Ghostwriting

When you buy into the myth of the singular genius, it becomes unseemly that a brilliant writer might need an equal partner in an audio producer to coherently package and adapt their thoughts for a new medium.

Until late this summer, I worked as a senior producer at a company that made podcasts for clients and media partners. I quit, in part, because I saw how far my ideas could go without my name attached to them.

In this new phase of my career, I’m working on a book proposal, I’ve landed a gig as a columnist reporting on gender and media, and I’m writing and submitting one-off essays like this one. It’s thrilling to have conversations with editors who care about my ideas and who look forward to reading my writing. In my first week as a freelancer, I wrote up my first batch of pieces and submitted them. And then I received the same piece of feedback from three different editors: “This is a great start and I love where you’re going, but I’d love to see more of you in this.”

Twice is a coincidence; three times is a pattern. I couldn’t help but laugh. I had a lot of anxieties as I prepared for a phase of my career that involved being more visible and owning my work and perspective, but I didn’t expect to struggle so mightily with committing my perspective to the page. I imagined what it would look like to include more of myself in my writing, and was surprised at the discomfort I felt.

There’s the simple explanation: I was trained as a journalist, and though I rail against the platitudes for objectivity and obliterating the self from one’s reporting, maybe more of it has seeped into my worldview than I thought. But I don’t actually think that’s the culprit here. Because while I consciously and consistently beat the drum for the radical power of subjectivity in reporting, I have done so from a position of invisibility. And that is what’s truly to blame.

For the last decade of my career in media, I have worked as a ghostwriter.

 

The first time I worked as a ghostwriter, it was deliberate. I was a nineteen-year-old with a blog and a dream of working for This American Life telling the kinds of stories that would make other teenagers feel less alone, too. I scoured job postings and listservs for opportunities that could pad out my resume and bring me closer to being someone Ira Glass might take seriously. That’s when I saw the listing to be a ghostwriter’s intern.

 

The ghostwriter explained to me how the industry worked the first time we met: how the New York Times bestseller list was a sham you could buy your way onto, how to decode who actually wrote a book based on the acknowledgements section (“thank you to so-and-so for the help; without you, this book would not have been possible”). He gestured to the row on his bookshelf that held all the books he’d written; I recognized the name of a prominent personal finance expert.

Then he explained his next project. The son of a wealthy businessman had an archive of letters his father had written his mother over 30 years of work travel. The letters documented historical events: The Civil Rights Movement, space travel, Reagan’s election. The father had died, and the son wanted to memorialize him by writing a book — or rather, by paying us to write a book.

My job would be to go through the archive — twenty scrapbooks containing letters, photos, cocktail napkins and bumper stickers, and tag each page with colored flags according to theme. Once we got through the raw materials, I might even get to do some writing. He offered me the job and I accepted.

I spent months working through those scrapbooks, cross-legged on the floor with my allergies inflamed from decades-old dust trapped in their pages. Every two weeks, I found a check for $200 placed tidily in the center of the ghostwriter’s leather desk pad.

By early summer I had made it through the raw material, and it was time to start writing. He sent me a long outline of the book so far, with chapters defined and bullet points for plot moments within each and suggested I take a stab at the beginning, a scene where our businessman finds himself aboard a torpedoed ship off the coast of France in World War II. I tried my best to inhabit the voice of this man — a white man, a Republican, decades gone already, who lived a life that was so different from mine. I wondered if I would ever meet the client, and what he would think if he knew someone like me was writing his father’s memoir. It didn’t bother me that I wouldn’t get credit for the work; being paid to write anything felt like a miracle.

“When I first became a ghost, I got a kick out of telling people what I did for a living,” Barbara Feinman Todd writes in her memoir Pretend I’m Not Here. “But as time wore on, particularly if I found myself in the company of someone who was engaged in what I considered serious work such as foreign correspondence or humanitarian aid, I felt embarrassment admitting how I paid my bills. In their eyes, I imagined, or sometimes sensed, I was a hack.”

Feinman Todd’s ghostwriting and book-doctoring career for Washington icons spans decades and garnered her access to the personal papers of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, as well as the White House residence during the Clinton administration. As a recent graduate in the seventies, Feinman Todd was, like me, “constitutionally camera shy, both literally and figuratively,” so ghosting initially seemed like a great way to embark on a writing career without commanding too much of a spotlight. And there was plenty of work for her.

