In 2004, I was a junior in college, majoring in English and creative writing. I had only two hobbies: aping the poetic stylings of John Ashbery in order to secure a well-paying career in the arts; and, about once a week, taking the bus to Amherst, Mass. to eat ice cream at Bart’s and loudly read the weirdest parts of the personals section to my friends (and, this being Western Mass, there was plenty to choose from). It was during one of these sessions that I branched out to the classifieds section and saw a want ad targeting college students promising money in return for short essays. I have always been productive when it comes to writing (if not particularly good), but more importantly, I liked money, so I answered the ad and was rewarded with a real human being who promised to send me instructions.
Although I was unfamiliar with the concept of a content farm, I had heard of search engine optimization, so I could understand the idea of “luring” search engine spiders by repeating certain key words in a certain sequence. Here were my instructions for dispersing keywords:
Primary Keywords should be included:
– Twice in the first paragraph with your Primary keyword appearing first
– Once in each subsequent paragraph with your Primary keyword appearing first
– Once in a sub-headline or second headline with your Primary keyword appearing first
– Randomly included your Tier-2 Secondary keywords throughout the text in no particular density, but added only as they would naturally appear editorially.
If you spent most of your college education wisely studying poetry like I did, you might be reminded of a poetic form called a sestina. A sestina is a kind of fixed verse in which certain words end each line in a certain order, which is repeated throughout six stanzas of six lines each. One excellent example of a sestina is John Ashbery’s “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape,” which creates a kind of menace by reintroducing the same characters and symbols throughout the poem for no immediately apparent reason (in this case it’s Popeye and friends having existential crises while a physical storm gathers).
Here are a few of the topics I was given to write about:
1. wood jewelry boxes
2. ballerina jewelry boxes
3. Disney snowglobes
4. Christmas snowglobes
5. keepsake box
6. musicbox dancer
7. carousel music box
8. treasured boxes
9. Thomas Kinkade music box
10. Italian inlaid music box
The “wood jewelry boxes” article came with the following keywords: jewelbox, jewel organizer, valet box, tea box, handcrafted, heirloom, mahogany, maple, teak.
This was the resulting article:
Wooden jewelry boxes are the perfect way to keep your cherished possessions safe, and nothing is quite as beautiful as a classic heirloom made from natural materials. Look at a wood jewelry box and you’ll feel the security of something handcrafted. Whether made from mahogany, maple, teak, or any other wood, each time you look at your jewelbox, you will feel the peace of a morning spent deep in the wilderness, where the first sound you hear on waking up isn’t the rush of traffic–it’s just the rush of wind through the branches of trees. Want the perfect gift for a loved one? Let them experience the beauty of a handcrafted jewelbox.
The dusky red wood of a maple jewel organizer is the perfect gift for the woman on your list who seems to have everything. A rich, golden mahogany valet box is the perfect buy for the guy you just can’t buy for. Do you start your mornings with a cup of tea? A wood tea box is a beautiful way to keep everything organized in natural style. Whether it’s a jewel organizer, valet box, or tea box, a jewelbox made from wood separates a tchotchke from a treasure. Don’t you want the heirloom you pass on to be something to remember?
Cheap brass jewelboxes tarnish, enamel jewel organizers chip and lose their luster. A jewelbox made from mahogany, maple, teak, or other wood will last a lifetime, like the wilderness from which it came. Give the ones you love—and generations to follow them—the gift of peace, tranquility, and the lasting beauty of a jewelbox handcrafted from the finest in natural woods.
Given that no one would probably ever read these essays, it seemed like the right thing to do would be to consider them as howls into an uncaring universe.
Here’s a part of the essay I wrote for “ballerina jewelry boxes”:
Sometimes it seems like time just slips away, and before you know it, kids are grown up, and they just don’t seem to remember the things that were once so important. The toy that was once a girl’s best friend is thrown to the wayside. The people she once was so attached to are seemingly forgotten. A music box is a special way to give her a chance to remember, a ballet going on perpetually inside of that music box, where treasures stay treasured and a girl’s dreams are always special. As long as the dancer inside that jewelbox is spinning, your dancer will remember what matters most.
