostly hadn’t committed. Still, Andrea couldn’t argue with the fact that I was producing a fairly steady stream of unobjectionable articles, the one intern she felt could do so without her needing to crack the whip. The others were uniformly younger, just a year or two into college, still old enough for them to know that the gig was a waste of time. One quit on her very first day, after sending an email to the entire staff in which she accused Andrea of a litany of offenses, some professional and others more interpersonal: “I couldn’t help but notice you sneer at everyone who spoke to you.”
I agreed with my colleague’s observations, and admired her directness, but still I didn’t leave. Andrea and I didn’t like one another, but for a while our goals aligned. Every week I’d have something new published under my name, and every week she’d acquire some free new content for her website. Although I wished I were getting paid for my writing, which no one read, the internship still felt like the most profitable use of my time I could come up with, not counting my minimum-wage retail job. The other interns seemed to feel similarly, spending as much of the day as they could smoking on the balcony, petting the cats. But I didn’t smoke, so I didn’t get to know them much beyond a few shared complaints.
On those days that I came into work, which after several failed attempts I negotiated down to three times per week and then privately rounded down to two-and-a-half, I walked to the office. Knowing there would be no reward for timeliness, I’d set a leisurely pace, seeing how far I could stretch the mile commute from my non-rent-controlled apartment: past the Wall Street station, past a recently built shopping mall / transit hub / 9/11 memorial, an enormous colonnade of arcing white prongs that I had heard compared to an angel’s wings, but which always reminded me of a whale’s hollow carcass, hulking ribs bleaching in the sun. When I eventually arrived, usually about half an hour after my colleagues, I would inevitably see in the hallway outside Andrea’s apartment a row of shoes, sometimes up to two dozen empty pairs all processing along the wall toward me, some of them small enough for the feet of children, which I guess is what we were. I would place my sneakers at the end of the line and pad to the doorway. Sometimes I would wait breathless in the hallway with my hand on the knob, trying to sense the right moment to enter, the one where Andrea would be on the phone or taking a shit, but I never quite got the hang of it before realizing that I would rather simply quit, which I did.
I probably wouldn’t have felt confident enough to leave this job-that-wasn’t-a-job if I wasn’t already securing another. A couple weeks before quitting the magazine, I received an email from the writing program’s communications chair, Aaron, a good friend of mine. The email contained a job posting:
“Able Education Technology, Inc. – Freelance Editor (Remote)
Able motivates and empowers students to reach their academic and personal goals while eliminating the stress commonly associated with the college admissions process. As our business is expanding rapidly, we are seeking self-motivated, responsible and hardworking freelance editors from the U.S. to enhance our team.”
“Oh no,” Aaron said when I told him I’d applied, at a too-bright dive in Windsor Terrace where I met him after tutoring. He told me to be wary—apparently other students in the writing program had told him that the business was a scam. One complained about exploitative practices, another about unethical requirements, and still another about withheld pay. I sipped my beer, which I hadn’t yet paid for. Aaron said that he also had certain misgivings about the company. He had been emailing one of its employees, and her emails were petulant, repetitive, and contained several typos.
As it happened, she interviewed me the next day, after which I felt I could perhaps explain the typos—Margrét was French, a blonde woman about my age, calling from a verdant apartment located I don’t know where, who introduced herself as an alum of the writing program I was enrolled in. She described working for Able as convenient and creatively liberating. The job, according to her, offered the freedom to schedule my own hours, the possibility of raises and bonuses, and the knowledge that I would never again need to worry about finding new clients, let alone retaining and placating them. All of that would be handled by Able’s owner, Jackie, who acted as email intermediary between editors and clients, so that the two groups never exchanged a word directly.
Although this setup seems rather Orwellian in retrospect, at the time it struck me as a relief. The student I had taught the day before, prior to the bar, had a mother who mostly lingered in the kitchen, but kept peeking her head around the corner to surveil my progress with her son, and then yelling from beyond the wall whenever she disagreed with any of my advice. Finally, unable to bear it any longer, she entered the office to berate her son for his inability to write to the Common Application prompts. She even went down the list: “You don’t have an identity, you don’t have a talent, you don’t have any accomplishments, you don’t have an ethical dilemma. You don’t even have ethics!” While she listed, I ate the biscotti she had laid out on the table, ever the blameless sibling, waiting for her to leave.
