Kim Pearson Q&A
My cousin Jennifer introduced fellow Washingtonian Kim Pearson to me. I am fascinated my Kim’s primary profession as a ghostwriter because I used to do something similar; one of my favorite jobs was as a speechwriter. Both ghostwriters and speechwriters have to get inside the heads of the people they’re writing for and write in their voices. And, as Kim discusses in her Q&A, knowing and writing for your audience is the most important aspect of ghostwriting — or any kind of writing, including speechwriting. I’m really tickled to present this Q&A with Kim.
Bio: Kim Pearson is an author, ghostwriter, editor, and the owner of Primary Sources, a writing service that helps others become authors of polished, professional, and compelling books, articles, and blogs. Her books include: Making History: how to remember, record, interpret and share the events of your life; Dog Park Diary: the social round of Goody Beagle; Eating Mythos Soup; and several e-books. She has ghostwritten or edited more than 40 non-fiction books and memoirs, which tell the stories of a wide variety of people and cover a broad range of topics, from saxophones to finance, city histories to hypnotherapy, psychic horses to constipation, and many points in between. Kim teaches workshops and teleclasses on writing and history, and an interactive online course on ghostwriting. She writes From the Compost, a blog about writing, history, and storytelling.
Q&A with Kim Pearson:
Q: As a ghostwriter, you get inside people’s heads and write their stories. Given that you also teach others how to ghostwrite, what skills do you feel are required to be able to tell other peoples’ stories? Are there people who are not cut out to be ghostwriters, or can anyone learn to do it?
A: First and obviously, to be a good ghostwriter you must know how to write well. Writing is a skill and an art, and it takes time and practice to be proficient. But you must also be aware that writing for yourself is different than ghostwriting. A ghost needs to write compelling prose that is close to another person’s voice, not their own. You need to put your ego in the background and write what is important to your client, in a way he or she might say it — only better. This skill involves more than writing ability. You must be able to ask penetrating questions that elicit sparkling stories and deep emotions. You must be able to listen compassionately to the answers, and then delve even deeper. You must be able to translate what you find in someone else’s head into written words that convey someone else’s truth. You must share the passion of your client, at least temporarily, and to do this you need to be insatiably curious and in love with learning. You must be fiercely dedicated to producing an excellent work of art, yet recognize that this work does not belong to you. A ghost is a different kind of writer. Not all good writers make good ghosts.Q: What’s your favorite story about a transformation that came about through a story or storytelling act?
A: A few years ago I was teaching my class “Making History” at a local Senior Center, covering the decades of the thirties, forties and fifties, and encouraging the participants to share their stories of those years. One of the topics we talked about was the enormous changes in the status of Americans of color during those decades (Jackie Robinson comes to mind), although all the people in the class were white. But they had a lot to say — racism has always affected us all, no matter what our color. Here’s one of the stories told that day, by a white woman almost 80 years old:
She was 21 in 1947, an office worker in downtown San Francisco. Every day she took the bus to and from work. The bus was always crowded. One evening she boarded the bus and was lucky to find a space on a bench seat facing the aisle, next to an elderly black woman. At the next stop, a man got on the bus. He was a middle-aged white gentleman, probably in his early fifties, wearing the traditional businessman’s attire of tailored suit and hat, and carrying an umbrella. He made his way down the aisle, and stopped directly in front of the office girl and the elderly black woman. After a few seconds of staring at them, he suddenly raised his umbrella above his head and brought it down — thwack! — across the shoulder of the old lady.
The bus became absolutely quiet. No one said anything, not even the old woman who had been struck. She stared straight ahead. As if taking their cue from her, the rest of the passengers stared straight ahead too. No one said or did anything. But inside the office girl, a tortured debate was going on. What should she do? What could she do? What he did was wrong, of course, but sometimes that was the way things were. But maybe she should say or do something. Say what? Do what? What good would it do? What if the man struck her too? What if she made it worse?
She was still debating internally when the old woman got off the bus at the next stop. An audible sigh of relief from the rest of the passengers could be heard.
And that’s the end of the story from 1947. But in 2004, the now-78-year-old ex-office worker looked around the room. “I should have done or said something,” she said. “At least I should have asked her if she was okay, or put my arm around her. That’s what I would do now. But at the time I didn’t know I could.”
She added, “I’ve never told that story before. I guess I tried not to think about it, because it made me feel so bad.”
For fifty-seven years she had carried that untold story around with her, a story that made her feel guilty and ashamed. But her guilt and shame is not the point of the story. She is forgivable, after all — a young woman, unexpectedly confronted with an evil act, is momentarily paralyzed by indecision. We can understand her reaction. I hope that by telling her story, she has forgiven herself.
And of course, she actually did nothing wrong. She simply did nothing.
And that’s the point of the story — the teaching point, if you will. Doing nothing. I bet all of us have had moments when we’ve seen something we know to be wrong, but we did nothing. Because we were afraid, or because we didn’t know what to do, or — God forgive us — because we were too busy.
But doing nothing has a price. Fifty-seven years of guilt and shame, unacknowledged but still alive and festering under the skin. Fifty-seven years.
Q: The culture is abuzz about Web 2.0 and social media. To what extent do you participate in social media (such as through LinkedIn, MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Second Life, blogs, etc.)? To what extent and in what ways do you feel these venues are storytelling media?I hope that woman was transformed by telling her story. But even if she wasn’t, I was transformed by listening to it. Now I begin nearly every morning with a quiet vow: Today, I will not do nothing.
