- Joni Rodgers is a novelist and ghostwriter for celebrities, athletes, and CEOs.
- After working with one celebrity she met through her literary agent, she built a network of clients.
- What’s contributed to her success is empathic listening and finding purpose in someone’s story.
Writing was the life raft I climbed onto while I was going through chemotherapy for non-Hodgkin lymphoma in my early 30s. I’d always been a voracious reader and a talented dabbler, but I’d never devoted myself to actually writing a book. Cancer treatment left me physically, emotionally, and financially devastated and forced me into an isolated space where writing was the only thing I could do.
My first novel, “Crazy for Trying,” which I published in 1996, literally saved my life. I followed up with a second novel, “Sugarland,” in 1999, and then wrote a memoir about my cancer experience, “Bald in the Land of Big Hair,” in 2001, which became an international bestseller.
While my third novel was in the pipeline at HarperCollins, my literary agent’s wife talked to the mom of a celebrity at a cocktail party, and I randomly came up in conversation. The two of them decided it would be a great idea for me to help the celebrity’s mom write a memoir. My agent called the next day to ask me if I’d like to be a ghostwriter.
“Sure,” I said. “What’s a ghostwriter?”
When you see a book authored by a rock star, professional athlete, CEO, or some other extraordinary person who isn’t a writer, chances are a professional writer either wrote it for them or held their hand through the process. I’ve done both of those things and everything in between.
After I worked with that celebrity’s mom, the editor of that book brought me in on a political memoir. Then the editor of that book gave my name to a colleague who was doing a book with actress Rue McClanahan, whose agent recommended me to Broadway actress Kristin Chenoweth, who was dating playwright Aaron Sorkin, who threw a party where I met actress Swoosie Kurtz. Via word of mouth, I found clients and forged a brand that included a knack for voice, an ear for greater meaning, genuine TLC for my clients, and a history of delivering the goods on deadline.
Reading taught me how to write. Publishing taught me how to edit. As a ghostwriter, I reinvent the wheel for every client: No two books are the same, and each one has its own unique process.
Fifteen years and many books later, I’ve fully embraced ghost life. My work has taken me to movie and television sets, backstage at a Broadway play, under the stage at a rock star’s world tour, to parties in Hollywood, flea markets in rural France, a Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony, a dank cellar full of moldering crime scene photos, and a lot of other places I would’ve never seen had I decided any other line of work.
In my experience, three core skills have made all the difference in how I’ve succeeded in this role.
Studies have linked the brain process of “supportive listening” to the production of amino acids and oxytocin, which contribute to neural repair and plasticity. In other words, engaging, paying attention, and allowing yourself to see the world through someone else’s eyes actually makes you smarter and better able to process your own ideas and experiences.
The key to empathetic listening is asking questions that open doors to the deeper story.
Years ago, a political memoir client told me a story about a difficult experience she went through in the 1950s. I listened without interrupting and then asked, “What shoes were you wearing?”
“What difference does it make?” she asked, stunned and a little offended.
“If you were wearing heels,” I said, “that means you expected someone to give you a ride home.”
“Pumps,” she said. “Navy blue with three-inch heels.” And then the real story poured out: a no-show boyfriend, a judgmental mother, a long walk that left her feet raw and bleeding, and a lifelong inability to truly trust anyone ever again.
I always start the memoir process by walking my client through a timeline of their life. I create a document with every year encompassed by the book with cultural and historical markers (world events, blockbuster movies, top 10 hits, etc.) that help ground my client as they walk through their memories. I don’t come up with questions; I listen for questions to present themselves.
Looking at pivotal moments from the perspective of an observer instead of a certain participant is a powerful exercise that allows us to examine what motivated life choices. I listen for inflection points — plot twists that take the story in a new direction — and ask what the purpose was behind each pivotal action and reaction.
Playwright David Mamet says there are three magic questions that must be answered in every scene: Who wants what, from whom? What are they willing to do to get it? Why now?
As a young novelist, I was thrilled to see my name on the cover of a new book. But as a ghost, I’m happy to let my client do the public-facing legwork while I work without distraction from my home on the beach in Washington State, far from the glam worlds I write about.
It’s easy to lose yourself in a fascinating memoir or novel. The hard part is maintaining your own voice by making time to do your own soul projects. That’s why I’ve continued writing my own novels.
Sometimes my name is on the cover of a client’s book, but most often, I do what ghosts do: disappear. Many people are baffled by the idea that I allow clients to take credit for my work. In theory, I do believe ghostwriters should always be acknowledged in some way, but for me, invisibility goes hand in hand with peace and productivity.