Ghost writing may appear like an unexpected career choice but for many it serves as another way to follow their dreams
By Aida Kane
It’s been 20 years since Joel Harris has turned his lifelong passion for writing into an occupation. Getting paid to write still seems surreal to him. In his mind, there’s no doubt that his love for writing will sustain him mentally and financially for years to come.
Just like so many writers, Harris writing activities can take place in various locations. But whether he’s in the quiet and cozy atmosphere of his apartment or at Old Crow Coffee in New Westminster, where he can enjoy the romance that coffee shops provide to writers, he zealously opens his laptop and dives into his passion.
For Harris, writing, just like journalism and many creative fields, requires a strong will to adapt to different environments. Researching a topic by conducting an interview might occur at the corner of a street while gathering and organizing that information in a different public location such as a library.
In addition to changing locations, Harris clearly distinguishes writing for clients and writing for himself. Writing for clients includes writing blog articles on behalf of business clients, online articles for SEO content, speech writing, and so much more. While writing for himself includes his comic books, novels, and screenplays. Both categories fulfill his love for writing uniquely.
On most days, Harris writes from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. He works on his novel from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., and he writes for his clients from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. And despite the tremendous stress and pressure that comes with meeting his deadlines, his thick black hair is perfectly swept back, and his heavy stubble beard reveals the writer’s care for his appearance. A year shy of 40, the small wrinkles under his eyes reveal his trustworthiness and his insightfulness.
The writer is very conscious that his capacity to sustain his passion and make a living out of it is a tremendous chance.
Journalism and creative fields come with employment insecurities. According to Job Bank, in 2013, 33% of diploma graduates of film/video and photographic arts have found jobs related to their field of studies. In addition to juggling multiple projects and adapting to different situations, viability is a problem that always comes to the forefront.
Full-time employment such as traditional nine to five jobs is not given to everyone. Many creative and artistic endeavours tend to take the form of passion projects, side gigs, and freelancing. And they all require skills, sweat equity, and great devotion to come to fruition.
For many, working on a creative project is the ultimate way to express themselves. They do it because it resonates with who they are. It’s an escape and provides a great way to direct their energy into something that’s meaningful. But self-sufficiency in creatives fields also relies on monetary resources and financial gain.
Financial resources that can sustain creativity come in multiple sources. In 2019-2020, Canada Council for Arts provided grants in Canada of a total amount of $263.7M. At the same time, the federal government delivered an allocation of $23.6M to Canada Media Fund to support media and arts.
Financial sustainability very often also takes the form of a day job. A 2015 article from Harvard Business Review, titled “Get Your Passion Project Moving Without Quitting Your Day Job” reveals that a compromise can be established between a day job in a given industry and a passion endeavour that doesn’t provide a regular income.
Understanding the importance of a “flexible job” was a turning point at the beginning of Harris’ journey. His job covered his living wage and bills, but most importantly, it offered him the flexibility to organize his schedule. He could time off whenever he needed it to focus on writing.
“I worked at Starbucks for a long time, I climbed the corporate ladder to a manager, and then I descended. I went down from manager to shift supervisor to a barista. And, as I did that, I was ramping up my clients’ portfolio,” he says. “And what was great about Starbucks is that if for some reason, I didn’t have enough writing work, I could always pick up shifts.”
The last time Harris took a shift at Starbucks was in 2015, and after juggling his creative work with his flexible job for 15 years, he still feels very grateful to Starbucks.
The accomplishment of writing full time for five years has also been a source of motivation that he taped into at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.
He utilized the training that he acquired at Langara College in the journalism diploma program in 2007. He launched a podcast on March 30 th , 2020, where he hosts discussions related to writing. This new endeavor enabled him to expand his creative work.
Writers such as Harris have a set of preferred skills that are forged through years of hard work. And these intertwined skills create a comfort zone. However, they also find a way to expand their skills and engage in writing projects that are outside of their comfort zone. Mike Wicks is an acclaimed freelance writer and an award-winning author based in Victoria. Through a career that spans forty years, his writing endeavors were often outside of his comfort zone.
At the core of Wicks’ career lies ghostwriting. As a prominent ghostwriter and ghost-blogger, he takes the words, the research, and the expertise of his clients and makes it readable and accessible to the audience they want to reach. “I ghostwrite everything from web copy, to articles, to blog posts to just about anything. Anything can be ghostwritten,” explains Wicks.
Like many ghostwriters, he admits that finding the right stability between short-term and long-term ghostwriting projects can be challenging. “It’s a real juggle. When you’ve got big projects, they last a long time, and when they stop, you could potentially be in a position to have nothing, when you’ve got lots and lots of small projects, lots of blog posts coming in, then if you lose one or two, it doesn’t matter so much.”
Wicks acknowledges that stability in the career of a ghostwriter comes with experience and time. ” You sort of gradually work your way up in the ghostwriting world. And it takes many years and a lot of luck to get to the stage that I am at the moment,” he explains. “Three years ago, I managed to get a book that hit the Wall Street Journal bestseller list and the Publishers Weekly bestseller list and was a number one bestseller of Barnes and Noble. But that then launches you into a bigger and wider audience, and people with significant projects will approach you. But in the beginning, I used to write magazine articles, and that’s how I made my living.”
Harris and Wicks’ journeys show that the search for sustainability for each writer is unique. Their skills and circumstances have led them to make choices that accommodate them.
Growing up in Vancouver with a learning disability, Harris’ early school days were dire: “In grade two, I had this test done, and my parents were told that I should be held back a year and that I was not as developed as the other kids,” he explains. “In my mind, I was not as smart as the other kids, and I will never be able to read and write as well as other kids.”
Even though his father was a poet and loved storytelling, Harris’ school difficulties drove him to fulfill his dream to become a professional writer and great storyteller.