By the Wind Grieved

By the Wind Grieved
“O lost, And by the wind grieved, Ghost, Come back again.” Thomas Wolfe

Friday, May 17, 2013

Memoir Ghostwriter as Therapist

As I mark my six month point in writing an autobiography with my client, I realize that what I am doing has certain elements of the psychiatrist's profession. Because I want the story to be compelling not only for my client and his family, but for the general reading public as well, I need to get at underlying feelings and motivations. I have to do this while respecting the client's dignity and privacy and honoring the way he himself sees his story. In short, I have to ask a lot of prying questions with a certain delicacy. It is not unlike taking on the role of a family therapist.

My client is a paragon of virtue. A truckload of glowing articles have been written about him, and after working with him closely for half a year, it is clear to me that his reputation is built on solid ground. Moreover, his story of moving from poor refugee to world-renown neurosurgeon is a fascinating one, and now that we are moving into his career phase, details on the medical profession, the brain, hospital dynamics, work-life balance, and other topics that you might be familiar with from watching Grey's Anatomy or Scrubs are emerging that, I think, should make for very good reading.

But a memoir or an autobiography cannot be simply a litany of virtuous acts or an account of professional development and success. Such a narrative does not make for a compelling story. There must be a necessary dark in contrast to which the light shines brighter. There must be a mature reflection on events that happened in the past and on key relationships.

As memoirist, poet and creative writing teacher Judith Barrington points out in Writing the Memoir, what is required is nothing short of the laying bare of the soul.

In my client's story, for example, his mother, now dead, is emerging as a complex figure whose influence on her son was key to the formation of his character. However, her relationship with him was characterized by an impenetrable silence about the past and an absence of emotional expression.

This is where I feel I must use the tools of a counselor, asking questions in a way that allows my client to open up and allowing him the time to work through his thoughts and memories.

Perhaps most importantly, I have learned that I need to shut up once I have asked a question. I need to resist the urge to sidetrack him when a comment provokes my curiosity, and let him finish his own train of thought. I cannot allow my own assumptions about events and characters to intrude on the process of remembering and relating through his own lens.

Nothing has been more annoying to me than going back to incorporate information from the recorded interviews and hearing my own intrusive voice offering an anecdote or an interpretation of an event or memory for my client. At times, my comment has sidetracked him, just when he seemed to be coming to an important conclusion about something.

Like the therapist, I have learned it my job to ask the right questions and it is my client's job to do the hard work of coming to conclusions about where those questions take him. It is my job to tell his story, not my interpretation of it.


  1. Great insights, Jeanne. I struggle with the same desire to help someone fill in a word, finish a thought or add my own insights, turning the exercise from an interview to a dialogue. A facilitator at a workshop once told me that if I let someone talk uninterrupted he might actually think I was...listening.

    Loving the blog.l


    1. Ah...facilitating...that is the right concept here. Reminds me, too, of Steven Covey's point about empathic listening, listening not to respond but to engage deeply with what the person is saying. In my case, not even a dialogue is appropriate though, except as my comment build on a theme or content the client is fleshing out. I should be invisible but for my provocative questions!

  2. Love your insights, Jeanne. Tracy Kidder, in his book "Good Prose," writes about how he approached writing a book about Paul Farmer who is "saintly." Lots of good nonfiction writing tips in his book.

  3. Thanks Amanda. I will check out Farmer's book. It will certainly be helpful to see how a writer approaches a subject who either does not seem to have the normal flaws of other human beings, or who is reserved about bringing up conflicts or doubts about his life. I have missed your insights these last couple of weeks!