â€œDo you know what makes a piece of writing go viral on the web?â€ he asked. He was the managing editor of the site. His name was Ed. He wore a gray cardigan and a Yankees baseball cap. He was ten years younger than me.
â€œPeople can relate to it,â€ I answered.
â€œNo,â€ he said, with a definite note of sarcasm. â€œItâ€™s the TITLE of the piece that matters. The headline. Think The Huffington Post. Jezebel. Buzzfeed. Itâ€™s the hook that screams, â€œThis is going to get your blood boiling!â€
â€œI understand,â€ I said meekly. I have a masterâ€™s in media and communications. I once did a research paper onâ€¦.â€
â€œâ€œI donâ€™t care what you did in school,â€ he said. All I care about is finding a writer who can grab a reader by the throat and say, â€œListen to me, you f*cker, and share this with your friends. Can you do that?â€
â€œI think so,â€ I lied.
â€œListen. You ever see the movie â€œNetwork?â€â€
â€œYes, I actually once did a school presentation on the director, Sidney Lumetâ€™s use of sound editingâ€¦.â€
â€œYeah, yeah, anyway â€“ hereâ€™s this news anchor played by Peter Finch whoâ€™s telling others to stick their heads out of the window and shout â€“ do you remember what he said?
â€œâ€œIâ€™m mad as hell and Iâ€™m not going to take it anymore!â€â€
â€œRight. But now itâ€™s the digital age. People donâ€™t want to open up their windows anymore and see their ugly neighbors. They want to be angry AND anonymous. Â That’s what the internet is about. Â So thatâ€™s where we come in. We tell our readers to shout, â€œIâ€™m mad as hell and Iâ€™m not going to take it anymore, so Iâ€™m going to share this web article with you on your Facebook stream!â€ And thatâ€™s how we make our money. And the more controversy, the more hits, and the more money we both make.
â€œI see. When do I start?â€
Ed was still not convinced. He told me that the CEO, Katherine Collins, one of the most important media personalities in the city, only wanted to hire writers with â€œbrass cojones.â€ And he wasnâ€™t sure that mine were metallic enough. So he decided to give me a take-home test. In twenty-four hours, I was to email him a list of a hundred knock-out headlines that would produce viral posts, articles in which I could say â€“ with certainty â€“ that 55% of all my Facebook friends would share with others.
I stayed up all night that day, working hard, pushing my brain to the limit. I pored over hundreds of online newspapers, from Boise to the Bahamas, searching for creative ideas that could be easily repackaged as click-worthy stories.
A week later, I was back across from Ed, this time in a large conference room. Other staff members also sat around me in a semi-circle, like I was a product being examined for purchase. We were all waiting for the arrival of Katherine Collins, the CEO.
Katherine finally waltzed in, carrying a latte from the DUMBO coffee shop across the street. She wore a black and red checkered dress that looked like tablecloth from a 1950â€™s Italian restaurant, and an orange Hermes scarf.
â€œWe like you, Neil,â€ she said to me as she sat in the nicest chair in the room, a $4000 Henry Alcott-designed office chair that I once remember seeing in an Architectural Digest magazine at my dentistâ€™s office. â€œWe like your writing a lot.â€
Katherine pulled out a copy of my headline ideas and held it in her left hand. Her fingers were thin, and adorned by three multi-colored rings. She looked over each of my headlines, nodding in approval.
â€œThese headlines are excellent,â€ she announced. â€œSome of these we could use immediately. Very current. On trend. Social Media friendly.â€
She started reciting them out loud to her staff. I took pride in hearing such a prominent media figure speaking my words. Â It was like hearing Patrick Stewart at the Old Vic reading the poetry I once wrote in college.â€
â€œHeadline number #1 – â€œIs Going to a Tanning Salon as Racist as Wearing Blackface?â€ Yes! Yes! Very good.â€
â€œNumber #2 – â€œWhy Noisy Children should be Banned from Riding Public Transportation.â€ Ed, letâ€™s go with that one tomorrow. Breeders people will be outraged.â€
â€œNumber #3 – â€œWhich Asian Man is the worst in bed â€“ Chinese, Japanese, or Korean?â€ â€œTricia, youâ€™ve had sex with a lot of ethnic types, Trish. You should write this one.â€
â€œNumber #4 – â€œLetâ€™s Be Honest. Poor People ARE Losers!â€ Ha Ha, love it!â€
On and on she went, each headline getting more accolades than the last.
