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Thomas Sullivan: A BOX OF HATE AND LOVE

Traditions come easy over the holidays, and I guess the following is becoming one of them. As a young man I had a bit of a Scrooge Christmas with what you might call three visitations. The story about it that I posted here and in my global newsletter (Sullygram) a few years back brings much response, reprints and requests to see it again each Christmas season. I’m happy to oblige…

Christmas cuts like a knife sometimes. By any name holidays make us keen to emptiness and omissions because they demand just the opposite. Sometimes that takes the form of self-pity, sometimes it is expressed in charity to others, sometimes we are too busy celebrating to notice what’s right before our eyes. When I was a young man there was a Christmas when I experienced all three. That was the Christmas I wrapped up a box of hate and gave it to myself, then opened it to find love I could give to someone else.

There have been circumstances — bound in some way to a place or a period of time — that have taken my compassion to another level and made me a more complete writer. Such a time and place was a bitterly cold Christmas when I was living in an old men’s hotel filled with human wrecks. It was a hotel for very old men, indeed. I was 19.

The Lawndale was $7 a week the first year I lived there (no, it wasn’t during the Civil War, though it did burn down eventually). Could’ve fled back to the ‘burbs of Detroit for the holidays, could’ve found a home-cooked meal. But I was proud, stupid, and a little too martyred when I was actually in that horrid coffin of a room, which was not often. I was doing selfless things gratis for others, I thought. And I was a bit of a maverick, not succeeding where everyone said I was supposed to succeed, nor given to letting my emotion show over the failures. Never mind that I got a million dollars’ worth of self-pity out of it. I knew that writing was an option that was open to me, but I had the camera pointed in the wrong direction. It was pointed at me. I think a lot of writers start out like that.

When I did have to return to my room at the end of the day – four walls I could almost touch all at the same time – I tried to be numb. Do you know anything as seething with emotion as trying to be numb? Or as blinding? I hated the Lawndale with such a passion that I was deaf and blind to the human misery and loneliness there, and more importantly for a writer, equally walled off from a lot of incredible stories. In this case, the walls were paper thin, and you could hear the moans and the groans of the dying and the drunk. There were unwritten laws peculiar to males at the Lawndale. If someone came in beat up and bleeding, you might hear every drop of blood dripping on the vinyl runner in the hall, but if you opened your door, the gasping stopped. In that mistrustful place, you didn’t flinch before a tiger. No quarter asked, none given. Fine with me. The people I cared for didn’t live at the Lawndale. The place made my skin crawl. Above all, I hated the man across the hall.

All the rooms were as tiny as mine, but unbelievably the man across from me had a roommate.  I never saw the roommate, never wanted to, but I had a picture in my mind of a pathetically submissive creature completely enslaved by the brute I did see. The bully would come in, drunk and wheezing, and thirty seconds after his door clicked shut the vilest verbal abuse I’d ever heard would begin. Sometimes it went beyond that, and I’d cringe to hear the blows.  But I never quite got the guts to go stop it.  Part of the code, you know.

Thus I lived, and so a new Christmas morning came, and with it the hollow feeling that I was, in fact, truly alone. I know now that this is absurd, particularly in a world teeming with emotionally isolated people. But when you are young, there is nothing emptier than the suspicion that your self-pity is justified. I had less to my name than $10 that morning when I set out in my wreck of a car, the “Grey Ghost.” My destination was the White Tower, a.k.a. the Porcelain Room, for a “scudburger” Christmas dinner.

I don’t remember if there were any other customers at the counter, but I vividly remember the old lady scraping the grill. She was celebrating, you see. Celebrating. Not sitting at the counter waiting to be served, celebrating. It took me a few minutes to come down to that and catch the irony. I had to quit staring at my reflection in the glass opposite first and realize that all the photos strung along a green ribbon on one wall were probably her children and grandchildren. She shuffled back and forth with the gait of someone with fallen arches and arthritis. And, damn, she was singing. And she had on a silly Santa hat. And there was red and green bric-a-brac and fake snow and angel hair all over the place. A wrapped present, too, though you could see there was just fluffed paper in it. Don’t remember finishing that scudburger, though it ranks right up there with memorable cuisine. No doubt I was having a little trouble swallowing at that point, because if a grandmother had to work on Christmas day and could be like that, then I had to stop just taking from her and give something back, and I didn’t have anything nearly that good. The scudburger had knocked my $10 in half, so I left a $5 tip and got the hell out of there.

