Friday, April 24, 2009

Ghostwriting, Publishing, and the Monastic Tradition

I have a friend who's a university professor who just doesn't get the concept of ghostwriting. Every time I tell him about a book I'm working on as a ghostwriter, he shakes his head and mumbles something about intellectual prostitution. I think what sticks in his craw is the notion that someone else is getting credit (albeit, paying for the privilege) for something I'm writing. As a prof who came up the hard way in the academic trenches, scratching and clawing for every publication credit and scrupulously updating his curriculum vitae each time another journal published his work, my friend can't get his mind around the idea that I would gladly exchange payment for public recognition of work I've done.

It's a fair criticism. Frankly, there are other writers in my circle--especially novelists--who aren't too keen on the whole ghostwriting thing. Their notion runs something like, "Why should some big-name evangelist get to have the cover credit for 'his' novel all to himself, when all he did was maybe toss out a couple of plot points and write a check?"

I have a different view of what I do. I don't know if it's the right one for everybody, but I think it works for me. When I'm working on a book or article that's going to be published under someone else's name, I conceive of my task as similar to something a medieval monk might have done, meticulously crafting an illuminated manuscript. He wasn't going to sign his work; within a hundred years, it's unlikely that anyone would even remember his contribution to the book on which he spent so many hours. He would labor in faithful obscurity, for no other reason than that he had the necessary skill to perform the work that would make the book take on an extra measure of life and beauty.

When I'm creating a story, whether it's a novel, a memoir, or even something as mundane as a financial self-help book, I like to think that I'm kind of like that monk: I'm employing a skill that has been entrusted to me mostly as a gift, and I'm using it to do the best work I can on an artifact that has the potential to help someone else. I hope I'm getting paid a little better than the monk, since I don't think my wife and kids would much favor moving into a monastery. But the principle of focusing more on the work to be done and less on the public credit to be had is kind of the same... in my mind, at least.

In fact, every book contains elements of this principle. Unlike movies--where everyone who carried a cable, catered a meal, or cued up a soundtrack gets his or her name listed in the credits--books don't identify anywhere near all the people involved in their creation. Oh, sure, the author will usually acknowledge his or her agent, probably the editor at the publisher who bought the book, and maybe a few family members and friends who offered (or sometimes withheld) critiques. Academic books come a little closer, since scholarly authors (especially early in their careers) try to be pretty careful about acknowledging everyone--from their graduate research assistants to the chairs of their dissertation committees--who aided or abetted the publication effort. But nowhere in any book will you find a word of thanks for the typesetter, or the pressman who ran the signatures through the offset printer, or the imaging proofer who color-matched the illustrations, or the administrative assistant who mailed the publishing contract, or... All of these people, from the copyeditor to the warehouse guy who packs the book for shipping to the bookstore, had a hand in the author's success, but very few of them ever get thanked... or even noticed. But each of them--at least, the ones worth their salt--is proud of the contribution made, whether anyone remembers who did it or not.

So, I take a craftsman's pride in what I do. Sometimes, I'd like to think it approaches art. But even when it doesn't, I still feel good about putting the best words possible out there, in between the covers of books, for people to find in their time of need. I try not to worry so much about who gets the credit for it. In my best moments, like the monk in his, I believe that doing your best at what you do is reason enough.