The emotional journey of writing someone else’s memoir


A few seconds of silences stretched between us as we stepped out the door and began walking down the long, white hallway. Past a few doors decorated with Easter wreaths. Past the dining hall which informed me that large print menus were available upon request.

I could sense her thoughts churning. She was on the cusp of saying something—something big. My stomach bunched; my mind invented worst-case scenarios:

“The writing was utter crap.”

“The memoir didn’t capture my mother’s personality at all.”

“We’d like to sever the contract.”

Writers have vivid imaginations and, when we’re plopped into ambiguous situations, those unfettered imaginations tend to gallop out of control.

“I just have to say—” She stuck out an arm. We stopped in front of a bench where an old man was tuning his hearing aid. “This has been the best experience for my mother. She can’t stop talking about her memoir. She’s telling everyone in the assisted living home about it. And—” she choked on the next word. Paused. “—truly. Thank you. Thanks for everything you’ve done. When I read what you’ve written, I can hear my mother’s voice.”


My rampaging imagination stopped cold. Tears pushed their way into my eyes.

“Thank you,” I said. “That…means a lot. More than you know.”


As a ghostwriter, you do your damnedest to capture your subject’s voice. You sit down with them for one, two, twelve meetings. You listen to recordings of your meetings over and over.

And, in between, you write.

And say a prayer to the writing muses that you’re accurately capturing both their story and their voice.

It’s tough. And it’s emotional.

I’ve written a handful of memoirs and the latest one I completed was for a ninety-five-year old woman. That’s a lot of life to cover.

We started from the beginning, blowing the dust off old memories and extracting them from the far corners of her brain. As we dug, the memories started to flow faster and with greater ease. At points, I could tell she was fully immersed in her past—just a little girl in West Virginia, playing with wooden dolls under the damsen plum tree. Or taking a cool dip at Blue Hole. Or meeting the handsome young man who would someday become her first husband. Or opening the envelope with a plain, white piece of paper that ordered her husband to war.

In those moments, I wasn’t just a hired ghostwriter. I was a confidant, a trusted friend.

Plunging into ninety-five years’ worth of memories is a daunting thing. A heavy thing. Many of her memories were joy-filled, happy, pleasant…but others were uncomfortable or painful. She had to relive the death of her first husband, her second husband, and a son-in-law. She recalled the time when she and her husband were kicked to the curb because their landlord claimed the new baby was “using too much water.”

I did my best to stay neutral (and dry-eyed!), but it wasn’t always easy. There were times when I wanted to inject my perspective into the writing, but I had to force myself to stay out. I am merely a conduit, not the author. She provided the water…I just built a system of pipes to give it shape and make it flow down a logical path.

By the end of the first draft (and several months of work), I was emotionally drained. Exhausted. I sent off draft #1 with lots of little fact-checking notes and a short message at the end of my email:

“I hope you like it!”

Because, in a highly subjective business, what else is there but hope? You may be in love with something you’ve written and someone else may thing it’s garbage. You might submit the same piece of writing to seven different writing contests and get rejected by six of them.

Writing is soul work. It forces you to explore squishy, emotional areas that most people try to avoid. It’s highly personal. It’s (usually) highly private…but not if you’re a professional writer.

Maybe some people get used to extracting bits of their soul and placing them on public platters for others to view and taste. Not me. Yes, it has become easier over time and I’ve grown a thicker skin (especially when it comes to getting critiqued by writing groups), but I always secretly hope that 100% of my readers will love 100% of what I’ve written—an impossible goal, of course. Even I don’t like 100% of what I’ve written. In fact, I’m probably my toughest critic.

Writing someone else’s memoir raises the stakes. This is highly personal business and incredibly easy to get wrong. After all, you (the ghostwriter) weren’t there. You will never quite know how the subject was feeling or what they were thinking on a certain day during a certain event. You can never truly see through their lens.

But you can get close.

The more you get to know a person, the better you understand their perspective. This isn’t something you can rush; it’s a slow, steady burn. That’s why ghostwriting is so painstaking and involved. Every time the writer sits down to type the next installation of the story, she must click her mind into a different mode and attempt to see the world not as herself, but as her subject. That’s tough. And tiring.

Back to the hallway…

After my ninety-five-year old subject’s daughter told me how much the memoir meant to her mother, I did my best to hold it together. I’m a professional, after all. Right? Right…? Clients don’t make me cry. I’m just in this for the cold hard cash (haha).

I did keep it together…for a while. Sitting in the parking lot in my rust-tinged Subaru, I let myself become a pile of pudding. I melted into tears and let myself be human for a while, to truly feel her story and understand the joy she felt when she finally saw all ninety-five years wrapped neatly into 150 pages.

Something new exists in the world that wasn’t there before: a life document. A personal journey, recorded in paper and ink.

I wiped away the tears and turned my car out of the parking lot. I had to shake it off and move on. Other books were waiting to be written.