It was compulsive, and by no means charitable, but I felt better cranking the Grey Ghost to life and starting up Livernois toward Vernor Highway. Are you with me? Here’s where life starts to improvise on the lesson I just learned. Hoarfrost was on the inside glass of the White Tower, but out here it is arctic, and as I’m approaching the railroad tracks, I see a man in a cardboard box. His head is cut and swollen, blood frozen in his hair, and he’s barefoot. Lawndale rules do not apply in train yards, and the poor bastard, who it turns out has just crawled out of a freight car, is going to freeze very quickly, so I stop. He tells me the old story: got drunk, rolled, left to fate. What strikes me is he is naked inside the cardboard box. I mean, the rollers took everything, as if out of malice to let him die. You can’t imagine the blubbering gratitude of a Tennessee man up to visit his sister at Wayne State, who just about becomes a vice-icle when his binge turns bad. It took us a couple of hours to find his sister’s apartment, because he didn’t have a clue, except by scrutinizing every neighborhood as we inched up and down the narrow streets off Woodward. Merry Christmas.

So now I’m feeling pretty good, except that I have to go back to the old men’s burial ground and re-visit self-pity. Oh, I’d been a good lad for a few hours, and learned something, but like a movie, it was over. So the Lawndale ate me up as I climbed to the second floor and the last room in the line – 210 – which was odd, because later in college I would be in room 210, and again, teaching at Fordson High in Dearborn, 210. Anyway, now that I was back in you know where, you know who came in on my heels and started you know what. The bully was on a tear this time. Drunk, vile and violent. I stood it as long as I could, and longer than I should have by months. Then, when I thought he was going to kill his roommate with the blows, I went out into the hall to stop this creature I loathed.

Thought I was going to have to fist his door a couple of good ones, but as it happens it was slightly ajar. He was berating his roommate with terms I cannot hint at writing here, and I could hear the smack of flesh on flesh, and as I took two steps toward the wedge of light, I saw it all. The mirror. The face in the mirror. The whole room behind him in the mirror. The marks from the fists were clear on the cheek above the stubble. And I saw the last blow land. But the testosterone boiling in me suddenly went as flat as water. Because he didn’t have a roommate.

He was beating himself. Berating himself. Calling himself everything but a child of God. Nothing I had felt or thought about him all those months could approach the depths of his own self-hate. How could I have been so wrong? An epiphany moment for me? Yeah. You could say. Damn my soul if I ever underestimate any human that badly again, though, I’m sorry to admit, I’ve been over the line too many times since. My self-loathing neighbor slammed the door when he became aware of me, but he opened another to my future as a writer.

I’m not a soft touch. I believe in human excellence and transcendence, if only we can get outside of whatever boxes imprison our thinking. Low expectations cripple people, and are really a vote of no-confidence. It doesn’t matter what that man at the Lawndale lacked. What mattered was what he had, which was a mirror filled with more self-honesty than most of us can stand. He knew who he was. What he was. And at that moment I knew what he could be. I can’t tell you what truths you’ve discovered about yourself or about the human condition, but I know that they will come out in your life one way or another. You may have to look outside the box to find those truths first, of course. Writers need to engage in that search with openness and vigilance. Good writers never stop searching, or evolving. If people have happened to you today, stories have happened. The world presents us with limitless possibilities. Find the ones you can reach, according to who you are. Until you do that, you have not fulfilled your own potential as an observer, as an artist, or as a human being.

I’m most grateful for your interest in my novels.  If you’d like a stocking-stuffer or low-cost holiday gift to top off your giving this year, may I suggest the e-book edition of my historical novel CASE WHITE: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00O79GQTE

And for those of you who prefer a print edition, CASE WHITE is currently scheduled for print release in mid-January 2017!!!

Wishing you the warmest of holidays and the happiest of New Year’s….

Thomas “Sully” Sullivan

You can see all my books in any format here on my webpage: http://www.thomassullivanauthor.com

or follow me on Facebook:



[NOTE: two Facebook friends of mine, Karen Waeschle and Yvonne Austin, have requested that I revisit columns I wrote over a decade ago which were lost when StorytellersUnplugged made format changes. This is one of them with the original reader comments included.]

Well, it isn’t Marmaduke anymore. Last month’s name-the-baby contest brought in some choice selections. If you don’t know who Marmaduke is – was – I’ll explain in a moment, but first the re-christening.

Had some great name entry finalists, including: Eustace, Ebeneezer, Dousenberry, Clementine (requires early sexual reassignment surgery), Billy Bob, Felix, Thor and this one: Johann Gambolputty de von Ausfern-schplenden-schlitter-crasscrenbon-fried-digger-dingle-dangle-dongle-dungle-burstein-von-knacker-thrasher-apple-banger-horowitz-ticolensic-grander-knotty-spelltinkle-grandlich-grumblemeyer-spelterwasser-kurstlich-himbleeisen-
bahnwagen-gutenabend-bitte-ein-nürnburger-bratwustle-gerspurten-mitz-weimache-luber-hundsfut-gumberaber-shönedanker-kalbsfleisch-mittler-aucher von Hautkopft of Ulm.

