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4 Lessons I've Learned From 23 Years Of Client Interviews

Written by: Alice Sullivan, Executive Contributor

Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.

 
Executive Contributor Alice Sullivan

I’ve spent countless hours interviewing clients in my 23 years as a ghostwriter and editor. I use these interviews to glean information about their lives and get a sense of their voice so that I can commit their wild and precious life stories to the page.


Two happy ladies having a conversation.

Over the 60 books I’ve written, I’ve noticed striking commonalities between my clients—although many of them couldn’t be more different. I’ve worked with hippie pot growers, billionaire tech gurus, survivors of domestic and childhood abuse, war heroes, and more. Still, the cliche that people are more similar than they’re different rings true in my field. Here are a few universal truths I’ve learned from working with a wide spectrum of clients:


1. People are incredibly resilient

Many of my clients write trauma memoirs. Some have endured cancer and the brutal treatments it requires. Others experienced abuse at the hands of a partner or a parent. Some dodged enemy fire as they flew fighter jets across unfriendly skies. It can be difficult to listen to someone describing the hardships they’ve endured, but if they’re writing a memoir with me, it means that they survived. It means that they’re brave enough to face their story and share it with the world. My clients survived some of the most horrible things you can imagine, yet they come out on the other side wanting to help others. My clients give me hope.


2. You don’t know until you ask

I work with a lot of highly successful people. They’re athletes, artists, business owners, and in general, professionals at the tops of their fields. They’re the kind of people who exude power and competence. Look at their online presence, and you’ll see sleek images of their trophies, vacations, and beautiful families. But under the surface, so many of these people have endured hardships that many of us can’t imagine. Maybe the successful business owner failed with his first four attempts to start a business. Maybe the athlete is living with a chronic disease. That’s one reason I love memoir: it pulls back the veil and lets people see how you achieved your success.


3. Your story is more unique than you think

I have so many clients who initially hesitate to tell their story because they assume that everyone’s heard it before. Many memoirs indeed follow a similar structure. In fact, many of the stories in popular media use archetypes, such as the hero’s quest, the coming of age, or the rags-to-riches plot structure. That said, the details are what make any story come alive. We’ve all probably seen more than a dozen superhero movies, but the unique characters, the memorable dialogue, and the sense of place differentiate them—and keep us coming back for more.


4. Active listening works wonders

The author-ghostwriter relationship is different from almost any other. Most people have never told their entire life story—start to finish—to one person. Some of the secrets my clients share with me they’ve never even told their spouses. It’s a sacred process. So, how do I make them comfortable enough to share?


Over the years, I’ve learned how to help my clients relax even when they’re telling me an especially intimate or painful story. I try to mirror their body language, ask open-ended questions, and let them see that I’m feeling the weight of their story. Sometimes that just means smiling as they share. Other times I can’t help but cry along with them as they recount past grief.


What keeps me doing this work is people’s willingness to share their pain, discomfort, embarrassment, and tough life lessons for the benefit of others. My clients transcend their traumas and hardships so that others can learn from their rockier experiences. I believe that the act of ghostwriting creates empathy, both between the ghostwriter and the author, and between the author and reader.


I believe the empathy inherent to memoir could change the world if we let it. We could stop looking at each other’s Instagram and instead take the time to understand the fullness of each other’s lived experiences.


Follow me on LinkedIn, and visit my website for more info!


Alice Sullivan Brainz Magazine
 

Alice Sullivan, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine

Alice Sullivan is an award-winning ghostwriter, collaborator, and 11-time New York Times bestselling editor. A natural-born storyteller, she’s written 60 books and edited over 1,300 titles. She specializes in nonfiction—specifically memoir, self-help, and personal growth. She helps clients identify their goals and messages while creating engaging content to connect with their target markets. Her favorite projects are those that challenge her point of view and expand her knowledge.

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