The gestalt of ghostwriting

Kibitzing back and forth with a writer friend last night, I was trying to explain the mindset that makes it possible for me to write books for which other people receive credit. I've had many such conversations over the years, and responses vary from "How do I get a gig like that?" to "Whore! Whore of the Medicis!" but a common theme seems to be a disbelief that I could possibly be okay with it. And a bit of an eye-roll when I, a lowly ghostwriter, aspire to high artistic ideals.

For many (if not all) writers, a major part of the thrill of being published is seeing one's name on the cover of a book, the author photo in the newspaper, a big poster announcing the table signing at Barnes & Noble. For my first few books, I was totally on that bus. Loved getting out there and talking to people and meeting booksellers and doing interviews. It was trippy seeing my picture in the London Daily Mail, I won't deny it.

But that buzz wore off for me after my last novel. I took a beating from critics and personal insults and threats from readers. Thrill gone. I just felt exposed and vulnerable, and my response to that was to pull into the safe, solid turtle shell of my home office. There I discovered that I could really write a lot more when my focus was inward instead of outward. And I liked it.

Colleen has shared a lot of thoughts on self-promotion in this space over the last year, the ups and downs, the balance we all seek, but one thing that can be agreed on -- it takes a lot of time and energy. If you're building a career as a novelist, that is time and energy well spent. But what if you could draw a Get Out of PR Free! card? What if you could have the money without the fame? For me, that is a quick and easy trade. The people who matter (editors and agents who will hopefully bring me the next interesting project) know that I did this work. I'm building a solid rep in this biz as someone who has talent, meets deadlines, and gets along with folks who lead complicated lives and are not always super easy to get along with.

My friend told me last night -- and he was right -- that I am a crappy reporter. Because I believe the best willingly and the worst reluctantly. A memoir is a totally different art form that has only a skiff of a whiff in common with a biography or autobiography. It's about reflection and introspection, not a yada yada yada recitation of details. Does this make it less worthy as a piece of art? Maybe. Depends on who you're asking. But it's a form I love because it's so human and soft. And forgiving. I'd rather see a naked body painted by Matisse as opposed to a naked body depicted on, and I frankly don't think the Matisse is less factually accurate.

The key to being a successful ghostwriter is a complete suspension of vanity that enables one to genuinely love the project and the client for exactly what it is and who they are. If you go into it as a way to hobnob with the rich and famous, you're doomed, because they can smell that a mile off. If you go into it for the money, you're doomed, because it's unsteady, seldom worth the aggravation, and leads you into temptation; greed makes you to take projects you're not right for, which is the road to ruin. So enter into it for the sake of a book -- or stay home.

According to the dictionary:
Pronunciation: \gə-ˈstält, -ˈshtält, -ˈstȯlt, -ˈshtȯlt
Function: noun
Inflected Form(s): plural ge·stalts also ge·stalt·en
Etymology: German, literally, shape, form
Date: 1922
: a structure, configuration, or pattern of physical, biological, or psychological phenomena so integrated as to constitute a functional unit with properties not derivable by summation of its parts

There are several things people hate/disrespect about what I do, and it's fruitless for me to try to defend one facet or another because I see the gestalt -- the integrated unit that is something different from the sum of its parts. Is it cool for one person to take credit for another person's work? No, generally speaking, it isn't. Do I love it that "authors" like Britney Spears rake in advances with twice as many zeros as most of the talented, hardworking wordsmiths I know? No, I hate that. Am I holding this story to the high journalistic standards I expect from a biography? Hell, no.

The reality of a ghosted memoir is not the sum of those parts; it's the integrated project that brings peace, healing, and closure to the client, prosperity to the writer, and a pleasant experience to the hungry reader.

(Above: two halves of Matisse's "The Red Room" painted in 1908.)


Great post, Joni.

Over the past couple of years as I've watched you as work, I've come to really respect the ghost gig. It takes a rare set of sub-skills (one I've realized I don't possess) to do it well without losing your mind in the process.

Loved the art, too.
Joe Cottonwood said…
One other difference between memoir and autobiography is that a memoir is putting a spin on the facts. And sometimes, as we have lately seen, on non-facts. What do you see as the responsibility of the ghost to keeping things honest?
Joni Rodgers said…
This work has made me think differently about the question Jesus put to Pontius Pilate: "What is truth?"

I see myself as an interpreter, not a watchdog, so my actual responsibility is to take this person at her word and tell her story in a publishable form. This is her side of the story, and no doubt other people have their own version of events, which they are welcome to put in their own memoir.

Obviously, if a memoirist says "I was in jail for six months" -- that's an immutable fact that is easily substantiated (or not) by public record, but the memoir is going to be about the spiritual or psychological journey of spending six months in jail, and no one knows what that was except the person telling the story. I do a boatload of research in order to help my client remember details as accurately as possible, and I also talk through events several times with a sort of Jungian view toward integration of those facts into a philosophy and, hopefully, this is a healing part of the journey. I try to be the Ghost of Christmas Past, leading them through their personal story from the perspective of an observer, and I’ve never seen that be less than therapeutic. (The truth shall set you free, right?)

I begin by telling every client, “To thine own self be true, and it shall follow as the night follows the day, thou canst be false to no man.”
Lark Howard said…
Your ghost writing has intrigued me since the first time I met you. Whenever I see a book "by" someone like Victoria Beckham (who admits she's never even read a book)or Britney Spears, I'm no longer appalled that some publisher would actually buy the book. Instead I think that a good writer is probably making a decent living ghosting and I feel much better about the world.

I use to ghost technical magazine articles for engineers and architects and loved learning their subjects so I could write about them. I think writing memoirs takes a lot more sensitivity to people than I have, though, and I respect your ability to do it well.

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