Yes, that’s the fictional composer from Monty Python’s Flying Circus. I came to favor an entry from West Virginia, however. Kelly Barker’s “Maverick” wins the honor for its tone and sexual ambiguity (an example should fit all readers, right?). This will also please Julie in Phoenix who wants to keep Baby M, which can stand for Maverick just as well as for Marmaduke. And if you think these strain credibility, I once ran across a thesis titled “Pause Patterns in Elizabethan and Jacobean Drama” by Ants Oras and Dingle Foot. Ants and Dingle. They had to meet.

So who is this Baby Maverick (nee Marmaduke)? It’s you, me and everyone else reading this column: the prototype human being growing up and acquiring language. The reason I had to invent a stand-in for us is because three columns ago I tackled the ambitious challenge of defining how writers develop and use style in writing fiction – nonfiction about fiction, if you will. It’s a process that starts young, hence the baby. And as the baby grows, communication must also grow to serve its expanding needs. In fact, I think those needs can be sharply defined as distinct languages. These languages do not replace one another but rather accumulate and complement each other in evermore complex styles. I count three such languages:

The Language of Emotions

The Language of Things & Events

The Language of Ideas.

They develop in just that sequence as we grow up, and that’s why I’m using Baby M to illustrate how they accumulate and play into writing skills. Here are direct links to the previous essays if you want to catch up…

SPIDERS AND SPUDS: http://www.storytellersunplugged.com/2016/08/01/thomas-sullivan-spiders-and-spuds/#respond

HORNED OWLS AND OTHER HORNY BEASTS:   http://www.storytellersunplugged.com/2016/09/01/thomas-sullivan-horned-owls-other-horny-beasts/#respond

NAME THE BABY: http://www.storytellersunplugged.com/2016/10/03/thomas-sullivan-name-the-baby/#respond

This is the fourth and final (I think) essay, and this time I want to write about The Language of Ideas, after which I’ll lay out how all three lingos feed back into the genres and to writing in general.

So, back to Maverick. You’ll recall that The Language of Emotions is the most natural form of expression, maybe even prenatal, and that Baby M used it as we all do to vent our feelings fresh out of the womb. And then Baby M glommed onto the most universal language, the nouns and verbs of reality – The Language of Things & Events – and used them to interact with all the basics of daily living. But that didn’t replace the need for venting feelings as he/she grew up – you don’t have to be wet, naked and screaming to use The Language of Emotions (although it makes a helluva evening if you’re on a date). Emotional expression simply merges with the next form of expression – the more codified and ordered Language of Things & Events.

Likewise, a third language has been sneaking in there as the teen years approach. This one is a little tougher, because it is abstract. The Language of Ideas has to be imagined. By nature intangible, it has no appeal to our senses, no physical referents like things & events. But it has other distinguishing characteristics. Unlike The Language of Emotions, which is very personal, pure idea expressions can stand apart from you. And unlike The Language of Things & Events, you aren’t interacting with specific sensory input. It’s as if ideas form in the vacuum of a broom closet with the door shut tight in an abandoned farmhouse in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere. Ideas may knit together the worlds of your emotions and senses, but they don’t feed directly off them. You can’t see “freedom” or touch “loyalty” or taste “economy.” Okay, we can all smell “politics,” but that’s a figure of speech. So ideas have to solo in the dark of your mind. You need terms and processes for them and you have to sweat a little to carry them very far. They don’t come as easy as things & events like, “Oh, look, there’s a blue donkey playing a steam calliope.”

For that reason, some folks don’t dwell much on ideas. They’re called men, right? Bwahaha! Not really. But there are gender preferences, it seems. And plenty of gender equality, especially when it comes to ideas. An idea is an idea whether it’s “love” and “sincerity” or “competition” and “heroics.” However, the preferences (biases) are ingrained as classical stereotypes in our society, often arranged according to an intellectual yardstick. I remember hearing somewhere when I was very young that small people talk about people, medium size people talk about things, and big people talk about ideas. Now I think of that as just another way to address the three languages in all of us.

None of us is a purebred of emotions, things & events, or ideas. It comes down to emphasis in our lives. Very seldom does any one of those languages get used entirely by itself. To use one that way makes us into a caricature of a human being. But the emphasis, the proportion, the tendency to use one more than another…that’s a big-time identifier. For instance, incorrigibly abstract or idea people are cold and geeky and we give them glasses with Coke-bottle lenses and a pocket caddy. On the other hand, the pure beautician stereotype is seen as arrested development all about vanity and feelings as she files her nails, chomps her gum, and gossips. Or to put both caricatures in one setting: the Queen of the Cheerleaders, despite her rah-rahs for the team, is seen as an exhibitionist all about herself and her feelings (emotions), just as the King of the Football Team is seen as egotistical and all about himself and his deeds (events). Extremes in a vacuum. They don’t exist in reality, but they tend to exist as…ideas.

