Five Ways Ghostwriting Is Good for the Soul

01/15/2015 09:08 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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On New Year's Day, I sat on the floor of a thrift store near Wells, Maine, leafing through the yellowing pages of an Alice Notley narrative poem. I silently read each stanza, startled by the way its strange staccato rhythm entered me, and thought: I once believed all books would eventually be found this way -- treasures unearthed in dusty shops on the side of the road.

I had feared paper books would go the way of the mastodons -- in those years when they stopped teaching children cursive writing, and even the chain bookstores that put independents out of business went belly up.

Slowly, my attitude changed. I found back alley bookstores. I had also started to ghostwrite.

When I tell people I am a ghostwriter, they generally ask me to explain what the heck that word means. Ghostwriting is the craft of translating people's spoken stories onto the page. Ghostwriters either share credit with the person the story is about; or disappear and gracefully let him/her take full credit.

Some believe that it's cheating. Yet, humans have been practicing ghostwriting in some form or another since time immemorial -- from Thoth, the Egyptian scribe to the underworld to Shel Silverstein who ghostwrote songs for Johnny Cash. A huge portion of celebrity and politician biographies were ghostwritten. It has always been done.

It is only lately however -- with the advent of the Internet, self-publishing and print on demand --that everyone and their grandmother has decided to share their stories on paper. The majority of these are autobiographies. When ordinary people turn their stories into books; remarkable things occur.

Five Reasons Ghostwriting is Good for the Soul

1) There really are stories out there that belong in the world. Any time we read a book, we gain an intimate perspective on another person's life. This perspective tends to stick with us more than any article or newscast.

There is no time that connection is more necessary than now. Projects I bid on or participated in include everything from: a woman who wanted to write her book before her brain/body deteriorated from Huntington's disease, to a girl who was trafficked, to a boy who spent half his life in prison.

The world that we live in can be an incredibly terrifying, fragmenting place. We need each other to share our truths, to make sense of it all. Ghostwriting allows people who do not necessarily know how to/want to write a whole book by themselves, to share experiences that then become part of our collective awareness.

2) Sharing a story is incredibly brave: Sharing life stories takes a lot of guts. Most people spend a large portion of their lives bogged down by feelings of shame. Sharing stories can help to break destructive familial and societal codes of secrecy.

3) It helps people uncover their true story: This society is not really receptive to the art of slow, deliberate conversation. Most people are never allowed the silence it takes to understand their experience. They are rarely allowed the luxury of telling their whole story to anyone, even their mates.

Written material has been delivered to me on cocktail napkins, yellow pads, carbon copied typewritten pages, the backs of photographs and emails. Yet, the majority of ghostwritten books require extensive, personal interviewing. This allows the "author" of the ghostwritten piece authentic time to delve into memories, opinions, events. "Authors" reveal these stories to me, sure, but more to themselves.

When necessary, I coax them to fill in a blank, to go deeper in telling, to bring in all their senses. We piece these swatches together like a quilt, set in the larger context of the world.

The interview and subsequent writing process may also be regarded as a form of self-therapy or meditation.

4) It allows history to be preserved. The popularity of sites like ancestry dot com prove that people are interested in finding their family roots, and that family stories are not always preserved. The most touching interviews are those for individuals who feel a deep seeded need to write down family stories to share with their children and grandchildren.

5) People who have books ghosted are great readers. It is nearly impossible to explain what the process of writing a book is like to somebody who has never done it. Freelance sites contain a plethora of requests from potential clients with wildly unrealistic expectations.... (Please write and deliver to me in two weeks a best-selling nonfiction spiritual novel about my cousin's experiences hunting vampires and practicing necrophilia. I will tell you exactly how to do it.)

However, most people who make a commitment to really see a ghostwritten project through to fruition are open to learning about book writing. The process of writing/co-writing a book is a great teacher. People who had their books ghostwritten have been known to frequent roadside bookstores, to spend hours on their knees examining the spines of paperbacks, lingering over pages, savoring their words.