Giving Up the Ghost
June 7, 2021 § 5 Comments
By Cynthia DiTiberio
A couple years ago, when the first copy of one of the books I had written arrived from the publisher in the mail, I held it proudly, seeing all the words I had carefully pieced together beautifully designed on the page. I then flipped to the back of the book, to unearth my name from its contracted place in the acknowledgements.
You see, it was both my book, and not my book at all.
I am a ghostwriter. The books I write don’t really belong to me. Though I have sometimes written every single word that appears on each page, oftentimes my participation is hidden, by design.
When my oldest daughter walked into the room and I held the book up for her to see, she looked at me, her blue eyes crinkled in confusion.
“But where’s your name?”She asked. “Shouldn’t your name be on the book, too?
I paused as I stared down at the cover. I couldn’t deny I felt the same way. But I had agreed, many months before, that my contribution wouldn’t be credited. Now, however, it no longer felt like a good deal.
“That’s not how it works,”I explained, trying to convince her as well as myself.“My role isn’t public. The ideas in the book aren’t mine. I just helped someone write what was in their head all along.”
“They would never let us do that in school,” she said, matter of fact, already self-assured at eight-years-old. “Promise me, Mommy, next book, will you make sure they put your name on the cover?”
There was something about hearing those words from my daughter that made me finally wonder if credit was something I deserved.
Then 2020 hit and with it, untenable working conditions. When I turned in a manuscript in May, I was burnt out. I had written eleven books in eight years, the last one during the grueling experience of shelter-in-place and remote school. When you are a ghostwriter, they expect you to write fast, otherwise, what are they paying you for? Everyone thinks they could write their own book, if they only had the time. The pace was exhausting. I needed a break. And after that conversation with my daughter, I began to wonder if maybe it was time to see what it felt like to write something of my own.
I had always wanted to be a writer. I had filled notebooks as a child; idolized Anne Shirley and Jo March. At age twenty-two I had a specific book idea, with a title and subtitle, written in my journal. At twenty-three, I was on my way, landing a dream job as an editorial assistant at a publishing house specializing in religious and spiritual books. Having graduated the year before with a major in religion, I felt triumphant to be able to prove that my degree wasn’t so useless after all.
I spent nine years working my way up to senior editor, learning the tricks of the trade. But when I had my first child, and returned to full-time work with a 60-mile commute each way, I realized I was ready for a change and set out to create a freelance editorial business. The work that I most enjoyed, the actual editing, happened outside of the office anyway. I knew that we hired freelancers all the time. I had goodwill and all the contacts to make a go at it.
To start, I worked predominantly for my previous employer. But then I began to take on projects with literary agents I had worked with in the past. Having once sat in the very seat of power, in the editorial board meetings where book proposals were dissected like frogs, I knew what it took to get noticed. Soon, writing book proposals turned into writing the books themselves. Before I knew it, I was a ghostwriter, writing other people’s books for them.
I loved it. I spent hours on the phone with authors, identifying the themes they wanted to explore, getting a sense for their voice and the cadence of their teaching. I never had writer’s block, because the ideas weren’t mine; I just had to figure out how to translate them to the page. I didn’t have to worry about whether the books would sell, or how to sell them; my job was just to create. I got to live in the sweet spot, with none of the risk, but also, little of the reward.
As this year forced a pause on normal life, I thought, what better time to finally try and find myself on the page? I didn’t even know what I sounded like anymore. I hadn’t written in my own voice since college. But I knew it was time to try.
I often joked that the reason why I was so selective about which authors I worked with was because whomever I was writing for lived in my head the entire time we were working together. For eight years, I had leased space in my brain to others. Once the tenants were out, I realized that my own thoughts had been drowned out by the psychic energy of others. To have my mind to myself again felt like the greatest luxury.
And yet it was also terrifying. Though I had been a “writer” for eight years, never before had I felt the prickle of fear that crawls up your neck when you see the rawness of your heart bleeding on the page. I had always written with someone else’s blood, nothing at stake.
But I knew it was time to let my words stand on their own, unshielded by someone else’s name.
I know it is a long, grueling path, the life of a writer, trying to find places to publish, unearth people to buy your book. But maybe the point isn’t even to get readers, to be read, but the act of writing itself. Maybe I’m not writing to change others but to change myself.
To listen to my own voice for once. And believe it has worth.
Cynthia DiTiberio is a writer and collaborator who has worked in the book business for the past eighteen years. Books were her first love and remain her favorite thing in the world. She worked as an editor at a division of HarperCollins for nine years before becoming a ghostwriter. She has just started writing on her own after collaborating on eleven books over the last eight years. She was born in St. Louis, went to college in North Carolina, and has called the Bay Area home for the last nineteen years. She lives in Palo Alto with her husband and two children. Highlights of her career include getting to work with Frederick Buechner, having her second collaboration optioned by Reese Witherspoon, and being featured on the cover of the San Francisco Chronicle at the age of twenty-seven for her work launching a new line of Christian fiction.