it’s time to get up
look, the sky is pinky-gray
anything could be
The biggest challenge about ghostwriting is that you must become someone else. I am invited into another person’s head, and allowed to poke around. I mine the data and the passion I find there, and bring it to the surface so I can play with it. This isn’t easy. Your brain doesn’t look like mine. In order to find the information and the emotion that I need to write like you would if you were writing this, first I have to think like you. And actually, this is impossible.
So have I figured out how to do the impossible? No, I’ve just learned to pretend really, really well. I pretend to think like you. And if I pretend hard enough, something weird happens to my brain and I do think like you – at least while I’m writing your book.
Actors do this when they portray a real-life person. Think of Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles. He was more like Ray Charles than Ray Charles was. Through the mysterious alchemy of art, for the duration of making that movie, Jamie Foxx probably thought like Ray Charles. And that’s what ghostwriters do too. They’re just not in front of a camera when they do it.
I didn’t know this about ghostwriting for a long time after I became a ghostwriter. I thought I used the skills I had developed as a writer, and as an interviewer, a mediator, and a trained listener. Well, I did use those skills, of course. But there was more going on than I knew.
I discovered this truth when I wrote a book for my dog Goody, Dog Park Diary. All my interpersonal skills were no use in writing this book. I had to think like a dog without them. I had to pretend to be a dog, and not just any dog, this particular dog. Dogs are as individual as people. There are dogs who have phobias about vacuum cleaners, and dogs who like to sleep under the covers, and dogs who believe that squirrels should be wiped off the face of the earth. There are dogs who will turn up their noses at expensive kibble in favor of three-day-old garbage, and some dogs who will learn how to roll over or shake hands. And others who would rather die than do so.
There are “cultural” differences between dog breeds. To some dogs, Frisbees are the reason for living. For other dogs, the most fun in the world is to force others to go where you want them to go, and if they don’t, you get to nip their heels. And for still others, any day they don’t go swimming is an evil day indeed.
But there are some things about being a dog that are common to all dogs. For one thing, being alone is the worst fate that can befall them. But the big thing, the biggest thing that matters to a dog’s ghostwriter, is that they don’t usually think in pictures or words, like we do. They think in smells.
How to think in smells is impossible to explain fully in an article made out of words. But thinking in smells is how I was able to write in a dog’s voice. I pretended that smell was everything to me. I went around sniffing the ordinary things in my house and my yard – the dishwasher has a smell, the dandelions have a smell, the mailbox has a smell. Even if I couldn’t actually smell them, I pretended that I could. And guess what? While I wrote the book, the correct doggy words came from the back of my reptilian brain, right at the base of my skull where my pitiful olfactory bulb sits (pitiful in comparison with a dog), and I got close to what mattered to that dog. I know this is true, because she told me so.
And now writing for people is a piece of cake.
I like genealogists. One reason is that they seem to really like my book Making History. I often give talks to genealogical societies about fleshing out those dates and places they love to dig up, with the stories that go with them.
Genealogists are good at looking back. But I tell them they also need to think forward. Remember the genealogists of the future. In two hundred years, someone might come looking for you. What do you want them to find? Just your name and the dates you were born and died, maybe the city you lived in? Isn’t there more to you than that?
Remember that your life too, is part of the historical record. For instance, let’s suppose your great-great-great-grandfather was born in Harlem in 1828 and died in Brooklyn in 1888. That’s what the genealogists could tell you. But what was your g-g-g-grandfather doing for those sixty years he was on the earth? In 1860 he was 32 years old and probably voted in the presidential election of 1860. Who did he vote for? Was he a supporter of Abe Lincoln, or was he angry that William Seward of New York didn’t get the Republican nomination? Or did he just not care? Wouldn’t it be great if he had written some of his thoughts down?
If he didn’t, it’s too late now. But it’s not too late for you.
My latest book, Dog Park Diary: the social round of Goody Beagle, is not, as some people have supposed, about my dog Goody. No, it is by my dog Goody. I am just the channeler, or the ghostwriter, for Goody. They are her thoughts and feelings – and her words – at least they’d be her words if she had a human voice box. I swear. Really.
I know I am not nuts, because I recently read another book by a dog, called You Are A Dog, by Terry Bain. I wrote a review of it on Amazon and here is what we (me and Goody, you know) said:
My dog Goody Beagle loved this book. Here's what she said (sort of): "I was delighted to find another dog author smart enough to conquer the nearly impenetrable thicket of human language, and generous enough to educate humans on who we dogs really are. You the Dog, I wish we lived close enough to do sniff-butt; I have a feeling I'd really like you. Of course you would like me too, and we could meet up at the dog park and smell in all the corners. Love, Goody Beagle."
Okay, I’ll admit it if I’m forced – I’m a little bit goofy about my dog. It was good to find out there are others out there like me. You can buy both my book Dog Park Diary, and Terry Bain’s book You Are A Dog, on Amazon.com.
