Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Ghost writers in the sky

I belong to a writer's group that meets once a month, and yesterday we had our full compliment of four and a fascinating discussion on ghost writing.

One of our number has been employed to ghost write a memoir, and has encountered some sticky issues when it comes to his professional integrity. I won't go into personal details, but the basics of it are as follows...

The ghost writer is attempting to write with the voice of his subject.
The subject dictated onto tape many stories and anecdotes about his life.

-- In the tapes the subject is sometimes passionate, even salacious or controversial, about certain events and people.

-- The subject is reading and editing the drafts produced by the ghost writer.

-- There were many draft versions.

-- When editing the ghost writing the subject has removed or softened the passionate, salacious and controversial parts of most, if not all, of the anecdotes.

-- This has weakened the 'punch' of the stories considerably.

-- Not surprisingly, this has annoyed the ghost writer a little. He feels the subject is ruining the story of his life.

-- On the other hand, the subject is entitled to say, or not say, what he wants about his own life.

-- The ghost writer feels an obligation to honour the wishes of the subject.

Now the tricky bit ...
-- The person commissioning and paying for the memoir is not the subject. Rather it is the subject's son.

-- I'm guessing these are tales the subjects' family have heard, in whole or part, many times. They would have been told candidly and passionately, just like the tapes.

-- The son/employer feels the draft revision he has received is a little dull in terms of language. (He's right.)

-- The wider family also want input into the memoir.

-- The family, however, do not know of the process of editing multiple drafts that has led to the current status of the text.

-- Basically, there is a conflict between the person paying for the book and the person the book is about, but they are not having that conflict between each other, but rather through their interactions with the ghost writer. There are also other voices in the cacophony, and in my own small way I got to be a little squeak as well.

There are a host of issues that arise from the dilemma the ghost writer finds himself in, and these led to a lively discussion.
Who does the ghost writer have the greater responsibility to please? The person paying for the work, or the person whose voice he is writing as?

Does the writer have to be true to the 'voice' of the subject, or to the editing wishes of the subject?

How much of the 'writer' inside the ghost writer can you ignore when it comes to issues of style and form? If the client or subject wants what the writer considers is a poorly written final product, does that matter?

I came away from the meeting with my head spinning. It made my current writing dilemmas seem small by comparison.

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