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How to Write a Memoir

How to Write Someone Else’s Memoir

woman using laptop

Photo: Jasper James/Getty Images

This week, the Cut reflects on self-reflection with a series of stories devoted to the art of memoir. Now, we end the week with a nod to the men and women behind those high-profile memoirs that rule the best-seller list — ghostwriters.
The problem with writing an article about ghostwriters is that nobody will go on the record. People whose job descriptions contain a reference to invisibility don’t do press — which is funny, because most of them aremembers of the press. “Whoever wrote that book would be tremendously flattered by such a nice assessment,” the ghostwriter behind my favorite Hollywood tell-all said, “but I imagine he or she signed an iron-clad nondisclosure agreement.”
Recruited by literary agents and book editors to turn celebrity confessions into juicy beach reads and war stories into best-selling thrillers, they’re the men and women behind perhaps half of America’s best-selling nonfiction. (Last year, one agent estimated the figure to be at least 60 percent.) Ghostwriting isn’t a new phenomenon — John F. Kennedy won a Pulitzer for Profiles in Courage, a book his speechwriter acknowledged ghosting. But while the rise of the celebrity memoir has, to some extent, softened the stigma associated with “collaboration,” the demands of marketing, personal branding, and political posturing still require many ghosts — and their methods — to stay in the shadows. Intimacy is the currency of memoir, and to preserve that feeling of direct access, the ghost’s job is, quite literally, to disappear.
Even it’s the celebrity who keeps disappearing. Merle Ginsberg co-authored Paris Hilton’s 2004 best-seller Confessions of an Heiressand she isn’t sure whether her “author” ever read the final edit. “Paris gave me such free rein, it’s crazy,” Ginsberg recalls. “I said to my agent, ‘I need to get more from Paris.’ And he said, ‘Oh girl, just think of it as your first novel.’” To make sure Hilton’s book hit stores before her spotlight faded, Ginsberg wrote the entire book in five weeks, while Hilton was on location filming The Simple Life“It wasn’t that easy getting her attention,” Ginsberg admits. “We had a number of meetings and she was nothing but pleasant, but talking isn’t her thing. Paris is all about the visual. She loved doing the pictures.” (“Some of the books are more merchandise than literature,” Daniel Paisner, whose 50-plus co-bylines may make him the most prolific living ghost, once said to NPR.) Ginsberg likens the job to “conjuring.”
Like everything connected to mid-'00s Paris Hilton, Ginsberg’s experience was something of an extreme. A more normal ghost-author relationship involves hours of interviews and extensive communication. Frequent memoir-collaborator John David Mann — whose name has appeared on book covers with politicosbusinessmen, and a Navy SEAL — likens ghosting to acting: “I think it might be something like what it’s like to be an actor, playing someone’s life story on the screen. This may sound a little wonky, but you’ve got to find a place inside yourself that really connects with that person,” he told me. “If you’re going to do a good job at this, you have to get into this person and look at the world through their eyes.” Now that he has an established track record as a ghost, Mann can demand shared bylines and shares of rights and royalties. “There’s a whole vocabulary around the bylines,” he says. His books are usually credited as “‘by’ the guy the book is about, ‘with John David Mann.’ That’s code for ‘this guy lived the life, and John wrote the book.’”
But far more common than Mann’s and Ginsberg’s experiences are those of ghosts whose names never appear in public; they walk away with a one-time paycheck and minimal bragging rights. “He gave me a nice shout-out in the acknowledgments,” said a ghost whose most recent project was an actor’s collection of essays. “It’s sort of the secret handshake of the industry, thanking ‘my collaborator’ or ‘my partner.’”
That “secret handshake” was how I sleuthed my way to the ghostwriter behind my favorite tell-all. Flipping to the “acknowledgments” page of the book in question, I systematically plugged each name into Google until a writer’s name popped up. After reviewing the Facebook pages of more than a dozen entertainment lawyers, hairdressers, stylists, and talent managers, I got a hit — a little-known writer with a (public) résumé of pop-culture writing and celebrity profiles. Some celebrity books contain so many acknowledgments that you wonder whether the whole thing was a game of exquisite corpse. Kylie and Kendall Jenner’s novel Indra: City of Rebels required so much collaboration that, in addition to thanking ghostwriter Maya Sloan, the sisters granted their manager Elizabeth Killmond-Roman her own acknowledgments page, so she could thank the people who collaborated with her.
As a writer, the prospect of giving up your byline to become a reality star’s puppet may seem, well, depressing. But few writers support themselves exclusively with their own bylined material. “We’re all slashers,” said one ghost. “Writer-slash-editor, novelist-slash-Pilates-instructor, teacher-slash-freelance-journalist. As far as jobs that support your writing go, this one is pretty good.”
But, I asked, isn’t a ghostwritten memoir basically just a biography? “No, because biographers get royalties,” a writer who recently turned down a ghostwriting gig laughed. Or as the more diplomatic John David Mann put it, “Biographies are about looking at that person from the outside,” whereas “memoir is really trying to give the reader this person’s experience.” The more I thought about it, the notion that a famous person would ever allow a stranger to write a biography seemed almost bizarrely altruistic. Given the choice, who wouldn’t want to control the narrative and profit from her own popularity? Even Madonna — long considered the last holdout in her refusal to write her own memoir — admitted last year that she’ll probably write a memoir “one day.”
“I’d reckon 95 percent of memoirs by public figures involve a ghostwriter to some degree,” a senior editor at a major publishing house told me, under the promise of anonymity. (Even talking about ghosts seems to render literati invisible.) His current roster includes four ghostwritten memoirs, mostly of political figures. Here’s how he described the process: “The collaborator may conduct extensive interviews with the ‘author,’ then draft chapters and show them to the author. Or the author may write some rudimentary material, and the collaborator shapes it into something resembling a book.” Yes, he really used scare quotes the first time he said “author.”
I interviewed one ghostwriter who never met or spoke privately with his subject until after the project was over. With several books with his own name under his belt, he was recruited to write a Hollywood starlet’s autobiographical novel. "Her team sent over the book proposal, so I had a skeleton to work with — no offense to her figure at the time — but the process was very detached. We had no more than two phone calls, both conference calls with her people.” After collecting a one-time payday in the low-five-figure range, the writer went on to ghost for another celebrity. The starlet went on to a book tour, telling talk-show hosts about her writing process.
A few months later, the ghost ran into the starlet at a West Hollywood coffee shop. “And I was like, I’ve got to talk to her. So I go up and I give her my name. No recognition. And then I say, ‘I worked on your book?’ And then she was like, ‘Oh my God! Hello!’ And then we just stood there, because we were in public and it was like we’d had a clandestine sexual encounter — you can’t say anything in case the wife is nearby.” They parted ways and never spoke again.



