Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Why I'm a Ghostwriter

It's funny-- if you had ever told me that I was going to become a nonfiction ghostwriter and actually LIKE it, well, I would have cocked my eyebrow at you something fierce. I probably would have even said, "Pshaw!" at you. In my school days, I thought the only kind of "fun" writing was fiction writing. And when I began nonfiction writing, it was only because I saw that it had better financial prospects; it's tough to make a living as a writer, period, but really tough to make a living as a fiction writer.

But I did wind up liking nonfiction writing. Getting paid to learn stuff that interested me? What a deal! As I gained more experience, I began getting offers to ghostwrite books. Little did I know at the time that I'd find my calling there.

My line of work has put me in touch with some amazing people, both of the celebrity variety and of the regular ol' phenomenal-person-next-door variety. It seems like no accident that I've written the books I have; each person whose book I've ghostwritten or collaborated on has taught me something at just the right moment.

Jamie Blyth inspired me to expand my boundaries after I overcame panic disorder. At the time, I was pretty content just being able to go out to restaurants and stores again, but he had done some really wild things to conquer his own anxiety disorder-- like flying to Sweden to join a basketball team, even though he didn't know anyone there. Thinking about his story every day made me want to try bigger and bigger things in my own life, such as...

Working with Celine Dion. I smile every time I think of her. The editor who offered me this book assignment was really taking a leap of faith-- I didn't have any big book credits on my resume when I submitted it to her, but she liked my writing style and thought I had heart. She thought Celine and I might like each other, and she was so right. Hanging out with Celine night after night until 3 in the morning, I learned some of my most important adult life lessons. I learned, most of all, that I was happy I never achieved the fame I once sought when I wanted to be a Broadway star. She taught me that I really was meant for just the kind of work I was doing. And I will forever admire her for the way she cares so deeply about people.

Tracy Elliott taught me more about the kind of mother I wanted to be someday, and about the idea that you don't have to be a victim of your circumstances. She was orphaned as a little girl when both of her parents died, and was abused by her uncles, and riddled with addictions as a teen and young adult... but you'd never guess that to meet her now. You can write your own happy endings, I thought.

Along those same lines, you don't have to look very deeply to figure out what I learned from Scott Rigsby. The dude has no legs, and yet he did the Hawaiian Ironman triathlon. The HAWAIIAN flippin' IRONMAN. Do you know how insane that is even with two perfectly good legs?

And then Susan Markowitz, who showed up in my life just as my custody battle began. Her 15-year-old son, Nick, was murdered because of bad blood between his half-brother and a drug dealer named Jesse James Hollywood. Nick was just a pawn. Anytime I start feeling sorry for myself, Susan snaps me right out of that. Nick was her only child.

I feel lucky that my job puts me in contact with people like these, and that I get to know them so well. It enables me to ask the personal questions that you just wouldn't ask someone at a party, but you'd always be curious about. I know how Susan felt when detectives knocked on her door at dawn to say they'd found her son's body. I know how Scott cursed God for taking away his legs. I know things I'll write about, and some things I'll never write about, because they were shared just between us.

In some professions, you're taught not to get too "personally involved" with your clients. I'm lucky that ghostwriting is not one of those professions. As a ghostwriter, part of the joy for me is in crossing that line. It's the middle-of-the-night phone calls and the e-mails about nothing in particular. The Christmas presents, the family visits. If you don't want to be your subject's friend, I'm not sure how you can make readers love him or her either. (Of course, there is the case for the antihero... but still.)

I love the fact that I never know who I'm going to meet next, or whose life story will grip me for the next year. I love the appreciation I get when the subject feels I've gotten it just right. This is what I was meant to do, and I hope to keep doing it for a long time to come.


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