The Anonymous Life of a Ghostwriter

Jerry Payne

August 18, 2014


As a ghostwriter, one question I get asked a lot is this: how can you stand to let others take the credit for your work? It’s a question that highlights an all-too-common misconception about ghostwriting. Just because I’m the guy who actually writes the words, that doesn’t mean I’m the one who does the work. And by work, I mean the imagination and effort required to sufficiently flesh out an entire book. Sure, there’s a lot of work and skill involved in the writing, thank you very much. But without the client and his or her story, there’s nothing to write.

One client put it like this: “I’m the one with the idea and the experience. You’re the one who put the meat on the bone.” I like that. It highlights the partnership aspect of an effective ghostwriting relationship. But I never forget that the idea and experience come first. Do I appreciate getting the credit for the wordsmithing? Well, sure. It’s nice to see my name pop up on an “Acknowledgments” page of a client’s finished book. But I’m not a guy who likes the spotlight. I’ll take a simple thank you (and of course the fee!) and that’s enough to make me feel pretty good about what I do.

I bring this up because some of the people who ask the question about letting others “take the credit” are often people considering getting into the ghostwriting business. They’re picking my brain and one thing many of them seem to have a problem with is the idea of living behind the curtain, operating in the shadows, doing the grunt work for the person in the spotlight. I always tell them the same thing: if you’re looking for a career where you get to have your ego stroked, you probably shouldn’t be a ghostwriter.

For me, I love the anonymity. Ah, but it was not always thus. When I was a kid, I liked to be the one who got the attention. I was the wise guy in the back row of class making smart remarks and basking in my schoolmates’ laughter. I had to be seen. I had to be popular. I describe that kid to people who know me today and they can’t believe it. “You? Mister Introverted?” Yep, that was me. Of course you don’t have to be a psychologist to know that behavior of that sort typically stems from insecurity. I was looking for affirmation and approval. In other words, I would have been a terrible ghostwriter in those days.

Today, I’m happy to bask in solitude. I like my privacy. I like my space. I like my anonymity. I’ll leave the spotlight to others. Ghostwriters can’t afford to have egos that need stroked. This doesn’t make me any more secure with myself, mind you. Not at all, actually. Just more self-aware. Life, I believe, has a way of pushing you into awareness, so long as you’re paying attention.

All of which is to say that I’ve found the perfect profession for me: giving voice to others, allowing them a means by which to  take their light out from under the bushel (as the parable goes), and then taking the much-deserved credit, all while I enjoy my precious anonymity. Is this a great country or what?

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