Truancy Writing

craft and hospitality

When I first started ghostwriting, I thought my clients would be people who wanted to automate their writing. I figured those who hired a ghostwriter would want the finished product, the book, without having to deal with the drudgery of the writing process. In reality, that’s not usually the case. Most of my authors want to be actively involved in the writing process. We brainstorm together, and we revise together. This has led me to use the term “collaborative writing” to describe the process, though I still think “ghostwriting” is the sexier of the two.

Automation is causing a ruckus in writing fields across the board. In January, I attended the Gathering of the Ghosts, the first-ever ghostwriting conference, and a full panel was dedicated to AI and its potential effects on the industry’s future. AI work is already appearing in fiction, particularly in fields that have historically used ghosts, as I wrote about on this blog previously. Like blockchain technology, AI writing is a “solution without a problem”. In their current form, AI tools allow fiction writers on the edge of burnout to continue to create at a pace and scale high enough to make their living on Kindle Direct Publishing, which is not exactly a long-term strategy for success. Some critics foresee a world full of content written for bots, by bots.

As AI tools develop, they will continue to affect the ghostwriting world, same as they will affect the entire publishing landscape. I expect it will only serve to further stratify the profession, with a dividing line between skilled collaborators, and those who are skilled at manipulating LLMs to achieve their desired ends. As automation continues to expand into culture, collaborative writing won’t be promoted on the strength of the writer’s craft skills (which I predict will be devalued and lionized simultaneously—that’s a different post), but on the strength of their hospitality.

Will Guidara wrote in his book Unreasonable Hospitality that the entire US economy is shifting into a “hospitality economy”. His writing is centered on the restaurant industry, but ghostwriters are becoming hospitality workers as well. We provide both service and experience. Like Guidara says of a successful restaurant, a successful collaborator has to strike a balance between excellent craft and excellent hospitality. Those goals are often in tension.

The current reigning lord of ghostwriters, JR Moerhinger illustrated this tension in his New Yorker piece on his recent bestseller Spare, authored by Prince Harry.

Harry always wanted to end this scene with a thing he said to his captors, a comeback that struck me as unnecessary, and somewhat inane. Good for Harry that he had the nerve, but ending with what he said would dilute the scene’s meaning: that even at the most bizarre and peripheral moments of his life, his central tragedy intrudes. For months, I’d been crossing out the comeback, and for months Harry had been pleading for it to go back in. Now he wasn’t pleading, he was insisting, and it was 2 a.m., and I was starting to lose it. I said, “Dude, we’ve been over this.”

Why was this one line so important? Why couldn’t he accept my advice? We were leaving out a thousand other things—that’s half the art of memoir, leaving stuff out—so what made this different? Please, I said, trust me. Trust the book.

The ghost wants the scene to be moving, powerful, vulnerable. It should be a moment for readers to connect. But the author is the one whose face is on the cover. So in moments like this, the ghost is pulled like they’re being drawn and quartered: between the author’s self-understanding, the ghost’s sense of craft, and the nebulous desires of the market. What story are we trying to tell? What story does the audience want to read? How do we write a book that satisfies both?

Ghostwriting is more than the glorified predictive text of AI tools. The ghost also has to discover the story itself. In memoir, that means helping the author identify a narrative thread that runs through their life. Sometimes, that requires easing off your own tastes and discernments to ensure the author has a book that feels true to their life. Other times, it means challenging the author to consider another narrative within their experiences—one that may be less palatable to their ego, but more engaging to an audience.

My colleague John Kador likens ghostwriting to catering.

Once the book is finished, clients regard the ghostwriter in the same way they regard the caterer when a successful dinner party is finished. Good memories of a successful collaboration and a willingness to be a reference.

I worked in restaurants for ages, so these comparisons resonate with me. Ghostwriting is like being the executive chef and the lead server simultaneously. You need the craft skills to prepare excellent food, as well as the hospitality skills to determine what it is your guest actually wants to eat.

In Unreasonable Hospitality, Guidara describes a service experiment in the restaurant, where menus were dropped and ordering became a conversation between server and guest. The conversation was intended to ensure each guest was able to eat a meal they actually wanted.

So the next time I asked the question [of what to eat], I made my own (true) confession: I told the guests how I feel about sea urchin. Sea urchin is rare and difficult to source. It is a delicacy many sophisticated eaters love: creamy and decadent, beloved by chefs. And the mere thought of it makes me want to puke.

Sure enough, once I’d come clean, the guy in seat two said, “Actually, I’m not crazy about oysters,” and his wife said, “Yeah, I hate celery.”

It wasn’t until I’d shown myself to be vulnerable that the people I was serving allowed me to see their vulnerability. Is it an expression of vulnerability to say you don’t like an ingredient? I think it is—and the more open you demonstrate yourself to be, the more likely people are to be open with you.

Ghostwriting is the same. It requires uneven but reciprocal vulnerability. Vulnerability is required to create a real connection point, without crossing professional lines.

You find out what your client wants to eat. You prepare it, bring it for their consideration, and if it turns out it’s not what they want, it’s your task to determine what’s not working. Sometimes a client doesn’t know what they want until they taste what they don’t want. Writers, even ghostwriters, tend to have sensitive egos. It’s easy to take it personally if a client dislikes your work. But in hospitality, there’s no space, no time, and no point in blaming. The ghostwriter and the author work together to create the best version of the author’s book, and strong hospitality skills make that collaboration possible.

For any author, releasing a book into the world is an act of vulnerability. The collaboration process can be the author’s first experience of that vulnerability—hence Prince Harry’s pushback on Moerhinger’s framing. The ghostwriter is a conduit for the author’s voice onto the page, but we’re also the conduit to the imagined audience. It can be scary. So it’s best to act with grace.

I make it clear to my authors that AI is not a part of my writing process. This is a part of my reciprocity. My authors trust me with their story, and I honor that with my full attention and skill.

Critic Rob Horning wrote in his newsletter:

If you are made to engage with AI, it should probably be understood as a scam in progress, a punishment, or a stigma: To the powers that be, you didn’t warrant the recognition of another human being. You can make do with AI customer service, an AI tutor, an AI therapist, an AI boss. You can make your contributions through an LLM because no one is really interested in hearing your voice.

Regardless of how good AI gets, people will always seek out hospitality. To use Guidara’s language, ghostwriters are in “the business of human connection.” It won’t be our craft that differentiates us from AI, but our hospitality. Honestly, I feel pretty great about that.