About 5,300 years ago, some bright spark in Mesopotamia invented writing, using a wedge-shaped (cuneiform) tool to press marks into wet clay. Roughly 530 years ago, Shakespeare picked up his quill and started his playwriting career. And 53 years ago, I started writing for publication, wondering if I’d ever be able to make my mark, or at least scratch a living doing what I loved best.
Well, I didn’t. At least, not without a lot of compromises.
For years, I paid the bills working as a reporter or sub-editor or churning out ad copy and sales brochures for anyone who had a budget. When I started writing my own books, I quickly discovered that the compliments and sense of fulfilment I got from doing that were not matched by anything remotely resembling an income.
But now I have the best job in the world. Looking back, everything that went before seems like a long, meandering apprenticeship, eventually leading to this point.
If you’re lucky – and I am – and choosy, which I try to be, with varying degrees of success, ghostwriting can be a wonderful way to earn your daily bread. You get to meet interesting, unusual, often exceptional people. You get to delve into all kinds of unexpected subject areas and educate yourself about all kinds of fascinating topics.
In the last few weeks, I’ve dived down numerous rabbit-holes. I’ve been learning about new 3D metal printing systems for making heavy-duty auto components, about doping in sport and about the delusions that lay behind some famously disastrous investment decisions. I’ve been working with three authors – and they couldn’t be more different. One’s a top Olympic athlete, the second’s a financier who’s backing several sensational digital start-up companies and the third’s an expert in behavioural economics who also happens to be a highly-rated magician.
And that’s just what I’ve been doing. Various United Ghostwriters colleagues of mine are busy helping abuse survivors tell their stories, giving whistleblowers a platform for their grievances, explaining the ins and outs of business law, working on diet and self-help books, crafting family or sporting memoirs and guiding first-time novelists whose ideas have outrun their technique. There’s a lot going on this year, probably more than there was before the Covid pandemic gave so many potential authors so much unscheduled thinking time.
I don’t think any of us ever set out with a burning ambition to become a ghostwriter. And it’s hard to know what qualifies you to do the job. Most of the fourteen members of our little group have put in years, or even decades, honing our writing skills as journalists on national newspapers and magazines. But the best ghostwriters always seem to be people who have gone through at least two different careers to get here.
We’ve all knocked around a bit and, as a result, we have a lot of other strings to our bow. We’ve got poets and screenwriters, publishers and novelists, IT experts and musicians, entrepreneurs and academics, marketing specialists and a former brewery drayman. One of our ghosts spent time doing voluntary work in Nicaragua. Another worked on the Daily Mail, but gave it up to train as a psychotherapist. A third risked his sanity investigating the highs and lows of life on the road with Pete Doherty and his intermittently splendid band, Babyshambles.
So we’ve all come to ghostwriting from different directions. But now we’re here, few of us would want to swap this odd niche profession of ours for any other.
It’s stimulating, demanding, sometimes frustrating, but there’s nothing more satisfying than knowing you’ve been able to help people get their stories or their points of view down on paper and present them in the best possible light.
Writing, after all, is what makes us human. Animals can remember their own experiences, but we are the only species that can pass our thoughts on and accumulate wisdom and insights, year after year, generation after generation. And it would be a sadly limited world if the only memories and ideas that were preserved were those of professional writers. Looked at that way, I suppose, ghostwriting – often seen as the preserve of uninspired hacks – could even be seen as an unexpectedly noble calling.
Ian Shircore’s latest book is So Brightly at the Last: Clive James and the Passion for Poetry (RedDoor Press, 2019)