Recently I had a strange experience. I’ve been pondering it ever since. I woke abruptly around 4:30 am, because I thought I heard someone call my name. I sat up in bed, disoriented. No one around except my dog Goody – and Goody too was sitting up with her ears perked and obviously listening to something. Then I “heard” – not exactly heard with my ears, but sort of in my mind – my grandmother’s voice. She said, “When I was your age …” and then nothing more. It was very plain and it was definitely her voice. At this point Goody growled. I started rationalizing this as a particularly vivid dream and pooh-poohing my discomfort, but still I turned on the light, because it was kinda spooky, you know? And then I “heard” her voice again, only this time it really did seem like it came from across the room, not in my mind at all. Like I really heard it with my ears. She said again, “When I was your age …” This is when Goody jumped off the bed and ran out of the room. That’s the end of the actual experience. Grandma’s voice sounded quite happy – she often sounded kind of chirpy. I got the impression that she was trying to reassure me about something. So I’ve been thinking about my grandmother, who I was never close to, and actually didn’t really like all that much. Why did I have this experience? What was Grandma trying to tell me, or what was I trying to tell myself through my memory of my grandmother? Then I thought – I am slow sometimes – that maybe I should explore exactly what she said, “When I was your age.” So I asked myself, what was Grandma doing when she was 59? She was born in November 1903, so when she was 59 it was 1962-63. What happened then? Then it hit me – my grandfather died in June of 1963, when Grandma was 59 ½ — exactly the age I am now. He died after years of incapacity due to a series of strokes. His last year was spent in a nursing home. I’m sure it was a hard time for my grandmother, taking care of him, and I’m equally sure that his death was a relief to her, as well as a grief. So why would she sound happy when she said “when I was your age” and what was the point of telling me this? Then I had another aha – his death set my grandmother free. She married him when she was only 16, and they worked damn hard all their married life. When he died she was still energetic, and still very beautiful. She had his life insurance and a bunch of money through a lucky investment. When she was 60, about 6 months after his death, she embarked on a series of world tours, cruises, etc, traveling with one of her many friends. Later she got married not once, but twice, and both marriages were pretty happy and lasted nearly 20 years each! She lived all over the world, she had friends from Australia to England to Bermuda. She seemed to always be having a glorious time. So this is what I think: I think my grandmother was telling me that my whole life is in front of me. I think she was telling me that I’m being silly to think I’m old at nearly 60 – just think what she did in the last 40 years of her life. Furthermore, I think she was really there, in my bedroom that morning. If that makes me a whack-job, so be it.
I’m not the only one who writes about writing lifestories. Here’s a book I came across recently that I think is a great companion to my book Making History (www.tinyurl.com/6nuxzy). It’s The Heart and Craft of Lifestory Writing, by Sharon Lippincott.
You should only read this book if you are prepared to give up all your excuses for not writing those great stories you always meant to get to “someday.” Because after you read it, all your reasons for not sharing who you are – on paper – will be dead in the dust. You know what they are – “I don’t have time” – “I’m not a writer” – “I don’t know how” – “I don’t know what to leave out or put in” – “I don’t know how to start” – “But what will my mother-uncle-girlfriend-husband-children-boss-neighbors think?” and so on. Dead. Gone. You will be a writer.
This practical yet inspiring book finds the sweet spot between “want to” and “how to”, and addresses both. In concrete, practical terms it gives you instructions and exercises in everything from how to know what to write about; how to start; how to make your writing sizzle; how to plot and plan; how to edit drafts; how to organize; even how to illustrate and publish, if that is your desire. This is a truly complete guide to writing down the events of your life without stressing yourself out in the process.
Yet the book also goes right to the heart of why people write. It speaks to that still, small voice within us that tells us to “Share this!”
Otherwise, why are we here?
For more information about this wonderful book, go to www.sharonlippincott.com. It’s also available on Amazon.com.
Holiday food traditions – aren’t they great? For as many Christmases as I can remember, we have had roast beef and Yorkshire Pudding for Christmas dinner. For those of you without British forebears, Yorkshire Pudding is a plain savory-batter pudding made of cream, flour, and eggs, baked in the same pan you cook the roast beef in, so it partakes of the flavor of the drippings. You cut it in squares and pour rich gravy over it. It’s not so good for the waistline or the cholesterol, but the taste buds love it.
Yorkshire Pudding comes from – where else – Yorkshire, England. We can trace our particular recipe back seven generations now, over 150 years. For the past couple of years, my daughters have cooked the pudding. They learned how from my mother (I’m not a domestic sort of person, so the cooking part skipped me, although I’m good at eating it.) My mother learned from her mother, my grandmother, who was born in England but raised in America, and she told us how she learned how to make the pud from her mother, my great-grandmother, born in 1865 in Lincolnshire, who learned to make Yorkshire Pudding from her mother – who was born around 1840 and came from Yorkshire (finally!) And although no one knows where my great-great-grandmother got the recipe from, I think it’s a good bet she got it from her mother.
Yes, that’s only six generations, and I said seven – but I now have two grandchildren who ate Yorkshire Pudding for Christmas dinner this year, and in about fifteen years or so, they too will be taught the recipe, and it’s my hope that they too will serve their children this dish on Christmas. So, seven generations and counting, tied together through pudding.
Yorkshire Pudding is a common everyday dish in England, nothing special (British cooking rarely is.) It’s bland and thick and was invented because it was cheap and filling. It’s not something I’d want to eat every day, or even more than once a year. But on that one day, nothing tastes as good as Yorkshire Pudding to me. Because we are eating history.