With that memory still fresh, I felt willing to adapt to what Margrét called Jackie’s “hands on” managerial style. But that wasn’t all she wanted to know. “The company is based in China,”
she told me, “and many of our students are international. English may not be their first language. If you encountered an essay written by a student like this, how would you edit it while remaining sensitive to cultural and language differences?”
I replied that the task didn’t seem all that different from the essay coaching I was used to. Most of my students wrote as if no one had yet established the rules of English grammar and spelling. Experienced coaches knew to ignore the draft as it was, and instead see it as it could be, looking past an essay’s imperfections to spot its Platonic ideal beneath, the one the student meant to write.
I wasn’t sure I quite believed in this idea, but it must have been sufficiently persuasive, because the next day Margrét emailed to congratulate me on advancing to the next round, which involved editing two sample essays. This was the first sentence of one of them: “With all I want from a college education, Caltech is always my dream school both literally and metaphorical because I do often dream of my life at Caltech in the night.” As I stared at it, I recalled that Margrét had mentioned the job would sometimes involve “editing aggressively.” Aaron’s secondhand warnings started coming back to me, specifically the one about unethical requirements. This essay didn’t need editing—it needed to be put out of its misery. And Able didn’t need an editor, but a ghostwriter, someone willing to sell their words to a roster of student plagiarists.
Although this task struck me as distasteful, it didn’t entirely dissuade me from the job—perhaps because, in fairness to Able, the line between tutoring and plagiarism had always felt a bit thin to me. For example, I once helped a student write an essay about Heart of Darkness, even though he seemed to view the assignment as some quaint form of torture. He knew that the severed heads on sticks surrounding Kurtz’ camp were a brutal and ominous portent—but when I asked him what he made of it all, his word for it was “negative.” I asked him what he found negative, exactly, but he couldn’t say. Attempting to lead him toward something more descriptive, I asked him if chopping people’s heads off and impaling them on sticks was a violent act. “Oh yeah, violent,” he said, and wrote the word down in place of “negative.” And that was how we ended up with a word that was neither of our first choices, but that I suppose compromised between the two.
I had never come up with a satisfactory answer as to whether this activity was unethical, and, if so, how badly. From one angle, there was nothing untoward in any of this: I had been hired to lend my knowledge of the English language to someone less deft with it, to help them produce writing more advanced than what they could have created on their own, which is precisely what I did. But the writer within me couldn’t help squirming at this idea—wasn’t the way to get good at writing to make enough mistakes that you could begin to learn from them, to figure out for yourself what “getting good” would even look like? Wasn’t the whole point of writing to produce something original, authentic, something that only its creator’s imperfect hand could have made?
Well, sure, but try telling that to the parents. They hire me not to reenact scenes from Dead Poet’s Society, but to help their children write their essays. I’ve never written an essay for their children, but I’ve happily lead them toward the mot juste or a more efficient phrasing (assuming they first struggled to produce a less efficient one themselves). As I saw it, my job was to act as skeptic, critic, and trusted editor to my students, and hope that one day they would learn to play those roles themselves. And if some of them instead elected to treat me as an overpriced thesaurus, that was their decision.
I had made my peace with this process until I started debating whether I should work for Able. More specifically, until that edit test, which I passed with little in the way of ethical dilemmas—I figured that, morally speaking, practice essays didn’t count. The only thing left was a Skype call with Jackie, “to go over some details,” as she wrote to me in her first email, which also included a few tips for “adhering to the ‘house style.’”
The call was at 10:30 pm on a Tuesday. We discussed what the work would look like: editing anonymous Chinese students’ application essays, not just for fluency but for flair. Jackie said that some of the students were not very expressive, and for them I’d have to get even more inventive. She asked if I had any questions about that, and though I did, I didn’t share them. What, was I going to ask how she slept at night? But she may still have sensed my discomfort, as she started explaining that Able was one of dozens of similar companies throughout China, a tiny part of a growing industry designed to guide students through the U.S. application process. For a family with a child applying to American colleges, paying a company to help supply the English was almost a given—many parents thought of it as a way to circumvent what they saw as those schools’ racial or national quotas. And speaking of, I was a Jew, wasn’t I?
