Guest Post: No Room For Ego-trippin’


Thanks and praise to Denene for another excellent piece of work. I am so grateful for this blog. I’m delighted to host it, but also to read it and contemplate it.  That’s especially true now, as my friend Leslie Esdaile is suffering with grave illness. Leslie and I became writer-friends when she was ghostwriting romance novels–and having a hard time getting the agent to take seriously her ambition to write other genres and under her own name.  Everybody who was making money from her prodigious output was happy to keep her tied to her chair, anonymously.

Leslie made her own career thereafter, with verve, under Leslie Esdaile and also L.A. Banks: she ghost-wrote (or vampire-wrote) for herself! And her daughter. And all of us.

But she always says something that Denene articulates with characteristic humor and honesty: there’s useful training for the ego in anonymous work–if the work is well done. It’s a sign of Denene’s integrity that it never occurs to her to work less well because someone else will chat up the interviews. Why would it?  The warm and wonderful woman I met in May at Art Sanctuary’s Celebration of Black Writing would never want to see sloppy thought and writing come from her own mind and hand. Even if no one knew it but her.

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I promise you, it hurt my feelings.

The editor, who shall remain nameless, called me with a question about a song I referenced in the children’s book I wrote, which, too, shall remain nameless, and while we were hashing through the particulars, I heard the famous actress—yes, she shall remain nameless, too—reading my words.

“Oh!” the editor exclaimed. “That’s [name deleted]. She’s doing the audio version for the book. Isn’t that great?”

“Yeah—that’s, um, awesome,” I offered.

Needless to say, my enthusiasm did not in any way, shape or form, match hers. Because no matter what the contract says, no matter how much you swear you won’t let giving up credit for your work overwhelm you, when it comes to the writing, backseating it ain’t easy.

Still, I do it.

I am a ghostwriter and a celebrity book co-author. Of the 19 books I’ve penned, one is a ghostwritten project, three others are books I helped frame and write but am strongly discouraged from admitting to publicly, and one other was written with a celebrity who, when pressed on a good day, might acknowledge my name is on the cover with hers.

I agree to such projects because well, I’m in love with the written word, and each of the books I penned were worthy of my time, attention and sweat equity. I’m not going to lie: The checks were a big bonus—particularly in a pop culture-obsessed industry that is putting much more stock in the celebrity tome than it is in breaking in new authors or supporting writers who are brilliant but not necessarily best sellers.

But ghostwriting and co-authoring celebrity books comes with a price, one that few people really understand or are willing to pay: the checking of ego.

This is not an easy proposition for writers who’ve enjoyed success and worked hard to make their bylines known commodities. I’m from the era of Dream Hampton and Joan Morgan, Terry McMillan and Connie Briscoe—a time when the names on the covers of the books and at the top of the stories meant just as much as the words in them. Those names were/are a signal of a product—a school of thought, a series of ideas, a quality of wording and flavor that is guaranteed to the readers who admire the people who assembled them.

I’d like to think that this is what I’ve offered as a writer—that when you see my name in Parenting, Essence or Heart & Soul magazines or on a blog post at my website, MyBrownBaby.com, or on the cover of a book, there is an expectation of a very specific standard. A standard of thoughtfulness. Intelligence. Passion. Truth.

Of course, I do my best to bring these qualities to my ghostwriting projects; it is, I’d like to think, why editors and celebrities hire me to write their books. And I give 100 percent of my style to those projects, even if no one recognizes it—even if no one notices or knows I wrote them.

It is that last part that is, perhaps, the most important element of the ghostwriter/celebrity author relationship: the ability to write, collect the check and suck it up—to be comfortable in giving all of yourself to the work knowing that once it makes it into the spotlight, you can not accompany it there. That it’s a space wholly occupied by someone else who may have contributed very little or quite a bit, but who also left the lion’s share of the work—the framing and writing—to you.

There is no room for a ghostwriter’s ego in that spotlight.

In fact, ghostwriters need not bother with egos—need not trip over feelings and the lack of glory that walks hand-in-hand with the anonymous pen. I’ve gotten quite used to playing the rear—to having the pat answers ready when the inevitable questions come:

“She was great to work with and had a firm handle on what she wanted the book to say.”

“He had tremendous insight on the subject—I just guided the process.”

“No comment.”

This does not come easy—this checking of ego.

But when the check clears, it tastes a bit better going down.

And I rest at night, satisfied that no matter if you only see my name in the acknowledgements, no matter if my name is written in teeny weeny letters on the spine, no matter if a celebrity reads my words and hasn’t a clue I wrote them, no matter if the person whom I wrote the book for loses my number and never, ever utters my name once the book I wrote for them hits the bookshelves, I did good work. Solid work. Respectable work. Work that, in the privacy of my home, with the people I love, I can be proud of, even if no one but they know the extent of the passion, intelligence and energy I put into it. No ego-trippin’.

Denene Millner is a columnist for Parenting magazine, for which she provides witty, engaging advice on ethics and etiquette in marriage, child rearing, work, and friendship. What’s more, Denene’s MyBrownBaby is a weekly blog that provides thought-provoking, insightful, wickedly funny commentary on motherhood, for moms who love their brown babies, by moms who do the same. She is also the author or coauthor of nineteen books, including The Vow and the bestseller Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man.

Follow Denene on Twitter: @MyBrownBaby

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