We choose when and where to be each of the three aspects of ourselves, and we use the three languages to do it.

Phew! Am I still writing to anyone? Time to get out of Dodge…or just dodge the stereotypes. Safer to talk about Baby M…

Maverick (sexless Baby M) may turn out to be either an abstract whiz or a dolt whose eyes glaze over when he/she hears the word “think.” At any rate, this is where life makes the big cut. Do we simply work on the labor line 9 to 5, belly up to the bar till 7, then fade to upholstery and TV until stupor puts us down for the night, or do our lives contain a greater balance of scheming, problem-solving, bullshitting, philosophizing (redundant?), and relating to other humans in intellectual and emotional ways? No pure types here, of course, but the degrees determine who we are. Idea people tend to go to college. Idea people tend to work idea jobs. Idea people drink for different reasons than fun people who just feel or like to not feel, as in numb. Idea people can be boring if they are just idea people.

Once that divide is made between whether we are basically emotional people, thing & event people, or idea people, the social order changes, career paths change, the pool of potential relationships changes. Maverick finds his/her comfort zone and hunkers down. He/she may be a happy SOB driving a semi, or a shmoozer who can sell you a life insurance policy if you look at them twice across a crowded room, or a scowling string theorist who stares through you on the way to…uh, damn, where was I going before I got that epiphany about 5-D braneworld black holes and gamma rays? The three languages will tend to follow and flow out of the needs of what you do. But we’re interested in books and stories here. So where do reading and writing come into it? Whichever person you tend to be, if you read, what do you look for, what do you like and why? If you choose to be a writer, how do you go about reaching the vast array of people who will of course have different proportions of the three language preferences? What personal resources do you draw on and deliberately shape? Who are your muses?

And you know what? My muse just kicked me in the shins and said, “Enough already.” No way I’m going to get the rest of it out in this column. So it ain’t my last essay on the subject after all (no hissing, please). I need one more column. Can’t understand how I ever covered this as part of a one-hour speech. I must’ve sounded like an auctioneer.

Thanks for reading. Your thoughts are welcome, your attention valued.

Thomas “Sully” Sullivan

posted by Sully at 12:51 AM   


Rick Steinberg said…

You see, this is one of the big reasons I hang around this place.

In the movie AIR AMERICA Robert Downey looks around at his first briefing at the other pilots and whispers to the person next to him: “I’ve always been the strangest guy in the room, in any room! But here . . . I don’t even qualify to contend!”

Sully, thank you for reminding me what a pure JOY it is to talk writing with real honest to God or whoever’s in charge WRITERS!

The language of thought, the evolution of reason – with apologies to Kant – is our bedrock. I don’t think I’ve ever heard it put so, well – not well – but accurately and emotionally moving.

Thanks for this one, my friend!

I’m going to have to think it about a long time before a more detailed response.

This is such a FUN place to hangout!

6:45 AM  

David Niall Wilson said…

It’s funny, I read Rick’s response and realized it was nearly exactly what I was going to say – this one will take time to sink in (even though it’s not the first time I’ve heard one version or another of it…)

One thing did pop into my mind that won’t let go…

Remember the movie Night Shift? Henry Winkler and Michael Keaton work together at night — in the morgue – and Michael is an “idea man” – you know, why don’t we feed the mayonnaise to the tuna??? Skip the middle man…

I don’t know which sort of person I am. I tended to avoid college and hit the open sea with the US Navy…traveled and absorbed…

Great essay, as usual Sully…it’s an honor.

9:32 AM  

Sully said…

AIR AMERICA, NIGHT SHIFT — my education is sorely lacking. Thanks, amigos. It’s a two-way street. When you are the writer of a given column you get the value of the feedback — affirmations, counterpoints, extensions — which in this forum is considerable. Whether it’s from another writer or an interested non-writer, there is growth and a shortcut to experience for the essayist.
— Sully (Thomas Sullivan)

10:17 AM  

Frank Wydra said…

Hey guy, good column or what?

Trouble is, it makes you think, which everyone knows can be dangerous. So you know, I have been touched by loyalty. And I have tasted economy; one day I had a rare round steak instead of filet. Economy tasted less mellow (lack of fat) and was a lot tougher.

But what I really want to know is why do the thing and event people drink? Or don’t they?

