Among my fiction and non-fiction writing projects is ghostwriting. When people discover I ghostwrite, they are curious as to what this means. Ghostwriting is basically what it sounds like. You write someone else’s story for them.
Many people employ ghostwriters because their expertise lies in a particular field and not writing. Some people are too busy to pen a story themselves. Some are too emotionally involved in their story to write it. Others have a good idea or creative bent but don’t have the skills to write a marketable story or article alone.
About fifteen years ago, I discovered the significance of ghostwriting, quite by accident. I love to research historical figures, particularly authors. At that time, my interest and research centered on author Laura Ingalls Wilder. I was fascinated by her ability to weave a story and the rhythm she created with her words. Pure magic! As a wannabe writer, I put her squarely on the pedestal I felt she deserved to be on while I continued to delve into her life.
Imagine my devastation when I came upon a book entitled The Ghost in the Little House which purported Laura’s daughter, Rose Wilder Lane, in fact, wrote the Little House books.
Almost despondent from Wilder’s fall from the pedestal, I was nevertheless drawn into the story like a moth to the light. By the end of the 450-page biography, I was convinced that Rose had indeed ghostwritten the Little House books. Both tragic and enlightening, the biography revealed Rose’s ghostwriting career was vast. Laura wasn’t the only one she’d done this for, and it was during a time period when things of that nature weren’t discussed. Rose took great pains to retype her mother’s work and kept carbon copies of all the correspondence between them, along with Laura’s handwritten manuscripts and letters. Perhaps somewhere in her core, whether on an unconscious or conscious level, she hoped the secret would be discovered in the future by thorough researchers. She realized the significance of the work she produced and the effect the books would have on generations to come.
Not that Laura was without skill. Under Rose’s tutelage, she had a successful newspaper career for many years before tackling the Little House series. But after reading excerpts from Laura’s original manuscripts, I realized the magical rhythm displayed in the books was not hers.
During the middle of writing the series of books, Laura believed that she had mastered the art of storytelling through Rose’s coaching. She implored Rose to let her submit her own work directly to the publisher. Weeks later, in frustration, Laura sent the manuscript to Rose.
“Do anything you please with the d*mn stuff if you will fix it up,” said Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the Little House on the Prairie series, to her daughter Rose, who, according to (William) Holtz's startling research, was the de facto author of her mother's books. Drawing on diaries and letters, Holtz, a professor of English at the University of Missouri, details Lane's life (1886-1968) in an engrossing study that highlights her troubled relationship with an apparently cold and manipulative mother. At 17, she fled her parents' farm in Missouri, married (and later divorced) Gillette Lane, and then traversed the globe, supporting herself as a journalist in New York, Baghdad and Albania…Guilt drove her back to the farm to help her parents until publication of the Little House series, under her mother's name--but heavily rewritten and edited by Rose--freed her financially. –Publishers Weekly (Amazon)
A more recent book, Little House Traveler, is a culmination of three previous Wilder books gleaned from her writings, letters, and journals. The following is a review that reinforces the premise of Laura’s writing not being the same as what appears in her Little House books.
Young readers may be surprised that these candid jottings, largely unedited, are not at all like the polished prose in the Little House books. Here Wilder fixates on the cost of goods and services, is quick to criticize, and isn't above telling her husband that his mountain driving is terrible. Despite such surprises, this offers an amazing look at a beloved author, as well as a fascinating account of travel before interstate highways and air-conditioning. -- Kay Weisman (Amazon)
Rose didn’t get credit in her lifetime for the Little House books, and it was late in her life before she benefitted financially from her mother’s success.
Nowadays, ghostwriting is openly embraced in the literary world. Ghostwriters enjoy seeing their names on the books they have written on behalf of others. Stroll down the non-fiction or biography aisles in your local Books a Million, Christian bookstore, or Barnes and Noble. Take a look at the book covers. Many have “with” another author in addition to the main author on their covers or on their title pages. The “with” signifies the ghostwriter, without whom the book wouldn’t have been possible. I’m proud for my fellow ghostwriters when I see this. Sometimes, more obscure recognition of the ghostwriter can be found in the acknowledgements. With smaller projects like articles, typically, the ghostwriter is not credited.
I’ve experienced both sides of the coin in ghostwriting. Sometimes I receive recognition for my work, sometimes not. But I’m sad that Rose never got to enjoy the accolades for what would have been her greatest literary accomplishment.
Though I’m over my sympathy for Laura, I still enjoy the stories from her life and what they represent in bringing American history alive and enjoyable to read. Her life and struggles were valid—ones generations have learned from and will continue to. In my mind, I choose to remember her as the wide-eyed girl in the Little House books, and the strength I gained from her as a woman possessed with a steadfast spirit in the face of devastating adversity throughout her life. The pedestal no longer exists.
But if it did, Rose would be the one standing on it now.