Kalyani Prasher | Updated on October 30, 2020

C’est la vie: Ghostwriting is a sweet-and-sour experience, much like life   -  ISTOCK.COM

A ghostwriter comes to terms with a life sans bylines and ego

The other day, I was sent a link to an op-ed by a well-known public figure in one of the highest-ranking newspapers in India with a gracious “thank you, it came out so well”. It was the author thanking me, because I had written it. Famous people are too busy to write their own columns, and thank god for that — a significant chunk of income for a freelancer comes from ghostwriting for busy people.

And, yet, I felt a pang. At this age and stage of my career, I should be writing my own columns and op-eds. I can clearly write well enough for this op-ed in question to be published without a word changed, and, over the years, I have built enough expertise in two or three subjects to hold forth — but I haven’t built a name for myself. I’ve been lazy about pushing myself out, been awkward about hustling my writing, waiting instead to be commissioned for the odd column. So, when it comes to op-eds, columns and books, I largely remain a ghostwriter. It’s a vicious cycle: The more you write without a byline, the more invisible you remain.

Am I complaining? Not really. Ghostwriting is a sweet-and-sour experience, much like life. There are pros and cons like with any other job. Yes, you produce good work that no one will credit you for but you also get to engage with topics far more diverse than your core interest or skill areas. Once you accept working as a ghostwriter for a column or a book, you shouldn’t care what topic it is on. If you are not an expert, you will get the gist from the public author. You learn so much.

In my ghostwriting career, I have been exposed to the juicy and hilarious details of politics and business that I would have never known, or bothered to find out about. I now know how a brand is built from scratch, what goes into producing a fashion label, and a bit too much about the politics of another country. I accept these assignments because the money is 100 times more than, say, what a newspaper will pay for a feature. In some of these projects, I have rushed to decline offers of joint bylines, imagining, with considerable horror, my friends coming across my name as a co-author of that particular book.

The one thing you have to deal with is your ego. It is too easy to think of yourself as someone’s underling, producing a draft, so to speak, for the boss to approve. Very early on in my freelance career I had to make an adjustment. I was no longer in charge of my work the way I was when I had a proper writing job. I also had no regular salary and had to find new ways to earn if I wanted to retain the freedom that came with quitting a 9-to-5.

I learnt to stop attaching feelings with work — work is work; I happen to be part of the 99 per cent of India that needs to work to keep the house running and I don’t consider any work beneath me (secretly I do, and I reject certain types of work but we won’t get into that here). Perhaps it’s easier for me because I have enough writing published in my name, in all the mainstream newspapers and magazines, on subjects I feel comfortable writing on — travel, wildlife, health and nutrition, and life — and I have been an editor of a magazine, so I don’t think of ghostwriting as a slight or comment on my skill. For someone younger it might become a matter of questioning one’s capability, but you must be clear about separating what you need to do for money from your writing. Write for pleasure, on a blog perhaps, and work for money.

If what you write for yourself earns you enough to buy food and a Netflix subscription, that’s great. But, mostly, freelance writers need the extra cash that comes from swallowing our pride. I have learnt to treat work with a certain dispassion — ghostwriting is entirely done for the money. No one would like to see 2,000 RTs on a column that they have written with someone else’s author credit. These are the moments when you can sigh and move on, thinking of the money added to your bank account. In any case, I would never bring the kind of discipline and rigour required to produce books in six months for my own work.

One last, but important, part of ghostwriting for me has been making new friends. Over the many meetings required for ghostwriting “autobiographies”, I have come to know incredible personalities — people who have lived life so much more than me. I have drunk the best coffee in town, had feasts to remember, practically lived out of a hotel, been fed vegan delicacies and sipped tall glasses of chilled coconut water and, most of all, shared memories and laughter as we relived their lives and work. These are bonds that last for a lifetime, much like the work you produce, and an intangible reward for your invisible work.

Kalyani Prasher is a freelance writer based in Delhi

Published on October 30, 2020

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