Of Writers and Authors
Words are everywhere.
They surround us very much like the air we breathe. Sometimes they are visible, in bookstores, in grocery stores, or on bill boards. Sometimes they are invisible: you see the leather seats, but not the word luxury. Words are many things, even as they represent many other things. Words change lives. They make you stop, push, pull, sit, wait, and be quiet. Words can kill as easily as they create.
As children, we learn magical words – abracadabras and shazams and open sesames. As adults, we learn that all words can be magical in one way or another, whether manifest, latent, silent, or spoken. Some of us fall under words’ spell. We become writers.
In this world of words, there are no strays. For all the words in the world, we can make a few observations:
Somebody wrote the words.
Somebody will be paid for them.
Somebody will claim to be their author.
These statements hold true for all the words we can see in the world. The exception is for private words: the letters, personal journals, notes or emails that people write to specific somebodies or to no one at all. Under closer scrutiny, however, this exception falls away, for private words tend to become public when the opportunity cost of maintaining their privacy exceeds the actual cost of making them public. Or put differently, when the public value of private words exceeds their private value, it’s only a matter of time before they become public. Paid or unpaid, words have value, and those who claim authorship will hold that value dear, whether money is on the table or not.
The interesting thing about the above referenced somebodies is that they are not always the same somebody. Any stroll past the bestseller shelves in a bookstore (or surfed across the pages of Amazon.com) reveals a fundamental division of labor between writing and authorship, and the authors are always paid more than the writers. Additionally, agents, editors, marketers, and publishers also share in the take from any well-written (or at least well-selling) set of words. Just how the writers fit into this is an open question, because our society’s fetish for authorship is indeed a pretty solid hedge marking the boundary between our enacted reality and the real labor that makes it possible.
The Truth and the Ghost Writer
To tease out these issues was the purpose of “The truth and the ghost writer,” a book reading that took place on January 19, 2012 in Park Slope, Brooklyn. The event was part of the Brooklyn Reading Works program that takes place every third Thursday of the month from September through May at the Old Stone House, a restored Dutch farmhouse that was part of the Battle of New York in 1776 and later the original clubhouse for the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team. Every year, for three years running now, I’ve been asked by the Brooklyn Reading Works creator, Louise Crawford, to come up with the program for one the events. For this year’sprogram, I gave myself the challenge finding ghost writers for a book reading.
The four writers on the panel were Keith Elliot Greenberg, Sarah Deming, Alisa Bowman, and James Braly. They are all writers who have managed to pay their bills with words. They each brought experiences both of ghostwriting and solo authorship. They each had rich stories about the care and feeding of clients who as often as not were testy and uncooperative. They each operated with something of a code of honor and professionalism of conduct, meaning that they don’t reveal their authors, and they work hard to make sure their authors speak honestly and understand the consequences of their words. This doesn’t mean they don’t embellish, but there seems to be some slippage in the ghosting process that you don’t have, say, in the writing of memoirs (viz. James Frey). Veracity and verisimilitude are but two ends of the ghostwriting candle, with a lot of wax in between.
Keith Elliot Greenberg
Keith was the Indiana Jones of the group, a swashbuckler who went deep inside the lives of pro wrestlers in order to coauthor their autobiographies. His work fed a long and stormy relationship with Ric Flair, known as the greatest pro wrestler of all time, who blamed Keith’s book for the demise of his marriage. It was a classic case of the author not understanding the consequences of his words when printed — specifically the humiliation his wife would suffer with the public revelation of Flair’s amorous adventures. Flair said that he’d told his wife about these affairs long ago, but he didn’t realize that she figured these stories would go no further. Keith can report Flair’s name – also Classy Fred Blassie and Superstar Billy Graham – because he alone of the panelists scored deals that put his authorship on the book cover. He also coauthored a column for Jesse “The Body” Ventura. Overall, Keith has written over 30 books and in addition to the professional wrestlers, he has nurtured an eclectic stable of authors including homicide detectives, women’s self defense instructors, and children’s rights advocates.
Sarah was the ying and yang of the evening’s presentations. Her experience involved the marriage of opposites in a way that felt natural and not at all at odds. Her authored work includes a children’s novel, Iris, Messenger (Harcourt 2007), and (in process) a memoir of her relationship with her mother, a bipolar woman whose kidneys were destroyed by Lithium. Sarah donated a kidney to her mother and is now writing the memoir with her, each alternating the voices of the chapters. Her ghosting was in porn, specifically erotic novels based on the lives of real nude models. The standup moment in her presentation was her comparison of the ways in which porn and children’s literature are the same, taken from an essay she wrote about writing.
