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361. How Catherine Nikkel Helps People Write Their Own Books

the daily helping podcast May 13, 2024

After 15 years as a social worker, Catherine Nikkel knew it was time to make a career change. She thought she was going to become an insurance agent, but suddenly the ground fell out from under her: She became paralyzed from the waist down. What got her through her time in the hospital was people telling her stories.

Today, not only has Catherine learned to walk again, but she has helped fifteen people tell their stories by ghostwriting bestselling books with them. She has also helped dozens more tell their story through her book coaching. 

Catherine joins the show to explain what it means to be a ghostwriter and book coach. She also has tips for people who are thinking about writing a book. Her bottom line: “Get your voice out there because it deserves to be heard.”


The Biggest Helping: Today’s Most Important Takeaway

Please use your voice to make an impact, whether it be in your life, someone else's life, your communities. And the biggest thing for me is get your voice out there because it deserves to be heard.


Thank you for joining us on The Daily Helping with Dr. Shuster. Subscribe to the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or Google Podcasts to download more food for the brain, knowledge from the experts, and tools to win at life.



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Download Transcript Here

Catherine Nikkel:

Our story is the key to unlock someone else's prison. So, why not share that story, whatever that may be, because even what we feel to be the most insignificant or unrelatable stories, it's amazing how relatable and significant they are for somebody else.


Dr. Richard Shuster:

Hello and welcome to The Daily Helping with Dr. Richard Shuster, food for the brain, knowledge from the experts, tools to win at life. I'm your host, Dr. Richard. Whoever you are, wherever you're from, and whatever you do, this is the show that is going to help you become the best version of yourself. Each episode you will hear from some of the most amazing, talented, and successful people on the planet who followed their passions and strived to help others. Join our movement to get a million people each day to commit acts of kindness for others. Together, we're going to make the world a better place. Are you ready? Because it's time for your Daily Helping. 


Thanks for tuning in to this episode The Daily Helping Podcast. I'm your host, Dr. Richard. We've got a phenomenal guest and I'm really excited to share her with you today. Her name is Catherine Nikkel. She is a writer and best selling author specializing in ghostwriting books, blogs, and emails. She's authored 15 books, including memoirs, biographies, and business books, and thousands of blogs and emails for CEOs, entrepreneurs, and influencers.


Catherine believes everyone has a story to tell. Drawing upon her extensive 15 year background as a former social worker, she empowers people to use their voice to make an impact within themselves, their relationships, and their communities. She's the author of the Lightbulb Moments Journal, an Amazon bestseller. And she's been featured everywhere, places like Forbes, Business Insider, New York Weekly, Huffington Post, Buffer, Nonfiction Authors Association, Yahoo, Authority Magazine, and Thrive Global. She's also been on podcasts such as H.E.A.L. Her, The Inside Story, and Unicorns Unite. She's a six-time RBC Canadian Women's Entrepreneur Award nominee, which spotlights Canada's most accomplished and impactful women.


Catherine, we've got a lot to talk about. Welcome to The Daily Helping. It is awesome to have you with us today.


Catherine Nikkel:

Thank you so much for having me today. I appreciate it.


Dr. Richard Shuster:

Absolutely. I can hear the Canada flowing through you. I love it. All right. So, I want to jump into the Catherine Nikkel time machine. I know you've got a cool story. You've been a social worker, former social worker at 15 years in that field. Many know I'm also a social worker. I became a social worker before I became a psychologist. So, a little bit of kinship there. Tell us your superhero origin story. What puts you on the path that you are on today?


Catherine Nikkel:

Wow. Yes. So, I spent 15 years in social work, as we just mentioned, and specifically I worked with youth who were involved in gang violence, prostitution, human trafficking, basically a population that we often refer to that nobody wanted to work with. And as much as I love that career, I spent my entire career in nonprofits. So, anyone who's familiar with the nonprofit space, sometimes we have funding, other times we do not. And it just came to a point of a lot of red tape and politics. And after a glass of wine or three with my best friend, I decided that it was time to walk and pursue something else.


