I Feel Like a Number
My ego was constantly challenged as a ghostwriter – doing all the work, then stepping back and letting someone else take the credit. Sometimes it was brutal. In 1999, one of my clients, a widely
known TV anchor, was on the David Letterman show to promote her biography that I had penned. Her name was in the center of the cover in large lettering and underneath, in smaller lettering, were the words “with Andrea Cagan.” That was me, the “with,” the person who actually wrote the book.
I was excited that I was about to see my name on national television. Letterman and my client bantered back and forth, she talked about the writing process (as if she knew anything about it) but when they did a close up on the book, someone had pasted white tape over my
name. There was no “with.” I didn’t exist. I felt betrayed and I called her agent to complain but he said harshly, “It wasn’t her fault. Don’t call her and bother her with trivialities. She’s very busy. She has a book to promote.” That was how it was back then. I was a triviality, and when a book was finished, I had to make like a ghost and disappear. Granted, it was something I had agreed to do, but it still stung.
When I stopped ghostwriting, I wrote two books of my own, “Memoirs of a Ghost,” and “A Friendly Guide to Writing and
Ghostwriting.” Finally I was telling my own story and I was scheduled to do book signings in a few popular book stores – until the signings were cancelled because of Covid. As a result, I had very few sales. I was disappointed, but it didn’t stop me from sitting down and writing every morning. For me, it isn’t about discipline. It’s just what I do, my form of meditation.
During the quarantine, I considered the things that made me who I am, my victories, my pitfalls, my mental health, and I put them on the page. I had no particular destination for my words as I recalled my childhood, life in the ballet, leaving my dance bubble and entering
the world at large. I wrote about friendships, relationships, and my struggle to balance my anxiety and depression in a cock-eyed world. But what would I do with it? My work had no real purpose. I wasn’t trying to find publisher, that wasn’t my goal any longer, so who would ever read it? Why should I bother? Should I just stop? It felt like I was writing into the wind but I kept reminding myself of Vincent Van Gogh. I’m in no way claiming to have a modicum of his talent,
but knowing that he never sold a painting and never stopped painting gave me the courage to keep doing what I was doing.
A while ago, I recognized the value and power of my work. A friend of mine was in a great deal of emotional pain. She was sobbing and her voice was unrecognizable. I listened and remembered my own
experience of the same kind of pain. I had written about it and I offered to send her my stories. I thought they might help. She sent me back a note of appreciation and told me that my words had given her strength and solace. She realized she wasn’t alone in her darkness and that things would change. When we next spoke, she sounded like herself again. My writing had found a purpose. I had reached one person and helped her heal. I stopped wondering where my work was going. It would go wherever it was needed, whenever it was needed. That was enough.
Soon after my memoir became available, I was invited to a friend’s book club to discuss it. There were about twenty women in the room and one of them asked me, “How did you tell the truth about that abusive relationship? Doesn’t it make you feel exposed?”
“It does,” I said. “That’s why I wrote it. Is there a woman in this room who hasn’t had a similar experience?” Everyone llooked down. “That’s what I thought,” I said. “If I can find the courage to speak up and tell the truth, maybe other women will find the courage, too.”
As a writer, I feel a responsibility to say the things that other people are thinking but are afraid to say. When we expose our secrets and the things that shame us, we have an opportunity to heal our wounds. With a few exceptions, I believe that we can heal just about anything if we think we can, if we remember that we are not alone. Whatever we’re feeling, other people have felt it, too, and come out the other side.
Social media has made our lives about numbers, about knowing all the answers and becoming “an influencer.” But who are we influencing and for what purpose? There is another side to social media. It can do a lot of good. We can use it to encourage and uplift others and to feel good about ourselves. It can be much more than showing your best self to the masses and acting like you’ve never had a bad day. It can be much more than how many followers you have. Or how you can make something go viral. Or how you can get more DMs. I met a woman who as over a million followers but she lives her life staring at her phone which is no life at all. When you’re obsessed with doing whatever it tales to rack up followers, it’s easy to overlook the opportunity of having such a wide platform to offer something useful. Back in 1978, folk singer and political activist, Pete Seger wrote: “I’m not a number. Damn it, I’m a man.”
It doesn’t matter how many people are following you. Inspiring one person to change their life for the better is far more valuable than showing a thousand people what you ate for lunch. Whether you’re reaching five people or five thousand people, there is no end to the
good you can do if you stay focused on the right stuff.