â€œTen Ways Transexuals Are More Attractive to Straight Feminist Women than Short Men.â€
â€œDavid Schwimmer Ogles Breast-feeding Co-Star!â€
“I’m a Mother of Six and Still Have Great Abs! Â What YOU are doing Wrong!”
â€œWhich Professional Gets Less Respect â€“ Male Prostitute or Daddy Blogger?â€
â€œScientists Find Leading Cause of Global Warming: Working Womenâ€
â€œWhich First Lady was the Biggest Bitch â€“ Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, Nancy Reagan, or Martha Washington?â€
â€œMen Who Re-Attached Their Foreskin: Why It Was the Best Thing They Ever Did for Their Careersâ€
By the time she finished reading my list of headlines, the entire room was up on their feet, giving me a standing ovation.
â€œYouâ€™re hired,â€ she said.
I had arrived. October 30, 2013.
If under Jewish law, a boy becomes a man when he reaches age thirteen, it was on October 30, 2013 that I became an adult.
That night, I took my mother out to the T-Bone Diner for a steak dinner special. I ordered us a bottle of wine to celebrate the occasion.
â€œIâ€™m so proud of you,â€ said my mother. â€œAfter years of struggling, youâ€™ve finally found a way to focus your creative energy into something useful. One day, you can even move out and get your own place.â€
â€œMove out?â€ I spat, worried.
â€œItâ€™s time, Neil. Youâ€™re a writer now. A REAL writer.â€
She was right. A real writer doesnâ€™t live with his mother. I imagined myself living in a cool brownstone in Williamsburg, spending my evenings at upscale beer gardens, flirting with dark-haired fashion bloggers.
I went to bed — a happy man. As the clock struck midnight, I made a note to myself to remember to buy candy for Halloween. I decided to buy M&Mâ€™s, my personal favorite, expecting a lot of leftovers. Over the last couple of years, there have been fewer and fewer kids stopping by, with scared helicopter parents preferring the safe environment of trick or treating at the shopping mall on Queens Boulevard.
â€œI miss old-fashioned Halloween,â€ I mumbled to myself as I began to doze off.
And thatâ€™s when I heard the mysterious footsteps. They sounded half real, half imaginary. I thought I felt a presence in my bedroom.
Was I dreaming? I sat up in my bed. Clearly, I was still awake. There was no sound of footsteps, only my breathing, and the blood racing through my veins. I figured it was that cheap bottle of red wine I drank at the T-Bone Diner playing tricks with my nervous system.
The room was dark, black.
â€œAs black as blackface?â€ asked a deep voice.
Huh? Who? What?
A glimpse of moonlight slid thorough the venetian blinds, and I caught a shadow passing. I turned on the reading lamp on my side table; it flickered yellow and I saw the figure — a minstrel performer from the 19th Century.
â€œHello there, writer. You must be very proud of those titles you handed in, arenâ€™t you? Especially â€œIs Going to a Tanning Salon as Racist as Wearing Blackface?â€
â€œI must still be asleep,â€ I thought to myself. â€œAct rational. Think clearly. There are no such things as ghosts. Definitely not ghosts who are minstrel performers.â€
â€œI thought that headline was actually quite clever.â€ I said to the minstrel, hoping to scare him off with an oratory technique I learned during my tenure with my high school debate team. â€œRacism riles everyone up on Facebook, and I think that article will get quite a few hits. Itâ€™s playing with our concept of racism for the good of society â€“ in order to rid us of our biases!â€
â€œThatâ€™s bullshit, Neil.â€ He said. â€œYour debate team wasn’t very good, was it?â€
“No,” I answered.
Just then, new figures appeared — three men, ghosts of Asian descent, one Chinese, one Korean, and one Japanese â€“ although I couldnâ€™t figure out which was which because they looked pretty much the same.