Any case, I’m glad to see tht you have finally become politcally correct with all the him/her, he/she stuff. I did not think you would ever fall for that idea, but “time and chance happeneth.” Maybe, though, you’re suggesting the idea that we need a homophone pronoun to express humaness. Insidiuos, these ideas.

Great column, can’t wait to see what happens to Maverick.

12:05 PM  

John B. Rosenman said…

As an idea man, I drink and use drugs to forget my ideas so that I can emote (no, EMOTE!) about all the bleepin things and events that bug the hell outta me. Another great column, Sully, but why do you have to make us all think so hard on Sunday? Am I an idea man when I write or an emotional guy or someone basically hung up on things and events?

I’ll tell you what this reminds me of. Have you read Card’s HOW TO WRITE SCIENCE FICTION AND FANTASY?
Remember the MICE quotient, where he divides stories into four basic, overlapping types: the Milieu story, the Idea story, the Character story, and the Event story? The point is, your way of looking at things, even if some folks quibble or disagree with it, has the potential of restructuring or ordering life and writing and helping us to understand it better.
Maverick . . . that was James Garner, right?

12:54 PM  

Sully said…

Hey, Frank, he/she stuff has its moments, even in the example you use of steaks. I mean, how many times have we crashed at a restaurant where you had the filet and I had the filly (assuming the waitperson was of the femme persuasion)?
— Sully

1:36 PM  

Janet Berliner said…

I can only second Rick and Dave. One question does come to mind: If I am all of those, am I well-balanced or schizophrenic? –Janet

1:37 PM  

Sully said…

John, I peg you as totally eclectic, a renaissance man in the fullest sense. Any way you write a story will come out superb. Nay, have not read Card. I do think one has to keep in mind that any system that breaks things down into components is a subjective choice. Mine works for me, and I’m delighted at these posts and the emails coming in that say I at least was able to communicate same to others whose methods I admire.

James Garner as “Maverick” — that was an all-time fav of mine. Loved the reprise a few years ago where he cameoed into the silver screen version. I guess my heroes and mentors have often been flawed, picaresque rogues. They’ve made my life more than interesting, and — choke — when I look in the mirror or think about what I just did on a given day, I realize that the nut didn’t fall too far from the tree…
— Sully (Thomas Sullivan)

1:45 PM  

Sully said…

Janet. Well-balanced vs. schizo. I thought they were synonyms. In your case any incarnation is a pleasure to know.
— Sully

1:46 PM  

Frank Wydra said…

At that restaurant, what I think you had was a Philly, y’know a steak sandwich.

3:58 PM  

Sully said…

Yeah, but was it a cow or a bull?
— Sully  4:11 PM

Thomas “Sully” Sullivan

You can see all my books in any format here on my webpage: http://www.thomassullivanauthor.com or follow me on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/thomas.sullivan.395

Thomas Sullivan: NAME THE BABY

[NOTE: two Facebook friends of mine, Karen Waeschle and Yvonne Austin, have requested that I revisit columns I wrote over a decade ago which were lost when StorytellersUnplugged made format changes. This is one of them with the original reader comments included.]

I, Thomas Sullivan, being of unsound mind but sound body have dedicated my worldly hours to the pursuit of frivolous recreation and relationships of low character. Now that’s something you can write about. Really. None of this chained to a keyboard 24/7/365 stuff, I need to interact with the world. If you write, which type are you? Have you figured out your resources yet? Some writers sit down halfway through the game and write memories, some have never even peeped through the blinds at the world but rely on living vicariously and letting their imaginations soar, many write on the fly while living the lie as 9 to 5 stiffs raising families, others never come in off the road but live life on the lam, sending out their scribbles to editors like notes in a bottle and moving as often as Osama bin Laden.

I prefer to do it all. In phases. Modes. Moods. Variety is the spice of life. Plus, I’m an energy thief. Put me near something giving off vitality and I’ll suck the quantums out of it. Viable people drive me. In fact, the only thing that shuts me down is narrowness, stiffness, frightened and inhibited people, insecure types that hunker down dead behind pride or vanity or illusions or apathy, wasting life and opportunity. And I love them too, but preferably from a distance.

None of this would necessarily be apparent to you if you ran into me. If you ran over me, maybe, but not into me. Depending on the venue, I might strike you as rather conservative. And in truth I’ve been damn near immune to peer pressure all my life. Can hang out in an atmosphere of any taint and constituency and still be me. I think it’s a side effect of terminal eccentricity, but it could be that I’m just obtuse. Either way I believe it’s a plus for a writer.

