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I'm Not Feeling Like Myself Today

A professional ghostwriter describes the strange experience of inhabiting someone else's life.

By Deirdre Day-MacLeod - November 12, 2004

I have grown up in the West Texas of the fifties, where I chafed against my repressive and self-involved parents, played in huge mounds of cotton, and lived in a house without running water until I was 12. I escaped to elope at the age of 17 with the first of my six (or is it seven?) husbands.

I have also been a celebrity and a popular sitcom parent of a somewhat dysfunctional family, and I've written a book giving real-life parents useful ideas for entertaining and educating their precocious offspring. I have indulged them with fascinating nuggets of information on the likes of Georgia O'Keeffe, papier-mâché, and Egyptian mummification.

On another occasion, I was an enormously successful cosmetic dentist, peering into the yawning maws of dozens of beauty queens as I prepared them to smile their way to Atlantic City.

In all these guises, I've revealed my insecurities, my infidelities, my ambitions, and my hard-won wisdom. I've confessed my third-grade romances, my torments, and the error of my ways. And I've boasted a fair share about what makes me different.

Who am "I"? It depends entirely on the name signed on the check. The name on the check then becomes the name on the byline—but it's not me. Assuming the voice of someone else, I channel their thoughts, ventriloquizing spoken words into written pages.

My life as Not Me began when, as a staff writer at a women's magazine, I was assigned the "real life" stories—first-person accounts of events in the lives of "real" people. I specialized in eliciting confessions and then editing them down. Every person with whom I spoke became a microcassette, and every microcassette became a stream of words to be shaped into the taut little pieces that appeared on the page. The trick was to keep the voice while removing approximately 90 percent of the words.

But I became frustrated because so much about these people never made it onto the page. And as I grew to feel closer to them, as I inhabited their sentences and absorbed the rhythms of their speech, it began to feel as if the events they related had happened to me, as if their thoughts were my own.

When you write as someone else—using the "I" pronoun usually reserved for one's own life, feelings and actions—it's easy to get confused. It becomes hard to articulate a worldview, or illuminate feelings, without taking on the characteristics of the person that the "I" has become.

Though I knew most of them only from their phone-filtered voices and the snapshots sent to me, I felt I knew these people better than I knew the other inhabitants of my bay of cubicles. They were in Ohio or West Virginia, in Michigan or Massachusetts and they were not part of my world. But they had been honest with me and revealed their insecurities as my co-workers never did. I cried on the phone with Michelle when she told me about how she'd nearly destroyed her marriage, how she'd confessed her affair to her husband, and how he'd hugged her and said he was glad she could finally tell him. I admitted to Sheila that my family, like hers, had given up sitting around the dinner table and that we often ate in front of the TV. And when Kara told me that she knew she was 50 pounds overweight but she wasn't going to sneak around the locker room as if she had the plague, I cheered for her.

And so I hated when my editors seemed not to like them—not to like my people—or to exude a certain kind of Blue State superiority. I was spending half my day writing in the serious, halting voices of real people, and the rest writing women's-magazine-style breathless and bubbly pieces, jarringly traversing the territory between stark personal difficulties and the oh-so-glossy world of hair-care products and frothy pillowcases. And I felt more at home with the people who agonized over childcare decisions, rejoiced at surviving 10 years of marriage or feeling intimidated about what to wear to the parent-teacher conference. I hated how my editors cut these people into bits to fit the page. I felt responsible for having elicited confessions, and I had tried my best to make fair choices, but I feared that my people had become fodder for some kind of voyeuristic exploitation.

The adulterous wife started to look a little slutty and the working mother a tad neglectful. The nudist needed to lose weight and cover up those rolls a bit. (How dare she strut her stuff like that just a few pages away from Jennifer Aniston and J-Lo?!)

When I left my staff job, I floated around a bit, trying to decide if this was a niche I could explore further. I knew that I preferred length to brevity, and having written my own books before, I had no fear that I wouldn't be able to write enough words to fill that many pages.

My ghostwriting began with Martha, the much-married Texan. I became Martha for three months as I edited what she had written and wrote the parts she left out. I lived her life, seeing her world as precisely and vividly as necessary to write the book. When I was Martha, I saw the world differently, but once I stopped being Martha, the experience—and our intimacy—ceased. We no longer exchanged emails several times a day. I no longer had to push her to tell me things she didn't want to talk about—things I needed to make her story work—and I became someone else.

After Martha, I discovered that everyone wants to write a book. Your plumber wants to write a book, as does your accountant, your brother-in-law, and no doubt your manicurist as well. Well, actually, they all want to have written a book. And each believes that he or she has lived a life worth recording, but very few of them want to sit down at the empty screen. Some of these people would, they tell me, but they are far too busy doing other important things, and some just aren't writers.

Of the masses who want a published life story, a few have enough money to pay someone else to write their books for them. But far more believe that their story of abuse, illness, betrayal, and smorgasbord of other tragedies will be fascinating enough for a writer to take on with a promise of future payment when Oprah and the Book of the Month Club cotton to it.

And perhaps they are right. Maybe the disease they suffer from, the medical ineptitude visited upon them, the abusive (choose one: spouse, parent, teacher, priest) are all material for a story that insures future riches and I'm lucky to be offered the opportunity to write their lives. But I have plenty of my own experiences I can explore for nothing, so I only work with those who will pay me for my time and talents. And if I get paid to keep my mouth shut, to silently haunt their autobiographies, it's perfectly fine with me.

Mostly.

I once became the amanuensis (how wonderful to have such a fancy word for transcriber!) for a minor celebrity (whose name I cannot reveal because having an invisible resume is one of the costs of being a ghostwriter) for a short time. When I saw him on television talking about what he had written as if he had written it, I realized with a shock that while I may have become him, he certainly was not me. But the sting of anonymity passed as I moved into the world of cosmetic dentistry and began a novel for someone haunted by a plot he cannot express.

Being a ghostwriter is a chameleon's existence, and while protective coloration has its charms, the constant act of slipping into a different skin feels something like a personality disorder. You become someone else and then the book is done, and you—the muse, the analyst, the lifeline—become invisible and your clients go on talk shows and hawk their products. You feel bereft for a while, seeing that they don't need you anymore, that they've gone off into the world without you.

Right now, I'm writing someone else's labyrinthine tale of deception, mistaken identity, and amnesia, greed and true love gone wrong, but in the interest of sanity, I return to myself and my own memoir. While I love writing the lavish descriptions and melodramatic scenes that would never find their way into my own restrained literary work, I also feel the need to nourish myself and to find my own voice, or run the risk of feeling empty and deprived when my characters have moved on and I am left lifeless without a story to tell.

Deirdre Day-MacLeod has written everything from television commercials for dog biscuits to a dissertation on maternal infanticide. She can be reached at deirdredaymacleod AT comcast DOT net.



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