Today’s post is written by NYT bestselling author Joni Rodgers.
Writing was the life raft I climbed onto while I was going through chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in my early 30s. I’d always been a voracious reader and a talented dabbler, but I’d never devoted myself to the actual mule work of writing a book. Cancer treatment left me physically, emotionally, and financially devastated and forced me into an isolated space where writing was the only thing I could do.
My first novel, Crazy for Trying (MacAdam-Cage 1997) literally saved my life. I followed up with a second novel, Sugarland (Spinsters Ink/Bertlesmann 1999), and then did a memoir about my cancer experience: Bald in the Land of Big Hair (HarperCollins 2001), which became an international bestseller. (Note to aspiring writers: This may be the worst possible way to become an almost famous author. I don’t recommend it.)
While my third novel was in the pipeline at HarperCollins, my literary agent’s wife was talking to the mom of a celebrity at a cocktail party, and Bald in the Land of Big Hair randomly came up in conversation. “Oh, I love that book,” she said. “My husband represents the author.”
The two of them decided it would be a great idea for me to help the celeb mom write a memoir. My agent called the next day to ask me if I’d like to be a ghostwriter, and I said the same thing you’re probably saying right now:
What’s a ghostwriter?
When you see a book authored by a rock star, professional athlete, CEO, or some other extraordinary person who isn’t a writer, chances are a professional writer either wrote it for them or held their hand through the process. That celeb mom had a great story. I’m a storyteller. Connect the dots.
Fifteen years and many books later, I’ve fully embraced ghost life. My work has taken me to movie and television sets, backstage at a Broadway play, under the stage at a rock star’s world tour, parties in Hollywood, flea markets in rural France, a Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony, a dank cellar full of moldering crime photos, and a lot of other places I would have never seen had I chosen any other line of work.
Ghostwriting requires skillset plus mindset.
As a novelist, I’m the mountain climber; as a ghostwriter, I’m the Sherpa. My client brings a unique voice, singular life experience, a desire to say something that matters, and the platform to back it all up. I bring writing ability and deep knowledge of the publishing process—all the craft skills it takes to write a novel—plus an ego-free desire to use my skills in service of clients and causes I care about.
Ghostwriting has taught me three life-changing superpowers, and I’ve developed a few tricks of the trade that apply in real life:
Superpower #1: Empathetic listening
The human need to be heard is as real as our need for water and oxygen. Without it, we wither. As a junior high “candy-striper” volunteering at a nursing home, I spent hours listening to elderly farmers, suffragettes, and forgotten artists who gripped my hand as they told me about old adventures and lost loves. I saw how it energized them to have someone sit still, maintain eye contact, and listen. I felt strangely energized by it, too, and now I know why.
Studies have linked the brain process of “supportive listening” to the production of amino acids and oxytocin, which contribute to neural repair and plasticity. Engaging, paying attention, and allowing yourself to see the world through someone else’s eyes actually makes you smarter and better able to process your own ideas and experiences.
The key to empathetic listening is asking questions that open doors to the deeper story. There’s always the what happened and the what really happened.
Years ago, a political memoir client told me a story about a difficult experience she went through in the 1950s. I listened without interrupting and then asked, “What shoes were you wearing?”
“What difference does it make?” she asked, stunned and a little offended.
“If you were wearing heels,” I said, “that means you expected someone to give you a ride home.”
“Pumps,” she said. “Navy blue with three-inch heels.”
And then the real story poured out: no-show boyfriend, judgmental mother, a long walk that left her feet raw and bleeding, and a lifelong inability to truly trust anyone ever again.
Try this: Next time someone tells you a story, instead of dismissing it as small talk, stay engaged and ask a door-opening question: How did that make you feel? What did you learn? Why do you think you’ve held onto that memory?
Superpower #2: Purpose-driven storytelling
I always start the memoir process by walking my client through a timeline of their life, like the Ghost of Christmas Past in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Looking at pivotal moments from the perspective of an observer instead of a participant is a powerful exercise that allows us to examine what motivated certain life choices. I listen for inflection points—plot twists that take the story in a new direction—asking what was the purpose behind each pivotal action and reaction.
Playwright David Mamet says there are three magic questions that must be answered in every scene: Who wants what from whom? What are they willing to do to get it? Why now?
Try this: Put yourself to the Mamet test. Next time you feel lost or at a crossroads, divide a sheet of paper into three columns: What do I want? What am I willing to do for it? Why now? For better or worse, purpose will be the author of your story.
Superpower #3: Invisibility
As a young novelist, I was thrilled to see my name on the cover of a new book, my photo in a magazine, and my face on the Today Show. But my career has evolved like a Tootsie Pop; the best part was concealed by that hard sugar surface. As a ghost, I’m happy to let my client do the public-facing legwork while I work without distraction at home on the beach in Washington State, far from the glam worlds I write about.
Sometimes my name is on the cover of a client’s book, but most often, I do what ghosts do: disappear. My job is to vanish into my client’s voice and vision. I don’t want to cast my shadow between reader and author.
Many people are baffled—offended even—by the idea that I allow clients to take credit for my work. That goes against the grain in a selfie-obsessed world where so much energy is devoted to the daily show-and-tell of social media. In theory, I do believe ghostwriters should always be acknowledged in some way, but for me, invisibility goes hand in hand with peace and productivity.
Try this: Temper the constant hand-waving of social media by linking it to a healthy habit that’s all about you living in your own skin. A simple rule like Facebook only while standing or Twitter only on the treadmill prevents doom scrolling and gets you off your duff.
A full summer hiatus from social media frees up the time and bandwidth to read a novel every week. You might even decide to write a novel of your own. If you need help, a friendly ghost is always nearby.