At least it is if life pushes you to be a writer for all seasons, spilling ink in every genre and writing style. Not that I don’t envy colleagues who know who they are, what they should write, and who connect fluidly (non-alcoholic) with their target audience. My targets float around the greater universe like nebulae and on a good day look like 3-D at a drive-in theater when you take the cheap 3-D glasses off. But hey, it’s never boring to hang out in the big sandbox where one day you can get buried by a fastidious cat and the next be reared up like a pyramid.

Anyway, like I said, I’m the type of writer who has to interact with the real world in order to keep my batteries charged and draw inspiration. Essentially that means I become a plagiarist directly of life itself. So, that makes me a life-long learner who wants to understand EVERYTHING. Understanding is power, control. For a writer that’s an aphrodisiac. Writing is a God-power, creation on the cheap Adam & Eve in words alone. It may be abstract, but it’s no less ambitious than the creation of universes within universes. Trying to figure out who you are and what you want to write is half the battle. That’s why I started a series two columns ago on how language fits into it. Language was an obvious handle that helped me sort out the marketplace and myself. But the trouble with writing a series of columns that build one on the other is that you have to assume people read them all. Is there an “emoticon” for serious doubt? The stump speech I based this series on was always delivered to a captive audience in one sitting, so let me review:

The first column [ http://www.storytellersunplugged.com/2016/08/01/thomas-sullivan-spiders-and-spuds/#respond ] introduced the idea that you can divide the purpose of language (and writing) into three areas. I called them the language of emotions, the language of things & events, and the language of ideas. The second column [ http://www.storytellersunplugged.com/2016/09/01/thomas-sullivan-horned-owls-other-horny-beasts/#respond ] was specifically about the language of emotions – wet, naked baby comes into the world screaming and just gets subtler about it ever after. So now this is the third installment and the second language: THE LANGUAGE OF THINGS & EVENTS.

Let’s check in on that newborn who, in the previous column, was pure emotion. As the sensory panel lights up and the baby begins to process sight, sound, taste, touch, smell, we get modifications of the emotional “talking” the kid is doing. Coos, interrogative lilts – whatever – the baby (let’s have a name the baby contest, but for now I’ll call him Marmaduke) is trying to identify things it likes. As Marmaduke gets a handle on his soft palate, uvula, tongue, teeth, he begins to use repetition. Patterns work. Recognition is its own reward for a while. Monkey see, monkey do. (Monkey-do – yuck.) Lots of “yucks” at this stage. But there are triumphs too, and if the emotional reinforcement is there, baby Marmaduke will segue into the LANGUAGE OF THINGS & EVENTS: those nouns and verbs of reality. So the adults go to work whispering to him in the race for The First Word. “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy”…“Daddy, Daddy, Daddy.” And yea verily The First Word comes forth: “Uncle Looey!” Shock and awe. Then cheers. The parents throw Marmaduke up in the air, then Marmaduke throws up on the parents. Language is great. “TV…ice cream…play” – by the time baby M starts school, he’ll have his 35,000 commonly used words, all without benefit of a grammar book.

Along about six months, M learns the world’s most powerful word. Mommy’s coming at him with a spoonful of green slime one day – “open uuuuppp” – and the enfant terrible throws it back at her, right in the eye – WAP! – and says, “NO!” Mommy is shocked: “My flesh, my blood, you deny me, whatdoyoumean no?” “NO! NO! NO!” Aphrodisiac of a word. For a while, it’s a stage. “What’s your name, little boy?” “NO!” If, as I wrote in the last column, some people never get past the negativity of the birth experience and thus becomes literary critics, some people never get past the “no” stage either. They’re called . . . editors. And if the language of emotions is wholly natural, the language of things and events is wholly necessary. Virtually all people get that far – the second language. It’s quite sufficient for getting round the block. If you can say, “telephone, car and sex,” you can make it all the way to age eighteen. As adults, when you go to a foreign country where you can’t speak the language, what do you do? You revert to the rudimentary nouns and verbs of reality. If you can say, “taxi, bathroom and restaurant,” you can get from France to Belgium in two days.

So what happens when you put two languages together? You get a hybrid, of course. Baby M is still going to vent his emotions, but now they can be aimed through things and events. Still, there is a tone, an emphasis, that will tell you whether the purpose of the words is mostly to give literal information (language of things and events) or to address feelings (language of emotions). In the last column I geared my anecdote about the glorious femme blader (one “d” please) in the pink shorts toward feelings. It exploited my passions, frustrations and ego as she and I played pursuit around Elm Creek’s nature trails on in-line skates. Same function as the nascent “Waaa!” of the newborn in that same column. But I could have milked that setting and encounter for a pure statement of things and events just as easily, as in this description of canoeing I just sent someone in an email:

