Mar­jorie Ingall is a colum­nist, ghost­writer, and author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jew­ish Moth­ers Do to Raise Suc­cess­ful, Cre­ative, Empa­thet­ic, Inde­pen­dent Chil­dren. In hon­or of the book’s release tomor­row, Mar­jorie is guest blog­ging for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil all week as part of the Vis­it­ing Scribe series here on the The ProsenPeo­ple.

I’m a ghost­writer. This week, a book comes out with my name on it—just mine. It’s the first book I have writ­ten as myself since 1998

I feel naked. 

To me, ghost­ing is infi­nite­ly more com­fort­able than writ­ing a book as me. I love chan­nelling some­one else’s voice. It feels like a game. You talk to the per­son for as long as the per­son will let you (for some celebri­ties, that’s not long) and try to emu­late their speech pat­terns and sense of humor. It’s wear­ing a Hal­loween cos­tume, in book form! You treat the sub­ject as a research project: find out as much as you can about their life so you can ask prob­ing ques­tions; try to make their sto­ry rel­e­vant to as many peo­ple as pos­si­ble. Make them like­able, even if they’re not. (And let me head this off at the pass: No, I can’t tell you for whom I’ve writ­ten books, speech­es, arti­cles and blog posts, because then I’d have to kill you. That joke is nev­er fun­ny, but it’s real­ly all one can say on the sub­ject, non-dis­clo­sure agree­ments being what they are.) 

Anoth­er rea­son I like ghost­ing so much is that I’ve spent so much of my career writ­ing in the first per­son. I start­ed in women’s mag­a­zines, which prize a con­fes­sion­al we’re-all-just-pals voice, per­haps as a way to seem unscary and sis­ter­ly. Even though I often wrote about health and sci­ence, I was still sup­posed to begin every sto­ry with a per­son­al anec­dote. It can feel both for­mu­la­ic and inva­sive, putting your­self into a sto­ry where you real­ly don’t belong. Get­ting to write a whole book and reveal noth­ing of myself was, in com­par­i­son, a huge relief. 

Not every­one is so san­guine, though. When my old­er daugh­ter was in first grade, I spoke to her class for Career Day. The teacher informed the class that Josie’s mom was a ghost­writer, and they got so excit­ed they were almost vibrat­ing. This was because they thought I wrote about translu­cent haunt­ing spir­its from beyond the grave. They were vis­i­bly dis­ap­point­ed to learn oth­er­wise. One bright boy was more than dis­ap­point­ed – he was out­raged. So you wrote the book, but your name isn’t on the cov­er?” he sput­tered. That’s so unfair!” I explained that I got paid, and the arrange­ment was total­ly fine with me. 

But… it’s a lie!” he said. Peo­ple think some­one else wrote the book, because it says some­one else wrote the book, and you’re both lying!” 

He wasn’t wrong. Most of us know that celebri­ties don’t write their own books, but we all par­tic­i­pate in the fic­tion that they do. It’s a kind of col­lec­tive self-hyp­no­sis. Guess what: politi­cians don’t write their own op-eds or speech­es, either. Though pre­sum­ably after Mela­nia Trump’s RNC deba­cle, more of us than a year ago know about the role of speech­writ­ers in the per­for­ma­tive, pre­sen­ta­tion­al game. (And pre­sum­ably after Don­ald Trump’s orig­i­nal Art of the Deal ghost­writer pub­licly turned on him, more peo­ple under­stand how book ghost­ing works, too. For what it’s worth, I’m in a pri­vate sup­port group for ghost­writ­ers in which we talk about our projects and chal­lenges, and most ghosts are utter­ly hor­ri­fied by the notion of spilling the beans about clients. It’s akin to doc­tor-patient priv­i­lege. If you’re appalled by the client, don’t take the job.) 

My new book, the one that I’ve writ­ten as me, is a book that com­bines social his­to­ry, the­ol­o­gy and par­ent­ing. It’s a look at the Jew­ish moth­er stereo­type: a char­ac­ter that seems almost as malev­o­lent to most of us as a ghost­writer does to a first grader. 

But ghost­ing, I think, was odd­ly good prac­tice for writ­ing the book I did. An excel­lent ghost­writer encour­ages the best aspects of their client to shine through. The work of ghost­ing is self-effac­ing, but not self-negat­ing; you need to be assertive to write the best book pos­si­ble, and that means gen­tly direct­ing the client in the way they should go. The ghost also needs to be sure every­one — self, client, edi­tor, and agent(s) — gets heard. If you’re going to be a good ghost­writer, you have to set up and man­age expec­ta­tions before you leap. You and the client both have to hon­or your commitments. 

That’s what good par­ent­ing is, too. It’s not all about you; it’s about the next gen­er­a­tion. (It’s plant­i­ng seeds in a gar­den you nev­er get to see, as Lin-Manuel Miran­da wrote while pre­tend­ing to be Alexan­der Hamil­ton.) It’s about being nur­tur­ing with­out being spine­less. And despite the car­i­ca­ture of the Jew­ish moth­er as a neu­rot­ic, nar­cis­sis­tic, self-dra­ma­tiz­ing human pres­sure cook­er, the his­tor­i­cal Jew­ish moth­er has done a tremen­dous job in rais­ing kids who are both accom­plished and kind. 

Accom­plished and kind is what we want to pre­tend our icons are, but it’s more impor­tant that we raise our real-life chil­dren that way in the real-life world.

Mar­jorie Ingall is a colum­nist for Tablet Mag­a­zine and a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to The New York Times Book Review. She has writ­ten for many oth­er mag­a­zines and news­pa­pers, includ­ing The For­ward (where she was The East Vil­lage Mamele), Real Sim­ple, Ms., Food & Wine, Glam­our, Self, and the late, lament­ed Sassy, where she was the senior writer and books editor.

Relat­ed Content:

Mar­jorie Ingall is the author of Mamaleh Knows Best: What Jew­ish Moth­ers Do to Raise Cre­ative, Empa­thet­ic, Inde­pen­dent Chil­dren, and The Field Guide to North Amer­i­can Males. A for­mer colum­nist for Tablet and the For­ward, she is a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to The New York Times Book Review and has writ­ten for a gazil­lion oth­er outlets.