24 June, 2021
When I first started working as a ghostwriter, people (and by people I mean only writers) often asked me what it was like or how it was different from writing fiction for… And they often would struggle to finish that sentence. “Myself?” I asked.
I generally told them I didn’t know the answer to that question. Other than writing fiction and the occasional magazine piece, I never wrote academic papers or otherwise put down my views or thoughts about anything important. I never wrote letters to the editor, had a blog, or published a column under my own name. Before I became a ghostwriter, the only part of myself I put into my writing, other than trying to make it as good as I could, was whatever I was trying to unearth about my own experience by camouflaging it through my fiction. I didn’t feel as if I were expressing my own emotions or philosophy directly, but rather funneling it through characters to be absorbed eventually by strangers.
When I started ghostwriting I was lucky—my ‘principal’ had been published so intensely that any subject I was given upon which to write in his voice had a built-in head start. I could immerse myself in his existing ouvre, such as it was, and emerge fairly easily, pen in hand, and work my way through a first draft. My principal would then take a pass, and after a couple rounds it would be finished. I knew my limitations early when my own expressions would come back crossed out and—in most cases—improved, generally by simplifying the language and emphasizing how it might sound aloud.
As I got a bit more adept, these kinds of edits dwindled but they never disappeared. And partly I was pleased by that, as I felt as though anything that came out under a person’s name should bear the marks of that person’s attention, even if fleeting. I tried in some cases to intentionally leave out scenes or anecdotes that I knew the principal would want to include, and was further pleased when I’d see them scrawled in the margins, and more often than not in a way that I would have done differently.
But what I think the writers were asking me during those times I mentioned earlier was something along the lines of, ‘what do you give up when you write as someone else?’ What essential core ego-driven virgin creative spark is muffled when you take your own name off a piece of writing and put someone else’s name on it (provided you’re not just ghosting yourself)? And I think if someone were to ask me that in such a direct way, I’d answer, “very little,” which is the truth—but only my truth, I should point out. I can’t say, at least without hypnosis, perhaps, if the creative process is any different than it might be if I were writing the same piece under my own name. I suspect it’s not.
There is, however, a narrow scenario under which the above doesn’t apply. Once, when I was in my twenties and about to leave my job as a carpenter to study writing in an MFA program, a dear friend asked me if her brother could use a short story of mine, one I didn’t really like or never meant to do anything with, as a submission in a college writing class. Not for publication, but just to get credit for the class, as he wasn’t able to write anything himself. I was outwardly polite, but inwardly aghast. Who would do such a thing? And how could I let something I wrote go out under someone else’s name, even if only a professor or a few bored undergraduates would read it? I certainly did have several dead stories lying around at that time, so it wouldn’t have mattered to my output. But I, again politely, said no.
And I think I would say no today if I were asked to ghostwrite a serious piece of fiction (I’ve worked on thrillers, and those don’t count). I’m a slow, easily distracted, but very personal fiction writer, and there isn’t a story I’ve written that didn’t take something out of me to put into words. If I haven’t personally made every mistake my fictional characters do on the page, I’ve contemplated it, or been in some other way complicit. That’s what it means to write like me, and I wouldn’t consider (nor would I think myself capable) of doing it as someone else. Luckily, nobody has ever asked me to write a story or novel about whatever I wanted, then let them publish it under their name, and I doubt the situation will ever present itself. But I have an answer ready if it does.