I just finished a great read, Beloved, by Toni Morrison, an even greater author. The book’s namesake, Beloved, is a ghost, but to say this is a ghost story in the expected sense would be misleading. It is instead, a story about how the past can stifle or even haunt the present and you, like a ghost. However, the book’s ghost character is a metaphor. Morrison, of course, brilliantly used an old southern term for ghost which is, “haint.” The term packs a cultural punch with its additional connotation being that haints are unfriendly. She uses the term with marked intention because it, in and of itself, is enough to help set scene and tenor throughout the book.
I’m mentioning all this because I am currently working as a ghost writer. It’s a fun gig. There’s room to for me to exercise my creativity even though the parameters are being negotiated. Basically, I started with none and as my client approves copy, she discusses what she’s comfortable with and what she’s not. I then revise accordingly. Her last suggestion was, “Try to avoid personal references.” That’s easy enough. As I write more material for her, now twice monthly, a clearer picture begins to emerge. I started out idealizing her (she was a business woman that walked on water) and I wrote from that premise, but over time she’s developed into a something a bit more corporeal, literally and figuratively. Granted, she’s still pretty awesome, but now she’s more real, more flawed, both in my writing and in life.
My first assignment was to write her biography. It started as a page of copy that had to be condensed into a half page and squeezed into a third of a page which was once again wrangled to produce a promotional tagline. Yeah, no periods, no commas, no wasting time. The assignments that followed were paced similarly. They were blog posts, comments, and articles written with the sole purpose of making my client into this “thing” she imagined would be revered as the knowledgeable pied piper of souls clamoring for her industry, business, and career insight. Naturally, when you set up a house of cards like this, is it sustainable? Is it haunted? Who’s the ghost here?
No sooner had I come to this revelation, when a new one occurred. That is, I had evolved from just writer to mentor, and as such, was obliged to begin a frank conversation with her about what I thought might eventually become a dreadful quagmire. Despite being quite comfortable in the role she’d created for me, I thought it was prudent that she reevaluate the demands of keeping up her writerly image, long term. Ironically, she was trying to establish herself as a personal brand industry matriarch, the prime directive of which was presenting an authentic “you.”
My attempt to take her under wing and mentor her as a friendly ghost resulted in a relationship spectre that hung over every subsequent meeting. Why? Because she decided that the course of action she’d chosen was the way to go and this was antithetical to what I thought she should have been doing. I know it was probably crazy of me to risk talking myself out of a gig, but I felt she deserved fair warning that my premonition of her house of cards remained. It couldn’t withstand the slightest breeze, not even a temporal one. All the same, at her behest I kept writing and she kept consuming my writing as though she’d written it; growing more like Beloved in my eyesight every day.
Eventually, she had me ghost write a book. She accepted a speaking engagement here and there—I wrote the outlines for her speeches too. Well, I guess you can see where this went. The audience, enthusiastic as it was, had questions, probing questions, questions you’d ask an author. And the house came tumbling down.
The moral of this story…if you’re talking personal branding, know your industry and its tenets, own what you do and stick with it. Be authentic. Admit to having ghosts, and let nothing come back to haunt you.