I wonder if you have seen the Roman Polanksi movie The Ghostwriter, or read the novel The Ghost by Robert Harris that it is based on. The premise of the film and novel is that the central character is hired to ‘ghost’ the autobiography of a past unpleasant and venal British prime minister (not unlike – though the author unconvincingly denied it – Tony Blair). By ghost we mean, of course, that a professional writer interviews his or her subjects and then crafts their words into a book so that their name (not the ghostwriter’s) appears on the books covers.
If you haven’t seen the film, here is the trailer for it.
Of course lots of skulduggery (‘secretly dishonest or illegal activity – also used humorously’ according to the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English) take place in the book and the film, but ghostwriting itself is widely practised. Most of the politicians’ and sportspeople’s autobiographies you have read are ghosted. As Ewan McGregor says to the ex-prime minister “I interview you and turn your answers into prose”.
Might ghostwriting be a nice way of approaching storytelling and storywriting for upper intermediate/advanced students (or for that matter any level students)? I think/thought so, and used it in my demonstration ‘lesson’ at IATEFL Poland in Łodz two days ago. But like all teachers’ (my?) ideas it hangs on a filigree thread of plausibility! Even if it is a good idea it’s probably been done by millions of others before me, anyway. Whatever. I tried a number of things with my ‘class’: for example (after they had watched the film trailer) I got my ‘students’ to watch a teacher telling a classroom story. Then they had to think of all the ‘ghostwriter’ follow-up questions they could have asked her to learn more about the incident and, perhaps as a result, make her story even more dramatic. We then thought of other ways she could have introduced her anecdote/story. After that we talked about getting students to research some of the vocabulary (collocations, chunks etc) of key concepts of the story so that they could use them and thus ‘bump up’ the story’s impact. My ‘students’ told each other stories and were then interviewed in more depth about them, and then the ‘ghostwriters’ had to turn what they had heard (those stories) into 1st person narratives – as if it was their story (that’s exactly what a ghostwriter does). My ‘students’ also looked at a faithful transcript of the anecdote they had heard/watched and talked about how to turn it into elegant written prose – and we discussed how this transcription and tidying up can be a useful way of analysing language and language use. I said I’d write a blog about it so that they could post any of their ghostwritten stories if they wanted.
They/you probably won’t! But you (dear reader) could always post your own ghostwritten paragraph or two if you felt like it. In other words, how could YOU best tell somoene else’s story?
But what do you think of ghostwriting? After all we all tell stories all of the time, and everyone has stories to tell. Might this be a way of getting really good narrative-writing results. Is it an effective way of having students analyse language (see transcription above). Is this better than teaching students stuff? Should students be given good models of ghostwritten narratives to look at first (as someone in Łodz suggested)? And anyway, how DO you get advanced students to write, and is narrative a useful or important genre anyway?
So many questions! There always are. Everything we do has a chance of working (even if, as perhaps here, it doesn’t quite come out right)