Housesitting, Ghostwriting, and Other Masks


Arts & Culture

The other day I found myself inadvertently multitasking. Usually I like to concentrate all of my energy on a single pursuit. That way, when I inevitably become distracted and rush off to a Coinstar machine or a matinee, it’s easier to catalogue my neglected duties. But for a string of rainy afternoons last week I was simultaneously house-sitting and ghostwriting. Ghostwriting while house-sitting: it can be done. Of course, as soon as I became conscious of the unusual efficiency of my behavior, my brain was forced to resume its usual course of professional sabotage and I spent the next few minutes staring at a gourd.

These are some of the nightmares I have while house-sitting: electrical fires that spread through the walls; dead pets; plumbing disasters; missing mail; rain-soaked packages; a sudden infestation of massive rodents. These usually torment me for the first few nights while I am still getting accustomed to the particular way the wind plays your shutters, the hum of your kitchen, the rattle of your washing machine. This passes. By Wednesday I’m wearing your bathrobe, and by Friday I’m reading up on squatter’s rights.

These are some of the nightmares I have while ghostwriting: computer failure; client failure; crumbling word counts; inadvertently contributing a pound of flesh rather than the few skin flakes I’ve allotted the project. Real writing requires buckets of blood, but you can pretty much ghost an entire memoir with a shaving nick. Expend the interest, never the principal. It’s still damaging to long-term return,s but at least you haven’t shaken down your muse.

Good ghostwriting is a bit like microwaving soup. The bowl is hot but the broth stays cold. Resurrect killed darlings and let them run wild in the purple fields. Talk about the weather. Delve into the dog’s lineage and the history of the waterbed. List the contents of the cupboard.

In the glum shadow of a recent benchmark birthday, I conducted a wincing self-examination and took stock of a few seemingly permanent shortcomings, pitfalls, and phobias. My mustache grows thin and spotty. Many dreams and ambitions have been relegated to the drafts bin. Modest heights and stories of people who assume the identities of others—from phonies and frauds to killers and thieves—give me vertigo and chills, respectively. That last peccadillo struck me as strange and irrational. I’d only recently diagnosed it, along with my pink-lemonade allergy. Whenever I drink a glass of pink lemonade my throat narrows and my neck grows hot and itchy. Each time a mask is removed, whether the entertainment is Shakespeare or soap opera, and whether it reveals a Scooby Doo villain or a super hero, that moment of recognition never fails to deliver an existential shudder. My chest goes concave and I feel a shadow self (mostly an amalgamation of social-media profiles, personal financial information, and shameful secrets) emerge, vulnerable to any interested party with sufficient aim and suction. But this seems a highly inconvenient fear for a man sitting in a house he doesn’t own, writing someone else’s memoir.

Obviously I suffer from deep-seated trust and identity issues. But what planted these fears? Who tricked me first? Was it Mrs. Doubtfire? A middle school production of Tartuffe? My old roommate Denny? I’m unnerved by all manner of misrepresentation: noms de plume, porn de plumes, assumed aliases, royal pretenders, duplicitous twins, scam artists, prank callers, fabulists, plagiarists, Robert Durst, Ray Finkle, Dick Whitman. There is a long literary tradition—from Monte Cristo to Sweet Valley High—of deception and reinvention. After all, what is art if not a simultaneous search for, and escape from, whatever identity we’ve been handed or most recently fashioned? Does this contradiction doom us to a world of fingerprints erased on hot stoves? Some Mr. Hydes are released only on noxious comment threads. Others are sex tourists. But a house sitter is only a scarecrow, a ghostwriter, a freelance Cyrano. Humans require reboots and fresh beginnings. Maybe this shucking process is as natural as dry snakeskins or a hermit crab’s discarded shells, but it’s also how one progresses from doctoring a transcript to practicing medicine without a license to hacking up a meddlesome neighbor with a surgical tool.

Imposter syndrome is an inability to recognize and internalize legitimate accomplishments. My old roommate Denny wasn’t very accomplished, but he wasn’t a con artist or a murderer; he was just a liar embarrassed by his bad luck. I should have been more compassionate. When I lie I like to keep a few rationalizations handy. Sometimes it’s a survival instinct, sometimes it’s just a sweet, fleeting delusion, sometimes it’s to assure homeowners that everything went fine while they were gone: in no way did I abuse OnDemand or eat the steaks that came in the mail or spill A1 sauce on any bathrobes.

You know what’s a fun activity? Powerwashing. There’s usually minimal risk of multitasking with a hose twitching violently in your hand. Unless you’re on your grandmother’s patio, baking in the late June sun, twenty minutes from your next pink-lemonade break, a mysterious rash on your neck, watching the slate turn from green to gray one square at a time. Rainbows appear in the mist. Sludge sticks to your shins. My grandmother’s suburban neighborhood is comfortably restrictive, like one of those jackets dogs wear during thunderstorms. While visiting as a teenager I often felt like a spy, sweaty with mostly boring secrets. Green to gray, green to gray. There it was, all along.

Michael McGrath is a writer living in Connecticut and a former Poe-Faulkner Fellow at the University of Virginia. Visit him at