What is a ghostwriter? I don’t broach the subject of my vocation unless I’m prompted, but when that happens, this question often follows. If those specific words don’t interject themselves into the conversation, a blank stare or a change of subject usually ensues. Most writers have felt this antipathy, but the best ones don’t work for recognition — they work for words alone.
I reside in a rural suburb of a town that could be categorized as “small.” Dubbed the “snack food capital of the world,” we make pretzels, potato and tortilla chips, cookies…but not books. Arts awareness is effectively blindfolded, with one or two small galleries near the center of town, boasting competent, but limited, local work. In nearby historical Gettysburg, Dale Gallon creates detailed Civil War renditions. Most every weekend during warm weather months, festivals featuring local artisans offer handmade pottery and folk art. You won’t find progressive art. Abstract seems pointless here. Innovative folks with a penchant for creativity aren’t embraced; in fact, phrases like “get a real job” aren’t uncommon.
In this plot, ghostwriters don’t exist. In fact, most folks believe, wholeheartedly, that faces on the covers of books are the penmen (or women). It’s endearing, really, that a group of people who find themselves addicted to self-help books choose to believe that personalities who simultaneously host their own shows, promote products, fill radio spots, appear for interviews, vacation, and raise families have time to write book(s). I don’t burst these beliefs. After all, part of a ghostwriter’s effectiveness is convincing readers that the author is the writer (through adoption of the author’s voice).
In truth, my roost fits my vocation perfectly. Non-disclosure agreements are simple. I can do what I love without having to defend my choices to those who think I should pursue recognition. I can earn money to support my family while enjoying a flexibility afforded by few other careers. Sure, I’ve been thought a liar when acquaintances looked for my work in the horror section (get it…ghostwriter?) and couldn’t find it; I’ve been slightly offended when someone declared, “well that sounds like a made-up reason to loaf”; and I’ve been over-volunteered because I “don’t work.” That’s all fine. It’s a small price to pay for being delighted with my life and its positive, yet inherently private, direction.
There’s still the question of that question: What is a ghostwriter? The definition I offer to inquirers differs a bit from the conventional one, and is more “like” a simile. A ghostwriter is similar to a painter, a handyman, a seamstress, a dog trainer, a wedding planner…because he or she is hired to work behind the scenes to make someone else’s project the best it can be. No one expects a homeowner to post a permanent sign crediting the men who wield hammers and paintbrushes. No one brands their dog with a trainer’s name. No woman embroiders the wedding planner’s name on her veil. Likewise, authors need not credit the ghost who helps them to put on a good face. We’re happy to do it…for nothing more than the sound of a smile (and a paycheck).
What is a ghostwriter? A nameless, yet influential presence; an unidentifiable spice that makes a dish delectable; a spirit that exists, even if only in her own little dusty corner. There’s a belief that ghosts are tormented souls, stuck and struggling to escape. That might be largely true, but I like to deal in exceptions. As for me, I’m perfectly happy to haunt.