A: I’m active on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, and I’ve been writing a blog called From the Compost since 2006. I blog about writing, history, and storytelling, with some haiku thrown in. On Twitter, I have two accounts. One is for me, @storykim, as my “real” self, where I tweet mostly about writing (specifically ghostwriting) and history. My other Twitter account is for my dog, Goody Beagle. I wrote a book about Goody, called Dog Park Diary, which is “told” by Goody — in other words, I ghostwrote the book for her, about her adventures at the local dog park. We worked with a professional photographer to illustrate it with real photos of Goody and the dogs she met at the dog park. I started her Twitter account @dogparkdiary to promote the book. It works pretty well - I do sell some books. I tweet in Goody’s voice, and what a fun voice it is — a dry comedic voice, much different than my own. She focuses on what’s important to her — smells, food, her run-ins with “The Cat” who steals her sofa and “The Baby” (my 1-year-old grandson) who pulls her ears. She makes comments about her human and that human’s failings. Did I mention smells? I love tweeting as Goody, and now Goody often “guest blogs” on my blog too, where she can expand eloquently on the same subjects. I have a future project in mind - another Goody book (again with photos) based on Goody’s tweets. By the way, Goody is at least three times as popular on Twitter as I am. I’m not sure what this means. But I’m not jealous.
Q: The bio on your Web site suggests that your ability to conduct interviews with skill is key to your success as a writer/ghostwriter/storyteller. Without giving away all your trade secrets, can you offer readers a bit of insight into your interviewing techniques? To what extent does your training as a historian help you as an interviewer?
A: Most people see history as something outside them. They don’t see themselves as part of history. But they are. When I interview my memoir clients, I come from a historian’s perspective — I look for how they intersected with the events and trends of their time. Asking about these events and trends opens a rich vein of stories. This is what I tell them:
You make history. History is not just about the famous or the infamous. It is not just about “big” things that make the newspapers. History is merely connection over time. We are all connected to each other, to the past, and to the future. We are connected by our stories.
We are all actors in the powerful drama of earth, part of the vast dynamic web circling the universe. Our actions reverberate along this web, creating consequences for all other living creatures. We do not merely react to events and historical trends — we create them. Each individual, even you, is a part of history.
You are a witness to history, as well as an actor. Do not underestimate the necessity of this role. You know what you saw and what you experienced. Tyrants and unscrupulous power-seekers always seek to rewrite the inconvenient (to them) past. This is why it is often said that history is “written by the winners.” But those who preserve their stories help ensure that the truth remains.
How many of us wish they had an ancestor’s story, told in their own words? Wouldn’t it be wonderful, we think, to know the hopes, dreams, wishes and fears of Great-Great-Grandma as she bounced over the plains in a covered wagon? Wouldn’t it be cool to know what Great-Great Uncle Joe was thinking while he robbed that bank?
Yes, it would be wonderful to know our ancestors’ stories. But what we often forget is that we, too, are someone’s ancestor. We are the future historians’ primary sources. A primary source is a term historians use to describe the thoughts, opinions and witness of those people who were really there. When you record what you saw, what you felt, what you did, you become a primary source. Two hundred years from now, historians could be looking for you. What do you want them to find? Just your tombstone with the dates of your birth and death, and perhaps a line of verse? Does that tell your dreams, desires, triumphs, griefs, loves and hates? Does it tell what part you played in the story of the world?
Q: If you could share just one piece of advice or wisdom about story/storytelling/narrative with readers, what would it be?Sharing your stories is an affirmation of belonging. You have a rightful place here. Without you, the history of the world is incomplete.
A: I put a sticky note on my computer which says “It’s not about you.” Even if you are telling your own life story, it’s still not about you. It’s about your readers or your listeners. Stories come through you, not from you.
If you write books, articles or a blog, you’ve probably been told that writing new and useful content is of vital importance. Content is King, in other words.
I disagree. Content is vitally important, but it isn’t King. We don’t live in a monarchy, and your readers are not your loyal subjects. You don’t get to stuff your content down your readers’ throats — or through their eyes. (Sounds painful, doesn’t it?)
Content is more like the president. It’s only good if it’s elected by a majority of the populace — the readers. That’s because the president serves the people. He or she cares about what they think, because if he/she doesn’t, he/she won’t be president very long.
Many writers say, with great pride, that they “write for themselves,” as if this means they are a “real” writer, in touch with their Muse. But this is only true if you are writing a journal, meant just for your eyes.
Books, articles, blog posts and the like are communication vehicles. All effective communication is two-way. The written word is no exception. You have to know what is important to your reader. Otherwise, he or she will not read your writing. People have a choice to read your book or blog, or not to read it. It’s as simple as that.
How you present your ideas must be done in a way that your readers will understand or be entertained by. Yes, I am talking about slanting your writing.
Slanting your writing so that your reader can “get” you is not pandering, manipulation, or selling out. It is simply good communication. It shows respect for your reader. You are paying attention to what they care about. Aren’t you more likely to listen when people pay attention to your interests, and offer you respect by talking in terms you understand? Of course you are. It’s the same with writing.
Tailoring your writing to your reader’s “care abouts” will allow you to elicit emotional responses from them. You want bells to go off in their heads, or for them to snap their fingers with delight, or be dazzled by the brilliant light you have poured over them. Emotional responses lead to action or change. And that’s ultimately what you’re trying to get from your reader — you want them to do something, or learn something.
You can only emotionally hook them if you know what they care about.
This does not mean you are pandering or betraying your own muse. All it means is that you are treating your readers with respect, and paying attention to who they are.
After all, the reason you write is so someone else will read it. It’s not about you.