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Boxing the Octopus: all content copyright 2008 Colleen Thompson and Joni Rodgers all rights reserved.
I went to a party for my current memoir client in LA a few weeks ago, and it was like somebody shook the famous people tree. I wanted to be there because my client has become my friend, but I felt terribly out of my element. People were asked to leave cameras in the car at this party, and every time one of the official photographer types told me to "c'mon, get in there" I purposely stepped away. I feel like a parade float next to those skinny little LA chicks, and I'm not a photogenic person in any case, so I generally avoid having my picture taken. (Gary persists in snapping shots of me unawares, so I invariably have this "fwah?" look on my face in all our family pictures.) Anyway, I'm not paparazzi fodder like most of the folks who were there that night, so I was pretty surprised to see myself lurking in the background of a photo in last week's People magazine.
I'm not in the habit of reading People, I must admit (and I'm not at all ashamed of this); Gary actually brought the photo to my attention. He picked the magazine up from the seat of an airplane and noticed the picture of my client. He did a double-take. Though my face isn't really visible in the picture, I was wearing a chunky amber necklace Gary gave me about fifteen years ago, and the familiar shape caught his eye.
This is a good metaphor for my role as a ghostwriter, actually. The client must be very much in the foreground. My task is to capture her voice, give words to her ideas, and express her opinions. Only someone who knows me extremely well should be able to tell that it's me in the background, and even then it should require a double-take. I've found that the Stanislavsky method acting I studied in college comes in very handy. I'm essentially doing the same thing my client does when she plays a character on TV or in a movie. I just do it on paper.
I've broken the task of ghostwriting a memoir down to three essential elements:
Content: What does the client want to say in her book? What's her story and what does it mean? This emerges through hours (and hours and hours) of conversation. The most important thing I do as a ghostwriter is listen. I've learned the hard way that trying to impose my idea of what the client should want to say is a huge waste of time. It ultimately won't work. If it's not her message, it will never ring true.
Structure: As I learn about the message and story, I start to see a sort of bell curve -- the story arc -- and chapters sort of fall out onto the table. I'm required to provide a detailed outline to the publisher, so I'm looking for that skeleton from the very start.
Voice: This is where I have to completely recede into the wallpaper. I've been blessed with a few really fabulous Southern women whose unique, strong voices were easy to embrace on paper. I run into rough patches when my spiritual or political beliefs don't jibe with a client's, but walking miles in their shoes has been a good exercise in understanding.
The real magic trick of ghostwriting is achieving invisibility. If a ghost project reads like a Joni Rodgers book, I've failed my task. But hopefully the quality of the finished project will be enough to make editors and agents (the ones who could potentially bring me the next terrific project) do a double-take.
(Indidentally, when this photo was taken, I was chatting with the multi-talented Camryn Manheim, who told me she wrote her own hilarious memoir, Wake Up, I'm Fat!, without a ghost. What a fabulous, funny, scary smart dame. I wish you could see her instead of me!)