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Ghost Writer

November 11, 2010

I hear voices. Scornful voices. In my head. They whisper –“You’re not a real writer.” ”No one’s published your book. You’ve never written for the New York Times or the New Yorker. Real writers…”  I do my best to ignore them and keep writing.

The same voices used to say, “You’re not a real composer. You’ve never received a national award, never won a commission to write for an orchestra. You’ve never scored a Hollywood Film. Or even a documentary.” I argued – after all, I’d been writing music for a  living for years. “Hey – at least I’m a songwriter. I co-wrote a couple of songs with Livingston Taylor on a major label.”

“ They weren’t hits. You’re not a real songwriter.”

“Well, what about those spots for Hershey’s and Chevy? At least I’m a jingle writer.”

Exasperated now, a teacher who isn’t getting through to a dumb student. “Come on, your friends are jingle writers. They work for music houses in New York. They’ve written hundreds of commercials. Two spots is nothing.”

I don’t even bother to mention the hundreds of pieces of library music I’ve written, the money they’ve made. Because I can already hear the retort – “You know library music  isn’t real music, it’s not even music, chump!”

I hear voices, and sometimes they drive me a little crazy. But they’re not exactly hallucinations. Because every one of their words I’ve heard from some real person, or read in a magazine, or read in the judgmental frowns on people’s faces.  That din in my head is the chorus of society’s judgment as to what has value in music and writing. It’s made up of critics, prize jury panels, gatekeepers like agents and publishers. Among these voices are those who have made it –who own the prizes, the publishing contracts, the hits and critical acclaim.

One of the voices of those who made it is that of my father. My barn is stacked with piles of his plaques, awards and honorary degree certificates. His published books stack 40 inches high, with 10,000 pages. He topped the New York Times bestseller list numerous times.

It’s hard to believe, but he was prey to voices too. Telling him that the New York Review of Books hated his stuff. That the New Yorker never published him. He could perhaps ignore them.  What he could never ignore to his dying day was the sound of, “You never got a Pulitzer. Or a National Book Award.”  He told himself, and me, “I’m a REAL writer,” scoffing at the vast majority of writers that didn’t make a living at it like he did, let alone those who weren’t published. Yet his failure to win those awards could make him feel like he’d never really made it.

If my father could doubt he was a real writer, what hope is there for me, for any of us who struggle at art below the top of our businesses?

You don’t need a father who’s a successful writer to suffer the scorn of those voices. What gives them so much power is a myth – the myth of the Published Writer. It’s one every writer contends with. The notion that without being published your words are a mirage on the page, and you are a ghost, a ghost writer whose transparent fingers tap at the keys as you dream that you are really writing. That compared to Jonathan Franzen you’re not only a wisp of a writer, but an insubstantial person.

If only you can get published, you’ll suddenly come to life. You can just picture yourself walking into the reception for your first book, all the people who looked right through you, the ghost writer, smiling, shaking that suddenly solid hand. You’ll feel like a million bucks, not like crap the way you do now. Then that cute grad student with glasses will come up with a sparkle in her eye and say, “Oh, YOU’RE….”


I like writing, as much as I used to like composing. Voices be damned, I’m going to keep doing it as long as I still like to, as long as my fingers can still type and my brain still put two thoughts together.  And though I don’t make any money from my writing, I have readers, who read, and sometimes compliment my writing. I like readers, too.

I do have a problem – the memoir I slaved at for 6 years. I was quite done with it some time ago – done with the words, done with the feelings it helped me process. But it’s not done limping its way through the New York publishing business. Agents like it, but want changes.  I make changes and they want more. Other agents get the changes they want and like it better but then don’t want it. It’s been going on for years. I just hit 60.  I’m starting to know the truth that I don’t have that much more time to do what I want.

What I want to do is write.  I don’t want to spend the rest of my life hustling my book.  As a musician I should know the importance of timing. When it comes to trying to get published, my timing couldn’t be worse. The publishing business is in meltdown. I hear horror stories of established writers with bestselling books who can’t get another one published. I feel like I’m trying to sell ice cream cones in a snowstorm in January. What publishers are looking for is a sure thing. The record business tried that some years back. Everyone knows how that turned out.

Whatever my book is, it’s no sure thing.  It’s an unconventional story, not ready made for the marketers who are running publishing the way they did records. Even if my book gets accepted, some editor is likely to torture it into unrecognizable shape trying to make it conform to some Big Concept narrative arc that makes it like some other book already published. There’s no guarantee that an advance would even pay the expenses I’ve incurred writing it.

Don’t get me wrong – I think publishers perform an invaluable service separating the wheat from the chaff. If you’ll notice on my profile, I’m amusic publisher myself. The problem is the blockbuster mentality that swept records and movies and has more recently hit publishing. The notion that the only books worth publishing are those with a chance to reach the widest audience and make millions of dollars. It’s a notion that doesn’t allow for unusual products and niche markets.

So why bother? It’s that old voice, got to get published. Recently I’m tempted to publish it myself.  To do that I’ll have to ignore my father at his most scornful. He loved sneering about “vanity publishers,” in a tone that implied that a writer who went that desperate route was as disgraceful as a pervert in a raincoat flashing a playground.

But publishing is no longer the “gentleman’s profession” he called it. In fact, the very digital revolution that’s got the established book business out of its mind with panic may hold the seeds of something new and quite good for us writers. The meltdown of the record business spawned a vibrant Indie scene where musicians could create, free of the tyranny of the blockbuster mentality. The crisis in publishing has scores of writers starting ezines, self-publishing their books, and writing blogs – like this one.

Publishing isn’t what it was, and I am not my father. When the record business began its death spiral at the end of the 70s, I turned my back on it and those voices and walked away to an unconventional, but very satisfying career.  Perhaps it’s time to do the same with writing.


