Hnnnrrmmf,’ I remarked. ‘Grrm myffyd ng wah. Wuggel marghh drrrg.’ The dentist laughed. ‘You’re always so enthusiastic about your work. Can’t stop talking about it, can you?’
Creeping out of my cave and going back to the dentist after nearly two years away wasn’t something I was looking forward to. Teeth wait for no man, and I knew mine wouldn’t have miraculously improved in the course of the Covid era.
But this dentist is special. So patient and meticulous, so willing to explain what she’s doing and why, so skilful and good-humoured, she is a gem. If anyone is going to be strapping on the crampons and scaling my cavities, it has to be her.
She’s also deeply interested in the art and craft of what she does, in the new discoveries and technologies that carry it forward and in the psychology of a profession that necessarily involves breaking bad news and inflicting pain from time to time. She’s got a lot to talk about, and it could add up to an interesting book. When I’d got my mouth back, I said so.
‘Ah, no,’ she said. ‘I’m not a natural writer. I’ll stick to teeth. I find writing difficult.’
Well, she’s not alone in that. We all find writing difficult, one way or another, including those of us who do it every day for money. As Thomas Mann said: ‘A writer is someone for whom writing is harder than it is for other people.’
That’s not the point, though. If you’re a good talker, like my dentist is, and you’ve got interesting things to talk about, as she has, there are several different ways of getting a book done and getting your ideas out into the world.
One is to struggle through it yourself, hoping, as often happens, that the actual writing will become easier as you get into the swing of it.
Another approach is to find someone who is interested in writing about your subject and effectively ‘donate’ your ideas. (The chances of there being any substantial profits to be divided between you are so low that carving up the proceeds is unlikely to be a problem.) You can decide between you whose name is to be on the cover or whether you wish to appear as joint authors.
The third route, of course, is to invest in the services of a ghostwriter. That’s not a cheap option, but it can be rewarding in all sorts of unexpected ways.
A good ghost will quickly get onto your wavelength and start to draw out of you thoughts, memories and perspectives you never knew you had, sometimes inspiring or guiding you to completely rethink your idea of what your book could be. Your ghost will steer you away from being too self-absorbed or too self-effacing and will help you shape and structure your thoughts to make sure that what’s produced is crisp, readable and engaging.
Your writing partner will be there throughout the process to keep you going when self-doubt creeps in or your energy is flagging. After all, ghosts, too, have an incentive not to let things straggle on indefinitely. If we’re going to make a decent living, we have to finish two or three books a year.
I’d like my dentist to write a book, despite her doubts about whether she has one in her. I’d love to work on it with her, but I doubt that’s going to happen now. After two years in which they’ve been badly hit by Covid-19, with months of forced inactivity followed by an uncomfortable return to work with reduced patient throughput and a lot of expensive adaptations to reduce the chances of infection, dentists are no longer making fat six-figure incomes and buying holiday homes abroad. Engaging a ghostwriter is almost certainly out of the question, so my dentist’s book will probably never be written.
That’s a shame. But it does point up one of the roles United Ghostwriters and our peers play in the cultural life of the country. We are the midwives who help bring all kinds of oddball, interesting and unexpected projects to fruition. Publishers who might turn down an idea on the basis of a brief proposal often react very differently when faced with a complete and well-written manuscript. We help broaden the range of voices that get into print and make sure that readers will always find something new and surprising to catch the eye in their local bookshops. I won’t pretend that’s why we do it, but it’s good to feel we’re making a contribution.
Ian Shircore’s latest book is So Brightly at the Last: Clive James & the Passion for Poetry (RedDoor Press)