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Books Christopher Shulgan's not-so-secret life as a ghostwriter

Christopher Shulgan says a key to being a successful ghostwriter is avoiding e-mail and social media while working on projects.

It was late at night on a dirt road in the Michigan wilderness. An auto industry executive and I were driving to his vacation home to hole up for a few days to work on a manuscript. Then the headlights illuminated a tree the snowstorm had blown onto the road. The two of us tramped out into the cold. On a count of three, we heaved at the trunk – and succeeded in moving the thing just a couple of inches.

My client looked at me and grinned.

"I don't suppose this is in your job description?"

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The thing about being a ghostwriter is that it doesn't really have a job description. I began this line of work by accident. More than a decade ago, I called up the media relations manager for a company that I'd profiled for Toronto Life. The company had posted the article on its website, a violation of copyright, and taken my name off the story. I'd prefer if they just posted a link to the original article, I said. Sure, the manager agreed. No problem. And by the way – the company sometimes needed a writer. Would I be interested?

Sure, I shrugged over the phone. Why not?

What started with essays and op-eds segued into speeches. I ran an e-mail newsletter that required collaborating with a half-dozen professionals per month. Then came an offer to ghostwrite a book.

Turns out ghostwriting fits well with my abilities. It helps to be impervious to criticism. And psychic when it comes to interpreting editorial feedback. I happened upon the key skill early in my career when I ran a magazine that relied on a handful of volunteer contributors. With more empty pages than writers to fill them, I would dash off articles myself and slap a pen name at the top. The practice helped me develop the ability to write comfortably in a variety of voices.

"A ghostwriter, huh?" an Uber driver asked me recently. "You must be a really good writer." And I suppose I am. But that's not the service that I'm selling to my clients. A few years back, I judged one of CBC's Canada Writes short story contests. I read hundreds of entries created by amateur writers, and time after time I was blown away by how good the contributions were. The experience deflated my ego. A distinct voice, a fresh turn of phrase, a well-told anecdote – sure, I manage each one pretty well, but it turns out plenty of people have those abilities.

Once, at a party, somebody asked me why I do it. Didn't I want my name to be the big one on the cover? "I do it for the cash," I said. The line earned a guffaw, but like a lot of cheap laughs it wasn't strictly true. I really enjoy the work. Aside from therapists, whose job mine sometimes resembles, ghostwriters hear the stories that no one else gets to hear.

People have various ideas about the job. The name, ghostwriter, suggests some sort of subterfuge. Over the 12 or so years I've been doing it, I've worked with … Oh, hell. I don't know. Fifty? Let's say 50 clients. Only a handful have insisted on complete secrecy. Most of them are happy to admit that they're working with me.

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My latest book, The One-Minute Workout: Science Shows a Way to Get Fit That's Smarter, Faster, Shorter, was written with the McMaster University time-efficient exercise expert, Dr. Martin Gibala. Working on that book was basically my ideal experience. It started when I was interviewing him for another client. Once I was done that job, I called up Marty and mentioned to him that I thought he should do his own book.

"Oh," he said. "I'd never have time."

"No," I said. "I could write it with you."

I explained the way I worked. We'd meet every week, for about an hour at a time, and just talk. Then I'd edit the transcript of our conversations. He'd read the result and offer feedback. I'd revise, and we'd repeat until both of us were happy.

Marty is a smart guy and, really, he could have written the book himself. Except it would have taken him a lot longer. Because, like most of my clients, he's also a busy guy – a research scientist who runs a major physiology lab, and the chair of one of the most renowned kinesiology departments around.

Which brings us to the service that I'm actually providing to my clients.

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Writing a good book requires big blocks of time. Scads of it. A certain kind that doesn't exist for most people. The kind without interruptions. Long spans that aren't punctuated by text messages or e-mail pings, Instagram notifications or Twitter DMs.

My career has confronted me with some remarkable experiences. I've suffered altitude sickness on a Himalayan mountaintop, sprinted across an active driving range in Aix-en-Provence and, for an upcoming project in Silicon Valley, ridden in the world's most advanced self-driving car minutes after interviewing the men who designed it.

Then, I head to my office and I do something that's not available to most of my clients. I stay off e-mail and avoid social media, and type away on my unnetworked computer for hours at a time.

Many of my clients can write well. Many of them are smarter than I am. And at least one of them can manage to work with his ghostwriter to heave a fallen birch tree off a remote Michigan road, inches at a time.

What they don't have is the ability to disconnect from life.

Who does but a ghostwriter, these days?

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Christopher Shulgan lives and writes in Kensington Market in Toronto.

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