“People have commented on the apparent contradiction of writing both children’s fiction and porn. They think I’m being cute when I say they have a lot in common, but I’m not. Both are underrated genres that aim to please, not to impress. Roald Dahl wrote that children’s literature is unique in that it does more than merely entertain, it teaches children the habit of reading and increases their vocabulary. It has, in other words, a utilitarian, developmental role. So does porn. My message is pretty much the same to both children and adult readers: live in your imagination, accept all kinds of people, and let go of shame.”
Alisa was the consummate professional. Soft-spoken and serious, she blended personal reflection and self-deprecating humor as she told her story. After starting out as a staff writer at magazines, she was offered the job of writing a book for another writer who had too many other time commitments. In addition to her skill as a writer, it turned out she was good at channeling the voice of another person, and more ghosting offers came her way. She quit her day job when she realized could make a lot more money as a ghost, and in her first year she doubled her income. After seeing her titles — but of course not her name — on the New York Times bestsellers lists, there came a time when she wanted to make a go getting her own name on that list as author and writer. To do so, she began to write a sex advice column, entering her own world of swashbuckling ying and yang until the day came when she realized she was becoming someone she didn’t want to be. The ghost, as it were, became her own ghost and she didn’t like it. Other flirtations with writerly fame have followed, but mainly she’s returned to ghosting as a master of a craft that requires satisfaction with the act of writing itself. To date, she has ghosted over 30 titles, 7 of which have wound up on the New York Times bestsellers list.
James was the panel’s reluctant one, whose skill and natural storytelling ability keeps the work coming even while he’s not entirely sure this is his true calling. He told a tale of how a neighbor’s ghost hijacked him from the unwanted drudgery of ghosting a speech for a corporate client. It had happened that while James was writing, this neighbor jumped ten stories to his death in the courtyard. Some time later, James found himself scrambling into bed with his young sons, chased by the neighbor’s ghost and hoping that real ghosts wouldn’t attack children. As one ghost taunted the other, James closed his eyes and hoped that his boys would not follow their father’s footsteps, even as he continued down this path of channeling the spirits of others for a wage. Unlike the others on the panel, James’s ghosting work doesn’t much involve books. He writes speeches, presentations, and other communications for corporate clients, including the world’s 144th richest man. He hems and haws about it, but he keeps doing it even while he leads another life as a performer in his own (really) self-authored, autobiographical one-man-show that has been seen around the world to rave reviews. The show has been optioned for film.
At the end of the presentation, James told how he has finally come to terms with this profession that he wouldn’t wish on his children. In that story, he told of interviewing a series of architects and designers for the renovation of his Upper West Side coop, the same apartment where the aforementioned tragic ghosting incident occurred. The designers each came to him with grand plans for his apartment that reflected their own distinctive styles, but this was precisely what James had hoped to avoid. He wanted, he said, a solid renovation that would be tasteful and reflect the character of his apartment and his life. The best designer for his home would be the one who simply vanished into the work itself, leaving nothing but the renovation. It was at that point that James realized he was ghost writer and that it was okay.
Notes and Credits
James Braly’s website can be found here, with all you need to know about his show, “Life in a Marital Institution (20 years of monagamy in one terrifying hour). Alisa Bowman’s website is here, in which she helps you understand her story and what she can do for you. Sarah Deming’s blog is called “The Spiral Staircase,” and she has another website about her work here. Keith Elliot Greenberg can be found on Huffington Post and elsewhere on the Web, including this Youtube video about his book on John Lennon.
The photograph of the stop sign comes from a site called “Funny Free Pics,” which can be found here. I was looking for a stop sign and chose this one because of the street sign, “Washtenaw Ave.,” which is the main drag of Ann Arbor, Michigan, where I did my doctoral studies. Also, I like the graffiti, which is ironic-cute-pointless in a way that reminded me of the 1980s in Ann Arbor, though I admit that I think this sign might just come from Washtenaw Ave. in Chicago. I can’t quite tell, but it’s a word that ambiguously reminds me of my past on a sign telling me to do something (which I will do, to be certain) defaced with words that make me roll my eyes.
Photographs of the Brooklyn Reading Works event and the four writers are posted courtesy of David Kumin, a friend of Keith’s who sent me his pictures of the event.
Many thanks go to Louise Crawford, who organizes the Brooklyn Reading Works and is the founder of the Brooklyn Blogfest. Her blog, “Only the Blog Knows Brooklyn,” was a touchstone of community information for the Park Slope for many years and continues to provide postings of Hugh Crawford’s photographs and other news. Her community presence is an inspiration to me.
The venue for these readings and many other events in Park Slope is the Old Stone House, which features a regular calendar of community events. The OSH is maintained by a non-profit organization that reflects the best of community-building in our world.