Feinman Todd said she loved her work as a ghostwriter, but that in many ways, the “amazing access to material [with] little editorial control” had the effect of obfuscating her work and identity in favor of her client’s. Over time, she came to see her work as “complicity in my own disappearance.”


I finished my internship and graduated college a year later, in 2014. I had applied for nearly a hundred jobs, interviewed for dozens, and landed exactly one offer, at a D.C. political magazine. The job title was “audience development producer” which is a wordy way of saying “social media and homepage manager.” I’d hoped for a job with more writing, something that might bring me closer to This American Life, but the magazine paid $35,ooo and got me out of Georgia. I could work out the rest from there.

I made friends with social media editors at other publications and together we obsessed over the formats of headlines, which social platforms drove the highest click-throughs, and how long those readers stayed on our websites. We invented new metrics to measure success, including that albatross “engagement,” which many of us didn’t understand, but knew was a key metric in measuring the overall success of a piece of content — and by extension, a publication.

For the first six months of my job, I was on call 24 hours a day as the only person who touched the Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts. I stayed logged into the ancient content management system on my iPhone and tweeted out breaking news alerts from dim bars, a beer and a half into happy hour. I kept my phone on me at all times and made sure my alerts were loud, lest I miss an email with the word “breaking” in the subject line. Once I lined up the morning’s social posts from a hallway gurney at the George Washington University Hospital Emergency Room, after having spent the night there when all the muscles in my neck and shoulder locked up from anxiety.

Though I had followed national politics in college, I was out of my depth with the wonky congressional reporting that we covered on a daily basis. I filled my notebook with notes defining filibusters, omnibus bills, and fiscal cliffs so I could refer back easily. I made a lot of mistakes, especially during the first six months; one incident, when I tweeted that President Bill Clinton was planning a visit to Arizona, rather than Arkansas, still haunts me. I had been converting the state’s abbreviation, and had assumed AR was Arizona. I don’t think I even knew that Clinton had been governor of Arkansas. The managing editor screamed from her office, “Typo!” and I scrambled in a panic to figure out what I had done wrong.

On top of my political ignorance, I lacked the context for the unspoken mores of a professional newsroom. I was working with Washington luminaries who had had storied careers in this town, who had covered multiple administrations and broken stories that changed laws. One of them, an editor-turned-columnist with a cocky air I’d already decided I didn’t like, sauntered up to my desk one morning and asked about how he might go about changing a photo on his story. I pulled up the piece on the CMS and showed him which buttons he’d need to click. He dawdled, and asked me to clarify. I slowed down, explaining where he might find the right photos on the Getty database and how to be sure we had a license for them. I was confused about what wasn’t clear. I was about to ask him to explain more specifically what he was confused about when he interrupted me.

“Can you just update it for me?”

He was serious, and I realized that he had come up to me not to understand the technical process of changing a photo, but because he expected me to do it. We were the only two people in the office, and I’m sure he didn’t know my name — only that I was young and new and did the tweets. I was armed with my dog-eared, highlighted copy of Lean In and the full fury of a twenty-two year old women’s studies graduate, and I wasn’t going to bow to this first brush with potential workplace misogyny.

“You’re a grown up,” I said. “You can figure it out.”

He let out a surprised laugh and then walked back down the hall to his office, shaking his head while he walked, and repeating “you’re a grown up.” I felt heat rise in my face and my nerves buzzed with adrenaline. He was certainly a dick, but I was brash and defensive. It was my job to make strategic editorial choices to make the homepage as compelling as possible without losing accuracy. It was frequently my job to take raw articles from Word documents and set them into the CMS, choosing photos and writing headlines to package them into news articles for the web. It was not my job to update pieces’ headlines or photos at the request of writers.

But it didn’t matter. I was the youngest person in the newsroom — and not even a reporter — so the expectation was that I would do the less fulfilling parts of the editorial process for him on request. This was my first experience of the subtle power dynamic at play between social media workers and writers and editors. Writers were the true “talent” of the operation. Social media producers and editors were supplemental, brought in to gussy up vegetables and make them appetizing to the masses. Who weren’t considered experts in an emerging medium, but instead, pedestrian peddlers of a lower form, un-intellectual, not valuable.