In his book All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, Marshall Berman describes Allen Ginsberg’s poem, “Howl,” as a condemnation of nihilistic modernism that ironically creates a nihilism of its own: “an interplay between luminous flashes and bursts of desperate imagery and a solemn, repetitive, incantatory piling up of line upon line—that recall and rival the skyscrapers, factories and expressways he hates.” In the same way, during the latter nineties, poets began using spam emails to create “found poetry,” cobbling together lines that—out of context—could sound crass or simply inorganic. In creating context by grouping these lines together in a poem, the language could, instead, sound oddly poignant.
Here is part of my entry for “Christmas snowglobes”:
Christmas is a special time, for parties and presents, laughter and good cheer. It can get a little crazy, really—all that holiday preparation and planning, trips to the mall with everyone screaming in your ear and getting angry, kids running around and going nuts, work piling up at the office with no respect for that little oasis of light and silence that is what Christmas really should be. Are you taking time out for a little quiet reflection yourself? Does the holiday mean peace on earth, or are you getting swept away in what can be a very demanding time of the year? Keep yourself from forgetting what is beautiful, what is sacred, and what is joyful with a Christmas snow globe to remember. Let a snowglobe by Disney, the San Francisco Music Box Company, Things Remembered, Ardleigh Elliott, or Precious Moments capture what is precious to you about the season, and place it in a little universe no farther away than your own room, to be picked up and enjoyed whenever you feel the need for a little reminder of what matters most about the holidays.
I don’t know that I ever managed to reach poignancy, but for the sake of the spiders, I always reached for it. British author Walter Copeland Perry described the sirens’ song in Ovid’s Metamorphoses as “[lapping] both body and soul in a fatal lethargy, the forerunner of death and corruption.” Although the whole point of these essays was to lure search engine spiders into thinking of these pieces in terms of actual editorial content, the truth was that no matter what I wrote, they really weren’t. And there’s nothing quite like fake writing when it comes to inducing fatal lethargy.
Memories don’t last forever. You meet new friends, you lose touch with old friends, children are born, children grow older, there are weddings, holidays, anniversaries, baby showers, Valentine’s presents…things can get very confusing very fast! That’s why it’s important to have a special place to put your most special treasures. A keepsake box is the perfect place to store everything from jewelry to photos, trinkets to special memories. With Things Remembered, Precious Moments, The San Francisco Music Box Company, and other great purveyors of beautiful keepsake boxes.
The musicbox dancer spins around and around, detached from the waking world of cares and worries. Musicbox dancers don’t have work to do, things to fix, paperwork to finish. In a music box, the melody goes on and on, regardless: a timeless place of beauty and peace available whenever you reach out and look inside. Just a trinket box or jewelry chest? Hardly. A revolving musical jewelry box featuring an elegant ballerina is another world for you to look onto whenever you need a moment of beauty in your life.
Whether it’s in a classic jewelbox style, opening up to a revolving ballerina within, or whether it’s in the shape of ballet slippers, a music box is a subtle way of saying “I care” to anyone who lives their life as if they never have to stop dancing.
I honestly have no idea what the nebulous media company behind this content farm actually did with these essays. They no longer seem to be online. However, I do know that I earned about $200 per month cranking out about 30 of these essays at a time. I did it for about a year and a half, after which point I graduated and got a job as an editorial assistant at a book publishing company. I often wrote copy for books on subjects like how to put up drywall and how to smarten up your old jeans with rhinestones, which I’m not entirely sure anyone actually read in full.
Kate Zimmermann is an editor acquiring in a range of categories including spirituality, business, lifestyle, culinary, pop culture, and humor. She enjoys tarot cards, playing squash, and drawing comics. Photo: Mriggen