‘We all want our lives to matter. We all want to leave something behind’
You don’t have to be a celebrity to get help writing your memoir from a ghostwriter
Ann Minihane: “Writing it down did me wonders. It stopped the nightmares”
“I remember the nun in the orphanage telling me that I was getting a new mammy and daddy and that I was very lucky, but I didn’t feel lucky. I was devastated that I was being given away again.”
This sentence is from the opening chapter of Ann Minihane’s memoir, the story of a troubled life that she is determined to transfer to the printed page.
Twenty years ago Minihane began writing down the story of her life in longhand. She and her twin brother were adopted in the mid-1950s when she was 3½-years-old, and sent to live on a farm in west Cork. It was a tough childhood which, she says, involved physical and emotional abuse.
“Writing it down did me wonders. It stopped the nightmares. I had to go through it. Once it was all written down that was the end of them.”
Years later she went on a memoir-writing course during Listowel Writers Week, but later decided she needed help to turn her memories into a book.
“I had kept all the sheets of paper in one big box. Everything I wrote I wrote while crying,” she says.
She found ghostwriter Conor Power online and went to visit him at his home nearby in Durrus, Co Cork. “It was very nerve-wracking. If I didn’t take to him I’d have walked away. I wanted a simple book. He put it into order. I’d never have been able to do that.”
Celebrity autobiographies are often written by ghostwriters, but Power is one of a number of writers in Ireland who work on memoirs for ordinary people who want their lives recorded by a professional.
They may or may not want to publish them. While only a few succeed in getting published, most are happy to see their story turned into the format of a book. So far Power has worked on five such memoirs, and is still working on Minihane’s.
“ She’s an amazingly positive example of someone who can work through the worst things. She wants it done because she wants people to recognise how precious and delicate childhood is,” he says.
While Minihane had already written much of her manuscript, Power usually starts off by conducting lengthy interviews with the person involved.
“I love it. You plunge into someone’s life, their mind, their head. Sometimes you’re really helping them get through issues that have been haunting them for years.”
Power writes the first 20,000 words, and then checks with the client if he has got the right tone and voice before continuing with the rest of the project. His favourite book so far is the story of a man he has never even met, an Irishman who was a bouncer in Blackpool, became besotted by raves and ended up in Asia, bringing marijuana to Japan as a mule. A massive psychotic episode brought him back to Ireland to try to rebuild his life.
“He sent me a big long manuscript. It was badly written but everything was there. It’s a roller-coaster and I’m convinced it will find a publisher.”
Power says he always makes it clear that publishing is a game of roulette, and that his role is to write it for a fee and have it ready to be submitted. He charges between €7,000 and €9,000 for a completed manuscript, paid in stages.
Deirdre Nuttall is a Dublin-based ghostwriter who has written several memoirs for reformed British gangsters who, she says, are seeking some kind of redemption.
“They’d be older gentlemen who grew up in tough backgrounds, dealt in drugs or other crimes. They saw their peers die. They’ve come through it, and they want to show that you can extricate yourself and turn your life around.”
The first one did quite well on publication, and other would-be memoir writers got in touch as a result. She found it a fascinating challenge.
“They’re very bright men, but they wouldn’t have had an education. You’re learning about a subculture, and all the codified language they used to describe things.”
Nuttall signs non-disclosure agreements with her clients so her name never appears on the book. The client pays an upfront fee and agrees to a payment scheme as the manuscript progresses. Nuttall is a trained ethnologist, and says the interviewing skills she learned while doing her PhD still stand to her. She usually starts by spending a full day with a person, recording them in their home environment. She asks people to dig out old photographs, which will help to trigger memories.
“Some people don’t think they are interesting, but they’re often the most interesting as they start to remember more and more. Most people like talking about themselves; it’s nice to have someone listen to you!”
She may gather up to 40,000 words on that first day alone. “Once you have the transcript you can see what areas you want to go back over. Then you can structure it, see the arc of the story and work out what other information you need.”
Nuttall has also dealt with some traumatic stories, and she always suggests people consider arranging a therapist if they feel that their memories may trigger painful emotions. However, she says many people find the process helps them deal with the past.
“Some people have a sense of anxiety that all this is in their head, and they often feel a sense of relief when it’s written down.”
Not everyone who wants his or her life recorded for posterity is coming from a traumatic background. Kate Horgan specialises in photo books, commissioned by an individual or a friend or family member. They’re often to celebrate a special occasion in someone’s life, like Travels with Mary Magdeleine, which tells the travel stories of a 99-year-old woman, which was organised by her son.
“People get so much out of the process. They’re not just handing over a shopping bag of material and saying make me a book. It’s a collaboration.”
Horgan starts the project with a meeting that looks at what material the person has. For a family book she might start off with 2,500 scanned photographs, but some people might only have 100.
“Legacy is really important to people as they get older. There’s an urge to show this is what I did with my life, these are my children, my travels. It’s a summing up, a concrete expression of a life lived.”
Conor Power agrees, and says all the projects he has worked on so far have come from a genuine place.
“I think it’s because we all want our lives to matter. We all want to leave something behind.”
Nuttall is usually working on two or three projects at a time, and as well as doing the manuscript she sometimes helps a client write a synopsis to send to agents or publishers. She rejects any suggestion that these are vanity projects.
“Sometimes they aren’t publishable, but they’re not vanity projects. History and memoirs are mostly written by privileged people, who have led educated, public lives. Many of the people who do this grew up in deprivation, and their stories might otherwise not be told.”
Nuttall believes that these kinds of stories will be valuable in future years, and she always suggests that people give their memoir to local archives and libraries even if it is never published.
“The historians of the 19th century had letters and diaries to work from. Now social media is so transitory, so these memoirs will be a goldmine for the historians of the future.”
Her own grandfather died when she was 11 years old, and she often wishes someone had recorded him.
“The number of people who say to me I wish I’d recorded my granny…Everyone should do it. Older people love to talk about the past.”
Horgan believes people are returning to the concept of material culture.
“It’s a backlash against digital culture. You see it with people buying vinyl with nice artwork. The idea of leaving something behind is very important to people. It’s not primarily about them; it’s about their relationships. Even if only two copies are ever made, that’s kind of enough.”
Minihane is still working on the editing process with Power, and hopes that her book will eventually be published.
“People need to speak up about the past. If it’s all brushed under the carpet it will continue. I never want a 3½-year-old to go through what I went through.”
Yet even if it isn’t published she believes the process was worth it.
“Without a doubt I’d recommend it, big time. Even if nobody ever reads it. By writing it down you understand what happened.”