The Difference Between Being a Ghostwriter and Writing for Yourself....
The first time I served as a ghostwriter was for my mother. I was fascinated by her life story – she was an opera singer, an art collector (pre-Columbian artifacts and post-Impressionist paintings were her drugs of choice); a docent at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City; a member of the Society of Women Geographers; fluent in three languages and an all-around Manhattan grande dame whose life spanned almost the entire twentieth century. She was cultured, had a wicked sense of humor which she embedded into puns and limericks, and did not suffer fools. She wasn’t always easy, but she was always interesting and gathered a wide circle of friends into her orbit. Motherhood was a struggle for her because she had so many interests outside the home and often felt stifled by the demands of two daughters and a patient husband, who died much too young at the age of 52.
When I proposed writing her memoir, she was at first reluctant as in “Who would be interested?” but over time she committed to the project and took to it like a duck to water. I interviewed her and taped the interviews which were conducted over a year’s time, toggling back and forth from Los Angeles to Manhattan or wherever she happened to be. (I still have the tapes but haven’t had the courage to listen to them.) Once when I accidentally taped over an interview, I timidly told her what happened, and waving her hand she said, “Don’t worry,” and repeated the story – perhaps not verbatim but close enough.
After one particular session, I complained to my husband, “Mom has told me a story and it’s just not the truth. I was there and I remember it completely differently.” He wisely said to me, “It’s not your book. It’s your mother’s. When you write your book, you can say whatever you want. Besides memory is an unreliable source.” How true that advice was. Her book, “I Turned a Key and the Birds Began to Sing,” was a hit. She kept a copy out on her coffee table in her apartment and proudly showed it to all visitors. She autographed it for interested colleagues; and when she passed away just shy of her ninety-fourth birthday, I incorporated some of the lines in the book in the eulogy I delivered at her grave site. Her words live on.
That first experience has governed my approach to ghostwriting. I seek to capture someone’s voice, and draw out their memories which are then put on the page in as skillful a way as possible. The highest compliment that I can receive is to have an author tell me, “My friend read my book and heard me telling my story on each and every page – warts and all!”
With ghostwriting, I am not responsible for the plot, the characters, dialogue, voice. Someone other than me is the fountain from which the book springs. I do have to attend to pacing, word choice, organization, and readability making sure that each chapter, page, sentence, and word drives the narrative forward and that the book is never boring. I’m also responsible for the content in so far as I might feel uncomfortable about including a particular event, anecdote or detail that is hurtful and harmful to someone else. I will raise a red flag, but in the end, it is up to my writer/client to choose to include it or not. Sometimes I will receive a call from the adult child of my author/client telling me, “Mom is covering up the affair Dad had with our au pair. Didn’t she tell you that?” It’s usually score settling. I will refer back to my husband’s advice, “When you write your story about your parents you can say whatever you want, but this is your mother’s book and for reasons that only she knows, she chooses not to include that detail.” Case closed. This same author/client asked me to write a follow-up book covering her husband’s life after she had written her own memoir. Again, she avoided some uncomfortable incidents and chose to praise her husband rather than damn him.
When ghostwriting is at its best, it’s a true collaboration between myself as the writer and my client as the author, and hopefully the book that emerges achieves the initial goals to inspire, enlighten, teach, amaze, leave a legacy or all of the above. Most of my author/clients have become close friends and they will often say that I know more about them than almost anyone else, which may be true.
One of the minor frustrations of ghostwriting is that an author might say, “I want to tell you something, but you can’t put it in the book.” As you can imagine, this might be the juiciest of stories which sheds light on everything that came before and after. If I am patient, I can sometimes revisit the issue and together we can decide if there is no real harm done to include it if it is truthful. Writing a book requires a certain amount of bravery and my job as a ghostwriter is to give my author/client the courage to share those moments if they are truly worth doing so.
When I am writing for myself I have only myself to look to. I am staring at the proverbial blank page and I have to be patient with myself for inspiration to strike, which doesn’t always happen. No one is waiting to hear what I have to say, which is the hardest part about writing. It is the devil sitting on my shoulder telling me, “Who cares about what you have to say?” Those are the words I hear on my worst days of self-doubt, dare I say self-loathing. But on some days, I brush the devil aside and do the work. As Ernest Hemingway advises, “Write one true sentence.” And hopefully another will follow and then another and finally a short story, an essay, or a novel emerges, often after many months and even years.
I am embarrassed to say that “All Sorrows Can Be Borne,” my debut novel took me more than a decade to write. I think I wrote six or seven drafts, had three editors, fired an agent, and eventually sold the book to a publisher without an agent. I had two offers – grace a dieu – which was a miracle. The book is inspired by true events in my husband’s family. He graciously gave me permission to write the story but insisted that I turn it into a novel because so many incidents and facts as well as characters ended up being sprung from my imagination. It was a fair request. I initially thought I was writing a family memoir of sorts and interviewed numerous family members, but as I went along, I realized that I didn’t have much to go on. So, I unlocked my imagination which brought forth much that ended up in the book (and a lot that ended up on the cutting room floor). I stayed open to having the characters speak to me and I watched them as they navigated the challenges set before them. I often followed Mark Salzman’s advice, “Fall in love with your characters and then torture them.” It might not be the most charitable piece of advice that a writer can listen to, but it helps to make for a good story that someone will hopefully care about.
Some of what I have written such as essays and short stories are thinly veiled episodes in my own life. Beware to the man who is an ex of a writer. I won’t name the many short stories and essays that have been “inspired” by my first marriage. Other essays and short stories come out of painful work experiences and some from my relationship with my aforementioned mother, my father, my sister, and my son. However, I don’t adhere to the saying, “Write what you know.” That is patently boring. Rather write what interests you, what you are passionate about. That’s what research is for, which is often the most rewarding part of writing – that and seeing your own words on the printed page.
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