There’s often a desire for first-person narratives by athletes, but athletes don’t always have the time or desire to write their own stories out. That’s led to a long tradition of ghostwriting, or the related “as-told-to” or “with” pieces or books, in everything from columns by the likes of Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson to countless autobiographies to The Players’ Tribune to Sports Illustrated‘s stories “from” Jason Collins and LeBron James.
But it’s rare to get a look behind the scenes at how that process plays out, and while many of these situations are very different (in terms of access to the athlete, how forthcoming the athlete is, if any topics were off-limits, if the writer gets a credit or not, and more), it’s interesting to read about how one went.
Guardian journalist Decca Aitkenhead provided just that in this piece about ghostwriting soccer star Rio Ferdinand’s new autobiography “Thinking Out Loud: Love, Grief and Being Mum and Dad.” And her piece is notable because it sounds like a pretty ideal ghostwriting situation, but still reveals some of the limitations of first-person narratives created by a second party. She explores how she got into this, mentioning that she hadn’t been a ghostwriter or a biographer before, but was picked by Ferdinand, and was interested in Ferdinand’s story of raising his kids after his wife died from cancer thanks to her own experience losing her mother to breast cancer and then being widowed young.
She also talks about the tight 10-week deadline she was under. But one particularly notable part is the discussion of getting Ferdinand and his relatives to open up:
Actually, that wasn’t the only problem I could see. In his BBC documentary, Being Mum and Dad, Rio had been very honest about how uncomfortable it was for him to talk about his emotions, and it was clear from the scenes featuring his father that conversations about feelings figured little in the Ferdinand family culture. I was going to have to ask both Rio and his relatives to talk about the most painful details of his private life, and arrived at his door on day one unsure how on earth this was going to work. Feeling apprehensive enough as it was, it’s probably a good job I was blissfully unaware of how many ghostwriting projects fail because the ghost and subject fall out.
Rio and I spent most of the next month on his sofa, painstakingly reliving the hardest chapter of his life. Sessions could last hours, sometimes late into the night, occasionally interrupted by one of his children wandering in looking for an iPad. If it was sunny we’d sit in the garden so that he could sunbathe while we talked, him prone on a lounger with his face tilted towards the sun while I made notes, evoking the comical configuration of a patient on the psychoanalyst’s couch.
The funny thing was that a lot of the time it really did feel like therapy. Any doubts about how far Rio would be willing to open up proved entirely unfounded; not once did he shy away from an intrusive line of inquiry, but committed himself to the challenge of full disclosure with unshakable nerve. His account of his domestic shortcomings as a husband was jaw-dropping: until Rebecca died he didn’t even know how to operate the dishwasher – and he was painfully frank about always putting football first. Even when Rebecca lay dying, he wouldn’t let her acknowledge out loud the truth of what was happening. “Stop chatting shit,” he would tell her, unable to bear the fact that this was a battle neither she nor he could win. But he is also a lot funnier than I’d realised, and although at times there were tears, at others we were both doubled over in fits of laughter.
Men’s difficulty with talking about feelings became a big theme of the book, and the extent to which Rio and his family had simply never had these sort of conversations before never ceased to stagger me. Their willingness to do so now, however, made me begin to wonder whether a family culture of – as Rio would put it – “Not chatting your business”, might often really be a culture of no one asking any questions. Far from taking offence, even the most private of his family members seemed to find being intimately quizzed surprisingly cathartic. Instead of struggling to elicit material, I quickly found my Dictaphone filling up with confidences far too personal to commit to print.
This is interesting on a few levels. For one thing, it’s notable that Ferdinand wound up being so open. That’s far from always the case. And of course, grains of salt may apply here; Aitkenhead is presumably trying to promote the book with this piece, and ‘he was a horrible subject who wouldn’t say anything’ wouldn’t do that. But her comments do still suggest that this was Ferdinand being open to her inquiries rather than just trying to present a favorable narrative and dodging questions.
It’s also notable that it wound up being Aitkenhead’s editorial sense rather than Ferdinand’s reluctance that determined what made it into print. Some might say that’s a reason to question ghostwriting, but it really isn’t; independent journalists don’t print everything they’re told either. If anything, having that decision rest on the writer rather than the subject is an example of this working more similarly to an independent piece.
