One Sunday morning earlier this year, I woke up in my bed dry-mouthed with a pounding headache and an errant false eyelash stuck to my cheek. I slowly rose to a sitting position as the late-morning sun streamed through my rumpled shades. Last night’s Spanx lay balled up on the floor and I threw them in the laundry as I made my way to the kitchen, where I promptly downed two full glasses of water, one after the other.
Overall, it had been a lovely party. It was a work event, a once-yearly fete for the exceedingly casual startup I work at, the one night out of the whole year when we swap out our hoodies and sneakers for blazers and heels, run an extra swipe of gloss across our lips, and party our heads off for a few fleeting hours.
A few days before this party, Steven knocked on the door of my office. It had been over a month since I’d moved to a different corner of the building and he hadn’t visited until this moment. Not only a co-founder of the company, Steven is also the CTO, and as far as I’m concerned, the Mr. Spock of the original founding team. Logical, reserved, and possessing an undercurrent of dry humor, I had a hard time getting a read on Steven when I first got to know him, but as the years went by, he slowly emerged as one of my favorite people at work.
I had an inkling as to why Steven had chosen this afternoon, mere days before the party, to pay me a visit. After a brief exchange of pleasantries, Steven let out a small sigh, stuffed his hands in his jeans pockets, and said in his clipped, direct manner that is oh-so-very Steven: “So. I need to make a speech.”
Ah. Of course.
Over time, I’ve learned that some clients are very upfront regarding a ghost writing assignment, while others are more “hey-could-you-maybe-help-me-with-this” about it. Steven, with his no-nonsense pragmatism, definitely fell into the former bucket. It all started about a year and a half earlier, when he took notice of an anecdote I made at a company function and asked for my assistance on a small project a few weeks later. “There’s this thing I need to write,” he said. “But I thought you could take a crack at it first.” One assignment lead to another, and as time went on, I was authoring communications for other executive-level people at the company, too. I was the ace Steven (or anyone else) had up their sleeve, if they found themselves needing it.
These asks were always carried out in the greatest of secrecy. It would have felt self-serving and duplicitous to brag to my co-workers that it was actually me who had written the latest company-wide communication. “Did you see that memo from Valerie?” someone asked me one day at lunch about a particularly newsworthy broadcast. “I did,” was my nonchalant reply. I mean, of course I did. I had written it. I kept my mouth shut, however, as I scooped a pile of basmati rice onto my lunch tray. To let my ego take over and spill the secret that I was in fact the author would destroy the trust I had built with the management team, and perhaps prevent further assignments from coming my way. I got a great sense of satisfaction from writing these clandestine messages, and I didn’t want the stream to dry up. Honestly, this under-the-radar writing was exciting. I felt helpful, necessary, needed. The drudgery of my day-to-day was elevated tremendously when an ask of that magnitude came my way. I felt like I mattered. And because most of what was said in these communications was privileged and private information, I felt like an insider.
The party was mere days away and Steven stood there in my office and explained the basic premise of what he wanted to say. It was a fairly simple speech praising a certain person on his team who was going to win an award. I took some notes and asked Steven a few questions, all the while wondering why he needed my help at all. Steven was an intelligent, articulate guy. He could totally do this himself. After Steven left I banged out a few ideas, wrote a draft, and sent it his way. It was fairly short, maybe 125 words long. Steven wrote back later that night saying he would change one sentence, but leave the rest alone. I went to sleep that night satisfied. I had done my job.
What I choose wear to the annual company party is never a last-minute decision. This year, I had selected a black Jason Wu dress, simple black heels, and an antique brass dragonfly necklace. As I primped, I switched on a four-hour long Tom Petty documentary that was currently playing on Netflix. Half listening to the film, I applied my lipstick and blotted with a square of toilet paper. One last eyebrow check (are they even?) and I was Cinderella off to the ball.
Things were already getting good when I walked into the event space that evening. Plates overflowed with macarons and charcuterie, the boys smelled like fresh laundry, the girls admired each other’s blow-outs, and the DJ dropped the needle on Frank Ocean’s new single as I bellied up to the bar and ordered a Bulleit on the rocks. Not long after I had taken my first sip, the oscillating howl of microphone feedback ricocheted off the brick walls, signaling that the awards and speeches were about to take place. Heels clicked onto the marble inlay floor of the main room as the MC wrangled the cord around the podium. It was standing room only, and the show was about to begin.
Six speeches were made that evening, and Steven was the only person who delivered his without notecards, without reading directly off of his phone, and with the measured, relaxed tone of a natural orator. He made good on his word, saying each sentence exactly how I had written them, save for the final tweak to the closing line at the very end. Thunderous applause enveloped Steven as soon as he finished, and I heard one executive whisper to another, ‘Damn. He’s making me look bad.’ I delighted in hearing this. Whether or not Steven actually made that other guy look bad was of no consequence to me. Because I was the one that made Steven look good.
Steven strode confidently back into the crowd and into the arms of his girlfriend. As luck would have it, I was standing right behind her as she gave him a squeeze.
“That was great, honey,” she said.
Steven was all smiles. “Thanks!” he said. “Catie wrote it.”
Steven couldn’t see me, but I twisted my face up like I had caught a whiff of rotten eggs. I walked over to the bar and ordered another Bulleit on the rocks. Why is he telling people this, I wondered. He’s missing the point. He’s breaking the spell.
The next morning I was nursing a headache, debating whether or not a trip down the street to the bubble tea shop was worth 1) the punishment of direct sunlight and 2) the effort of putting on real pants. While mulling that over, I commenced with frying a pan full of bacon and switched Netflix on once again, finding the Tom Petty documentary that I had started the night before. By this point I was about half-way through the film and figured that this quiet Sunday morning was the perfect time to finish it up. As I chomped through my second piece of bacon, I heard a line that stopped me mid-bite.
Tom Petty was talking about how in 1981 Stevie Nicks approached him and asked for a song. She was working on her first solo album and wanted a specially-written piece from him, one of the most beloved and successful musicians of the day. Petty was talking about how at first it was challenging to write something for her, because her style was so different from his. But after some thinking, he realized why she had approached him in the first place. “When you write a song for other people,” he began, “you sit down and you’ll write something just like them. Often, you’ll write right in their style. The truth is, if someone’s coming to you looking for a song, they’re really looking for something that sounds like you. Because they’ve got plenty of things that sound like them.”
I rewound a few seconds back and played that part three or four more times. With each listen, it made more and more sense. Who cares who knows it. A hit song is a hit song, and giving credit where it is due is an implicit part of the creative process. Steven wasn’t bursting some magical bubble, he was accurately contributing to the liner notes of this song we had written together. It wasn’t he who was missing the point. It was me.After the initial song request, it took a while for Tom Petty to arrive at something that he felt was right to give to Stevie Nicks. In fact, the first piece that he wrote he ended up taking back and keeping for the album he was recording at the time with his own band, the Heartbreakers. So he worked at it a little more until he came up with another song that he felt was both right for Stevie and that he was willing to part with. In the end, Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around was a huge hit on Stevie Nicks’ first solo album Bella Donna, released in 1981. That same year, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers put out their fourth studio album, Hard Promises. Buried on side two of Hard Promises is the song that Petty initially wrote for her but in the end had to keep for himself: Insider.