Music Ghostwriting Controversies: Drake, Meek Mill, Shi Wisdom, Nickelus F, Kia Shine, Quentin Miller

An Exploration of Drake’s Past

Ghostwriting Controversies

Music  July, 24 2015  By 

Drake and Meek Mill's simmering beef centers on charges that the Canadian rapper/crooner has someone else penning his mega-hits. While the claims may seem out-of-the-blue to some, Drake is no stranger to ghostwriting charges in the past. We explore four notable rumors.

Ghostwriting in hip-hop is nothing new. Notable instances include Nas penning Will Smith’s “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” Jay Z writing Dr. Dre’s “Still D.R.E.,” and Pharoahe Monch contributing in-full to Diddy’s “The Future.” However, every once in a while it’s used to discredit someone by claiming that their star status in music is nothing more than a facade. Nicki Minaj notably insinuated that Iggy Azalea used ghostwriters when accepting a BET Award for Best Female Hip Hop Artist in 2014, saying, “What I want the world to know about Nicki Minaj is when you hear Nicki Minaj spit, Nicki Minaj wrote it.”
Drake now finds himself embroiled in hip-hop’s latest ghostwriting controversy after Meek Mill took to Twitter to accuse the OVO head-honcho of having someone else – Quentin Miller – pen the song “10 Bands” from If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late as well as on their own collaboration, “R.I.C.O.,” from Mill’s 205 project Dreams Worth More Than Money.
Funkmaster Flex added further credibility to Mill’s claims after playing a two-minute snippet of Miller’s “10 Bands” reference track. Flex also claimed that Miller received $5,000 USD a month for his work for the label.
During a Pinkprint tour stop in Virginia a day after, Meek addressed his recent tweets, saying, “Don’t get it twisted. I was just upset as a fan that a n*gga gave me a verse that he [Drake] didn’t write. Shout out to Drake. Let him be great in all the mothafucking lanes he great in. But I’m gon’ still be the realest nigga in this bitch!”
With Drake still mum on the allegations, we’ve looked into the past for other indications whether or not Mill’s claims are true. Besides Quentin Miller, three other names have been attached to Drake and rumors of employing ghostwriters.

