The Ghost of Polanski’s “The Ghost Writer” (Part II)

Ewen McGregor in ‘The Ghost Writer’

This Ghost review is part 2 and contains SPOILERS about Robert Harris and Roman Polanski’s  screenplay for ‘The Ghost Writer’.  Proceed at your own risk.

Let’s pick up where I left off two weeks ago. I call this section, “Aint that the Truth?”

Ghost
I can’t understand why this good-looking lad who goes to Cambridge without the slightest interest in politics and who spends his time acting and chasing girls…I don’t understand why, by the time he’s twenty-two, he’s an active member of a political party. Where’s that coming from?

Ruth
Didn’t you ask him?

Ghost
He told me he joined because of you. A great story, about you turning up in the rain. I was going to start the whole book with it.

Ruth
And now you’re not?

Ghost
No. I can’t. It’s not true.

That happens on occasion. You’ve got a great hook to lead with and later you learn that it doesn’t hold the ka-pow you thought, because the way it was first presented turns out to not be the whole story. I used to hate it when that happens, but now I find those discoveries akin to finding a welcome land-mine: It’s no fun finding them ’cause who knows, there could be (probably are) more, but on the other hand, I didn’t step on it. I found it. Now I can diffuse the bomb and carry on.

If I’m smart, I’ll dismantle the bomb in the presence of the client, so it can be seen for what it is and we can both learn another aspect of what motivates such a client to say whatever they said that made it sound like the one thing we both thought it was back in the beginning.

Too Much of a Good Thing

The line that picks up right after the Ghost’s last line is:

Ruth
Isn’t it?

Ghost
You know it isn’t. He joined two years before he met you.

Ruth
How you do you know that?

Ghost
I’ve got a copy of his original party membership card. Mike McAra found it in the archives.

Ruth
Typical Mike – to ruin a good story by too much research!

Oh, boy, is that ever true. Especially on memoirs, where the majority of what you’re writing is based on words of the client. Dig in to the background too much, start talking to too many people, you’re bound to get an unending stream of people who remember things differently or facts that say otherwise.

As far as I can tell, the line between how the client says things happened and how they actually happened isn’t really the thing to focus on. A memoir is an account of the author’s personal experiences. It’s about how he/she experienced something more than it is about uncovering the truth of what happened (a subjective thing, anyway).

In other types of non-fiction (motivational, business, how-to’s, etc.) research is far more your ally. You can use it to confirm what the client says, nudge her in a different direction, counter her arguments or bring out questions you hadn’t considered. When you use research in this way for a memoir it can also be helpful, to a point. A good solid outline can really keep your research in context and in bounds, whatever the genre of writing.

A Return to Reason or A Reason to Return?

After Adam Lang is shot and killed, the Ghost is asked by his publisher if he’s ready to get back to work on the book. The Ghost says he’s not sure.

My first ghostwriting assignment was a memoir for a woman who’d been diagnosed with terminal spinal cancer. I’d been hired to coach her to write a kid’s book, but when she found out she had cancer, she wanted to write her memoirs.

That was in 2003. She was given a year to live. With chemo, sickness, and foggy memories it took me a year to write a first draft. She passed away in 2009. We never got past a first draft of her book. ‘Why only a first draft?’ is the subject of a future post, I imagine. If I were asked to return to the book now, I don’t know that I would.

See, I’m not sure my task for her was really to help her write a book. In fact, I am sure. It wasn’t why I was there – to write a book for her – though both she and I thought that’s why I was there at the time. In hindsight, I was there to help her think through her life in a book-like way.

I’ve heard that the best part of writing a business plan isn’t to get a business plan on paper, but for the benefit of going through the process of creating a business plan. It was certainly so for my first ghostwriting client.

And, I suppose, is was just as true for me. I’ve learned a lot about why people want to write a book since then. Most people don’t really want to write a book, even when they say they do. What they want is to be heard. To be understood. And to understand. That’s fine by me. I’m good at helping them to understand. They won’t ever say that’s why they’re writing a book, but the truth speaks much louder than any words I could write for them.

And for those who want to write books because they live a life worth writing about, I’m especially drawn.