You know, no one is in social work for money, let's just be really honest. In the human social service sectors, it's just not why we're doing it.

We're doing it because we love it. And I thought I've never pursued income. I had a friend who worked in insurance and was crushing it and I thought this is my calling. I'm going to leave and I'm going to be an insurance agent.


And I say all that to say, Dr. Richard, you and I have a pretty similar story to some degree. That seven days after I quit my social work career, I found myself paralyzed from the waist down. And that's really where the pivotal moment in my life happens. And, you know, what we learned is that a disc broke in my back, lodged behind my spinal cord. They assume, if you will, that after hearing a lot of that social work weight that we carry emotionally, maybe not so much physically, but maybe that too, that it was just this release and it was just something that my body was not ready for or couldn't handle. And I decided that was the universe's way of screaming at me that I'm not to pursue a career in insurance and to not be chasing income. Not that income is bad. We're in business at the end of the day.


But that's really where I just decided I was really going to take those skills that I learned in social work and help people just really use their voice and make an impact. And that led me down a career now of eight years, ghostwriting people's memoirs and all the things that we talked about.


Dr. Richard Shuster:

And that's a big jump with a bunch of gaps to fill in. So, first I want to ask you, so for how long were you paralyzed from the waist down?


Catherine Nikkel:

So, I walked into an emergency department and told them I was in ridiculous pain. About 30 minutes later, I lost all function from the waist down. I don't remember a lot of the next few days. You know, one minute it was we're going to transfer you to this trauma center or that trauma center. Just obviously a lot of confusion and a whole lot of medication at that point. They did find a neurosurgeon, too, actually that would operate. So, I was transferred to another hospital where they were more equipped for spine things.


And I'll never, ever, ever forget that day being transferred by ambulance. It was the middle of the night. It was around 1:00 a.m. And this just calm, confident man walks into my hospital room and introduces himself and holds my hand. It was just so compassionate. And we're not always necessarily used to that in the medical space. He was just so compassionate, he said, "I'm going to have to ask you to sign a consent that there's really a 50-50 chance this is going to work." But he was so calming. It still brings me back really to that moment. And my best friend was with me at the time and I looked at her and she's like, "Don't look at me about signing this thing. This is your life." And he looked at me and he said, "Do you want to call your mom?" And I said, "Yes, I do."


And I'm 30 something years old at the time and I called my mom. And my mom's always been the most logical person and said, "Well, are you walking right now?" And I said no. And she said, "Then, you have nothing to lose." And I signed it and rolled into that operating room around 3:00 in the morning. And where his compassion just continued to happen was they're ready to flip me upside down, because you're not operated on your spine while you're laying on it, and he said, "No, no, no. Let's get her to sleep. Keep her comfortable. We'll move her later." And I just remember just feeling this immense sense of like everything was going to be okay regardless of what was going to happen. He was such a beautiful man.


The surgery was about eight hours long, to my knowledge, and woke up in recovery. And there he was and he said, "Do me a favor and wiggle your toes." And I always say they wiggled back and it was just such an incredible feeling. And then, the pain kicked in and then you kind of lose that sense of how incredible it is. But having said that, I spent, I believe, it was six weeks in the spine unit having really to learn to walk again. I never understood the complexity of having to train your brain to tell your legs what to do again. And I remember being in these contractions, helping you up, and physio saying "Just take two more steps today. You can do it" and just thinking like, "My legs aren't listening." It was just an experience that really changed my life.


And I spent probably another four months really learning to walk without any assisted devices and that kind of thing. And having to come to the tough realizations of not taking pain medication when you don't really need it. I started to have a new appreciation for a lot of the people that I worked with in social work, you know, not really understanding addiction other than from a textbook point of view. And it was one heck of a journey. Dr. Richard, it was one heck of a journey.


Dr. Richard Shuster:

It certainly sounds like it. So, you had six weeks to really think about it, right, you're in that spine unit and you're doing your physical therapy and you're rehabbing. So, was it over that six week period where you figured out the ghostwriting even if you didn't maybe have the words for it or did that come later?


