Steven Rinehart on the Fine Art of Being Someone Else

Originally published in the Summer 2021 issue of Qu.

When I first started working as a ghostwriter, people (and by people I mean only writers) often asked me what it was like or how it was different from writing fiction for… And they often would struggle to finish that sentence. “Myself?” I asked.

I generally told them I didn’t know the answer to that question. Other than writing fiction and the occasional magazine piece, I never wrote academic papers or otherwise put down my views or thoughts about anything important. I never wrote letters to the editor, had a blog, or published a column under my own name. Before I became a ghostwriter, the only part of myself I put into my writing, other than trying to make it as good as I could, was whatever I was trying to unearth about my own experience by camouflaging it through my fiction. I didn’t feel as if I were expressing my own emotions or philosophy directly, but rather funneling it through characters to be absorbed eventually by strangers.

When I started ghostwriting I was lucky — my ‘principal’ had been published so intensely that any subject I was given upon which to write in his voice had a built-in head start. I could immerse myself in his existing ouvre, such as it was, and emerge fairly easily, pen in hand, and work my way through a first draft. My principal would then take a pass, and after a couple rounds it would be finished. I knew my limitations early when my own expressions would come back crossed out and — in most cases — improved, generally by simplifying the language and emphasizing how it might sound aloud.

As I got a bit more adept, these kinds of edits dwindled but they never disappeared. And partly I was pleased by that, as I felt as though anything that came out under a person’s name should bear the marks of that person’s attention, even if fleeting. I tried in some cases to intentionally leave out scenes or anecdotes that I knew the principal would want to include, and was further pleased when I’d see them scrawled in the margins, and more often than not in a way that I would have done differently.

But what I think the writers were asking me during those times I mentioned earlier was something along the lines of, ‘what do you give up when you write as someone else?’ What essential core ego-driven virgin creative spark is muffled when you take your own name off a piece of writing and put someone else’s name on it (provided you’re not just ghosting yourself)? And I think if someone were to ask me that in such a direct way, I’d answer, “very little,” which is the truth — but only my truth, I should point out. I can’t say, at least without hypnosis, perhaps, if the creative process is any different than it might be if I were writing the same piece under my own name. I suspect it’s not.

There is, however, a narrow scenario under which the above doesn’t apply. Once, when I was in my twenties and about to leave my job as a carpenter to study writing in an MFA program, a dear friend asked me if her brother could use a short story of mine, one I didn’t really like or never meant to do anything with, as a submission in a college writing class. Not for publication, but just to get credit for the class, as he wasn’t able to write anything himself. I was outwardly polite, but inwardly aghast. Who would do such a thing? And how could I let something I wrote go out under someone else’s name, even if only a professor or a few bored undergraduates would read it? I certainly did have several dead stories lying around at that time, so it wouldn’t have mattered to my output. But I, again politely, said no.

And I think I would say no today if I were asked to ghostwrite a serious piece of fiction (I’ve worked on thrillers, and those don’t count). I’m a slow, easily distracted, but very personal fiction writer, and there isn’t a story I’ve written that didn’t take something out of me to put into words. If I haven’t personally made every mistake my fictional characters do on the page, I’ve contemplated it, or been in some other way complicit. That’s what it means to write like me, and I wouldn’t consider (nor would I think myself capable) of doing it as someone else. Luckily, nobody has ever asked me to write a story or novel about whatever I wanted, then let them publish it under their name, and I doubt the situation will ever present itself. But I have an answer ready if it does.

. . .

Steven Rinehart’s works of fiction include Built in a Day (Doubleday), and Kick in the Head (Doubleday). He is the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the James Michener Center, and the Virginia Center for the Arts.

Steve writes and ghostwrites for a former US President, Fortune 100 CEOs, entrepreneurs, and social activists. His creative, persuasive, and nonfiction writing, both under his byline and for principals, has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, TIME, London Telegraph, GQ, Out, Harpers, Georgia Review, the Atlantic, Chicago Tribune, and many others. He teaches in the Gallatin School of NYU.

Rinehart teaches Fiction in the low-residency Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program at Queens University of Charlotte.