Ghost Writing

Barbara Feinman Todd | September 2002

Barbara Feinman Todd

The night before I was to teach the first class in a course on literary voice at Johns Hopkins University, I had an anxiety dream. In it, I was about to introduce myself to my new students when the door swung open and a stranger burst into the room and strode up to the podium. "Hello class, my name is Barbara Feinman... " I interrupted her and demanded to know what she thought she was doing. I was Barbara Feinman. The students looked from one of us to the other, bemused. Finally, I took out my driver's license to prove my identity, then called security to have the imposter removed.

I laughed it off, and I even used the dream the next night to introduce both myself and the notion of literary identity to my class. But the dream stayed with me, and I realized that in the end, when it comes to ghostwriting, instead of doing the haunting, the ghost becomes the haunted.

I became a ghostwriter by accident. I neither followed a family trade, as an undertaker or baker might, nor, like a veterinarian or astronomer might, had I aspired to it as a young girl.

Rather, I drifted into the trade as many other people do-after failing at some other writing endeavor. I wrote a novel in my early thirties that was good enough to get me a good agent, but bad enough to end up in a box in my closet. Unable to transform me into a published novelist, my agent turned me into a ghostwriter, introducing me to a congresswoman who wanted to "write" an autobiography. The money was good, substantially better than what I was making as a book researcher, and I liked the sound of ghostwriting.

So before I would ultimately hang up the sheet for good, my client list would grow to include an African princess, a congresswoman, two senators, a first lady, a Middle East peace negotiator, and an erstwhile presidential candidate. The First Lady, Hillary Clinton, is the one, predictably, people still bring up to this day. The actual writing experience of working on It Takes a Village with Mrs. Clinton was not extraordinary in any respect. Together with our editor, we produced drafts in a round-robin style. We worked well as a team and things went about as smoothly as can be expected when you're producing a high-profile book in eight months and one of you is married to the leader of the free world. The problem came when Mrs. Clinton decided, for reasons still a mystery to me, not to acknowledge my help, or that of anyone else by name. Because the White House had issued a press release early on in the process stating that I had been hired to "help prepare the manuscript," when it was finished and there was no mention of me in the acknowledgments, the anti-Clinton forces went to town. The irony was that by not acknowledging me, rather than diminishing my role, she unwittingly elevated me to a sort of literary Joan of Arc with the likes of everyone from Don Imus to Maureen Dowd to Rush Limbaugh weighing in before Thank-YouGate blew over. Pundits had a field day opining how much of the book she had actually written. The truth was much more prosaic: Like any first lady, Mrs. Clinton had an extremely hectic schedule and writing a book without assistance would have been logistically impossible. The book, despite the fact that it was at best a mediocre political tract on the virtues of governmental responsibility in the raising of children through subsidized programs like Head Start, was a bestseller and its audio version won Mrs. Clinton a Grammy.

With that, and other less public but still troubling experiences, I learned that while being a ghostwriter may lend one a sort of exotic cachet, like having a French accent, the actual experience of ghostwriting was problematic. First of all, there is no school for ghosts, no union, no professional code of ethics. Where was I to turn when things got tough? I didn't personally know any other ghosts. There were famous ghosts, such as William Novak and Joseph Persico, but when skeletons started tumbling out of clients' closets and I needed advice on how to proceed, I didn't have the nerve to call someone like Novak and ask, "What do I do when I suspect my subject is lying to me?" "Or worse, what if I suspect he's lying to himself?" "How should I handle a spouse who hates the idea of this book, and therefore hates me?" Even if I had known where to go I couldn't seek help because many of my clients didn't want to let on that I existed.

I used to joke to my husband that it would take a villa, ha, ha, to get me over ghostwriting, that as much as I claimed to hate it, I couldn't stop myself from accepting new projects. So finally, in the late summer of 1999, we moved to Italy for the school year so that my husband could teach in Georgetown University's semester abroad program and I could go through ghostwriting withdrawal. While we were there I was supposed to start writing fiction again. Instead, I just got fat eating pasta. One day, staring off at Florence from our villa balcony, I tried to explain my writing woes to an American expat poet who had come to speak to our students about writing. Calling myself "a recovering ghostwriter," I said I had lost sight of my own writing voice somewhere between the African princess and the tire mogul turned presidential candidate.

"Yes, I see. It must be difficult. The distortion involved." Distortion, yes, that's what I'm suffering from, a sort of literary vertigo caused by putting on and taking off too many identities not one's own. The word stuck with me, stunning me, almost like a diagnosis.