After a year at the magazine, I landed a new job on the social media team at a newspaper, also in D.C. I would be joining a bigger team, and I’d get to work on more than just politics. It was a better fit for all parties involved.

I started my new job the summer of 2015. My job at the newspaper would be flexible; I worked a requisite “social shift” where I would be in the driver’s seat on the paper’s Facebook and Twitter accounts, but it wouldn’t be round the clock. Where the magazine had published no more than twenty articles a day, the newspaper’s daily average hovered around 500. It was a new challenge to sort through the onslaught of newly-published articles and figure out what should take precedence on the highly-coveted spots on the Facebook feed. My social shift started at 7:00 a.m. and ended at 11:00 a.m.; during that window it was my job to set up the website’s traffic for the day. Each morning, I made my way to my desk under flickering motion-detected lights. I said hi to the poor overnight reporters before making myself a cup of coffee using my French press and a bag of grounds I’d brought from home (the paper famously didn’t provide free coffee to employees at the time).

Then I would scan the website for the most breaking news, and check my email and Slack for any notifications from editors and reporters who were filing important stories. For the next four hours I’d scan incoming headlines and make split-second decisions about how quickly or aggressively to promote an article based on how breaking the story was and how likely it was to attract readers. This was the summer of 2015, and Donald Trump was beginning to make news more frequently for his racist and inflammatory comments as an unlikely Presidential candidate. And the paper was starting to take his political ambitions more seriously. If he said something egregious, a reporter would write up a quick summary and I would tweet it right out and watch concurrent views on the website spike.

Our team was also often described by our editors as a last line of defense for quality control. Every piece went through several rounds of editing before publication, but it was up to us to scan it — especially the headline and photo — for one last gut check before tweeting it out. Though it wasn’t listed officially as a responsibility in our job descriptions, this work was an important stopgap in avoiding embarrassing faux pas and blind spots, so it helped that the social team was overwhelmingly from minority backgrounds. The social media team at the newspaper was overwhelmingly young and diverse. When I was there, our whole team was under forty, almost exclusively state school grads rather than Ivies (a rarity at a Washington institution like the paper), and predominantly not white; several of us were queer. Our team was an anomaly at the paper, which was mostly white and still very old school in many respects.

However, there was another dynamic at play I didn’t understand at the time: we saw ourselves as journalists, but that didn’t mean the rest of the newsroom did. While we recognized ourselves as innovating creative ways to make the paper’s journalism more accessible, many of the old-school print reporters and editors saw us as a bunch of kids playing with our phones. A former colleague, a young woman of color, once told me about how an editor told her she wasn’t a “real journalist” despite the fact that she was traveling with reporting teams, interviewing sources, and writing articles for the paper in addition to her social media duties. Another former colleague was told by a department head that she would never be hired for a writing job at the paper because she didn’t have the requisite journalistic background — despite having worked there for years.

This presumption that social editors don’t do real work was heightened by the lack of visibility around the work we actually did. There are no bylines on tweets,

Facebook posts or engagement projects; it’s often not clear who is making strategic decisions or writing compelling social copy. By design, a successful social media project feels like it has no writer at all.

There’s a recurring joke on the internet when a publication makes a mistake online: the assumption that the person who wrote the embarrassing post was the “intern” who runs the Twitter account. In a 2015 piece, journalist Alana Hope Levinson investigated what she defined as the “pink ghetto of social media.” She cited a study from the Colorado Women’s College at the University of Denver finding that “women are only 23.3 percent of leaders in media at large, but in social media that number is 55 percent.” Levinson argued that in modern newsrooms, social media work occupied similar roles to historically pink-collar work, like secretarial or administrative work, which placed women and other underrepresented groups in roles supplemental to the work considered “core” to the business. Taylor Lorenz, who was interviewed for the piece, suggests that’s because “women are not encouraged as much to get into hard news.” (Lorenz eventually did transition out of social strategy; she now covers social media and culture at the New York Times.) Because of the assumption that it’s not “serious” journalism, because it’s a field more likely to be made up of non-white, non-male employees, it’s easy for social media work to become a stark line between those whose work is considered essential in a newsroom, and whose is not.

