Being a ghostwriter is like being at a party with a friend who says to an eager crowd of listeners, “This is what happened…” and then they turn to you and say, “You tell them the rest…” They have their own version of the story, and you do, too. Which version will tell the story best? Which version will tell the story that they wanted you to tell? Talk about being put on the spot.
There lies the ghostwriter’s dilemma…
As I remember, my name was tossed into the ring with a very established celebrity ghostwriter. A ghostwriter-to-the-stars, if you will. The publishing company ended up choosing her, not me, due to my inexperience with ghostwriting. However, it was Fantasia Barrino and her people who reversed the final decision, granting this massive project to me. They were impressed with how well I was able to capture Tupac Shakur’s voice in an interview I did. They also felt that Fantasia and I had things in common. I, too, was a single African American mother, living in the fundamentalist Bible Belt. Although I was not young or unwed like Fantasia, I was a divorcee, which for many is as bad as never having married at all. To the rest of the world, she and I were outsiders. “America,” initially, didn’t even think that she deserved the title of “American Idol.”
Despite America’s scorn, the show business world had already decided that Fantasia Barrino was worthy of having her short-but-sweet life story told as soon as they crowned her Idol. Because of Fantasia’s humble rural beginnings in North Carolina, her sweeping victory and her enviable presence, her story was intriguing as it was a rare perspective told from the sidelines of mainstream America.
This peculiar arranged marriage between a budding superstar and a first-time ghostwriter would involve ultimate trust between two nervous strangers. We both had to enter into this cooperative relationship with faith. Fantasia would have to trust me by telling me everything and letting me decide what needed to be told or not. I had to trust her to tell me the truth. She had to trust that I would not mishandle her secrets. Mostly importantly, we both had to trust the process that the words would find themselves in all of the messy feelings that were being laid out on the table.
To be asked to tell someone else’s story is a humbling and complicated affair. It’s almost a perversion of the natural order. This ghostwriter sat riddled with fear that she wouldn’t glean what she was expected to glean. She sat surrounded by reams of endless notes, observations, interviews and anecdotes coupled with the sound of her subject’s fragile voice which rattled and taunted her muddled brain. This ghostwriter sat constantly in the waters of her emotions, struggling to remain neutral, trying to meet her professional obligations, while torn by her own humanity. This ghostwriter, although forced to neutralize, had feelings, too. This ghostwriter then realized she was merely punching cold keys on a keyboard until she could summon the courage to use her skills to bring order to the chaos of a life that had been spilled all over her.
I was given the impossible task: to bring-to-life the experiences of Fantasia Barrino, a celebrity on the rise, in only eight weeks. She was a moving target, constantly touring the country as the new American Idol. Trying to catch her was a dazzling, exciting and grueling exercise. How did I do it? The first and only requirement was to listen. Deeply listen. Luckily, after decades of being a music journalist I had developed a keen ear for listening to the tone, cadence and vernacular of my interview subjects. I also learned how to hear the things that were left unsaid. Remember always to listen and observe.
Once the project started, I was in direct contact with Fantasia’s management in order to schedule our in-person meetings which were to be all over the country based on her schedule. We met in California, Wisconsin and several times in North Carolina, her hometown. I traveled with a laptop which I would use when I was interviewing her, while the time spent “out in the field” was without laptop and only my best goggles on to see and observe everything. I visited her old high school, met some of her teachers, spent the day with her grandmother and several days at her house, meeting and speaking to her siblings and parents. I had only two months to write the entire book because the publisher wanted the release to coincide with that of Fantasia’s debut album which had moved up on the release schedule. (This is an additional pressure when your subject has a public persona and everyone involved wants to make the most of every cross-marketing opportunity.)
I remember loving the sound of Fantasia’s sometimes high-pitched and other times raspy voice. I was warmed by her animation, potent humor, bright eyes and her unmistakable laugh. I learned to “hear” the places of her heart where she was afraid and insecure as well as the bold places where she had the courage to say what needed to be said, regardless of the fallout. I thought I understood the weight of words, but I didn’t really until I saw how Fantasia’s words, via my own, would impact the world.
I found myself fueled by a personal need to fight for Fantasia’s honor as well as my own. Together, we were every woman who finds herself a single mother—the ultimate oxymoron. We were not considered hero material, but we are. I was humbled and compelled to get her life story on paper so that she could be as proud of it as I was of her.
Every ghostwriting assignment has a life of its own. There are no hard and fast rules, typical rates, ways to land such an appointment or timeframes for completion. Each ghostwriting project begins organically. Some start with a finished but rough manuscript from the subject who needs a ghostwriter to flesh out the story and give it structure. In the case of Fantasia, I was presented with a title, one sample chapter and an outline of chapter titles. The negotiations were handled by my agent, at the time, and Simon & Schuster. After the fee was agreed upon, I had to sign an agreement that detailed the payment structure as well as the promise for complete confidentiality. I was also sworn to secrecy about my involvement in the project until after it was published.
For about a month, I wrote for about 18-20 hours a day, slept in my clothes on the couch not wanting to get too comfortable in my bed which seemed a dangerous temptation. I worried that I would miss a deadline, conference call or even worse, never wake up if I got too deeply drawn in by sleep. On the road, after long days with her, I would work into the night in my hotel just to keep the environment and in-person encounters fresh in my mind.
The writing of the book was smooth and steady once I read through all of my notes and the structure of the story started to come into view. I started to hear the rhythm of the story which finally met with how the editor wanted it, too. Before the smoothness there were the bumpy times in the form of many disappointed calls from the editor after I had sent a draft for her to review—the pages came back as mostly red lines and comments on every single inch of the white pages. After several conference calls, and several heart-to-heart, line-by-line conversations, I was able to flow.
One rewarding thing about the process is that I had some ideas about the structure and the editor liked them and they were implemented. Of course there were some ideas that they didn’t take, but I was happy with the ones they did. For example, I changed the original order of the chapters, combined and condensed others and added Bible scriptures throughout the manuscript, which I felt gave true voice to Fantasia and the undercurrent of her life.
Once it was complete I had a couple of days off, waiting with bated-breath for more line edits. Some chapters went smoother than others, but all together, I learned more than I had ever learned about craft and tone. When the manuscript was finally finished and approved, I received a galley in the mail within a couple more weeks and I was able to look over it and catch anything else that I thought should be addressed. Simon & Schuster also had a full team of proofreaders and editors working diligently on the manuscript.
The Fantasia story, Life is not a Fairytale, which blossomed into a New York Times Bestseller and subsequently was turned into a Lifetime Television movie, proved to be not merely an “urban” story but a story about humanity. The beauty of telling Fantasia’s story was that it was a story that contained the power to free us all from the shame, secrets and resentments of our lives which can cripple us if they are left unexpressed.
To tell someone else’s story is a privilege and a chore. This writer’s clawing neurosis often stunted her growth, often calling for a need for her own imagination and perspective to be reigned in when got in the way. In the process of plowing through Fantasia’s life I found parts of myself, allowing me to complete my own novel, hallucination, which had been in the works for several years. By listening to Fantasia’s every word and feeling her every pain, I had more freedom to go back to my own novel with renewed honesty and candor.
Many people find it hard to believe that I don’t still speak to Fantasia. I really don’t. Life goes fast but fame goes even faster. In between her many geographic moves and my return to my family and my own words, it happened: the superstar can lose touch with her ghostwriter. Luckily, Fantasia became the big star that the world expected her to become, so I can still know what she’s up to with the mere click of the mouse. And, believe it or not, I still care. But the truth is our paths crossed just long enough to write something that changed lives. We were two women looking for our voices and we found them.