From → Composing, Memoir, Writing

  1. Oh Boy! Does this strike a chord!? I’m not a writer either, I self-published my slim volume a few years ago but I’ll never recoup my capital. Nor has it stopped me hawking it around agents and publishers but no one has shown the least bit of interest in it and that is because it’s not a blockbuster and never will be.

    Walk into any bookshop and you can see what sells: Celebrity. The racks are filled with celebrity books (mostly ghost written) and media related spin-offs from TV and film. The only genuine novels on show are those by multi-million selling authors who don’t need the publicity and those being heavily hyped in the hope that they are the Next Big Thing (who will make their publisher very wealthy).

    I’ve all but given up now and will be content to write my blog for those who don’t pay but may appreciate reading it. Perhaps my hippy roots are showing after all!

    • My hippie roots are always showing, though the hair sprouting from them not so much.

      I’m glad this struck a chord – I suspected that you didn’t need the daunting example of a best-selling father to feel this stuff.

      • You’ve got it in one. Coundl’t have put it better.

  2. Thanks, I needed to read this!

    I used to work for a college bookstore chain. Publishers would send us advance galleys of books they were really pushing hard. The harder they were pushing the more copies they’d send. I remember one book in particular that we received several copies of. I read online that the publisher had a 6 figure marketing campaign going on for the book… I read the book and was underwhelmed. Apparently I wasn’t the only one… Despite its heavy push from the publishers, Gordon Dahlquist’s The Glass Books of the Dream-Eaters was a flop. Dahlquist got his book published yes, but the return on investment for the publisher was a negative. The publisher ended up LOSING money on the book. The character development was exceptional but the plot I felt insulted my suspension of disbelief far too much for me to enjoy it. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that good books can sell themselves. And sometimes by putting too much hype into a book the expectations of the quality of the book are over-inflated to the point that those expectations can never be met… it happens in music and film as well. Maybe if the publishing industry spent less on marketing their books and spent more on publishing more books– and gave books more of a chance to sell themselves they’d be doing better right now.

    Thank you for the “pep-talk” of sorts though.

  3. I worked at Borders for five years, and, like Perplexio, was privy to advanced copies of the latest big thing the publishing houses were pushing. The book business, propelled into overdrive by Oprah’s mega-popularity, is insane. One reason for the insanity seems to be on creating a devoted readership through a series of books. Never mind that many of them are droll, as long as there’s a cute vampire or a woman on a shopping spree!

    One reason I don’t buy books any longer.

    Nevertheless, if getting published is the goal, you do risk being edited to death, published, posted on Amazon, and ridiculed by trolls who live to bash others. Can you live with that? If so, GO FOR IT!

    • Don’t know if I can live with ANY of that. Seriously, having questions about “going for it.”

      I love writing, though.

      • Maybe we should develop a rota of proxy sellers so that we can be modest, retiring flowers about our own work, then go into raucous overdrive about someone el7e2#8&1s;s. Just so long as the raucousness is reciprocated, of course!

  4. Sean permalink

    I really enjoy your entries. Judging by the comments here, so do many others.
    Self-talk can be wondrous as long as you use it, daily, to remind yourself of your merits and abilities. Most people never dare get up and speak or play music in front of an audience. Nor do they take up their thoughts, write them down and put them out into the world.

    Awards and recognition have their place, though the real win is simply to pursue your passion and share it with others. Regret is born out of not trying at all because of fear.

  5. I understand the doubts, the whispers in the wall. Here’s how I react to those: I’ve been a reporter and a public relations writer and I am an unpublished novelist, an unpublisher memoirist, an unpublished lyricist and a blogger. I continue to put words on paper or on screen. I must be a writer. If others want to add an adjective to that, defining my work by their terms, they can. It doesn’t change what I’ve done or alter the quality – or lack thereof – of my work. I do other things, too, of course, but the one thing I do that defines me is to write. I decided some time ago that, while I would like an audience for my words (and sometimes have had one), they exist on their own merits, and I wrote them. Thus, I am a writer.

    Good post on a topic that – obviously – touches a lot of folks.

  6. Excellent essay.

    LM, you and all your commentators above are much more accomplished than I at writing and composing. But I’m not letting it get to me.

    A source of my inspiration to write, a source of confidence, is what you guys put out there.

    Write for yourself. Write about the things you care about. We’re lucky to live in a digital world where we can all share our thoughts and insights.

    We are the future of writing. Clearly, we aging hippies aren’t in the game for the money or the glory. We’re in it to express ourselves — and you guys are top shelf. Keep on keepin’ on.

    • Paco,

      I have not heard your music, so cannot comment. But what I’ve seen of your writing is quite accomplished, even inspired.

      Whether we’re the future of writing or not, we’re an incontrovertible part of writing’s present.

  7. Great piece. Just keep doing what you’re doing. You’re not standing in your father’s shadow-you’re making your own. Those sweaty angels will have to give you your due.
    I’m reminded of a book I just finished, which I loved, until the end anyway-Garrison Keillor’s “Love Me”. A good read about a writer. The New Yorker stuff is a riot. Please check it out.
    As far as getting the book sold, well, I bought “Cat’s Cradle” before I knew of Kurt Vonnegut, and actually before he was really known, just browsing the racks at the ‘Paperback Bookseller’. Why? The illustrated cover! So all you need- is to get a good, simpatico illustrator on board! I know this guy in Hopkinton…
    That’s also why I picked up the first Quicksilver album-the black, silver and red cover spoke to me in a big way. When I turned it over, well, John Cipollina looked so cool. I mean-I was sold. I never had heard the music, but I had to have it. Turns out, it might be the best $3.50 I ever spent!

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