Catherine Nikkel:

No. It would have been then. Just the incredible people I met in that unit, whether it be roommates or nurses or doctors and people just sharing their own stories. I just remembered how much I love people's stories. And I just wanted to make a commitment to just help more people tell their story. And, yeah, I definitely didn't know it was called ghostwriting at the time. I didn't really know what that meant. But I knew that I just wanted to help people, just continue to advocate for people through their voice. And that's really when I just thought, "Okay. But how the heck am I going to make this happen?" But, yeah, it was definitely in that time period.


Dr. Richard Shuster:

Really interesting. So, now you come out of this spine center, your toes are wiggling, you've retaught your brain how to walk, and you know you really want to help other people tell their stories. But then there's the execution part, like knowing, okay, I think this is my life purpose now. But then how did you get from that sense of knowing to putting that into action?


Catherine Nikkel:

You know, just thinking, I've never been a writer. How the heck am I going to put myself out into the world and convince people, so to speak, that I can write for them, with them, what have you? So, oddly, it's so strange, but I just started looking for any type of freelancer work that I can find and I thought this is a way I can start developing a portfolio. I was sharing a lot of my personal journey on Facebook. It was my platform at the time, if you will. And I started earning an income writing descriptions for Amazon for someone who is so crazy, but I thought at least I'm getting my stuff out there and really working at it.


And just one day about eight years ago now, I had someone reach out to me on Facebook and said, "I love the way you write. I love the way you share your story. Do you write for other people?" And it was the scariest yes, but the best yes that I could ever have done. He's still a client to this day and he just believed in, I guess, what I was doing without even realizing why I was doing or sharing it. And here we are eight years later. And just the amount of work that I've done for him and then your referral base picks up and it's just been great.


Dr. Richard Shuster:

So, you're describing a beautiful journey and it's a personal discovery of one's own passion tied to entrepreneurship, which is awesome. But if somebody's listening to this like, "You know, I don't really know a lot about ghostwriting. This probably doesn't apply to me. I'm not an author." Talk to us about why that might not be correct.


Catherine Nikkel:

I just believe everyone has a story to tell. And I think everybody goes through experiences in their lives that can be really transformational or inspirational for another person. And there's a quote I always lean on and I still don't know who the author is, but I always say that our story is the key to unlock someone else's prison. So, why not share that story, whatever that may be, because even what we feel to be the most insignificant or unrelatable stories, it's amazing how relatable and significant they are for somebody else.


Dr. Richard Shuster:

You should just take that as your own if nobody else has claimed it. It's so beautiful. You know, a lot of people think about authorship as this big scary thing and it's a machine, so I don't want to do publishing one-on-one, like I've done those episodes before and people can find them.


But I really am interested as a ghostwriter, how are you able to bring out people's voice and turn that into something that, like you said, can unlock other people's prisons?


Catherine Nikkel:

So, I didn't realize it at the time. Going from social work to ghostwriting just sounds like such a, you know, unrealistic or impossible thing. But it's amazing how many transferable skills we have, and not just in my own experience but just in general, of the things that we learn or do or execute on or experience in one career, one life, if you will, transferring it to another.


And I knew two things in really why I loved ghostwriting. One, as a social worker, we never get credit. We don't need the credit. We don't want the credit. The credit is the client. So, I knew that I was okay with that when it came to writing for somebody else and then putting their name on it. People always say, "You've written 15 books and working on the 16th now, how do you do all that work and not take credit?" I'm like, it's not about me.


And then, the second thing was I knew with those transferable skills in terms of just the right questions to ask, how to get people talking, to really help people feel that it's a safe place to be vulnerable. And that's really been, I believe, my superpower in the world of ghostwriting is that there's this underlying trust knowing I came from a profession that prides itself on confidentiality and creating a safe place and it's just transferred really well. Whether it be with my ghostwriting clients or my book coaching clients, it's just really helping people through that process of sharing their story. Sometimes it can feel like a little bit of a counseling session and that's okay, because I'm asking people to share secrets with me that they may not have ever told anybody else.


And I forgot your original question now, because, see, I just get excited talking about it.


