When I interviewed the prolific ghostwriter Donald Bain in 2010, I was curious to learn how an author could find continued inspiration from an assignment. I have from time to time been able to do creative work in this fashion, but my patience for such projects is very limited. Before long I become grouchy and begin to view the kind people who are paying me to do what it is they believe I enjoy doing as indifferent taskmasters happy to suck all the joy from my life if it will somehow profit them. This was not quite Donald’s opinion of assignments. For him they were a comfortable starting place. He had toyed with writing simply his own work, but in the end this approach did not appeal to him. He enjoyed the perimeters of ghost writing, which allowed him to focus in a way working from his wide open imagination could not.
As a young man I would have dismissed Donald as “uncreative.” To me, this would not have been an insult so much as a statement of fact: if he were creative, he wouldn’t need an assignment. But it did not take long to recognize in Donald something it would take me years to learn. One of the advantages of an assignment is there is no pressure to “come up with an idea.” Donald’s only job is to execute to the best of his ability what he has been asked to produce. If he does this, he is successful, regardless of sales and so on.
The pressure to “come up with ideas” often haunted me. How does one know which is worth pursuing? Such was my thinking before I understood that I too must work on assignment. The only difference between Donald and me is the source of that assignment. For Donald, it comes from other people. It is not so clear where my assignments come from, but they don’t come from me, the little me who actually writes the books and essays and makes the videos and so on.
I am much happier now that I have accepted that I am on assignment. It is the most honest view of my creative relationship with life, and also the least stressful. Donald often publishes under pseudonyms (Jessica Fletcher, for instance), and while my name appears on book jackets, I too must – in my heart – relinquish full authorial credit. Until I do so, the assignments are withheld, though not from vengeance. If I say I can do it all myself, Life believes me. Accepting that I cannot creates the space where stories are born.
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