I specialize in ghostwriting three non-fiction types: memoir, business book, and expository essay. Of these, memoirs take the longest to complete. The main reason, I have found, is it takes longer to organize an outline and write about an individual’s life.
With a business book or expository essay, the client often has the outline already set, has already done the research, found the case studies, identified the viewpoints, and finalized which stories from which parts of their lives they want to tell (while not always true, but I have found clients like doing the work themselves because they feel like they can — unlike the writing — and it saves them money by not hiring me to research).
With a memoir, however, one has to spend hours and hours, over months and months, interviewing the client and determining the stories that are appropriate and eliminating those that aren’t.
That takes time, and in that time, I realize this truth: The human memory is faulty, inconsistent and wildly unreliable. Since memoirs are supposed to be true, this can be problematic.
There is no perfect solution, but fortunately, there is the next best thing: Getting other people involved.
As a journalist, I recall the adage, “Trust, but verify.” A journalist always attempts to confirm what has been said if the journalist didn’t hear it directly. The same holds true for the ghostwriter. It is critical to include as many other people as needed to fully tell the client’s memoir. In my experience, there are two major reasons why.
First, there’s the whole unreliable narrator concept. In one project, my client discussed how all her friends were taken with her psychopathic ex-husband’s charm and how they got along with him so well. But when I talked to those same friends, they said just the opposite: He was cheesy, arrogant, over the top, a know-it-all, and, bluntly, “full off shit.” They might not have known he was a psychopath, but they didn’t agree with my client’s memory. As a result, I changed this part of the memoir by emphasizing that my client was the last to know, which was very effective for the story she wanted to tell.
In that same project, I wanted to include the client’s children, since they witnessed a great deal. My client wanted that, too, but when we began working together, she had yet to tell her daughter she was writing a memoir. I told her about a past project in which the client’s wife refused to be involved because the memories were too painful three years later. This hurt the project because it was the wife who refused to let doctors pull the plug on my client, and I can only imagine how much better the story would have been had I been able to quote her.
My client eventually told her daughter, and her daughter said she’d participate “only if I can be totally honest.” And that’s what I got from her.
Freelance editor Sarah Chauncey, in a guest post on Jane Friedman’s blog, suggests doing this can “flesh out blind spots.” This leads to my second reason. In talking to this daughter, I relearned what I knew from my journalism days: Interviewing others can confirm some of the memories people have. It could be something insignificant, such as how two people remember a nickname a friend had; or it could be something important, like a conversation two people had years ago that revealed some major point that sent the story toward its natural conclusion.
Let’s face it: If a story sounds too good to be true, it probably is — unless you can get it verified by somebody else. Then you’ve got a really good and compelling story that’s more believable.
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