Dear Gossips, 

Back in January, when Prince Harry’s Spare was first released, I wrote that I wished there could be a Show Your Work style documentary on ghostwriters so that we could know more about the process behind this particularly niche skill. Spare wasn’t just engrossing because of the details of his life that Harry decided to share, but also because of how it was written. And the credit for that goes to JR Moehringer who actually gave us a Show Your Work essay this week in The New Yorker


If you’ve read JR Moehringer’s previous books, from his own memoir, The Tender Bar (one of my all-time favourites), to Andre Agassi’s Open, to Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog, you’re well aware of his gift. Each book is different, because each subject is unique. And that’s especially remarkable because it’s the same writer – and somehow he’s found the voice of every person he’s inhabiting. Andre’s book sounds like Andre; same goes for Phil Knight, and Harry’s book definitely sounds like Harry. It takes extraordinary talent to be able to do this: tell someone else’s story like they’re telling it themselves. As Moehringer says in his New Yorker piece: 

“That’s the mystic paradox of ghostwriting: you’re inherent and nowhere; vital and invisible. To borrow an image from William Gass, you’re the air in someone else’s trumpet.”


If you haven’t read it yet, skip the excerpts that are being shared online. Just as it was with Spare and how it was butchered by the tabloid media, with passages taken out of context, ahead of and upon its arrival, Moehringer’s essay deserves to be considered in its entirety. Don’t do as the Daily Mail (in this case and in every case) and fixate on the opening passage which is about how Harry and JR disagreed over how to end the story about what Harry experienced during a military training exercise that ended on one of his captors saying something disgusting about Princess Diana. Harry wanted to include in the book how he ended up responding to that comment – he wanted to make sure that we all know what his comeback was, because he wanted us all to know that he’s not stupid; after a lifetime of being thought of as a dumbass, which has obviously left a scar, Harry wanted to assert that he is, in fact, quick and clever. 


This wasn’t a “row” as the Daily Mail describes it, but an intense creative difference. And the takeaway shouldn’t be that these two people were arguing but the responsibility of the ghostwriter to deny their subject’s impulses in service of the story and the message. This is just the beginning of a riveting piece about ghostwriting, the artform. 

To be an effective ghostwriter is to not only temper the subject, as Moehringer shared in that example with Harry, but to temper themselves. He’s honest about the fact that he must consistently remind himself that “it’s not your effing book”. Ghostwriters must be selfless but not overly accommodating. They must have no ego but they also can’t be obsequious. They should be empathetic but also objective. It’s the finest balance, a high degree of difficulty, and when it’s done well, as Moehringer writes in the New Yorker, there is “much power to be gained, and honesty to be achieved, from taking an ostensibly navel-gazing genre and turning the gaze outward”. He accomplishes this with Spare. 


But it didn’t come without a cost. And Moehringer gets into that too – the frustration of being targeted the way Harry has been targeted, by association; the disappointment of having your words, in other words your work, pulled apart and misrepresented the way they were when the tabloids feasted on Spare; the fear of being followed by reporters and paparazzi. But on top of that the struggle of whether or not to tell of these experiences because…is it really his story to tell? 

I’m not sure if JR Moehringer has answered that question for himself and at no point does he claim to.  But maybe that’s what makes him such an excellent writer – that he’s constantly having to internally calibrate his own impulses with those of his subjects in order to get to the right story. 

Yours in gossip,