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9:17

I have a lot of bios floating around the internet, tucked beneath one article or another. Some are painfully serious (“Tori Telfer graduated MAGNA CUM LAUDE from…”), but most are fairly self-deprecating. In these bios, I like to hint at the “diversity,” the “range” of my writing — which is somehow both huge and not terribly impressive.

In these bios, I mention that I’ve written website copy for products like steel-plated German cuticle “nippers.” I say that I’ve blogged about orthopedic high heels, and that I used to get $10 per juice-themed blog post (“Whip up this strawberry-beet concoction for a Valentine’s Day glow!”). I talk about how I’ve ghostwritten “thought leadership” articles for people I’m pretty sure were on cocaine, researched old-school serial killers, and edited short stories for six-year-olds, all in the same day. I contain multitudes! — and I mean that as less of a reference to Walt Whitman and more of a reference to the science book I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life, available on Amazon Prime for $16.12 as we speak. In other words, my career = more practicality, less poetry.

Sometimes I wonder why I insist on packing my bios full of such un-artistic stuff. I’ve done some fairly cool things — I could wrangle together an “impressive” bio. (“Tori Telfer once made ricotta from scratch!!!!”) And yet anytime an editor asks for a bio to run under my latest article or interview or whatever, I’m back to my old tricks: Tori Telfer has written about This Topic That was Clearly a Gig She Just Did for a Paycheck, and That Topic Which Is Kind of Hilarious if Taken Out of Context but Was Actually a Job So Soul-Sucking and Boring That it Made Her Cry. Still, I didn’t really stop and think about the motivation behind all this odd un-branding until one of my “jokey” bios got slapped on the back of my very first audiobook. (Which you can buy on Audible. For $34.99.)

Suddenly I felt embarrassed about the work I had never been all that embarrassed about. Should I have been a bit less open about the, uh, steel-plated German cuticle nippers? Should I have branded myself as more of… an artist?


I’m sure I got my affinity for the “side hustle” from my father. As I grew up, I saw the extent to which he juggled work — slinging boxes in a brown UPS uniform, serving breadsticks at an Italian restaurant, zooming around the city as a taxi driver — as he studied for an advanced degree and fed four children and pursued his work as a pastor. Perhaps that’s why I can’t not have a second or third gig. I feel too precarious with only one job. So I’ve sold pierogis to drunk graduate students from a food truck filled with vats of boiling oil, and I’ve waitressed and babysat, and I’ve proofread dissertations, and once I drafted a philosophy book for a man who I later spotted on a sex offender registry, and I’ve edited listicles about the 90s. I’m proud of the lot of it, but that’s mostly because I have to be proud of it. Whatever purity my writing once had is long gone.

I used to fantasize about being one of those writers who churns out a Perfect Novel every five years, and then retreats back into the mists of my home (a converted lighthouse on some gray New England beach, obviously, plus an adobe shack in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, and when I say “shack” I mean “mansion, but make it subtle”). That dream — that dream of a flawless track record — cracked in college, when I began writing eHow articles for $15/pop (look up my article “How to Kill Creeping Charlie” — it got a ton of clicks; sorry for speaking truth to power). It splintered further during the unpaid internship for a music site with a terrible editor who mysteriously liked to insert typos into my work, and it officially shattered when I quit an MFA program (that’s Master — did you hear that? — Master of Fine Arts, that’s A-R-T-S, a title designed to impress) and took a job writing about beauty for a “women’s website.” Now my name was on the internet attached not to mournful essays about Childhood and poignant short stories about how Sorrow is Actually Beautiful, but articles about bacne and DIY peel-off masks. (One of which removed a chunk of my eyebrow, but that is a story for another mournful essay.)

The weird thing is that I was so, so happy. I had hated grad school because there was this strange gap between writing and “writing” — you were expected to pay the bills teaching or working at a bookstore, while writing in your carefully guarded free time, perhaps from a lighthouse, preferably while mourning the inevitable “encroachment” of the outside world on your carefully guarded free time. But I didn’t have the patience for the lighthouse. As soon as I got the job writing about the outfits in Britney’s latest music video and the five lipsticks that wouldn’t make your teeth look yellow, I was…ecstatic. There it was, the answer I didn’t know I was searching for: I didn’t want to be an Artist, I wanted to be an artisan.


So I wrote on, a boat against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the internet. I was 25 years old and writing fluffy, easy articles about lipstick with blue undertones, earning $25 per article, waitressing at a Texas-themed bar at night, biking home with hundreds of dollars in cash in my backpack (whoops), writing a play in my spare time, learning how to report by taking on local assignments that paid less than nothing, attempting to “vlog” (I contain multitudes of microbes!), and overjoyed with the artlessness of it all.

And then the site I was writing for attracted the ire of the internet.

The site’s founder was a dyed-in the-wool bro, who made some dumb bro-y comments, and suddenly we — the 25-year-old writers just trying to turn in our $25 listicles — were caught in the crossfires. I remember seeing someone tweet about the title of one of my articles — which was something like “ten ways to wear a headband” — and call it “patronizing horseshit.” I called my parents, sobbing.

I guess it hurt so much because the articles I was writing weren’t supposed to be me. They were just my work, my output — I didn’t want my personhood to be judged by them. But there they were, on the internet, with my name attached, harmless and fluffy and prevalent, and it felt like that actually was me, all of a sudden, and there was nothing I could do about it. There was no bio out there that said, Tori Telfer takes on these assignments just to pay rent, and is working on a REALLY LITERARY PLAY in her spare time. It was like that person on Twitter had pressed on a bruise that I didn’t know was there: this is trash. I had already experienced weird little twinges about all the “content” I’d been creating — the eHow and the juicing blogs and the website copy here and the ad copy there. Was I clogging up the pathways of the internet? Was my rabid, make-another-buck freelancer nature turning me into a monster? Should I stop it all, retreat to the lighthouse, and never publish another word until I could be sure that it was good, and worthy, and pure? That tweet seemed to tell me: yes.

Eventually I just—got over it. There were margaritas to serve, after all, and vlogs to publish. I thought about quitting the writing biz, but I had bills to pay. Soon enough I started pitching more ambitious articles. I moved out of the lipstick realm and into the world of the serial killer. (A natural pivot!) I asked for $50 an article, then (gasp) $100, and slowly clawed my way out of the content mill. It took forever, and it wasn’t perfect — nothing was. Even the “impressive” stuff had its dark underbelly. I published a book, and when a friend posted about it on Facebook, she mentioned that I had also written an article about…bacne. Merciful heavens. I think she was trying to be nice (“She contains multitudes!”), but of course I saw the post and felt a pang of embarrassment. It was that old dream of purity, rearing its ugly head.

But writing has always been a messy, desperate business. Writers have always taken on “embarrassing” jobs to make a buck. And so the reason I mention all my odd writing jobs in my bios is because, in their hilarious, twisted way, they’re precisely the thing that makes me feel like a writer. They make me feel like I’m part of a long tradition of busy, over-caffeinated wordsmiths who wield their craft like a tool, and not like some precious jewel. Take those $10 juicing articles I keep mentioning: I’d do about five of them a week, and then the $50 would drop into my account, and I’d take that money and head straight to the grocery store. These were the days when I was a broke graduate student and thus eating a lot of baked potatoes piled high with black beans, butter, cheese, and hot sauce. They were cheap and they tasted amazing. I look back all that “copy” and “content” and think: that girl wasn’t perfect, and her writing wasn’t pure, but she knew how to feed herself.