“…The lake was as glideable as glass but fuzzed with millions of tiny seedpods stirred by the thermals of sundown. When I got to the river they floated together like a carpet of snow through which I carved silently in a crimson canoe. Each bend in the river brought a new floral vista. And when I crossed under a wide bridge I was suddenly in another kind of blizzard, this one of swallows in a frenzy to snap up insects I could not see. It was amazing to actually be in that swarm of birds, a part of their agile chaos. But the peril was underscored, too, because at that moment a hawk shot under the bridge as though it were in a tunnel, skimming past my head from behind in pursuit of a “swallow.” I was staring right through the gun-site as the hawk sees it, and, as blisteringly fast as that predator bird is, it was no match for the swallow in the sharp maneuvers of tight quarters. Close, but the smaller bird veered and the blur of talons grabbed only air….”

Things and events. The emotions might be inferred, but the experience of canoeing under the bridge is literal.

So now we have the great divide. The language of emotions and the language of things and events. This is the heart of choice, the basic tools for communication. But there is a third language, and here we can begin to separate out readers and writers. Keep in mind, if you will, that the final column in this series will relate this all back to the marketplace and writing. Next up: THE LANGUAGE OF IDEAS.

Any takers for naming the baby? Email them to me. Have had a couple of people mention how hard it was for them to find my email address, and most readers do not want to create a user ID and password in order to post. For the record, those little blurry patches in the middle of the authors’ bio pages (which are listed to the right on this page) become authors’ home page links if you happen to move the cursor over them. My email is on my author’s page, but here it is again: mn333mn@earthlink.net

Thanks for reading. Your thoughts are welcome and your attention valued.

Thomas “Sully” Sullivan

posted by Sully at 12:14 AM   


David Niall Wilson said…

You know, it’s wonderful to see this all in sequence. I’ve been privvy to bits and chunks through long correspondence, but I have never seen this philosophy in it’s longer, more eloquent form, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it…


8:38 AM  

Janet Berliner said…

I’m truly in awe of your mastery of language, ideas, and the language of ideas. -Janet

10:32 AM  

Sully said…

Bless you, guys. Wish I could, in fact, deliver this in print more like it went out over a mic. What surprised me is how long it takes to write what was about 10-20 minutes of a 35-60 minute speech — 3 columns already and counting. Had a few fans who would faithfully attend every talk where I addressed this in Michigan, and they would swear it was always different (of course, what are fans for?). Have noticed, in trying to get this down, however, that it required a lot of choices of what to include and what to drop. Am relieved that it doesn’t read totally obscure, and thanks for the feedback.
— Sully

10:45 AM  

John B. Rosenman said…

Oh hell, this essay is so good, now I’m going to have to go back and read your earlier installments. I like the concept of the three languages and the quality of the writing. Some’s very poetic. Here’s just one line
I like:

If you can say, “taxi, bathroom and restaurant,” you can get from France to Belgium in two days.

Like the boat scene too. Be forewarned, Sully, there’s
one line in your essay I plan to steal whole for my next essay. Naw, I’ll give you credit.

As for naming the baby, I’m still working on that one.

11:13 AM  

Sully said…

Steal away, John. I am elevated by association. And do give me a hint for a baby name. I mean, I named my own kids “Eunice” and “Eunuch.” Kidding, kidding — oh, jeez, there goes Father’s Day…
— Sully

11:20 AM  

David Niall Wilson said…

What was wrong with Marmaduke?

12:02 PM  

Sully said…

Hey, Trish (Patricia Macomber — the true power behind David Niall Wilson), do not let this man name any heirs! He may be exquisite on the printed page, but anyone who would sanction my nomenclature has serious issues.
— Sully

12:13 PM  

Phoenix said…

“If, as I wrote in the last column, some people never get past the negativity of the birth experience and thus becomes literary critics, some people never get past the “no” stage either. They’re called . . . editors.”

That is highly amusing.

Name the baby a good ol fashioned Fred, or George. Billy bob? Hmm, Baby M works. Maybe he’ll grow up and work for the british Secret Service.

I’ll have to try and catch your talk live sometime. Read the other too and I’m finding them informative and quite useful.


5:59 PM  

Sully said…

Billy Bob? Like it. ‘Tis in the running, though I have one through email from someone in Tennessee or West Virginia that I’m partial to at the moment. Let’s see what comes in. To be announced next column, I guess…

And thanks for the feedback. Will look forward to meeting you, though I’ve spoken a lot less since moving to Minnesota.

— Sully

6:38 PM  

David Niall Wilson said…

Eustace? Earl? Trish just found out she has very distant relatives named Greene Ebeneezer and Dousenberry….


