“But what could my celebrity clients teach me about the story of my strained relationship
with my taxi-driving, wannabe-mystic father?”
A Ghostwriter Pens a
2. It will be hard, but there’s no reason
A ghostwriter’s experience telling other people’s
stories comes into play when she writes her own
By Sarah Tomlinson
The sentiment of our opening salvo was
“You didn’t think I could write a book, did
you?” In fact, Tila had a number of insight-
ful observations on dating men, and
women, which impressed both our editor
and me. Maybe she wasn’t a licensed rela-
tionship therapist, but she had the experi-
ence and outlook to shape opinions that
were helpful to many. And she owned it. I
tried to adopt some of this same playful
assertiveness when approaching my own
book, in order to reassure myself that I had
a perspective worth sharing.
to feel ashamed.
My second cowriting job was for the child
star Todd Bridges, who was perhaps
equally well known for his role as Willis
on the 1980s sitcom Diff’rent Strokes as he
was for his many brushes with the law as a
drug addict and dealer. Although Todd
had felt the need to keep many dark secrets
during his years in the spotlight, as we
worked on his book, he dared to be open
about having been emotionally abused by
his father and molested by his publicist.
While talking about these difficult topics,
he sometimes broke down. I could see how
much he still had to process, even about
events that had happened decades earlier.
Not only did he share his truth in his book,
but he also went on Oprah and read the
passage detailing his abuse through tears.
Although I had less-severe trauma to make
peace with in my own life, I had felt shame,
about having been rejected by my father,
and some of the self-destructive behavior
I’d taken on in my 20s. Seeing Todd dis-
play such dignity—and in the most public
of forums—made me understand that I,
too, could take ownership of my past and
choose not to feel ashamed. Instead, I could
find something positive by focusing on
telling my story, and hopefully, helping
3. You are responsible for your story,
not other people’s reaction to it.
Sometimes I edit books for clients who are
talented writers but need help with structure and organization. But when I worked
with Jennie Ketcham on her debut memoir, I Am Jennie, which documented her life
in and out of porn, she didn’t call me her
editor; she called me her Sherpa. It was an
honor to serve this role for Jennie, because
I witnessed how mindful she was of
approaching everyone in her life with the
utmost humility and forgiveness. She dug
deep, even when it caused her great discomfort, not only to get her story right,
but also to learn as much as she possibly
could through her writing process. And
then, after we had documented everything—the addiction, the mistakes, and
the eventual redemption—she let it go.
She didn’t worry about defending herself
or changing anyone’s mind about anything
she had or hadn’t done in her life. I remembered this when I turned the magnifying
glass on my own experience, and I strove
for this level of transparency and grace. ■
All writers must face the page alone—or
so I thought. Then I began writing my
debut memoir, Good Girl, in the winter
of 2013. I soon realized that even on my
darkest days (or especially on my darkest
days) I wasn’t quite going it solo.
Although this was my first nonfiction
book, I’d already ghostwritten eight
titles, including Hooking Up with Tila
Tequila: A Guide to Love, Fame, Happiness,
Success, and Being the Life of the Party, with
Tila Tequila, and Killing Willis: From
‘Diff’rent Strokes’ to the Mean Streets to the
Life I Always Wanted, with Todd Bridges.
But what could my celebrity clients teach me about the story of my strained relationship with
my taxi-driving, wannabe-mystic father?
Everything. Helping them tell their stories had shown me so much about telling
my own. Here are three lessons about the
complexities of being a memoirist that I
learned from ghostwriting.
1. You have something to say.
It can be difficult to believe your story
deserves to be heard. Even celebrities who
have a million followers on social media
and have shaped pop culture may face
blowback for writing a book. But they’re
still interesting enough to warrant a memoir. When I worked with my first client,
Tila Tequila, I knew she would definitely
have some detractors. I’m a big believer in
anticipating the worst thing critics might
say and beating them to it, so Tila and I
opened her book by calling out our readers.
Sarah Tomlinson is a ghostwriter and the author
of the father-daughter memoir Good Girl.