Mary Curran Hackett is the author of two novels, Proof of Heaven and Proof of Angels. Her writing has also been featured in The Writer, Writer’s Digest, and other national magazines, as well as NPR. Her blog post “What I Want Everyone to Know About Suicide” went viral in 2015, and she appeared on NBC Nightly News with Lester Holt and Kate Snow in 2014 and 2018. She has taught writing and literature at the University of Cincinnati, and continues to help individuals tell their stories as a ghostwriter. At the moment, she is also working on her own memoir. Learn more at marycurranhackett.com or by following @mcchackett on Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram.
Tell us about your writing journey. When did you know you could make a career out of it, and what was that decision like?
I started in the field of publishing. I was an editor, and I worked for a small publishing firm out here in Cincinnati for about ten years. While I was there, I started submitting articles to magazines and the like to get experience. I was also working on a book, and about halfway through that time I finished it. I felt I was ready to get an agent, then I got one, the first I submitted to, and a publisher, HarperCollins, for my first book, Proof of Heaven. I got another book published with HarperCollins, Proof of Angels, shortly after, which is kind of a sequel.
Throughout that time, I was still working as an editor and then I moved into academia and was doing that for a bit. I taught and worked in the leadership area, helping people write creatively and create content. I did not love it, to be honest with you. But during that time—and I didn’t know it yet—I was ghostwriting for other people. Academics and executives would come to me, and I’d write blogs, articles, and books for them. I just kind of put that in my LinkedIn profile, that I was a ghostwriter, and I started to get hits locally from industry leaders. It was mostly business people who wanted to write the story of their corporation or build their brand, their platform. That was a big thing. Thought leadership became a big thing about ten years ago. I put my shingle out there. I said, I can do this. And that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. It took a while. It was one book here, one book there, but for the past five years, it’s what I do full-time.
How do you balance your own projects with your ghostwriting projects?
Not easily—like all writers, I think, unfortunately. We put our clients or our day jobs first, because they pay the bills. I guess I was fortunate that I was always a working mom from day one. I became a single mom at twenty-two and went straight to work. I have always been working full-time, with night jobs waitressing or whatever, to help pay for daycare. Later on, I taught nighttime writing classes. That’s the thing: If I wanted to write my book, I had to get up at 4:30 or 5 o’clock in the morning. That’s how I wrote my novels. I wrote when I was working full-time, teaching part-time, and with two little kids at home. I try to do that now, too. I try to write for me before I start doing anything else. I do my morning pages à la Julia Cameron and The Artist’s Way, which I’ve been following for twenty years. I write a few pages for me and then I can start my day with my clients and just write for them.
That sounds like a lot of dedication.
Well, I always say it’s not talent that gets you into this business. It’s your willingness to do the work and show up every day. I think that 99% of it is just not finding any reason to procrastinate or not do it. I have a “no excuse” policy. I don’t believe in giving excuses to clients for why things aren’t done. Personally, I hate when contractors give me excuses, so I vowed that I would never ever give anyone an excuse. I have none—rain, shine, sick, whatever. Get up and write.
We all want to give excuses. We want to apologize for why we can’t get something done, and life does give you stuff. You might have real, legitimate reasons, but no one wants to hear that. No one ever wants to hear it. That was a lesson I learned early on: Do the work and save the excuses. Or say, “Sorry, no excuse.” Just say, “I apologize, my bad.”
I’m sure that your clients really appreciate that!
I think what is more important than the writing—more important than anything—is the relationship-building. You build relationships that are lasting when you’re honest and you show up. It’s almost like salesmanship. You have to be willing to serve your client in any way. It’s full service, 100% service. Make changes they want. You can give your two cents. For example, you can say, “I don’t think a publisher will like that.” They’re paying you to be honest, but it’s the way you deliver it. It can’t be with an ego or your own agenda.
And don’t be afraid to show your personality or share your opinions and thoughts with your clients. That way they can get to know you, too, and feel like they can trust you. I think relationships are so key and that’s why I have repeat customers. One of my clients was so happy that he paid for my entire family to go to Japan for eleven days this summer, for vacation. I have clients that are so grateful for the work. Sure, a lot of it is that they get publishing deals or make a lot of money or that kind of thing, but this one woman took me to Maui and she hasn’t even gotten an agent yet. We haven’t even pitched her book.
In addition to being a ghostwriter, you’ve been a creative writing professor and a book editor. Can you talk a little more about helping people tell their stories?
I’ve actually thought about this, because sometimes I’m like, Whoa, how’d that happen? But if I go back and dissect it, it’s really just listening to your client talk. That’s how we were born; we tell stories. We go, “Oh my God, today I was talking to Karen and she said such and such, and then I said such and such.” We create dialogue when we tell stories to our friends. We craft them. Listen and think, why are they telling me this particular story? Why does this story matter to them? Ask why they think it impacted them. Just go back and back and unravel. Sometimes you get this really core nugget, of what their motivation is, or their real essence, the theme of their life. You start to see patterns after four or five stories, that there’s this thing or this thread that is woven through their whole life. Sometimes it comes from listening to their turns of phrase. I also like to spend two to three days with my clients. I know it’s not typical. It’s not always cost-effective or possible, and sometimes I Skype, but I really want to hear as much as I can about the topic they want to write about.
