Writing What You Don’t Believe In

Jerry Payne

January 21, 2018


Recently, someone asked me if, as a ghostwriter, I would help someone write a book touting a position with which I completely disagreed. It was a great question and, fortunately, I haven’t had to face such a decision very often. But it brings up a couple of larger questions; namely, what exactly is the role of a ghostwriter? And should a person who assumes the role of ghostwriter as his or her primary occupation allow his or her personal convictions to influence the decision to take on a client?

I’m a big believer in the First Amendment. I also know what my place in the universe is: I give people voice through the written word. That’s my function, my economic justification for being. As such, it seems clear that if somebody comes to me with a book idea about a position that I disagree with, even a position with which I abhor, I should nevertheless perform my job. My role is not to pass judgment on the positions my clients take. I’m just a conduit in the greater marketplace of free ideas. A mouthpiece. If someone wants to take an opposite position than that of one of my clients, well, he or she is certainly free to write their own book (even hire me to do so). To do my job properly, I need to remain neutral.

But so much for theory. The real truth of the matter is, I’m too human to adhere to such an idealistic, robotic approach to the ghostwriting business.

A real-world example: Three years ago, a former officer of the Ku Klux Klan approached me with the idea of writing a book extolling the virtues of segregation. In the twenty-first century, mind you! We had a long conversation. To my surprise, his arguments, though clearly wrong and based on faulty premises, were nevertheless coherent and well-thought-out. This was an educated man. He could have written a rational and forceful (if unconvincing) book.

The book would have created a lot of controversy, no doubt, but controversy is not necessarily a bad thing. If nothing else, it might well have inspired someone with the opposite view to put forth an even more rational, more forceful book in opposition to my client’s book. We’re a nation of competing ideas, after all. Reasonable disagreement is, well, very American. Is it a good thing to squelch ideas, even those we find distasteful?

I thought about all of this as I mulled over the possibility of taking this client on. In the end, I decided he had every right to get his ideas out there in the form of a book. I just wasn’t the guy to do it. Not because I was against the idea of him advancing his argument in accordance with his First Amendment rights, but because I knew I couldn’t do his argument justice. I’m not above admitting that for a client to get my best work, I have to feel at least a little passion for the material. I have to be interested in it. I have to want to root for my client’s success. In this case, I felt none of this. In fact, quite the opposite. On a strictly visceral level, I felt repulsed by his ideas. Is that unprofessional, to allow emotion to enter into the equation instead of doing my job at the same high level regardless of the content I’m given?

I’ll leave that for others to decide. For me, I thanked the man for considering my services, but told him he’d be better served finding another ghostwriter, maybe one who (improbably) is also a segregationist. That’s part of the free market of ideas as well, it seems to me; I am free to accept or reject my clientele. By the way, last time I did a search, it appears the man’s book remains unwritten.

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