“I can always tell,” she added, mentioning that there was another Jew in her employ. They got along well, she said, because Jews and Chinese people were very similar: both prized education. I wasn’t going to argue with that, in part because I wouldn’t have known where to begin. Education—was that what we were selling? On the contrary, the job that Jackie had described, editing students’ essays without even a modicum of their input, sounded almost exactly like the opposite of education.
And yet, I decided to take it. The combination of decent pay, a consistent but manageable workload, and the ability to schedule my own hours made me think that I could turn Able into a productive, writerly sideline, one that would allow me to churn out my own pieces without worrying about starving. I didn’t yet know how to feel about the ethics of the job, but hoped that I would arrive at some clarity eventually.
The most common type of assignment I received Jackie referred to as “Why (school)?” essays, those 500-or-so-word missives that describes a student’s academic background and aspirations, and makes the case that (school) would make the ideal place to fulfill the latter. There was a certain stock language to these replies, both in the raw essays I received and the processed ones I returned: frequent talk of diving into research or various tomes, discovering new passions, stepping outside comfort zones, making the world a better yadda yadda. In my own writing, I generally try to avoid too-tidy morals, but college application essays essentially rely on them, and over a few months of this type of work, I got pretty good at figuring out which one would suit a particular student’s draft, and then retrofitting the draft to spec.
This editorial work felt both more and less invasive than my in-person tutoring. On the one hand, with no student sitting by my side, I had total control over the words on the page, and could be as ruthless as Gordon Lish was to Raymond Carver. But then, I rarely was. There was no need nor incentive to create something beautiful or worthwhile. On the contrary, I felt there was a solid ethical argument for doing as little as I could to the essays I received—conveniently enough for me. All I had to do was sand out the language’s rough edges, then mold what remained until the essay slotted into a recognizable shape.
The work itself was less difficult than figuring out how I felt about it. Before Able, I had never allowed anyone to pass my work off as their own. Well, almost never—in college, I once did some fairly aggressive editing for a friend’s dental school application essay in exchange for some weed money. But the work I did for Able existed on a different scale. I was enabling clients to secure spots at selective colleges on the basis of essays they didn’t write, presumably displacing worthier applicants, whom I defined as anyone that could write a better essay, any essay really, on their own. Assuming, of course, that anyone still wrote their own admissions essays: I knew there existed an entire domestic industry designed to shepherd students through the application process with a minimum of thought, decision-making, or authorial responsibility, a whole phone book’s worth of essay-coaching competitors, plenty of whom wouldn’t shrink from unethical practices. But I was pretty sure that this fact didn’t absolve me of even my own minor role in the system.
And that’s not to mention the ongoing assault against the English language to which I was an accomplice. Using a plagiarized essay to dupe an admissions committee was one thing, but more concerning than the ethical trespass were the aesthetics. I couldn’t get over the feeling that my actions were cheapening the entire genre of the essay—admissions essays, admittedly, but still. When I wrote my own application essays, I’d treated the task as I treated any other essay: as a higher calling, a chance to express my deepest ideals. Able’s students saw it more as a formality, a farce. What pained me was that they seemed to be right. I had believed that writing essays was a meaningful, worthwhile pursuit, and all this belief had gotten me was a job writing essays for those who didn’t see the point in doing it themselves.
What would they do when they actually got to college, I sometimes wondered. Would the language immersion improve their writing abilities, or would they avoid any classes with an essay component? Or hire me to write their English finals?
It was hard to imagine any of Able’s clients writing personal or critical essays of their own, even and especially those who described themselves as writers. But then, the drafts I received offered little window into their authors’ thoughts, characters, or peculiarities, likely by design. Jackie’s warnings about inexpressive students aside, most of them understood that what they were being asked for was not an accurate representation of their lives but a formulaic story designed to showcase their accomplishments, their awards, their extensive histories of community service and general rectitude (other than, you know, paying someone to write their college essays). I’m not sure who was asking, exactly, Able or the American admissions system. Something minimally distinctive but otherwise conventional was what Able seemed to think that admissions officers wanted, and that was what they asked their students to provide and their editors to perfect.