One morning about a year into my time there, I came into work to see that we’d published a story with the headline that referred to Jeremy Lin, the Taiwanese-American basketball player, using the slur “Chinaman.” I contacted the editor and told him I thought it would be best if we changed the headline to eliminate the racial slur. He didn’t reply.

I messaged another editor, who told me he didn’t see the problem with it. It took me raising the issue with my manager, who raised it to a managing editor, for the headline to finally change. The piece’s original editor, a white man, had not valued my opinion as a journalist or as an Asian person enough to change the headline when I said something. We were the last line of defense for quality control, but apparently only if our feedback didn’t challenge whiteness in the newsroom; the assumption was that we would absorb and reinforce the paper’s values, not bring our own to the job.

This was a quiet drama that resolved in a matter of hours, but it made it abundantly clear to me how little my voice actually mattered at the paper. It was clear that as a social media editor, my role was to take other people’s words and make them shine. That was my utility, that was the value I brought to the table. Nothing more.

I wrote thousands of words a day, uncredited, in service of other people’s bylines. I was a ghostwriter again. But this time, I hadn’t signed up for it.

I began looking for my voice in a new way. In 2015, This American Life launched a new podcast called Serial, and it went viral in a way podcasts never had before. Suddenly, every media company wanted its own Serial. At first, it had been thrilling to see so many new podcasts launch, but quickly I started to feel bitter. Podcasts had been my thing for nearly a decade — I had fallen in love with early versions of funky scotch-tape-and-bubblegum podcasts in the early aughts — and suddenly all these interlopers were inserting themselves into my space. I was frustrated with my job, so I decided to teach myself audio production.

I borrowed a USB microphone from a friend, bought a domain name, and launched a podcast. I would be the host and producer; every other week, a new interview with an inspiring woman (I believe I even used the word “badass”) would publish in the feed. The first episode took me about eight hours to edit — I used a free, clunky audio editing software called Audacity with an interface that looks like it hasn’t been updated since 2002. I was a slow and awkward editor, and I had no idea what good was meant to sound like. I was just cobbling together a thing I could publish every other week.

It was truly nothing special, except that it was mine. I leaned into the badness; I embraced the staticky audio and bad cuts while I voraciously read every book I could find on audio production and storytelling. I signed up for a day-long audio workshop and learned how to properly hold a shotgun microphone. I listened to podcast feeds of audio conferences, where I learned how the pros created brand identities for new podcasts and how the best sound engineers scored my favorite audio stories.

At the same time, the newspaper was beginning to take podcasting more seriously, too. Seeing my opportunity, I pitched my own idea: a short series of reported stories about multiracial identity.

In an inexplicable stroke of timing and luck, the project got greenlit, and I was able to spend most of my non-social shift hours researching, reporting, and eventually producing my show. It took about a year and a half, but when the podcast was finally finished in the spring of 2017, I knew I was ready to start producing podcasts as a real, full-time job.

I started applying for jobs, including a temporary fellowship at a website based in New York known for listicles and cat videos. It had a powerhouse podcast team that produced some of my favorite shows. I got the job and it felt like a no-brainer to take it. But it was a risk. After three months the fellowship would be over, and I would be on my own. To take the job would be to take a chance on myself and accept the terrifying prospect of being jobless in New York City.

I took the job.

I raced toward publication of my podcast, which came out over the course of five days in May 2017. The last episode published on my last day there. The next morning I packed up a moving truck and drove to Brooklyn.


After the fusty vibe of the old school Washington paper, the website’s offices felt like a millennial’s playground. It seemed everyone I saw on that first day was under 40, multiracial with multicolored hair. The facilities workers rode hoverboards through the office, zooming past desks as they dropped off mail. The cafeteria was lined with shelves of free candy, granola bars, oatmeal, hummus, and fresh fruit. The bathrooms all had stereos that played top 40 radio, so I could listen to Childish Gambino’s “Redbone” and gaze at the Chrysler Building while I peed the multiple cups of free (!) coffee I hoarded at my desk.

It was a kind of utopia for me, where “identity politics” wasn’t a dismissive slur and where social media wasn’t just an afterthought — it was the point. I would sit at my desk in the open office and stare at my computer while peeking out of the corner of my eye at the writers I followed on Twitter two seats over, and whose books I owned copies of at home.