Later, during the workshop with the students, the poet talked about what made his poetry work. "There must be a taproot," he said, pausing for effect. "A primary root-something that travels down deep within you, connecting you to what you are writing. If it's not there, you don't really have much to work with, do you?"

There is rarely a taproot in a ghostwriting project. Like the assassin, you are a hired gun, with no true connection to your subject. The assassin kills without passion, the ghostwriter writes without it, money being the primary, if not sole, motivation in both cases. But with or without passion, the intended result is achieved, the assassin's target is dead, and with the ghostwriting project, a book is produced. Bloodless perhaps, but still tens of thousands of words between two covers, sometimes even making its way to the almighty List.

"On any given week, up to a half of any nonfiction best-seller list is written by someone other than the name on the book," declared a 1997 New York Times piece that examined the growing presence of ghostwritten books in the publishing world. "Add those authors who feel enough latent uneasiness to bury the writer's name in the acknowledgments and the percentage, according to one agent, reaches as high as 80."

The piece linked this ubiquity of ghosts in modern publishing to the phenomenon of huge advances. Everyone from General Colin Powell to Fabio was chronicling, for posterity or big bucks, their story with the help of a ghostwriter. Sadly, very few of them are worth reading, including many of those I'd had a hand in producing.

I've come to believe that most celebrities and politicians, if their lives merit a book at all, would do themselves and their audience a favor by leaving the interpretation of who they really are to biographers. I say this mainly because of what invariably happens during the collaborative process between ghost and subject (or, to use the legalese employed in these sorts of book contracts, "writer" and "author"); the ghost "sees" things about the subject that the subject can't or won't see about himself. It was this very aspect of my trade which ultimately dogged me into deciding to give up the ghost. I became stalled by questions: Whose truth is more true? That of the seer, or the seen? If, ultimately, the book belongs to the subject, then is it irrelevant how I or someone else perceives them? But what if their self-portrayal is so off the mark that it is embarrassing-to themselves and anyone connected to the book? What if they are using the book, albeit unwittingly, to work through problems that they haven't previously faced and are ill-equipped to tackle alone? Is it the ghostwriter's duty to play psychoanalyst, to lead the subject (however clumsily without the proper training), towards self-revelation-if only for the sake of a better book? What if, say, the subject believes she has been a good mother to her four sons, but the sons, in separate interviews with the ghost, all reveal that the mother wasn't emotionally available?

If she is honest with herself and her subject, the ghost sooner or later will have to confront these questions. It is precisely because of the ghostwriter's unique access that these dilemmas arise. The majority of ghostwriters have some journalistic experience and are therefore trained to use all the material, to share with one's readers everything discovered in the medicine cabinet. But the ghostwriter has been given access to the medicine cabinet with the express caveat that not everything discovered belongs in the book and that the decision as to what items in the medicine cabinet will ultimately be included lies with the subject. I learned my clients' troubling secrets regarding everything from the bedroom to the battlefield, material that would have been a journalist's pot of gold. But as a ghostwriter I wasn't the one to decide what to include and what to toss. Like most other ghostwriters, I found myself on more than one occasion in a tug of war between my journalistic instincts to reveal the truth and my ghostwriter's commitment to produce a book the subject would sign off on. I found it an untenable position.

Arthur Golden puts his finger precisely on the problem of perspective in his novel, Memoirs of a Geisha: "Autobiography, if there really is such a thing, is like asking a rabbit to tell us what he looks like hopping through the grasses of the field. How would he know? If we want to hear about the field, on the other hand, no one is in a better circumstance to tell us-so long as we keep in mind that we are missing all those things the rabbit was in no position to observe." This is exactly what I have come to experience in my role as ghost: The rabbit doesn't know about himself, but he (and the publisher) is expecting me to convey that information anyway. How do I present a rabbit to you if the rabbit can't present himself to me? The toughest cases are those rabbits who think they have knowledge of themselves, but have blinded themselves to who they really are and what they really have done out of pride, fear of hurting others, or even worse, a bloated ego and a selective memory. Sometimes I could help the rabbit see himself, but more often than not, it was an impossible feat. And even when I was successful, the subject unavoidably resented me. I had become the mirror in the changing room that refuses to slim down the fat lady trying on a bikini. When I found myself in this predicament I consoled myself by remembering a bumper sticker I once saw on the Santa Monica Freeway: I'm a beautician, not a magician.