Shi Wisdom
In 2014, an unnamed Toronto woman supposedly hired prominent attorney Gloria Allred to help her bring a suit against Drake with charges that she had written many of his more “sensitive-sounding” songs. Ultimately, the pending litigation was nothing more than MediaTakeOut lies.
However, Drake didn’t get out of the situation completely unscathed. Many people began to look at Toronto-based songwriter, Shi Wisdom, as someone who could have been the potential plaintiff had the suit been in fact real. Having helped pen Rita Ora’s “R.I.P.” with Drake, Noisey decided to get to the bottom of the rumors that she had written for Drake himself – and why she had chosen to publicly bring attention to the “lawsuit” at a time when it was still a viable story.
“I like to see where people’s heads are at,” she told Noisey. “When I posted the original article speaking about this Toronto woman, it didn’t say it was me, and I didn’t say it wasn’t me. I just wanted to see what people were thinking about it. Not even an hour later, there’s another post that comes up with my face on it saying that it’s me. I didn’t feel the need to even address the issue in terms of validating whether or not it’s true with just anybody. You’re the first publication I’ve actually openly said that this is not me, because I’m already a credible writer. I wrote a song with this person. My name is in the pamphlet alongside his. I am not a ghostwriter. I have never been a ghostwriter.”

Nickelus F
Richmond, VA native Nickelus F rose to prominence on BET’s 106th and Park “Freestyle Friday” segment where he won seven weeks in a row – ultimately being enshrined in their “Hall of Fame” in 2007.
By 2010, Nickelus had fallen into the daily routines of a more traditional 9-5 – working at Terminex as an exterminator. “I hope to be out of it soon, but that’s what I do,” he told Complex. “Just the other day I was crawling underneath a house and my head bumped a dead rat that landed right in front of me, a big one. It’s a regular thing. I crawl under houses and face a snake and all that.”
Nickelus and Drake first met through MySpace. “He said he liked my music and wanted to do a record. It was the ‘Money’ record,” he recalled. WhenComplex explicitly asked if he had written verses for Drake he said, “Yes, I have done a verse. Not a bunch of verses. I have helped out with hooks and one verse in particular. But I don’t write no verses for him.” When pressed further on which verse he wrote he responded, “Yeah, it’s well known. I don’t know if I necessarily want to put that out there. That’s my homie at the end of the day.”
The rumor is that Nickelus F wrote Drake’s “I’m Goin’ In” verse on on his 2009 EP So Far Gone.

Kia Shine
Memphis rapper Kia Shine owns a portion of one of Drake’s breakout hits, “Best I Ever Had.” Many experts suggest it’s because he produced a song for Lil Wayne called “Do if For The Boy” in which Wayne’s first verse seems to be the reference for Drake’s melody on “Best I Ever Had.”
He recently took to Twitter to say that no one believed him when he said that he had penned “Best I Ever Had.”

Quentin Miller
It shouldn’t be a surprise for anyone that Quentin Miller has been accused of writing “R.I.C.O.” on Meek Mill’s album. His name appears in the song’s credits. Miller is also credited with helping write five songs off of Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late – “10 Bands,” “Know Yourself,” “No Tellin,” “Used To,” and “6 Man.”
The issue with ghostwriting charges is that Drake clearly has a history of working with Miller. There’s a very fine line between “helping” someone and not receiving credit, and writing an entire song for someone and being paid to remain silent about it. As of right now, Miller remains a documented songwriter for Drake.
Frequent Drake collaborator Noah “40” Shebib took to Twitter yesterday to comment on the situation, typing, “I’ve spent maybe 30 min in a studio with Q. Nice enough guy, very talented… If your [sic] asking if he contributed to ‘if you’re reading this’… Yes, he did. You can also see that by reading the credits.”