To collect facts is one thing, to discover the meaning of the facts, quite another. To ask questions that inherently have no answers. To have an instinct that a cluster of events somehow are related, though the relationship is not clear. Again, not comparison, but connection.
— Anne Michaels, Infinite Gradation
My autobiography always arrives from somewhere outside me; my narrating I is really anybody’s, promiscuously.
— Sophie Collins, A Whistle in the Gloom
I sought amongst so many books a way to understand myself by analogy, a pattern recognised in other lives which might be drawn across my own to give it shape and, given shape, to give it impetus, direction.
— Jessie Greengrass, Sight
In The Purpose Effect, Dan Pontefract refers to a ‘sweet spot’ in which individual purpose, organisational purpose and the purpose of a role all align. Supporting Dan while he worked through a second draft of his manuscript gave me pause. What was my purpose? How did I reconcile whatever it was with the fact that I had extricated myself from traditional organisational structures, was only just beginning to understand what my new role might be, and had a financial and emotional imperative to support a family?
Collaborating with Dan and other authors on their own books slowly brought things into focus, adding flesh to the bones of what had been a vague understanding. If my passion was for reading and writing, then I derived a great sense of satisfaction from helping other people realise their own creative ambitions. It was all about service, about being a coach and guide, a midwife even, bringing a long-gestated idea into the world in book form. There was service to the individual author, service to the idea they wished to develop, service to the book and its overall quality and, ultimately, service to the potential reader.
The role I now fulfil is multifaceted varying from project to project: sounding board, critical friend, catalyst, editor, adviser, mentor, co-author and, more recently, ghostwriter. But each facet falls under that purposeful umbrella of service and assisting others in achieving their literary goals. There is an organisation of sorts, too, albeit something fluid, cohering around time-bound alliances for different book projects. Sometimes these organisations are re-constituted (I have embarked upon the third book collaboration with Dan), sometimes they are one-offs.
I am now deep into the research phase of a second book as ghostwriter. Looking back, I note an intriguing trajectory. Ghostwriting allows me to pursue my love of research and writing and to continue to provide a service to other people, helping them move from a good idea to a book in their hands. But it also takes me ever further into the shadows. With Mean Streets and Raging Bulls, I was a solo author working on an adaptation of my own postgraduate thesis. With The Neo-Generalist, I was a co-author with Kenneth Mikkelsen, sharing ideas and writing responsibilities, taking on the editorial work while Kenneth conducted all the interviews. With Return of the Vikings, I was a visible ghostwriter, credited on the title page and with a short biography at the back of the book. Now, on the latest ghostwriting assignment, I will withdraw from sight entirely, fully embracing the cloak of invisibility.
[Photo credit: Letting Go (Whitstable Street Art), Richard Martin, August 2015]
The introvert in me finds this appealing. So too the consigliere, as defined and explored by Richard Hytner in his book on the topic. Hytner makes a case for the effectiveness of leading from the shadows, of being among the number of ‘deputies, assistants, and counsellors who support, inform and advise the final decision-makers’. I alluded to this towards the end of my personal story, included in the third chapter of The Neo-Generalist, but have an even clearer idea of what it means now. This has been assisted in no small part by listening to those numerous Nordic leaders I have heard interviewed over the past couple of years. They have highlighted how important it is to enable others and how everything the individual does should not be for their own glory but for the benefit of the group or community. We always comes before Me. My writing then, can help authors convey their ideas to other people and, in so doing, in however small a capacity, change their readers.
In this way, ghostwriting has become an incredibly rewarding experience for me. It allows me to help, but it also enables me to explore topics that are new to me and to learn, feeding the curiosity that is characteristic of the neo-generalist, occasionally even resulting in unexpected insights. But it has also taken me along a bumpy path, teaching me the importance of letting go. It was Not Doing, another book I had the good fortune to work on in an editorial and advisory capacity, that helped me see this. As the authors Diana Renner and Steven D’Souza note, ‘By letting go of the perceived security of the shore we can become more open to the opportunities in the current.’
I have always maintained that, in writing, I mostly write for myself and use it as a form of sense-making. However, in choosing to publish, I do so in the hope that the ideas the writing contains will have meaning for at least a few other people; that it will affect them in some way. With ghostwriting, however, my point of exit is with the handover of a draft manuscript. This is the moment when the authors, their publisher, illustrators and editors all add to the creative process. The book that results is no longer yours, but has been shaped and reclaimed by those whose idea it originally was. It is why, I have belatedly realised, there is no need for your name to appear on the cover or anywhere else for that matter. We before me, yet again. A lesson that only becomes stronger and more important through the living.
The reporter read his own work with curiosity, with a fervent unknowing, rediscovering his own words as if they were the work of another person.
— Danny Denton, The Earlie King & The Kid in Yellow
When I write I’m absent
and when I come back I’ve gone:
gone off to see if other folk
go through what I go through,
if they’ve got so many others inside them,
if they see themselves the same.
— Pablo Neruda, We Are Many
complex being with bridges and passages
transporting bodies around
increasingly fleeting and flexible patterns
— Ursula Andkjær Olsen, Third-Millennium Heart
- Richard Hytner, Consiglieri: Leading from the Shadows (Profile Books, 2014).
- Kenneth Mikkelsen and Richard Martin, The Neo-Generalist (LID, 2016)
- Dan Pontefract, The Purpose Effect (Elevate, 2016).
- Diana Renner and Steven D’Souza, Not Doing (LID, 2018).
- Chris Shern and Henrik Jeberg, Return of the Vikings (DPF, 2018).