Eventually, whatever lingering ethical concerns I’d held onto were submerged by the deluge of work I started receiving: not just “Why (school)?” essays but “Why (major)?” essays, statements of purpose, extracurricular activity descriptions, school supplements (“If your life had a theme song, what would it be?”). As part of one student’s application materials, I even edited his economics “research paper,” which included no research, few statistics, and many, many pages lambasting western nations’ decreasing age of retirement, indicative of a deeper aversion to work, a deficit of character: “Living a peaceful life in old age is indeed a synonym for being spiritless.”
I also started receiving “interview packs,” scripted answers to various anticipated college interview questions, often dozens of pages long. Able’s concern wasn’t that this was too much to memorize—I could have doubled the packs’ lengths if I wanted to. Rather, they wanted to make sure that their students sounded “colloquial.” Because these packets were so long, Jackie counted them as four assignments, which still didn’t feel like compensation enough for the hours spent pureeing insincere self-reflection into interview fodder. Although, there were still some small moments of joy: one student, an avid basketball player, planned on introducing himself to his Harvard interviewers as “the king of balls.”
Still, I began to dread receiving assignments, or any emails at all. I never knew which ones would contain multiple 500-word essays or 20-page interview packs that I would then have to return within 24 hours. And if my finished product was less than satisfactory, it would often be sent back to me the next day, so that I would then have to re-edit that older assignment at the same time that I handled a new slate. On good days, an assignment could take an hour or less, but often they took much longer, and the interview packs especially could eat up entire evenings. Able, it turned out, had not “eliminated the stress of the college admissions process,” but had merely passed it along to me.
At times I wondered why, with such a wealth of editors at their disposal, Able didn’t assign each editor a specific type of essay, a specialization of sorts, until I received an assignment that contained what I saw, perhaps in a spirit of sleep-deprived paranoia, as a little parable directed at myself:
“Another afternoon when I completed that day’s labor, I could hold back my complaints no more, ‘Grandma! It’s just a garden, not a farm! You can just stick to one species and make sure it grows well every day. Why bother planting so many?’ ‘One species?’ said grandmother with her eyes open wide, ‘One species is far from enough! The field in this garden was delicately cultivated by your grandfather and me. On it we have grown various vegetables last year and the year before last year. Wouldn’t it be a waste if we just planted one species when it is capable of fostering more?’”
Like the English major I once was, I started scanning for symbolic resonance. Perhaps I was the grandson, sick of my endless and futile toil, and Jackie was my wide-eyed grandmother, instructing me in the old-fashioned virtues of tenacity, versatility, and industry. Or I was the grandson, wanting to master a single task, and the job market was my grandmother, telling me to diversify my field of employment, to wring as much profit as possible from my delicately cultivated degree. I was Bartleby, and my manager was my narrator, who saw that I lacked the will to keep myself from starving.
For a while I thought about quitting, but as the weeks went by I thought about it less and less. It was a fantasy I couldn’t afford, financially or psychologically. I burrowed into my work until one day I emerged from beneath a mound of finished essays to discover no new assignments in my inbox and a bonus in my bank account: the application season had ended.
My stint as a ghostwriter was over, at least for now, and yet I didn’t feel as free as I had anticipated. I still felt ghostly—as if I had left some crucially important business unfinished, perhaps forever, my time among the living having already passed. I felt, that is, like Bartleby. Toward the end of Melville’s story, the narrator discovers that Bartleby had previously worked in the “Dead Letter Office,” sorting through missives that lacked a deliverable destination, and thus a reason for existing. This was Melville’s vision of hell, an endless succession of meaningless texts, written in hope but destined for oblivion: “by the cart-load they are annually burned.” It’s what I imagine happens to all the applications I spend hours working on, all the essays I send out for publication—more fuel for the reject mill.
Shortly before Bartleby loses everything, he announces that he has “decided upon doing no more writing.” His manager asks the reason, to which he indifferently replies: “Do you not see the reason for yourself.” I’m not sure that I see the reason, but there’s work enough without looking for it, and besides, I would prefer not to.