Aitkenhead goes on from there to discuss how she worried about her files being hacked and sold to tabloids (not an unreasonable fear at all in Britain), how it was tough to get narrative details from Ferdinand on non-soccer matters (thanks to his lack of memory and lack of focus on those, not him being reticent), and how time pressure meant she had to start writing five weeks into the process. But it’s maybe her comments on writing in Ferdinand’s voice and on his response to her draft that are the most interesting, and that raise questions about first-person writing from outsiders in general.
The first few pages were strange to write, adopting someone else’s voice is rather like putting on their clothes; they don’t quite fit, and you feel self-conscious. Rio would often describe something as “raw”, but the word felt all wrong on my lips and others didn’t immediately sound quite right on his. For example, would Rio use the word “unmitigated”? I found the best way to answer that question was to picture him in a TV studio doing football punditry. If I couldn’t see him using a word in the studio, it didn’t go in the book.
To my astonishment, I wrote 60,000 words in a fortnight. It was an extraordinary sensation to watch chapter after chapter pour out. It felt as if someone else was writing them – and in a sense, they were. Channelling Rio’s thoughts and voice turned out to be infinitely easier than expressing my own, and I wrote from 3am to 10pm every day without stopping. Liberated from the obligation to be myself, the process felt less like writing than method acting.
The only nerve-racking moment was sending the first chapters to Rio. As a newspaper interviewer there is always an inevitable conflict of interest, for while I have a duty to report every encounter fairly and accurately, my ultimate duty is to the reader, and my role, therefore, to draw the interviewee out beyond anything they would say in a press release. Some interviewers take gladiatorial relish in filing copy they know will make the interviewee blanch when published, but for me this tension is the least favourite part of my job, and the collaborative nature of ghosting seemed enormously appealing. Or it had, anyway, until the point when I actually had to press “send”. What if he hated it? What if he wanted all the most interesting bits taken out? Then what? Never have I been so relieved to get a massive thumbs up.
It sounds like Aitkenhead took a good approach to trying to tell the story in Ferdinand’s voice as best as possible, and one that went over well with him. But this passage also perhaps illustrates the limitations of first-person writing not done by the person in question. Yes, some of the final book is likely direct quotes Ferdinand gave to Aitkenhead, but other parts are composed by taking the information he (or family members) supplied and “channelling Rio’s thoughts and voice.” And it’s not clear to the reader which is which, and that can create particular problems if something in the end product is controversial. Did the subject actually say that, or just sign off on it?
From that standpoint, there are some advantages to autobiographies actually written by the subject or to third-person biographies that combine subject quotes with other material. (This applies to shorter pieces as well as books, too.) In either of those approaches, it’s clear when it’s the subject’s actual phrasing (all the time in the case of first-person pieces, in direct quotes in third-person pieces). And there’s no need to channel anyone’s thoughts and voice; you’re presenting them, either yourself in the first-person or as quotes in the third-person.
But outside first-person narratives have their merits too. For one thing, there’s writing level. Writing is hard, and it’s both a skill and a profession. Yes, anyone can write, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they can write well, and as-told-to or ghostwritten pieces are sometimes much better crafted and much more interesting than pure first-person writing. And the appeal of the first-person narrative and the athlete having some control over it lets some of these writers have more access and tell more personal stories than you find in many third-person pieces.
Beyond that, too, there’s the question of time; it’s certainly not easy for an active athlete to find the time to craft a piece on their own, much less a full book, and many ghostwritten or as-told-to projects have turned out very well and provided interesting information to readers. Sales are a factor, too, especially when it comes to books; the current market appears much more interested in athlete biographies with the athlete’s name on the cover as a writer (with or without a co-author) than in third-person athlete biographies.
So, first-person writing not done by that person definitely has some advantages. For one thing, it’s getting more athletes’ stories out there. For another, it’s producing well-written stories about athletes, and doing so in a way that the market is interested in. And it seems to work out pretty well in many cases; even if we don’t get a full insight into the process and to what’s coming from the athlete and what from the writer, there are many examples where the end product is solid. But there are some real limitations to it as well, and Aitkenhead’s piece is a good example of that. Her ghostwriting process seems to have gone about as well as could be expected on all fronts, and the end product sounds interesting, but her reminder of having to adopt someone else’s voice does demonstrate a limitation of the form.