Recently, I wrote a letter addressed to my grandma. It was an affectionate letter, full of details about my life and references to hers. The only thing is, I don't have a living grandmother. I didn't even know the woman to whom I was writing. I was simply penning the letter on behalf of a client, who had hired me to do the job.
I make a decent living ghostwriting memoirs, novels, book outlines, and occasionally, personal correspondence. When the work is steady, my pay is comparable to that of seasoned lawyer, and much like a lawyer, I'm working from a retainer that my clients fund as needed. It's a job I never quite expected to have—the ghostwriting snowballed from other writing jobs, and now I advertise my services through Elance, LinkedIn, and Twitter. In most cases, people hire me to do routine writing jobs—punching up a speech they've already written, or providing basic edits—but sometimes, my working relationships evolve into their most intimate letters, emails, and text messages.
When I saw Joaquin Phoenix's character writing cards to other people's loved ones in the beginning of Her, I thought: "Ugh! Never!" It seemed like an overly futuristic, caustic version of communication. But in reality, while the industry is fairly hush-hush, personal ghostwriters are not unheard of. People have turned to ghostwriters like me for help penning their college admissions essays, managing their online dating profiles, or even coming up with their wedding vows.
When I first started this job, I assumed my services were sought only by the very busy, or people who couldn't string together a sentence on their own. I've since realized these assumptions are not true. Most of the people I work for already have assistants (to whom I've also written emails, in the voice of my client) and they use me like a subscription service, to craft their messages with just the right level of expression. I've yet to work for someone who truly needs me—they're all polished and articulate people—which makes me feel like a luxury item on good days, and a sell-out on the bad.
Very few of the people who hire me for this work want to talk on the phone, so I have to learn their voice through the messages they forward, the inside jokes we build, and the details they share with me about each person I write to on their behalf. My job is to read the entire correspondence (either the thread of emails, string of text messages, or whatever) and tap into their unique way of phrasing things. The ultimate failure in this job would be to sound like an imposter, so nailing the tone is important. Since I started striving to become a chameleon of dialogue, I've lost all appreciation for Aaron Sorkin and his characters with their interchangeable speeches. It's also made me a better listener, since I've trained myself to take note of how people use words.
But writing for other people can be a real head-trip. The whole point of exchanging emails, or sending a card to someone, is to help you feel closer to that person. It's an acknowledgement of your relationship, of the way you feel toward each other. Their choice of words can provide comfort, or romance; it's the very building blocks for relationships. So when you disrupt that natural process by changing the source of the message, things get a little weird. Would it be insulting to know that a stranger wrote that message rather than your loved one—or flattering, because your attention is worthy of hiring an expert?
Like the women who do bikini waxes, I end up knowing everything about my clients' personal lives, while they know very little about mine.
The easiest tasks I handle are drunken texts (even if they come at me when I've been drinking too—this is a 24/7 kind of job). Usually, my client sends me a screenshot of the conversation and asks for a reply. I find that I often get asked to provide my services in response to things like half-naked photos, replying to which can be a real stumper. I'll take a look at the conversation, tap into the client's voice, and draft up a few options for them to choose from:
a) "Can't wait to experience the live version."
b) "I appreciate you not forcing me to get cliche' by asking 'What are you wearing?'"
c) "The Greeks understood the S curve all too well. We owe them much of our modern architectural foundation knowledge. But they didn't know it quite the way you do."
d) "Send another quick! My battery is dying! ;)"
I have to toe a strange line during exchanges like this. Like the women who do bikini waxes, I end up knowing everything about my clients' personal lives, while they know very little about mine. Sometimes I think of a friend I'd like to set up with one of my clients, but I know better than to admit I've been paying attention to their type or their heartaches.
More popular than romantic advancements are the messages regarding illness. I recently drafted a message to a client's loved one, who was battling an illness. The client had given me a list of her personality traits, their inside jokes, and some of the history they shared, along with the guidance: "I'm afraid of losing her but I don't want to sound afraid or scare her more." I've emailed suggestions for sympathy cards that were written in my client's hand, grazing their sorrow with a brief opening of condolences just to them. This is the work I get the most out of. It's a form of therapy, as I usually think about someone I love—someone I've not been able to properly address—and write my heart out to them. It's more cathartic than those unsent letters in a shoebox under one's bed because these missives have actual flesh-and-blood recipients.
After working with my clients in some of their most emotional times, my relationships to them have crossed over into a strange, faraway friend zone: I care about them, and I want them to succeed in their relationships and business dealings. But there's a part of me that gets a little jealous too. They're mostly fit, extremely successful, organized, and always sending photos from faraway places that I have to caption as though I've been there. I'm a positive person, and usually inspired by such lifestyles, but on bad days I feel more voyeur than ghostwriter, more closeted captive than creative consultant.
Years ago I saw a high school play about a hunchback locked in a closet with only a typewriter. A young writer had enslaved the hunchback to ghostwrite bestselling books that the "writer" claimed as his own. The real writer begged to be set free, but his captor only laughed or hit him, always forcing him back into the closet, where he would churn out more and more of the stolen books.
I love my job, but sometimes I feel just like that hunchback locked away in the closet. My own social media suffers as I sell my best jokes; sometimes my own emails go unanswered for days. I once had a client tell me, after I'd written a long and painful tale on their behalf, "It feels so cathartic to get it out." Suddenly I knew how surrogate mothers felt: carrying, delivering, and ultimately giving up a baby. I write to each of my clients' recipients with extra care—possibly more care than I write to my own loved ones—feeling so far gone in their own drama and mysteries that I almost lose my own, and a little bit of myself along the way.
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