The aspect of Wherewithal’s work that generates the most interest in personal conversation, by far, is ghostwriting. People always have questions. Really? Who for? In some cases they’re hoping I’ll say “Jay-Z” and are mildly disappointed when I give them a name they’ve never heard of or, more often, say I cannot say because of non-disclosure agreements I’ve signed.
But to be fair, people don’t really care about the gossip. They are genuinely interested in the nature of the ghostwriting collaboration. Where does the subject’s contribution end and mine start? Do I feel any discomfort, knowing that words I wrote will be attributed to someone else? The issue of credit always comes up—will I get credit, and if so, where, and will I be satisfied with that, or feel badly used somehow?
So, here, a few answers that might clear up popular misconceptions about the potential injustice of it all. Whether a ghostwriter is credited on the book’s cover (as in a so-and-so- celeb “with” ghostwriter line), or on the title page, or simply thanked in the acknowledgments for having made some ill-defined contribution to the book is not up to the subject’s whim. All of that is negotiated upfront by the ghostwriter or ghostwriter’s agent, and there are plenty of reasons why being credited on the cover is not necessarily the best of all possible scenarios. The ghostwriter might collect more money upfront, or a bigger cut of the royalties, if they remain incognito. Or the ghostwriter might not want their brand to be publicly associated with that of the person they’re ghostwriting for. Or the publisher might object to having more than one name on the cover.
All of this to say, commentary that takes famous people to task for not crediting ghostwriters more visibly—and there’s a lot of this chatter online, esp. when Hillary Clinton is being talked about—is not entirely fair.
I have described ghostwriting as essentially extremely aggressive line-editing. In most cases, the ghostwriter is not working entirely from scratch but conducts a series of interviews with the subject. Those conversations are recorded, transcribed, and then the ghostwriter works through the kinks and tangents to come up with a readable structure and pull out thematic threads. Then, as needed, they’ll pull in additional research to bolster the subject’s points. Over time the ghostwriter gets a sense of the subject’s voice when speaking casually and translates it into something that sounds good when written down. I say translate because plunking down what a person actually said never works. Most people don’t speak in full paragraphs. Almost as rare is someone who consistently speaks in full sentences—people stop, start over, correct themselves mid-sentence, use coarser language than they’d ever wish to see attributed to them in print, trail off without finishing a sentence, pause, start a completely new thought.
The ghostwriter soaks all of this in and tries to convey the same energy on the page, but cleaner, if you will, more disciplined.
People who hire ghostwriters tend to be powerful people. They are often accustomed to having staff, or at least an assistant or two to manage their lives and schedules. They are busy. Writing one’s own book requires a lot of unspoken-for time. These people do not have that. They do, often, have difficulty sitting still for long stretches. They are skilled at negotiating vast networks of friends, colleagues, associates, even rivals. They are less adept at prolonged self-reflection. Hiring a ghostwriter forces them to slow down a bit and assess (while still enjoying the sensation of being productive). A ghostwriter is brought in to help them make sense of it all—the frenetic activity, the glory, any wounds suffered along the way. A ghostwriter is in that sense less a well-paid wordsmith than someone who can perceive patterns, systems, order in chaos and the unspoken amid a lot of yammering.
That sounds awfully grand, but I believe it to be true. It also accurately reflects the power dynamic involved. It’s a bilateral exchange. The ghostwriter listens carefully. The person who hired them agrees to “open the window a few inches more than is comfortable” for them. (That phrase is borrowed from Jane Hirshfield, who gave it as advice to aspiring writers. Here I’m using it in the sense of making themselves vulnerable, and opening themselves up to scrutiny and criticism.)
There has to be mutual trust and regard. If the subject thinks the ghostwriter less intelligent than the task requires, the project stalls, and the book goes nowhere until the writer is replaced. (This process can be repeated several times.) If the ghostwriter thinks the subject is a greedy, craven lunatic, the book will probably get written, the quicker the better, and it may even be commercially successful. But the possibility of creating a follow-up and raking in more cash won’t appeal to one or both parties, and they’ll go their separate ways.
But is it ethical? That’s another question that gets asked, if not always explicitly. It’s easy for people in the business to say of course; this is how the sausage is made, you either know that or your opinion on the issue doesn’t matter. For everyone else, how one answers the ethics question likely depends on how much you believe consumers have the right to know—or even care to know—about what they’re buying. This doesn’t just pertain to books. Do buyers need to believe that Michael Kors (just snatching a name out of the air here; don’t sue me) sits down with a pencil and creates a fresh sketch for every tanktop or handbag that bears the MK logo? Or are they o.k. knowing that much of the work in the ready-to-wear fashion industry is done by uncredited junior designers?
In both cases, I am all for greater transparency. I think we may be approaching an era wherein that’s the norm. I hope so, anyway.
In the meantime, I’ll make the case that ghostwriting can be a spiritual practice for both parties involved. The subject goes to confession, of sorts. And ghostwriters empty themselves of ego in order to help another person understand and communicate what their life’s work adds up to.
To be cont.