E. Mark Windle 23 November 2021
I wear several hats as a freelancer. Over the years I’ve written commentaries, historical perspectives, scientific papers, non-fiction books, blogs, promotional content and serialised some of my publications online. There’s a chance, if you occupy my niche, that you may have even read some of my stuff. The point I’m making here is that there is a body of work in the public domain which is accessible, and identifiable as mine.
Outside of independent projects, I’m contracted as a ghostwriter with a couple of biography publishing services based in the UK and North America. Through these organisations I’ve had book commissions for clients from backgrounds as diverse as the music industry, medicine, the legal system, the scientific community, entrepreneurism and theatres of war. Sometimes the end product is for closed consumption only; other times for publication and sale on online platforms or in brick-and-mortar bookstores. In all cases, I’m destined never to be connected with these works. At least publicly.
Writers are often motivated by recognition, especially early in their careers. Try finding an individual who denies the thrill and sense of achievement in seeing their name in print for the first time, particularly if the work comes with praise or positive reviews. Recognition and community acceptance (or as Maslow would have it, love and belongingness) are primal needs. There is no shame in that, unless that sense of achievement crosses the boundary from modest self-pride to cheap vanity.
Maybe that’s the reason why some in the industry struggle to comprehend why anyone would actually choose to ghostwrite. Why pour time, effort and skills into a lengthy book project, without the opportunity to assert your moral right to be identified with it? Of course, if we are referring to ghostwriting for A-list celebrities, a healthy advance payment and jaw-dropping royalty deal from a major publishing house may help ease the pain. Mind you, that kind of job doesn’t land that often. At least not on my in-tray.
Admittedly, there is a unique and challenging aspect of ghostwriting. The obvious curse is that self-promotion for the purposes of attracting future clients is tricky. Non-disclosure agreements and ghostwriting contracts mean prospective clients cannot be offered portfolios easily, and the opportunity to boast of affiliations with high profile individuals via your website or social media platforms is forfeited. If you are lucky, there are some workarounds. An exclusion clause reserving the right of name-association on a limited and discrete basis might be an option, where prospective clients are permitted to approach former ones as a reference. At the end of the day though, you have been chosen for not only for your skills but also for discretion. Breach the anonymity agreement, and you run the risk of unwelcome contractual or legal consequences. And of course, bang goes the community reputation.
In defending the art of ghostwriting biographies, let me first stress that I do this job for a living. It puts food on the table. Through my activities with third party biographical services, they supply the projects. I’m in a fortunate position where I can opt to take on writing gigs dependent on personal scheduling, and where the editor and I feel that I am a good ‘fit’. As far as my independent ghostwriting projects are concerned, picking up work is partly a word of mouth thing.
But I’ve also matured. I’ve been at the biography game about ten years now and am genuinely intrigued by how upbringing, life events and interests, motivate and guide an individual’s choices in life. These things shape and make us who we are. I write biographies because I inherently love the research-interview-write process, not because it is a route to public recognition or solely a money making exercise.
Your name may not be in bright lights, but a good ghostwriter will be recognised, both within the writing industry and among clients. Ironically, that’s because anonymity is a key to success. Trustworthiness is of paramount importance in the relationship between the writer and the subject. That’s true of any client situation, but particularly where they have standing or ‘visibility’ in society: perhaps they have celebrity status, are a public figure, a local businessperson, a hero, or even a villain. The client may want to share warts and all; lay his or her cards on the table. They will confide in the writer, offering nuggets of their life story that may never have previously been shared with anyone, including partners, family, or friends, until the biographer’s inquiry led them there.
The biographer is in a position of privilege. Not everything on the audio transcripts is intended to appear in print. The writer negotiates with the storyteller what does and doesn’t add value to the story, what themes should drive the narrative for the article or book, and indeed what’s best omitted for legal or awkward personal reasons, while always keeping one eye on the brief. Meeting the subject’s expectation that certain information will be held in confidence, or processed appropriately, goes a long way to building the writer’s reputation. Trustworthiness is not only an obligatory part of the non-disclosure agreement. It’s also an investment which secures future work by word-of-mouth recommendation.
As a ghostwriter and biographer, I take pride in being the vehicle, or voice, for the interviewee. Some clients’ lives are stuffed full of intriguing, colourful, dramatic, tragic or revealing life events, but have difficulty expressing these through a flowing verbal narrative in a series of interview sessions. Others are more eloquent. But all have a worthy tale to tell, and none less important than the other. In giving out advice (albeit to fiction writers), Raymond Chandler once said: “The challenge is to write about real things magically.” In our genre, the subject is the storyteller, but the biographer is the alchemist. The graft comes first: extracting life events and personal recollections in an accurate, meaningful and reflective way, conducting robust peripheral research, fact-checking and cross-examination. The magic comes when the potion is mixed to provide a unique tale which draws in the reader, has accuracy and relevance, educates, life-affirms, offers life-lessons, delivers optimism, demands empathy, or a combination of these things. The writer’s ultimate responsibility is to present a life story which has a purpose. Regardless of whose name is stamped on it.
Copyright 2021. E. Mark Windle is a freelance writer and biographer, working independently, as a senior writer with Story Terrace (London, UK), and as a writer for Sheridan Hill / Real Life Stories LLC (North Carolina, USA). Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org