Part of a ghostwriter’s job is being invisible, hiding back in the shadows and never revealing our true identities. To claim our work defeats our purpose. We’re here to ghost for someone else and not to gloat for ourselves. If we want recognition, it would’ve been wise to choose another writing profession where bylines and authorship is par for the course. While ghostwriters are allowed to cite their work in their resumes or as part of a job application, publicly claiming a ghostwritten work goes against the ghostwriter’s code.
Ghostwriting can be a lonely profession. It is thankless and heartless. No one knows you were the one who wrote that brilliant piece or that beautiful line in a song or article. No one praises you or acknowledges any of the hard work you do. You just get paid (sometimes a pittance) and told to be on your way (or churn out your next piece, whichever is applicable). Sometimes you get the satisfaction of knowing people liked what you wrote judging by how many of them praised the credited author.
Inside, you may be screaming: it was me, it was me who wrote that piece! But who would listen? You’re a ghost remember? In this world, you don’t exist. You’re a pen hired to gush ink that forms words on paper. You’re a hand guiding a limp puppet. You’re helium inside a clown’s balloon. You’re nothing tasked to create something. Your lifelessness gives life to others. You are not the writer. You’re just simply the hired hand.
Some ghostwriters go on to become famous themselves or are already famous and have been hired to ghostwrite for the estate of some other famous but very dead author. You would be surprised to know that there are books whose authors are fictional and were in fact written by ghostwriters. Two famous series come to mind: Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew, published under the names Franklin W. Dixon and Carolyn Keene respectively. Both series were created by Edward Stratemeyer, and all books of both series were written by ghostwriters.
V.C Andrews of the famed Dollanganger series had all her subsequent books after she died written by ghostwriter Andrew Neiderman. HP Lovecraft wrote for Harry Houdini. The Pulitzer Prize-winning Profiles in Courage, credited to JFK, was actually written by JFK’s assistant, Ted Sorensen. Though JFK conceptualized the book, and made notes, dictations, and large contribution to the making of the book, it was Ted Sorensen who did all the heavy lifting: research, actual writing, putting together all the notes and information together. The book, unmistakably, is JFK’s. In spirit and in message, it contained JFK’s personality and touch. But the book’s literary craftsmanship was clearly Sorensen’s. He made the book what it is: a Pulitzer Prize-winning work.
So what does a ghostwriter have at the end of the day? When all the words have been written and all the work is done? When money (and work) has changed hands and we are told to do more of the same (or go on our way)? What do we hold on to, to keep us from despairing and keep us going on day after day?
I ask myself the same question every day. It’s not easy being a ghost. It’s a lonely job. But someone has to fill the empty parchment, keep the words moving, breathe life into papers, make the world come alive again.
Part of my motivation comes from knowing that even if no one else knows (aside from me, my bosses, and the client) I wrote those pieces, I would know. I would know that that work came from my hand and from my mind. My sense of self-satisfaction is buoyed by the fact that someday, I won’t remain nameless, I won’t remain a ghost.
My name is Jao and I’m a ghostwriter. I write as a ghost but I am more alive than some other writers out there. You can kill my byline but my words will live on forever. I am a ghost but I will be more solid long after my clients have turned to dust.
I am a ghost, but I am a writer too. And these words I claim as my own.
On this day, it’s a beautiful day to be alive.