What It's Like To Ghostwrite Books When I Can't Seem To Finish My Own Novel

Aleksandra Jankovic/Stocksy

I started my ghostwriting career as a favor to a family friend — the kind of favor that someone does for you, by pretending they need a favor from you. I was months out of graduate school and desperate for a writing gig; he was well-known in our community and wanted help finishing his memoir. Dozens and dozens of pages of notes, thousands of hours, and exactly 21 months later, I had written a book. It was someone else’s book, sure. But from beginning to end, I had arranged and rearranged every single word.

Each book was like a puzzle. Disjointed notes or audio files combined with the particular nuances of each client’s personality to create a story.

Then, as is wont to happen if you finally work up the confidence to say "I’m a writer" when people ask you what you do, it seemed like everyone around me wanted to write a book, or believed they had a book-worthy story to tell, including the woman I babysat for, my fitness instructor, the cashier whose lane I preferred at the grocery store, the guys who came to steam clean the carpeting in my new apartment, a young mom I had become friends with, and the old man who always seemed to be checking his mailbox at the same time I did. Most of these aspiring memoirists weren’t serious, but one was. Suddenly, I had another gig. This time, I found myself faced with hours upon hours of audio recordings, all of which needed to be transcribed and turned into something resembling literature. Again, somehow, I did it.

Through a referral, I was offered another opportunity to ghostwrite a book, and then another. Each time I wrote faster, cleaner, and better. Each book was like a puzzle. Disjointed notes or audio files combined with the particular nuances of each client’s personality to create a story. All of these stories were published without my name on them.

It’s rare that I experience writers’ block when ghostwriting. Even in the instances when a client has given me practically nothing to go off of — a title, a table of contents, a general picture of who they are and where they come from — I’ve dug in and found a way to produce the material they want. (Once, I even ghost-wrote some material off of nothing more than the synopsis of a client’s favorite movie and their list of all the reasons they like it.)

Meanwhile, my own book — a novel that I’ve had in my head and written piecemeal (very minimal piecemeal) — has been languishing for almost a decade. I’ve been sketching various manifestations of its characters for even longer.

When faced with a blank document of my own making, I stare at the cursor for far longer than I’d like to admit. Then, I go watch some television.

I wish I had an easy explanation for this. I’ve read the books, earned the degrees, suffered through the messy-first-draft workshops, written enough writing workshop-approved short stories to fill at least a debut collection. I’ve hung around in Iowa City and New York City. I’ve done weird and sometimes dangerous things just because I thought they might provide interesting fodder for a book. I’ve even had a baby. Most importantly, I’ve written books — just not my own. When faced with a blank document of my own making, I stare at the cursor for far longer than I’d like to admit. Then, I go watch some television.

Maybe I just work best when faced with an audience of one. After all, my clients are typically the only people who see the work with my name written on it.

I’ve read about writers who rewrite (or, as the case may be, retype) the work of famous writers — Hemingway, Tolstoy, Austen, Proust — as an exercise, just to experience the feel and rhythm of writing a book from beginning to end. Perhaps that, in a way, is what I’m doing. (This might also be called “procrastinating.”) But it’s true that I’ve learned more by ghostwriting than I did in all my years of school — about deadlines, editing, letting go of perfectionism, accepting that every document needs to be finished at some point no matter how much I might like to move commas back and forth in some sort of neurotic literary dance. I’ve learned how to sit down and type whether I think I have anything to say or not. I’ve learned how to keep typing whether I think I have anything to say or not. I’ve learned how to research efficiently. I’ve learned how to write books and then how to let them go: to clients, and then to readers. I just haven’t learned how to do all of that and then sign my name. Not yet, at least.

Maybe I will finally learn how to (see: commit to) write my own story by writing the stories of others. Maybe one day my writing will be on your shelves. Maybe it already is — you just wouldn’t know it.