If I have given the impression that I gave up ghostwriting because I could no longer live with its dubious ethics, this is not entirely so. The truth is if I had had the emotional constitution to remain on Grub Street I probably would have. After all, the money is good and you make your own hours. And it's got its advantages. To become someone else for a while, to slip inside another's skin, to have carte blanche to ask famous people the most intimate details of their lives-all this appealed to me. Part actress, part shrink, part rabbi, it was all very glamorous-sounding-and not just to me. I suddenly became interesting to those kinds of people I thought more interesting than myself, particularly at parties where I had always felt like B-list material: an awkward and unnoticed understudy. Paradoxically, my new status as "ghost" stripped me of my invisibility.

Also, occasionally, as a ghost, I encountered someone I actually admired. A lifelong skating enthusiast, I was elated when Olympic Gold Medalist Katerina Witt called to talk about the possibility of helping her with her memoirs. And there is a certain satisfaction one can gain from mimicking another human being's idiolect so well that even they can't recall if they actually said something to you or if you made it up. There are smaller perks, too, such as the material provided for social situations. Imagine holding a cocktail crowd entranced by your anecdote about the time someone called on behalf of Yassir Arafat. My reaction to the caller was polite, though a bit incredulous: "Did you catch my last name?" I would recount having thought at the time, 'That's FEINMAN, as in Haddassah, bagels oy vey?'"

Cocktail party material aside, somewhere along the way, I lost my way. When I started, I told myself that ghostwriting was as good a training ground for a novelist as most any other kind of writing, that someday I would resurrect my unpublished novel and be equipped, at long last, with the necessary skills to fix it. That by studying others' voices I would learn how to shape and refine my own. This was at the crux of my Johns Hopkins voice class. Learning to modulate, even appropriate another's voice was useful, I instructed. Yet after a while, I warned my students, ghostwriting becomes an exercise in ventriloquism and nothing much else.

Very early on in my career I got a gig helping an African princess. After I handed in the first draft, my editor told me it was not bestseller material and that perhaps I didn't have the "black sensibility." I pointed out that this was not surprising because I was, after all, a Jewish girl from Chicago. It was then it began to dawn on me that the honesty that was so vital to other types of writing was anathema to ghostwriting. The more of myself that I could suppress, the more room inside my skin there would be for my clients and all their vagaries.

I once saw a TV profile of a woman who had received an organ transplant, and though a lifelong vegetarian, she suddenly had an overwhelming craving for fried chicken. In the predictable tearful meeting between the organ recipient and her donor's loved ones, she learned that the deceased had had a thing for-what else-fried chicken. In addition to taking you away from your own writing, if you are impressionable, your sense of self blurs. Your subjects seep beneath your skin. Their blood and marrow commingle with yours.

If you spend enough time with your subjects, their histories also become intertwined with yours, and you begin to date things in your mind with your subjects' touchpoints instead of your own. The Gulf War, that must have been in 1991, because that's when the senator was doing such and such.... Even your vocabulary can change, or you might find yourself appropriating one of your client's mannerisms, the way you might affect a southern accent if you took an extended trip through the deep South. I remember Mrs. Clinton's habit of nodding her head and murmuring in agreement as a way of showing total attention to whomever she was speaking. I found myself nodding like that for a while, and had to consciously will myself to stop.

As I was packing up our house to move to Italy, a woman whom I had never met, who lived down the road, was murdered by her estranged husband. Her death resulted in a flurry of news stories because she had been a successful romance novelist. In one of the stories, a recycled quote from an interview shortly before her death caught my attention. Before becoming a romance novelist, she had been employed as a speechwriter for a congressman. "What a detour those years were, and if it hadn't been for my son asking me, 'Mommy, what are you going to be when you grow up?,' I suppose I might still be writing the words to come out of other people's mouths."

In Amy Tan's novel, The Bonesetter's Daughter, the main character, Ruth, is an unhappy ghostwriter struggling to come to terms with her mother's past and her own voice. In the end, maybe because fiction is often neater than real life, everything falls into place: "Ruth still has her voice. Her ability to speak is not governed by curses or shooting stars or illness. She knows that for certain now. But she does not need to talk. She can write. Before, she never had a reason to write for herself, only for others. Now she has that reason."

These days I spend most of my professional time teaching journalism to undergraduates. A lot of graduating English majors come visit me during my office hours, looking for advice about what to do with their lives: should they write, what should they write, should they study writing. I tell them I can't pretend to have an answer for them, that at 42 I'm still struggling with my own writing life, still trying to find the confidence, the voice, the whatever-it-is that eludes me. I do tell them, though, to watch out for detours. And sometimes, if it seems like they really want to know, I tell them about my own detours.


Barbara Feinman Todd coordinates the journalism offerings in the English Department at Georgetown University in Washington, DC and also runs GU's Summer Professional Writing Certificate Program. In addition to ghostwriting, her own work has appeared in several publications including The Washington Post and Glamour.

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