I’ve long known that a client-ghostwriter relationship can resemble a marriage at times. The client is sharing so much with so many details that, inevitably, the client gets put in a vulnerable situation. It is up to the ghostwriter to treat that information, and by extension the client, with all the care, decency, and sensitivity it deserves.
But sometimes, imperfect humanity rears its ugly head, and like a married couple, we fight.
Recently, this happened to me. In going over a memoir’s chapters 8 and 9, my client objected to little things she had not objected to before: the number of swear words I had quoted her as saying, certain medications she had been prescribed, and conversations she denied happened even though she had told me about them previously.
This threw me. She had done nothing like this when we went through the first seven chapters over several months. Now, suddenly, she’s trying to make herself look more heroic and less humiliating. I didn’t like it, and I called her on it. She responded with “Well, it’s my book.”
That is the last thing I wanted to hear. In my mind, it’s the same as “because I said so,” which I always reject. Things escalated. I reminded her of my commitment to making this as honest and real a memoir as possible. I demanded to know which series of events was true. I demanded to know why she was suddenly so worried about how she came across. She said I was triggering her and shut down. We had to stop the conversation without completing the work.
I knew this was a hiccup on the road to completion and publication. She had already paid me in full and often cried tears of joy when she read what I wrote. She had been trying to get this done for a decade.
Still, I was reminded that relationships have rough spots. Those spots can be painful because the connection between ghostwriter and client is deeper when the content is so personal. And these chapters cover some of the most emotionally difficult aspects of her story.
There are a lot of sources online that advise how to work with a ghostwriter, but there are fewer that advise how a ghostwriter can smooth things over with a client.
What I found shouldn’t surprise anyone. It’s the same basic advice so many of us have received over time: practice active listening, show empathy, remain objective, keep the client focused on the project’s purpose, and communicate not just words but the related feelings.
Active listening means to observe the verbal and non-verbal messages being sent. Empathy refers to trying to understand where they are coming from. Remaining objective means to focus on the facts (or feelings, depending on the issue). Keeping the client focused is to remind the client of why we’re working together in the first place. Communicate means to state things clearly without ambiguity and with no possible way to be misunderstood.
To these I’ll add one more point: Give it time.
A week later, my client and I went back to work. First, we hashed things out. I started by telling her that the last thing I want to do is trigger her, and it’s very important I don’t do that anymore so please let me know when I do that again. I also let her know that I agree with her that it’s her book and she has all final decisions, but I didn’t understand why she was so worried now. I pledged that if we agree to disagree, so be it.
I didn’t get any concessions in return. That didn’t matter. She only wanted to be heard.
We finished chapters 8 and 9 and moved to the prologue. She pointed out timeline errors, and I discovered I had misattributed some things to the wrong person.
We worked it out. The relationship is intact.
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