Looking back, what do you wish you knew getting started as a writer? What would you tell your younger self? (I’m twenty-two and have to know.)
If you’re writing, you’re a writer, and I say, own it. You gotta. I fell in that trap a long time ago and then I realized it’s all bogus. Writing is not outcome related; it’s process related. So, if you’re writing and you love it and that’s what you do, that’s who you are. Once you say those things and you believe those things, then the jobs are going to come to you.
And once you start calling yourself a writer, you’re going to feel like a big dope and a big liar if you’re not writing. So write. Just do it. I’ve had periods, ebbs and flows, where I do a little bit more reading than I do writing, or I’m working way more with my clients than I am a book. I’ve had heavy years where all I’m doing is client stuff. I’m just backed up, but I’m still writing a little bit, maybe a page a day instead of five pages a day. But, you know, if you write a page a day, you’ll have a book in a year.
If I waited until my kids grew up to write a book, I mean, I would’ve waited… well, now my son is fourteen… I have another child… I’d be waiting until I am in my fifties or late forties to start my career writing. There’s never a good time. The best time to start is now, because as soon as you start, that’s the practice. And you know, I have novels that never see the light of day. They are atrocious. I’m so grateful that they were rejected, but I learned so much from the process, getting my ass in the chair, getting the rejection letters with the feedback that made me go back and look back at things.
You’re never too young to start, and you’re never too old to start, either. If it’s truly what you want to do, the best time to start is now. Go home and write for an hour—for you. Set a timer and write for an hour for you. Everybody has time. If you have time to watch the Bachelorette, as I say to my daughter, you have time. She wants to be a writer, too. If you have time to do XYZ, you have time. All you need is an hour. You can write a page. Then you’ll see what works best for you. Try nonfiction, try memoir, try short story. I tried all sorts of things, anything. You’ll find out, Oh, I’m really good at this, and, Oh, this seems to flow easily. If you wait for inspiration, it’ll never come because inspiration hits you when you sit your ass down and start writing.
If you have something in you that you’re dying to say, say it. You probably have that little chattery voice inside your head that has to comment on everything. You just have to own it. Own who you are and what you love and you’ll be fine. You’re going to be drafting things when you sleep. I’m sure it seems like a slow slog right now at twenty-two, like, when is this ever going to happen? I started at twenty-two. My first book wasn’t published—well, the first book with my name on it—until I was thirty-six. But I might just be a slow learner! I have a lot of friends who it just happened for right out of the gate, and that’s good for them. But everyone’s having their own journey
Don’t let any negative ideas get to you, or biases about who should be a writer, what should be good. That’s what school teaches you. College teaches you how to be an excellent critic. You spend years analyzing the Greek texts, you have other people sharing all of their great, wonderful opinions about whatever. But they aren’t actually in the trenches writing. There’s a huge difference between being a critic and a writer, and a writer writes. See where the page takes you and don’t have any thoughts about whether it’s good or not. Just keep writing and the writing process will make you better
Even in writing school or college, they don’t teach you that. They teach you to be prepared to fail. They teach you to keep your feet on the ground. They teach you to be great critics and editors, but they don’t teach you how to tap into your inner wisdom and just write from the source that’s within you already, and believe in it, that it’s worthy enough even if you don’t have a publishing contract.
What about for ghostwriting? Do you have any advice there?
I think one of the biggest mistakes I made was when I was young and hungry and took any client. I’d think, Oh, it’s money! But when you act out of desperation or thirst—if you’re too thirsty—you’re not operating on the right motivation and it’s just going to be a disaster. Always do an intro call, and if you have a bad vibe or bad feelings, just don’t take it. You’ll be miserable the whole time and the work will be miserable. Only do things that you’ll be excited to dive into, when the rapport is there with a client, because they’re either easy to talk to or you feel like you can get to that.
You have to do some shit jobs. We all do. But the benefits have to outweigh the costs. Some people suck every hour of your life up and demand you 24/7, and that might not be a great deal in the end, especially if you can’t work with other clients. You have to ask yourself: What is it costing you to work with this client? Your time? Joy, happiness? Other clients? Don’t be afraid that if you don’t take this gig that there won’t be another client. There’s plenty of people out there who want their name on a book. There’s always going to be another client. And there’s always going to be another writer who’s a better fit for that client.
I also think preparation is key. If the client sends you a bunch of documents or if they’re well-known, dig. You should know more about their life than they do so that you can follow up and ask questions. Don’t ever show up without doing it. I try to be completely present with my clients. Especially if we’re meeting in person, I’m not going to have a notebook or laptop out in front of me. I’m going to have a piece of paper off to the side and a pen, with the recorder in between, but I want them to feel so relaxed and so at home, not looking at me and thinking, what’re you writing down? Or anything like that. If you are working with these high level executives, starlets, or whomever, they are professionals and you want them to have absolute trust that you can handle it. I also think being confident is a huge bonus, even if your knees are shaking. You get confident by doing your homework.
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