That job — and that podcast team — provided me with my first true training as an audio producer. Prior to that, I had only ever produced for myself. Now, I would be working with a team of people producing high-profile hosts.

The first thing I learned is how broad the title “producer” actually is. At its inception, the podcasting world was radio’s scrappy younger internet sibling, free of many of its legacy-based inhibitions, but also free of its clearly-defined job titles. Where a radio team might have an executive producer, senior producer, editor, producer, associate producer, mix engineer, and booker, a podcast team might only have the budget for three people total, all of whom would play the roles needed to bring an audio product to life.

I learned the best strategies for booking high-profile guests. I learned how to structure interview questions in a way that would elicit the most interesting answers. I learned to coach hosts to sound as natural on-mic as they did in the cafeteria at lunch, and I learned what it felt like to provide that mentorship that I hadn’t received. I learned what cocktails my hosts preferred to drink during tapings, and how to make them in thirty seconds flat with one hand. In Pro Tools, I cut out digressions and lip smacking, smoothed transitions between words so they sounded like they came out that way; I learned to paint with their voices.

Our team developed a wide-ranging internal vocabulary. The word “producing” was used as a compliment when someone had successfully solved a problem (“You are producing that party!” Or “She produced the hell out of that bad date”). And I learned the most significant value of the team’s ethos early on, when, in a prep document, I referred to a host and guest as “the talent.” My manager, a gregarious and aggressively compassionate woman, stopped me and said, “No, no. We don’t call hosts ‘talent.’ We are all the talent.”

This might seem like semantic nitpicking, but she was gently correcting a bias I didn’t even know I had: that we, as producers, in some way served the hosts — that the hosts were the ones who mattered.

One phrase was radical to articulate: Toxic Host Culture. It’s a kind of tunnel-vision behavior that hosts can develop when they come to believe they are the center of a production. Of course, in many ways they are. To be a host requires emotive talent, charisma that’s legible without visuals, and the ability to think on one’s feet without breaking a sweat. A host has to have the physical and emotional stamina to talk for hours at a time and sound just as excited and fresh in hour four as they did in hour one.

But producing a podcast, especially the ones we were creating, is the result of a collaborative process of which a host is only one part. A host must trust that their producer sees the finished product as a reflection of their work as well. This is the social contract on which audio production depends. If you’re lucky, you land a host who understands that. But even the kindest hosts can fall prey to Toxic Host Culture when an entire production seems to revolve around their well-being and comfort.

Toxic Host Culture might look like gliding into a recording without greeting anyone in the room, simply not showing up to a planning meeting because they “forgot,” or ignoring a producer’s feedback during a taping. It includes the assumption that a host’s time is more valuable than a producer’s, an assumption that is affirmed by the way podcasts are marketed (“So-and-So’s new podcast”) and the way hosts are often compensated compared to producers. Toxic Host Culture looks like producers not even being  named in the credits of a podcast, or a host refusing to stick to the question list the producer painstakingly crafted over weeks of research.

In the years since I’ve found myself, on more occasions than I’d like to admit, sweating in a cramped studio while I beg a host to convincingly perform the empathy I’ve written into their script. I’ve coached them to read my own words more authentically, as if they wrote them themselves. I have watched as those hosts have gone on to receive public praise for their performance of the words I wrote; I’ve watched their podcasts optioned for television, watched them get book deals and petition their employers for raises without advocating for the (much lower) salaries of the people writing and editing and fact-checking their words. I handed my lunch over to a cranky host before a recording, watching her crunch on my carrot sticks while my stomach grumbled before buying an overpriced fast-casual plate hours later with $15 I hadn’t wanted to spend.

The job of a producer is to craft the best story possible. Often that means rendering oneself invisible to the process, of making the work of creation invisible and seamless. The nature of the producer-host relationship is that it’s one party’s job to say words and be visible, while the other party graciously fades into the background. Unless you are incredibly lucky or are self-producing, this is the case.

In the last few years I’ve adapted book projects into audio for the express purpose of generating intellectual property for clients. That meant that any derivative work created from the podcast was owned by the authors of the books and the clients we served. It didn’t matter that I had tracked down new leads or reported out a story that hadn’t appeared in the original text; as a subcontractor, my labor (and the credit for and ownership over that labor) was incidental. I was a hired hand to do the dirty work of finding and crafting a story.

