First Person, Past
I am currently ghost-writing a memoir for a client dying of a rare lung disease. This is a woman with whom I’ve been distantly acquainted for years, who has interviewed me on air for some promotional appearances, to whom I feel inordinately close already. Now, and for the next few weeks, I sit on the phone in the morning and ask directed interview questions of her. Then I sit at my desk, put myself into the head of a woman who has already passed her expiration date and turn the memories I am privileged to share into stories others might enjoy reading. Also, it is my job to make the stories palatably funny and light so they might have some chance at finding a literary life beyond that of their original teller.
In the past, ghost writing has always involved a good deal of internal struggle for me. As much as I like to be paid for what I do, I always feel a little bit odd about being paid to do work for which, ultimately, someone else will take the credit. I sometimes find myself hesitant to use a particularly strong joke or turn of phrase, no matter how organically it grows from the moment, because I hate to have such a flash of inspiration go to page as someone else’s, to lose it for my own future use. Ghost writing is something I do, generally, for the paycheck. Writing for which I can take credit I do for pleasure, and I cannot claim to be so enlightened as to be able to do it without the involvement of my ego in every damn line.
Also, I have all sorts of issues surrounding money. I have been known to go through long periods in which I make nothing at all, living entirely off of my wife. When I make large chunks of money, I frequently feel as though I am underpaid for my efforts. I have no standard rates as a ghost writer. Whenever a project comes up, and they generally do so once or twice a year, the negotiation is always problematic for me. I hate to turn down work, but I also like to be paid well for work that does not feed my voracious ego. When a project looks as though it will be no fun at all, I name outrageous rates in hope that the potential client will go away. If the client accepts or makes a counter offer that will greatly help me financially, I accept it, buckle down and do the writing-for-a-living work for which I’ve been hired. When an uncredited project seems as though it might be good, good fun, I do my best to make myself available at reasonable enough rates to get the job. Regardless of where on that spectrum the job lies, I spend much of the time feeling as though I’ve undersold myself and berating myself for still being at a place in my career at which ghost writing is a necessary revenue stream. Also, writing for money carries a lot of guilt for me in general; no matter how much or how little I make, it feels a bit like a cheat, a scam, a con. Writing comes easily for me and is, for the most part, an escapist pleasure; so I feel slimy getting paid for it, just as much as I always feel like no amount that I’m paid for it is enough.
This woman I’m working for now, though, is a friend of sorts, certainly someone for whom I feel affection, though we’ve never met in person. I’ve known of her terminal prognosis for a couple of years, although I didn’t realize until recently that she is already well into bonus time, well beyond what was predicted by the doctors who diagnosed and now treat her. When she told me she wanted to do a memoir, I encouraged her. When she told me that she cannot bring herself to write it and wanted me to ghost write, I winced because I did not think she could afford me even at my lowest, happy-to-do-it rates.
She’s dying, though. I have time. I offered to do the work for a very low, living-expenses sort of advance against my proper rates if she manages to find a publisher for it who would provide a proper, professional advance against royalties. I started doing the interviews and writing. Every day for the first week I did this until my head felt as though it might explode. I kept doing the mathematical reductions to figure out how many pages were done, how many left to do, how many I write in a day and how many more days this was likely to be my task. Then, as she wheezed her personal anecdotes to me over phone and I typed my notes for the day, I felt an unexpected sense of privilege. I was the person this lovely woman trusted with her legacy. I was the one chosen to turn memories into prose. I was the one she believed could honestly and accurately and touchingly put her life to the page. She thought, I will be gone soon. She thought, I want to leave something behind of what I have experienced in this life. She thought about making that thing beautiful and lasting and funny and touching and she thought of me.
I am not a guy who takes artists seriously when they talk about how they think of what they do as a service they perform for the world. That has always felt to me like a pretense of humility from someone who, like me, serves his or her own ego.
On this project, though, I have begun to feel the pleasure and the responsibility of using my craft to be of service to someone who very much needs my services. I am underpaid and I am overjoyed and it feels as though I have been given a gift.
I am the hand behind the part of her that will live on. My client will die. And I, happily, am her ghost.