Telling stories to a ghostwriter is like talking to a therapist or a bartender. When they get comfortable with me, my clients tell me all sorts of intimate stuff,often answering questions I never even asked. Then later they may have second thoughts, and wish they hadn’t.
Here’s a frustration with working with non-writers. Writers know that writing exposes you and makes you vulnerable. The more real and truthful you are, the more vulnerable and exposed – and the more compelling to your readers. But non-writers don’t know that. They get their manuscript back from the ghostwriter they hired to write their story, read their words and thoughts and feelings on paper, and get scared. They want to hedge and soften, and turn specifics into generalities, so they will feel safer.
Of course, this will kill the writing. Readers respond to gut-level stuff; that is what makes stories compelling and readable. But it’s not just the readers who get shortchanged when the story is “softened.” So does the storyteller. By softening those rough patches, by hedging their truths and telling instead of showing their pains and joys, they have dramatically reduced one big benefit of writing – healing their emotional wounds.
From the ghostwriter’s perspective, this is so frustrating! It’s not my story; it’s theirs. If they don’t want to tell the truth, I can’t make them. All I can do is offer my word tools, and hope they use them.
Many times I’ve been told “I didn’t say that” when I know they did – I have their recorded voices saying exactly that. I had one client who had a bit of a potty mouth, but she didn’t realize it. I didn’t include all of her swear words, but I inserted a few so it sounded like her. She was upset. “I would never use that f***ing word!” she said.
I once ghostwrote a memoir for a lovely man who had led a rich and varied life. He was a touring musician during Vaudeville in the late 1920s and early 30s. His circuit included places like Al Capone’s Chicago, and as you might guess, there were some juicy details in his stories. I loved listening to him, and could hardly wait to get those stories down on paper. But his wife was a very proper lady in her eighties, and she did not want any of those juicy details in his memoirs – they weren’t respectable and she didn’t want anyone knowing about them. They belonged to his youth, before he became a pillar of the community.
The musician himself didn’t actually care, since he was just doing the book at the request of his children. He shrugged and said, “Whatever my wife says.” So I had to take some of the best stories out of his memoir, and make it conform to what his wife deemed proper. It made the story much blander than it should have been. Boy, that was hard for me.
This happens to ghosts. I don’t always agree with everything my client wants to say, or doesn’t want to say. I may have to argue for artistic integrity. I’ll have to defend why I want to put those details in, or why I want to take them out. I’ll have to explain why the story about grandma and the plumber just doesn’t fit in a book about gardening. Even if it is funny.
But I must be aware that I might lose this argument. It is their book, not mine. This is one of the hardest challenges of ghostwriting – you must let go of your own ego. You can’t marry your writing. In fact you can’t even get engaged to it. At the most, you’re simply dating.
|Kim Pearson is an author, ghostwriter, and owner of Primary Sources, a writing service that helps others become authors of professional and compelling books and articles. She has authored 6 books of her own, and ghostwritten more than 30 non-fiction books and memoirs. To learn more about her books or services, visit Primary-Sources.com.|