Saturday, February 13, 2010

True confessions of a ghost writer

The awful thing about being in a profession where visibility is a key criterion of success is that regardless of the quality of your work, your friends will always think you’re a loser since you’ve never won the Booker Prize.
No one could possibly be worse affected by this unreasonable benchmark than me since I went to school with Arundhati Roy where – and the admission causes me massive shudders of mortification – she was a famous athlete and I was the one preening insufferably with the radiant glory of my wondrous and unmatched skill with words.
Worse yet is the fact that every book I’ve written to date, and also some I’m labouring over even as we speak, have been ostensibly authored by others.
Trying to feign sophistication is pointless – it’s only dismissed as sour grapes. Even my (actually rather priceless) one-liner, “If they give me cash then why do I need credit!” is no match for the sniggers of uncouth schoolmates who cruelly whisper to each other, “Ya, she’s on page 334! And you’ll need a high-rez magnifying glass if you really want to see her name!”
It’s no use my explaining that the biggest compliment to the ghost writer is when someone reaches the end of the book and only then realizes, with a start, that the voice that was speaking all this while is not that of the face on the cover but has actually been cleverly simulated by another.
It’s no use my explaining that even a book of the stature of The Autobiography of Malcolm X – listed by none other than Time Magazine as one of the ten most important non-fiction books of the Twentieth Century – was written by the high profile Alex Haley.
Yes, we ghost writers are a sadly marginalized tribe – but the truth is, our numbers are growing.
Publishing is easier today than it’s ever been before – and getting even easier. Outsourcing is now established as a mainstream alternative to getting things done, so no one need pretend any more that they actually authored their book themselves. Writing is considered a suitable – though perhaps not particularly favoured – occupation for one’s offspring. And, as the world grows more and more complex, people with fascinating stories to tell but without the skill to tell them are undoubtedly going to give more and more opportunities for highly-paid work to people like me. The prospect delights.
One day, surely, someone will coin the expression ‘self-written autobiography’.
Yet, and even after endless years spent honing the skill of presenting the most negative attribute, the most downmarket episode, the most trivial achievement in hues that colour it as enthralling – or candid, or upright, or touching, or endearing  – I’m sad pressed to portray this facet of my own professional profile in a manner that might possibly invite esteem.
Whooshing out of cupboards and down chimneys in my ghostly manner, I must muse moodily – but wispily, insubstantially alone – on the significant attributes of the sensitive scribe who can listen so carefully to another as to truly comprehend all the intricacies of thought and feeling of the subject, expressed in subtle ways even if unspoken, and convey them in a suitable manner.
Most of us go through life leaving the really important things unsaid. So ingrained is this habit that few of us really know what is important in our lives, and even less know how best to say it to the ones most important to us. And yet, when towards the end of a long and fulfilling life – or phase of achievement – we take up the task of writing our story, we must find the words with which to say these things: words that will cement our bonds with loved ones without gushing, repair our strained relations with others without grovelling, and create in strangers a feeling of warmth and appreciation for our life and times. This, of course, is no ordinary skill – but it is what the ghost writer must strive to excel at.
One of the simplest directives for good-quality journalism holds up hallmark parameters to the ghost biographer equally well: “Put it before them briefly so they will read it, clearly so they will appreciate it, picturesquely so they will remember it and, above all, accurately so they will be guided by its light.” These words come from Joseph Pulitzer, the Hungarian-American publisher who is best known for posthumously establishing the Pulitzer Prizes and for being one of the originators of investigative journalism.
What Pulitzer was never recorded as having said, but we all know, is that journalists learn early to casually project an air of comfortably superior knowledge by using the right key phrases that indicate one is an insider and well versed in areas one may never have encountered till just the previous day. The ghost writer must extend this skill further and delve the depth of her subject’s life experience, making it her own. And the ghost writer must have the discipline to resist the temptation – as every good reporter must – of icing the story with her own interpretations and experience, assuming and conjuring detail or sensation where none existed in fact.
When I write on behalf of someone else, though I am primarily working as a journalist, I also project myself into a range of different roles.
I am the village letter writer who will communicate this person’s message to another.
I am the client-service executive who will investigate my client’s requirements with single-minded commitment, and work to my utmost to fulfil them as best as I can.
I am the PR machinery that will give a context to both the achievements and the failures in this person’s life and, by showcasing them in a favourable perspective, matchlessly enhance his or her reputation.
I am the confidante who will receive a stream of information and it will be my responsibility to judge which shall be published, which relegated to the wayside, and which – for some of these will be secrets never told before to a single soul – shall go with me to my grave.
To the opinionated grandson who scoffs, “Why a book about HIS life, what is so great about HIM that he should write an autobiography!” I am the Victorian school teacher who raps knuckles with the stern admonition that each human being – and in particular grandfathers of overindulged young people – has a fascinating story, and each human being has the right to tell it.
I am the productivity-oriented project manager who must structure the project into clear phases, defining milestones, moving effortlessly from one role to the other as appropriate to each changing phase, anticipating, apprehending and resolving key pressure points – while at the same time monitoring and managing every discernible parameter. And I am the commercially-savvy professional with the relaxed confidence to lay down a payment structure which protects the interests of both parties, while simultaneously nudging the project along a carefully-configured but relentless time-line.
I am the stage artiste whose own character and nature and gender and family and past – and ego – vanish completely as she seamlessly dons the persona of another.
And I am also the unglamorous writer who will never win a Booker for her work, and even if the press in her own little city beams with kind satisfaction at her every achievement, must ultimately content herself with these words that a wise woman once coined: “If they give me cash, then why do I need credit?”
first appeared as I’m not there in Open magazine  on 13 Feb 2010