â€œAnd what about that ridiculous headline that exploited Asian stereotypes?â€ asked one. â€œâ€œWhich Asian Man is the worst in bed â€“ Chinese, Japanese, or Korean?â€â€œ
â€œOh, come on. â€œ I snapped. â€œDonâ€™t take offense. It was just a gimmick to create some controversy, exposing our own sexual and ethnic generalizations through irony.â€
One by one the other references from my clickbait titles materialize from nothingness â€“ the noisy kids, the transsexuals, the gays, the mommybloggers, the SAHMs fighting with WAHMs, the child-free, the breeders, the breast-feeders, the feminists, the Daddybloggers upset at being left behind, the bullied and the bullying, the right wing and left wing, David Schwimmer, and even Martha Washington!
I took a deep breath. I knew what was happening — my unconscious was taking over, as Freud has theorized in his work, and my dream state was metamorphosing into an expression of repressed guilt. I didnâ€™t pay for therapy for nothing.
â€œIâ€™m not afraid,â€ I announced to the growing group of ghostly individuals crowding my bedroom, growing frustrated with the noisy bratty spoiled kids of the mommybloggers who were jumping up and down on my bed. â€œIâ€™m not going to feel sleazy about my new job. Itâ€™s not the same as when I put that advertising banner on my blog and I felt like a sellout. Thereâ€™s nothing wrong with making money with my art, even if I have to come up with these salacious titles. This headline writing technique is nothing new. Itâ€™s been going on forever. Read a newspaper from the 18th century. Or the cover of a pulp novel. Itâ€™s how you become a writer. A REAL writer.â€œ
A breast-feeding mother stepped forward, shaking her head in dismay. Â I couldn’t stop staring at her amazing rack, despite the baby attached to one of her nipples.
â€œYes, Neil ,â€ she said. â€œBut when you become a real writer, you have to accept REAL consequences.â€
â€œConsequences?â€ I laughed. â€œYou mean these guilty feelings? My conscience? Who gives a shit? Iâ€™m getting paid now. Real dinero. Mucho shekels. No more writing for exposure at the Huffington Fucking Post. Iâ€™m going to be a success now. Iâ€™m going to be a media person. Iâ€™m going to get my own apartment. Joyce Carol Oates â€“ a real writer — is even going to follow me on Twitter!â€
â€œOh, but you are wrong, Neil.â€
It was Joyce Carol Oates, the esteemed writer and Twitter personality, or at least a ghostly doppelganger of the still living person.
â€œWriting is a sacred art,â€ she continued. â€œAnd real writing has real consequences. Especially on Halloween.â€
Joyce Carol Oates stepped aside to reveal someone behind her â€“ a woman with a familiar and friendly face. It was my dear mother, wearing her favorite pajamas that she bought last year at Marshallâ€™s. I immediately felt a sense of relief, of maternal comfort. But my mother was not alone. She was standing next to an older man in a dark coat, black hat, and sporting a thick grey beard. He was carrying a black leather satchel. It was the rabbi from the synagogue of my youth, the heavily accented man who acted as the mohel at my own bris, my ritual circumcision.
â€œMom, whatâ€™s going on?â€ I asked.
â€œI want you to be happy,â€ said my mother. â€œAnd wasnâ€™t it you who wrote the headline — â€œMen Who Re-Attached Their Foreskin: Why it Was the Best Thing They Ever Did for Their Careers.â€
My mother reached into the pants pocket of her pajamas and pulled out what appeared to be my foreskin.
â€œIâ€™ve been saving it all these years in a Tupperwear in the kitchen.â€
The rabbi opened his satchel, removing a sharp knitting needle and a spool of green thread.
â€œIâ€™m sorry, Neil. On such short notice, I was only able to find green thread. But your schlong will be a big hit on Saint Patrickâ€™s Day.â€
â€œNo. No. No.â€ I said as I tried to escape. But it was too late. David Schwimmer and the minstrel singer forced my arms down, while the transvestite and Martha Washington held my legs tightly to the bed. The three Asian men laughed loudly, and cursed me in three Chinese, Korean, and Japanese.
â€œItâ€™s time, Neil,â€ said Joyce Carol Oates, as she pulled off my blanket, revealing my nakedness. â€œItâ€™s time you felt what itâ€™s like to be a REAL writer.â€
I screamed, a cry for help that would have raised the dead at the Mount Hebron cemetery several blocks away on Main Street, if only they could hear me. But there was only silence in my bedroom, because my own dear mother had muffled me with my pillow.