It’s an insidious form of ghostwriting, and many people in these jobs don’t even realize what they’re getting into. I do not think it was a coincidence that as a young woman, Feinman Todd was, as she put it in her first chapter, “constitutionally camera-shy, both literally and figuratively,” and that she ended up a career ghostwriter. I do not think it’s a coincidence that the social team at the paper was predominantly young and from underrepresented backgrounds — people who are just happy to have made it to the room, to be anonymous writers of words to promote others. I also do not think it’s a coincidence that the majority of my colleagues from that team have moved on from the paper, and no longer do this kind of work.

Social media and audio production are just two of the invisible structures built to prop up a select few voices that are deemed valuable in the media industry. The people who do that work are not considered to be — or compensated like — experts in their fields the way high-profile  columnists are. Beyond pay and credit discrepancies, the invisibility of this labor props up the fallacy that great works of journalism and art come from a singular, gifted individual. Because we’re invested in that myth — and maybe the secret hope that we could be one of those individuals — we build structures to support it.

When you buy into the myth of the singular genius, it becomes unseemly that a brilliant writer might need an equal partner in an audio producer to coherently package and adapt their thoughts for a new medium. It’s why we experience a twinge of distaste when we find out a prominent figure worked with a ghostwriter on their memoir; if a person is notable or exceptional in one respect, they must be in all ways. To recognize that a ghostwriter, or producer, or a professional of one of a dozen other careers that don’t get performed in the spotlight, has irreplaceable skill and experience would demean the singular and incomparable gift of the person at center stage.

The obsession with this fantasy is reflected at the highest levels of this industry; from the New York Times’s reliance on star reporters to build media products around (Newsletters! Podcasts! Video series!) to the mass exodus of many “star” reporters from publications to Substack (and the subsequent hand-wringing). It appears many of them believe in the myth themselves; Glenn Greenwald left the Intercept for the newsletter platform over escalating disagreements with the website’s editors and editorial standards.

 

A couple of years back I searched the businessman’s name to see if the book I helped write ever came out. Almost a decade had passed since I’d worked on that early draft. I typed his name into the Amazon search bar and a title came up, a self-published memoir with a photo of our businessman on the cover, authored by his son. I bought it hardcover for $22, and a week later it was in my hands.

It was slim, filled with photos I recognized from my research. I flipped through the book, trying to discern my fingerprint on the words. I recognized scenes, I recognized photos of pages I’d archived. But I didn’t find myself at all.

In an interview for the Good Life Project podcast, writer Mira Jacob reflected on what spurred her to start writing her first novel, The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing: “Actually, it’s because I was ghostwriting a book for Kenneth Cole. And he was great, but I had to write in his voice — and there’s nothing like channeling the voice of an established, white, 40-year-old man every day to make you desperately turn and find your own.” I spent the first decade of my adult life finding the words to describe experiences I haven’t had, places I haven’t been, and people I’ll never meet. I found ways to write, but they required me to displace myself, even in my own mind, to center another perspective.

In late 2018, I realized I had written the same entry in my diary for several weeks in a row: I’m so tired. Work is so hard. I’m just so frustrated. The muscles I’d developed to describe my world, my life, my hopes and desires, had atrophied; I was left to babble the same lines to myself over and over.

That winter, I started plotting a novel, and that led to writing classes in New York, workshop groups, and even trips around the country to pull the strings on my own stories. I wrote hundreds of thousands of words and began to hear my own voice in my head again.

In the fall of 2020, I was approached by a friend who hosts a podcast for a women’s magazine to do a personal essay for their show. I was flattered, and sat down to sketch out an outline. Immediately, my internal chatter started: There isn’t a story here. Why are you trying to make this about yourself? Nobody will care, anyway. When you’ve been taught that you are an accessory to greatness, how do you believe that you can be great yourself?

I sat with those voices for a moment, and then realized I had to let my training take over. The journalistic and storytelling skills that I’d honed over years of crafting stories in other people’s voices. The judgement, the vocabulary, the sense of gravity in how a story rises and falls — I learned all of that in my years as a ghostwriter, first as an author, then a social media editor, and finally as an audio producer. ​​Now I learn to write in my own voice.