As a writer, you are constantly told to find your inner voice, the fire that burns inside of you, the story that only you can tell in an expression of utter authenticity and cathartic release. That is, after all, the worthy pursuit of the American novelist, hey it is the common sense advice that any non-fiction writer worth their salt will home in on for their book proposal submission to a publisher. I should know, I help my clients write them.
But all that is nonsense for me, in my role as a ghost writer. Mere fool’s gold. Pie in the sky thinking. By definition, I have no larynx, the passion I must ignite is not my own. In fact, all the words I’ll ever conjure up cease to belong to me once they leave the inner sanctuary that is my head. Not one of the commas or full stops I jot down is mine for the taking.
That is just the way it is. That is the nature of a beast that comes with no accolades, best sellers or newspaper obituaries detailing your best works. Aren’t those the kinds of things a writer craves? A secretly big reason why they write? Maybe. But, as a ghost writer, I have never had the luxury of an employer’s reference letter accurately depicting what I have done or contributed to. Actually, in most cases, I have never had a reference letter provided of any sort, which entangles what should have otherwise been a straight forward career progression. So what is there? Simply, a pot of gold under a rainbow that no one purports to exist – oh and a tax form, from yet another country.
From that last sentence you’d be right in thinking it cannot all be bad. For one thing I got to travel, really see the world, and not in that vacuous superficial sense I would have otherwise enjoyed as a tourist. No, I really saw it, felt how it turned and owned that experience in a way I never could my writing. I was able to study a degree and two masters in three different countries, never once living under the same roof as my parents, and never once accruing debt.
At certain points, studying was all I could really call mine, the only thing that was solid and permanent enough to hold on to; it was a sense of achievement I could field as my accomplishment and not someone else’s. At the same time, I learnt how to learn and I learned that fast. I had to. For I could be called upon to be knowledgeable on a whole host of subjects, just four days after answering the phone and signing the confidentiality agreement. I acquired a professional’s understanding on a great range of disciplines, as I extended my writer’s repertoire to include small hydropower policy in eastern Europe, health and safety policy and practice in the Middle East, climate change mitigation, grassroot responses to terrorist recruitment, entropy, geomorphological features, wastewater treatment, online brand strategy and marketing approaches. Needless to say, as a ghost writer you can be asked to write a great deal on a great deal of things. And, the only thing you can count on is that you will never talk about it, beyond what I just told you in this paragraph, which is hardly strong enough ground for someone to employ you, especially not in this world of ultra-specialisation.
The lack of pegs when it comes to setting out your stall is just many of the dimensions that make the term “ghost” an excellent analogy when it comes to the ephemeral world of ghost writing. It is not just that you don’t exist in someone else’s writing, in many ways you fail to exist at all. Take perhaps, the insidious inability to publically look for work and showcase your talents. Or the dependence you have on those tiny whispers that enhance your capacity to pay bills, but which you are not supposed to instigate.
That said, the most painful experience of all is learning how to manage the art of watching other people’s reputations grow off the back of your sweat and craft. The hard pill to swallow is the raising of glasses to toast a success you promised you will never claim. It’s in being encircled by power and prestige but never been able to taste it. It’s in the countless introductions as somebody’s “friend”, followed by “I have heard so much about you”, a meaningless sentence which leaves you wondering what on Earth is being said, because you know damn well it is all a lie.
But then again, it is also in that egoless walk towards that leprechaun’s pot of gold and in knowing that in all lessons that I just described to you, I have woven my story – albeit underneath that myriad of colour that defines and defies my sense of self, worth and gratitude, even if it only ever exists on rainy days for a few seconds at a time.