Truly, ghostwriting is a gift. An ability to inhabit another’s voice and speak as if it were your own.
The fact that the little word “ghost” is attached at the front doesn’t change one fact: This is real writing. Difficult writing. Just like any writing.
When it works best (as in Andre Agassi’s memoir written with the help of JR Moehringer), there are no signs of it. The text feels composed by the autobiographer/memoirist alone. When it doesn’t work so well, as in Richard Flanagan’s case (described in his new book First Person), it sounds more like a demonic possession.
There are writers whose best gift is to edit others … there are writers whose best gift is to ghostwrite for others … there are writers whose best gift is their own writing.
Flanagan fits into this last category, obviously, but it is interesting with First Person to realize that, in his early days, the creator of Gould’s Book of Fish and The Narrow Road to the Deep North went down the road of ghostwriting because he desperately needed money.
The book isn’t a memoir but, according to various media outlets, a fiction with heaping doses of Flanagan’s biography in it.
I met Flanagan after he published The Unknown Terrorist, and I had no idea about this part of his life. He came to L.A. for our big book event, and we sat in the corner of the author green room and drank beer smuggled in by his amazing publicist.
I wish I’d known. I would have asked him how you work with non-writers on their books. That requires a different muscle–something I’ve learned to exercise for my own manuscript editing business. More here.
For Flanagan, based on what First Person gives us, it sounds like the experience was an absolute nightmare. For $10,000, he was asked to help produce the memoir of a man who was a trickster and shape-shifter. In light of Flanagan’s oeuvre, which often tackles larger-than-life characters with dubious ties to the truth, that experience was obviously beneficial. Formative, probably.
But for a guy who just wants to feed his family and get on with his own work? I can’t imagine.
I admire practitioners of the ghostwriting trade … and if you’re considering that route, I recommend reading one of Flanagan’s other books first. (That makes sense, doesn’t it?) You will learn so much if you do.
Onward, my beloved friends.