Skip to content
Sarah Tomlinson

The Accidental Ghostwriter

By Sarah Tomlinson | May 16, 2022 | Westways, My SoCal Life | Illustration By Alexia Lozano

I didn’t go west to be discovered. Or even, specifically, to write for the movies. I left Boston 15 years ago to pursue writing. Although I had a good career as a freelance music journalist, my fellow New Englanders seemed to regard me suspiciously, as though they doubted I worked all day.

I moved to Southern California to really be a writer. To own that.

Settling into the eastside of Los Angeles, I landed a few assignments for the Los Angeles Times, but I also put in many hours as a catering waiter and an SAT tutor, and I barely made rent.

Still, without apology, I wrote—novels, essays, and, yes, TV pilots and movie scripts. Then I stumbled into an only-in-L.A. kind of job: ghostwriting a book for reality TV personality Tila Tequila, who ran her online empire from her house in the Valley. Next, I ghostwrote a memoir for Todd Bridges, teen star of the late-’70s sitcom Diff’rent Strokes, who recalled a youth spent at the studio, and the Sunset Strip nightclubs he frequented as he got older. I’ve since ghostwritten 19 other books. Along the way, I’ve documented red-carpet premieres, Rodeo Drive shopping sprees, and similarly Hollywood moments.

To be honest, this isn’t the writing life I’d imagined back in Boston. I never thought that in 15 years I’d release only one book of my own, a memoir published in 2015. But it took my accidental career to show me that the journey is more interesting than the destination.

As I’ve learned from working with celebrities on their memoirs, it’s not the glitzy premieres or other Hollywood glamour that define their lives but, more often, their near misses: when success seemed imminent but didn’t come; when they had to muster perseverance to keep going; when they suffered the slings and arrows of romantic and family life. In fact, what’s fascinated me most about my famous clients is how much our experiences overlap.

Those of us drawn to Southern California share a live-and-let-live ethos. We’re dreamers. Some of us become stars. Some of us have no interest in stardom whatsoever. And others, like me, play unexpected supporting roles.

I love being surrounded by people driven to pursue their passions—those who get up at dawn to go surfing, or who read tarot cards professionally, or who outline screenplays in coffee shops. Sure, I can see why some (including locals) poke fun at these SoCal stereotypes, but I find it liberating to live among people who are pursuing their dream life, even if they’re the only ones who see it.

I’ve had my share of Hollywood experiences—“taking” meetings at the Polo Lounge; seeing Harry Dean Stanton strum, poolside, at a backyard soiree; befriending a female country music singer I’d long admired at a holiday party; having a television pilot optioned.

But I’ve spent far more time living large in my books, while shuttling between my desk, yoga class, and Trader Joe’s. Those  long days of solitary writing were a good dress rehearsal for pandemic life, when I kept my horizons broad by co-writing a self-help book and finishing up a thriller about a ghostwriter. Happy to be here, and accepted for who I am, I couldn’t imagine any destination but this journey, which I’d once mistaken for a detour.