“He does this all day every day,” Grizzwald says.
I ask if he envies Neko.
“For doing what he wants to do? Yeah. I guess it’s a risk I’m too scared to take, and he’s just going for it.”
Midafternoon on a Wednesday in early January, Helen Chang calls me and says, “Are we still on for 4:00 today? I have a 4:30 phone call, so hopefully a half-hour is enough time to get what you need.”
I’m not surprised. By now, we’ve spoken twice on the phone and exchanged several emails. I’ve browsed her two websites, perused some of the books she’s ghostwritten, and read a handful of articles and blog posts. She’s a busy woman, professional and efficient, not big on chit-chat or other time-wasters. And, yet, when she answers the door to her two-bedroom Mission Gorge apartment, Helen Chang is wearing not a power suit but sweatpants.
Even in sweatpants, she’s intense. After requesting that I remove my shoes, she leads me through her bare-bones living room to the master-bedroom-turned-office, where a “visionboard” and “mind maps” cover the walls.
“That visionboard was created two years ago.” She points to a collage hanging behind the desk, a picture of a woman in a straw hat lounging near a body of water and writing on a laptop. Above her head is a pretend check written out to Helen Chang for “$10,000+ per month.”
“I’ve fulfilled that one already,” she says. “It’s there just because I don’t have a new one to replace it. I do have more visions,” she assures me. “They’re in the mind maps.”
She opens a notebook. On the cover, “2011” is written in marker. She flips quickly through pages of mind maps she created for her financial, spiritual, personal, and business goals. She won’t let me look closely because some of the information, she says, is personal and confidential. But she does point me toward a white board on the wall full of the same circles, lines, and words I’d glimpsed in the notebook.
“These are all my clients and the projects we’ve got going on,” she says.
There are names written inside the circles, and words like “edit workbook” and “rewrite chapter four” are written on lines jutting out from the circles. There must be 10 or 15 of them. Down at the bottom, in the right hand corner, a little circle reads “Helen.” The single line protruding from it says “take classes.”
“That’s me,” she says. “My personal dream right now is to write my own book. Nonfiction. I’m actually kind of working on, if you can even call it that, a memoir.”
“Why the air quotes around ‘working on?’” I ask.
She leads me back to the living room before she answers. Aside from a picture of dewy orange flowers hung behind us, and a couple of leis strung here and there (Chang is from Hawaii), the walls are bare and the room void of color. Her laptop sits open on the coffee table in front of a comfy white couch, where we sit. Between us is a collapsed stack of books and workbooks Helen’s edited or ghostwritten.
“My goal last year was to write the first draft of the memoir, but I didn’t do that,” she confesses. “So I set a new goal this year to write a first draft. By the end of the year. [I used] air quotes because there’s a part of me that’s not confident I’ll get it done. But creatively, that’s what I want to do.”
Chang is not one to boo-hoo about failures or mistakes. She has several big ones in her past. In the 1990s, after making a name for herself as a business journalist in Singapore (writing for Time, Business Week, and other publications), she was “sick of doing business stories” and decided to start a holistic lifestyle magazine. She took on the role of “publisher, the face of it, investor relations,” and hired someone else to do the editing.
Although she did learn a lot about business, the only writing she did was the monthly publisher’s column.
“I really missed the writing,” she says. “I didn’t enjoy being an entrepreneur.”
In the end, after the dotcom bust, the magazine went bankrupt, and Chang went back to freelance writing. In 2003, she met a real-estate investor who hired her to ghostwrite manuals for courses he taught. This was the beginning of her ghostwriting career, though she did continue to work as a freelance journalist.
Chang made what she calls another “big mistake” in 2008 while ghostwriting a real-estate book.
“I didn’t want to be an entrepreneur. I only wanted to write,” she tells me. “I deliberately didn’t want to deal with the business side of it because I was tired of business. And then the real-estate crash happened. My business dried up. You always hear that: never depend on just a few clients for your business. But my journalism gigs dried up, too.”
Though she appears relaxed and comfortable with her legs folded up beneath her, Chang speaks with a loud voice and dramatic gesticulations that confirm her natural intensity.
Today, she lives and works with a balance of business and writing that satisfies her for the most part. Her list of ghostwriting and editing clients includes well-known financial self-help gurus and celebrity hosts from HGTV. Chang’s ghostwriting success has lead her to use the services of 6–12 transcribers, editors, writers, and a personal assistant.
Does it create more work?
“Yes,” she says. “But I’m able to get more work done through them than I am by myself.”
Chang started writing at five, when she created a booklet called “Five Myths and a Poem.” She laughs dismissively when she tells me this, as if the silly projects of a five-year-old have nothing to do with the woman she is today. But as she continues talking about her childhood relationship with stories, her demeanor shifts from one of serious intensity to a more playful animation.