Dr. Richard Shuster:

No. No. It's really good. And you did answer the question. So, we're talking about sharing stories. You've shared yours very clearly. You light up at the idea of sharing other people's stories. And I keep going back to that quote that is now attributed to Catherine Nikkel, in which you said, these stories are the way of unlocking other people's prisons. I'm wondering if there's any particular examples that really excite you that you could share with us. You know, one of those stories where by helping somebody else share their story, it did impact the world in a really meaningful way.


Catherine Nikkel:

Yeah. I have been really fortunate to work with various populations. I tend to attract people with stories of trauma or really overcoming some type of challenge or obstacle or what have you. And there was a period of time I was working with a number of authors who, as a result, were referred to me from one to the other. And I categorized them, if you will, someone described them to me as cause authors, and I thought that's exactly what they are. They're people that are writing with a big goal in place. And several of those authors were widows of officers who had taken their life to suicide.


And watching those stories, being a part of that process, but watching these books and these stories start to make real change. One has created a policy change when it comes to the difference between sick leave and mental health in their respective province. Another has gone out to now be handed out to officers and their families when they graduate police college. And it was more along the lines of just educating people on signs to look for, conversations to have, how to ask the tough questions. And it sounds maybe not great, but having said that, it's been such a privilege to be a part of those types of conversations and really almost being able to fulfill a component that I missed greatly in social work and being able to watch it come to life with these authors. So, that's definitely one of the most impactful or several of the most impactful books I've been a part of.


I mean, people always try to gauge their trauma against that. And trauma is trauma however we experience or go through it. You know that in your own practice. But it's being able to be part of books that have a real cause, be it in that case, or a social justice cause or some type of component to a cause that really just are incredible things to be a part of.


Dr. Richard Shuster:

So, if somebody is listening to this and they're getting excited, whether they want to give a stab at writing the book themselves or use you to guide them along that process, what are some kind of key things to think about and do? And then, conversely, part two is, what are the things that you should absolutely not do, things to avoid as part of this process?


Catherine Nikkel:

For me, I always encourage people, even if you're not ready to write your book right now, start documenting just pieces of your life even if it's something private, even if it's in a journal. I always encourage people to voice record things because sometimes we're just a whole lot more able to just voice ourselves more than we are writing and it's just removing that obstacle, because we never know when that book may come to life. So, I always encourage people start there. Just every story that kind of comes to mind that you think would be valuable for someone else or those stories that you're telling a friend or a family member, or even a stranger laying in a hotel - gosh, not a stranger in a hotel room - in a hospital room, document those stories. If someone's ever said to you, "Wow. You should write a book," because it's guaranteed that most of us somewhere in our lives have had someone say you should write a book. So, that's the first thing.


And, you know, when I'm working with anyone, again, ghostwriting clients or my book coaching clients, I believe that your outline is 65 to 70 percent your book. And working through whether it be chronologically or not, just getting pieces that are blocked off, you can put them in their little boxes, if you will, and it just really helps you keep an organized process while you're going. Because writing a book is scary and it is overwhelming and it is all of those big feelings and all of those things are okay. So, I just always encourage that, just start with the simple things.


And things not to do, it's a tricky one because what's right for me might not be right for somebody else, and vice versa. I always encourage people, don't name your book or your title until you're done, your chapter titles. Even though I just told you in an outline, put it in a little box, in a little compartment, but I find that when we start naming things too early, is that everything we do, we try to fit into this box where the most pivotal part of our story or our moment might actually be outside of that box. So, that's just something that I just encourage people to do, unless you're totally sold on a title, then that's the way we're going to go. But otherwise, I always encourage waiting until the end or that moment where you know it's absolutely the right, that's it. There's no overthinking it. There's no does this work, does this fit. So, saving any type of book title or chapter title to the end is always what I encourage.


Dr. Richard Shuster:

That's sound advice. I'm curious in your experience working with your clients, what's kind of the breaking point for them when they decide I can't do this on my own, I want to bring in you as the ghostwriter? What's kind of the threshold for most people?


