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What Ghostwriting Can Teach Us About Memoir

After reading an article by JR Moehringer about ghostwriting, Jennifer Gaites realizes that approaching her own memoir like a ghostwriter will help her dig deeper.

By Jennifer Gaites

June 01, 2023

Although an avid memoir reader, I wasn’t planning on reading Prince Harry’s memoir, Spare. I’m ambivalent about the Royal Family and its fussiness and fanfare, but then I learned that JR Moehringer was Prince Harry’s ghostwriter. I really enjoyed The Tender Bar, specifically Moehringer’s keenly observant and often funny narrative voice. So much so that I changed my mind and I added Spare to my to-read list. 

Fast forward to just last month, when Moehringer published an essay about his ghostwriting experience in The New Yorker and now I’m all but smitten. Smitten with Moehringer, that is. 

Notes from Prince Harry’s Ghostwriter” reads like a short memoir in itself. In the essay, Moehringer is open and vulnerable about his successes and challenges, his own grief, and what attracts him to ghostwriting projects to begin with (spoiler: he is always reluctant). He paints scenes from his own experiences: extensive interviews; wrestling, arguing, and pulling stories out of his authors; and not wanting to be seen, then feeling resentment over not being seen.

For some reason, as I was reading the article, I kept thinking about my own writing process and my time in the Memoir Incubator last year. Even though each of us was writing our own stories (no ghostwriters for us!), our discussions echoed many of the experiences that Moehringer shared. 

In book inc, we suggest at least seven years’ separation between present day and the timeframe of the memoir. We are, ultimately, then telling the story of past selves. We are no longer that person. 

I started to wonder if, to some extent, all memoirists are ghostwriters. 

Similar to how Moehringer interrogates his authors, our memoir group started out using writing prompts from The 90-Day Novel by Alan Watt. We aimed to learn about our memoir’s subject (our past selves) through a fresh lens. We asked questions. We listened for answers. We trusted the process. 

Last week, I was talking with Michele Prestininzi, one of our Book Revision Lab Peer Artist Leaders. I remembered a fabulous prompt she’d shared a while ago: Have your main character write a letter to the writer, telling them what they got wrong. 

I’d thought about the prompt, but I couldn’t imagine how this could apply to memoir. But after reading about the ghostwriting experience, I think it’s an incredibly useful revision tool for a full-length memoir. Looking at my own manuscript, I’ve already thought of a few ways I’ve gotten the story wrong–ways that I was imposing my current self onto the past self of the memoir. 

The quote that struck me the most from Moehringer’s essay was this: “But, strange as it may seem, memoir isn’t about you. It’s not even the story of your life. It’s a story carved from your life, a particular series of events chosen because they have the greatest resonance for the widest range of people…” It’s that story that a ghostwriter helps bring out of the author, in the same way that it’s that story that a memoirist tells. 

The beauty of Michele’s writing prompt is that it separates the writer from the main character–even in memoir. In my own memoir, I realized that I need to dig deeper, maybe ask a few more questions. Then, like any good ghostwriter, I need to step aside and let the main character of my memoir find her own voice.

Jennifer Gaites is a writing instructor at Project Write Now, and a book inc Peer Artist Leader. Her work has appeared in Literary Mama and is forthcoming in Hippocampus.