It's Time to Put Ghost Writing in its Place

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Ghost-writing books for politicians, princesses and other celebrities is not what it's cracked up to be. Halloween is the perfect time for a professional writer to give up the ghost.


Writer Barbara Feinman-Todd has been practicing the art of ghostwriting for much of the past decade. This Halloween, she has decided it's time to hang up the sheet for good.

Ms. BARBARA FEINMAN TODD (ghostwriter): I think of Halloween as the ghostwriter holiday because it's the one day when the act of impersonating others is celebrated. For the rest of the year, being a ghost isn't all it's cracked up to be. These days, everyone has a book contract, which means nearly everyone needs someone to write the book for them. It's a Catch-22. You aren't really famous unless you've done your memoirs, but if you're truly famous you're too busy to write them. If you think senators, and princesses, and movie stars are staring at computer screens late at night, waiting for the muse, think again.

Read the acknowledgment page and you'll find some un-famous person thanked for her good cheer, or excellent organizational skills, or for putting her heart into this endeavor like no one else. That person wasn't around just to spell check.

So why listen for hours as someone works out their childhood pain, or adult indiscretions, or recounts their congressional glories? For one, the money is good, much better than I make as a college journalism instructor. And there's a thrill too, the adrenaline rush a writer gets when slipping into the skin of another. And, of course, you do get to haunt the homes and offices of powerful and interesting people - for a while.

So it shouldn't bother me when, come book tour time, they pretend I don't exist. But it does. I remember how annoyed I got when one publisher called ghostwriters basically typists. Do these memoirs really write themselves? That would be some serious black magic.

More than an ego problem, what's galling is not being able to tell your client - your life isn't like that and no one will believe you if you write it that way. How can a writer construct something authentic in an inauthentic voice? That is the trick, really. And, I've concluded, it's nearly impossible.

Anyone who loves books should be suspicious of how accepted ghostwriting is. In my files, I found an old press release stating that a well-known actress had written her autobiography without the aid of a ghostwriter. What does it say about our culture that we take note when people really are the authors of the books that bear their names?

And so I'm done, really and truly this time. Please, no more queries from politicians in hot water, aging Olympians, high tech, get rich, how to start up has-beens. Really, don't call. Don't write. Don't tempt me. But maybe, there's still an out: a way to ghost and yet not to ghost. This Halloween, I'll go as a ghost, or at least wear a mask. That's the idea isn't it; to be someone you're not for an evening? Just don't make me sign a contract before you give me candy. I want the treats but not the tricks.

MONTAGNE: Barbara Feinman-Todd is a recovering ghostwriter who runs the journalism program at Georgetown University. And, Steve, under her real name.

(Soundbite of laughter)

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