Catherine Nikkel:

So, it's interesting because most people as far as my ghostwriting book clients, they already know they don't want to do it. They know they have a story. They may have tried to tackle it a little bit, but not so much.

They've just decided they don't have or want to make the time to do this. So, I already have people coming to me saying I already know.


My book coaching clients on the other hand, most people have come to me already with some type of manuscript. I use that very loosely. And they realize that, You know what? I really need help. And I think the difference with my book coaching is I'm not just a cheerleader. I'm in there in the manuscript with you saying tell me more, give me more, why would your reader care? And you're really just being an objective person from that.


So, I find my book coaching clients, even though it might start as a consult call as to where's the best place to start, they're usually the people that come back maybe a month or two later and say I actually really need help to do this. And they're still part of the entire process. I'm not writing it for them. I'm just ganking sometimes those stories out or those details out. But most people who have come to me have already made some type of attempt and realized that help would probably be a good thing.


Dr. Richard Shuster:

Right. That makes sense. And you've already explained how your social work background informs the work that you're doing and that these foundational pieces were able to cross over into ghostwriting. But I'm curious because there's a lot of ghostwriters out there. From a practical and a functional standpoint in terms of the actual process of writing the book, what is it that you do that makes you different from a lot of people that are out there?


Catherine Nikkel:

For sure. I believe that my process is unique in the sense that every person that comes to me has an individualized plan. They have an individualized interview created by me. Although there's a process for sure. It's not a cut and paste from one author to the next. Each of my question is based on, you know, I offer my complimentary consult call always. And what comes out of that is really just I'm able to develop an interview specific to them.


And I think that I wanted to believe that that's unique in the process is that it really is starting from scratch with the author. I'm pretty confident that that's what sets me apart.

And I'm also here, you know, we're just hanging out. We're just sharing your story. You're just telling me about it. I'm just asking you about it. That's why I say sometimes it turns into almost a counseling session, it's almost informal for the lack of a better word. But just really creating that safe space for people and meeting people where they're at. Although we have these great plans of getting this book knocked out immediately, when I'm asking people to share big feelings and big events, it's okay to take it at their time.


Their deadlines, what might be for you might be different for me. I want to make sure that obviously we're keeping people on pace here, because we're trying to write a book soon, not later.


But really just having the entire process for them really customized, and I'm pretty confident that that's what sets me apart.


Dr. Richard Shuster:

Awesome. Well, Catherine, I've loved our conversation. Your story is great. And I'm glad that we got to dive in and talk about really that pivotal moment with your spine and how it led you to do what you're doing today. I'm grateful we got to have this chat.


As you know, I wrap up every episode by asking my guests just this one question, and that is, Catherine, what is your biggest helping? That single most important piece of information you'd like somebody to walk away with after hearing our conversation today.


Catherine Nikkel:

Please use your voice to make an impact. Whether it be in your life, someone else's life, your communities, the biggest thing for me is get your voice out there because it's deserved to be heard.


Dr. Richard Shuster:

Beautifully said. Tell us where people can learn more about you online and get in touch.


Catherine Nikkel:

Absolutely. My website is probably the best place. It's You can find me on most socials just using my name.


Dr. Richard Shuster:

Awesome. And we will have links to everything Catherine Nikkel in the show notes at, so you can click through and find out more if you're interested.


Well, Catherine, this was great. Thanks again for coming on the show today sharing your story with us. Really enjoyed it.


Catherine Nikkel:

Dr. Richard, thank you so much.


Dr. Richard Shuster:

Absolutely. And I also want to thank each and every one of you who took time out of your day to listen to this conversation. If you're excited, if you're inspired, if you're getting ready to share your voice with the world, go give us a follow and a five-star review on your podcast of choice because this is what helps other people find the show. But most importantly, go out there today and do something nice for somebody else, even if you don't know who they are, and post it in your social media feeds using the hashtag #MyDailyHelping, because the happiest people are those that help others.


There is incredible potential that lies within each and every one of us to create positive change in our lives (and the lives of others) while achieving our dreams.

This is the Power of You!