Confessions of a Ghostwriter
Invisibility is my secret power
When I put out a call for writing questions a couple of weeks ago,asked to hear more about ghostwriting. I recently got a distressing call from a fledgling ghostwriter who’d been badly burned on her first project. And I just finished ghosting the second draft of a proposal that I’ve been working on since July. So now seems as good a time as any to post about this segment of my writing life. I hope it will help or at least be of interest to some of you!
If I count them up, I’ve ghosted or co-authored more than a dozen titles, several of them NYT bestsellers. It was gratifying, then, to read the utterly brilliant essay that Prince Harry’s ghost, J.R. Moehringer, wrote for The New Yorker about his career, since just about everything that Moehringer’s experienced rings true for me. So much so that I’m going to rely on quotes from his essay to prompt my own reflection. [Let the master lead the way, and I’ll throw in my two cents.]
Writing under no name was safe; writing under someone else’s name (and picture) was hedonic—a kind of hiding and seeking. Words had never come easy for me, but, when I wrote as someone else, the words, the jokes, the patter—it didn’t stop.
I started writing anonymously for others as a way to support myself between books of my own, but like Moehringer, I soon discovered that I genuinely like to disappear on the page. I enjoy trying on other people’s voices and lives and personae and adventures without having to reveal myself. I prefer to share responsibility for the ideas that I bring to life, having someone else to push them around, and not having to answer for them alone. But most of all, I like turning the finished product over to someone else when the writing’s done.
A ghostwriting gig is not like a marriage, exactly, but it is like a very long road trip you’re embarking on, and you’d better make sure you and your companion will make good fellow travelers.
I f-ing love not having to promote and track and fret about the book as it enters the public arena. Sometimes I benefit financially if the book sells well, and that’s nice, but in general, the sales figures are none of my business and not my problem. Once the manuscript is accepted and copy edited, I can literally close the book I’ve just written and move on. Compare this with the year to two of marketing, speaking, and worrying that I spend on my own books, and this sweet release from my ghostwritten projects is heaven! I can take pride in them, but I don’t have to own them. In fact, I can’t, since they’re not even mine!
Chalk it up to my being a confirmed introvert, or to my arguably not being a narcissistic show-off, but I get positively giddy when I think about this invisibility. It’s like a special power.
That’s the mystic paradox of ghostwriting: you’re inherent and nowhere; vital and invisible. To borrow an image from William Gass, you’re the air in someone else’s trumpet.
That air appears to be getting more and more essential. When I started writing for hire back in the 1980s, most of the books published every year were actually written by their authors. Ghostwritten books were either celebrity memoirs or self-help and how-to guides authored by doctors or industry experts who didn’t have time to write even if they’d known how. Outside of series like Nancy Drew, nobody had ever heard of ghostwritten fiction. And celebrity authors before 2000 were the relatively few serious movie and TV stars with tales to tell, not influencers who hired a writer to pen a memoir to make them famous for being famous. But now, thanks largely to social media, all of that has changed.
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