7:00 PM  

Sully said…

Well, shut my mouth. Eustace thru Dousenberry resonate, my good man. Thanks, though I’m glad you passed on them for Katie.
— Sully

7:47 PM  

Mark Rainey said…

How about Johann Gambolputty de von Ausfern-schplenden-schlitter-crasscrenbon-fried-digger-
aucher von Hautkopft of Ulm?

OK, so it’s not original. 😉

Excellent stuff, Sully. Love the little tale you weave to reveal types of writing. “Eccentric” indeed, but who would have it any other way?


1:43 PM  

Sully said…

Lawsy, whether your suggestion is the winner or not, Mark, I want to use that for a character name in some piece where I’m paid by the word (or syllable). Did you by any chance author the names of some Scottish towns? Thanks.

— Sully

6:11 PM  

Mark Rainey said…

Nah, that’s actually from Monty Python. 😉


7:52 AM  

Sully said…

I knew all those episodes of Flying Circus my kid made me watch would find life application. Yeah, I recognize it… The composer or somesuch, eh wot?

— Sully

1:50 PM

Thomas “Sully” Sullivan

You can see all my books in any format here on my webpage: http://www.thomassullivanauthor.com

or follow me on Facebook:



[NOTE: two Facebook friends of mine, Karen Waeschle and Yvonne Austin, have requested that I revisit columns I wrote over a decade ago which were lost when StorytellersUnplugged made format changes. This is one of them with the original reader comments included.]

Oh, Lordy, here I dredged the rusty bottom of my brain for something that could pass for wisdom in last month’s column, and everyone who emails wants to know about the beautiful young thing and the owls. How embarrassing. Not because the wisdom was specious, but because – choke – I never hooked up with the fair maiden, and even the owls have abandoned me. Details about the owls later, but no film at eleven.  First I need to pick up the threads I spun last time about a writer’s philosophy of language.

You may recall that I described isolating the use of three aspects of life in writing: 1) emotions, 2) things & events and 3) ideas. I chose those aspects for no better reason than I can see where they weigh into fiction and in what proportions. Each one is a distinct bias that tends to shape a story by genre. If you want to go back to the details, here’s a direct link to that column – http://www.storytellersunplugged.com/2016/08/01/thomas-sullivan-spiders-and-spuds/#respond . I also promised to relate those aspects of life to categories of writing at the end of this series of columns. That’s an association that can help you understand who you are as a writer and where to aim your fiction.  So now, if you will, allow me to make the case for the first aspect or language: THE LANGUAGE OF EMOTIONS.

This is the only language that is completely natural and so universal that it may even be pre-natal. Think about it. We spend nine months in the womb celebrating a Utopia where we don’t have to breathe, eat, drink or change our diapers. We have perfect shock absorbers, sound control, temperature control, and then suddenly – plop!

We are born.

We are born wet and naked into a room full of strangers. Strangers who are dressed. Strangers who are wearing masks. We are turning purple and gasping for breath, but one of them jerks us up by the heels and parades our privates to oohs and aahs. Sexual exploitation is soon followed by violence, as we are blindsided by a slap to a very personal place.

Welcome to planet Earth!

Very negative experience. Some people never get over it. They become . . . literary critics. And if the slap upside the derrière is merely humiliating, the next act is downright dangerous, because another of the masked felons ties a knot in our lifeline to the mother ship and…and CUTS IT OFF!  Ladies and gentlemen, it is time to speak.  So we do. We give it our first word…


Now where did that come from? Who told us to make a vocal noise?  Was there a loquacious twin in the womb? Who taught the twin?  No one. Spontaneous verbal communication.  Language.  Pure emotion.  It’s in our basic wiring.

And it never really changes.  Language proceeds emotionally for a while: the feed-me cry, the TLC cry, the there’s-a-pin-in-my-fanny cry.  In these more specific outcries there are the hints of a more specific language to come, but it is still our personal statement of being.  Our feelings say that we exist as entities, as individuals.  It is a life-long need to declare emotions per se. Oh, we will get sophisticated about it, learning to couch feelings behind all kinds of verbal rants and rationalizations that address complex and intricate circumstances, but the purpose is the same: to vent emotions. Waaa-a!

So whatever else more formal languages (English, Italian, Chinese et al) do, they must answer the fundamental mandate of emotions.  In addition to communicating facts and sophisticated thoughts, we need our languages to simply tell each other how we feel. Good writing does that, directly and indirectly.  Apart from writing, one gender expresses emotions better than the other.  They are called female.  Not surprising then, that the most lopsided female literary audience favors writing that deals strongly and overtly with emotions.  Males, schooled in the need to never flinch before the tiger, are more reticent in real life.  Their emotions must often be inferred and tend to show up expressed as actions.  Here’s a gross generality that has a little truth to it: women feel; men think.   I hasten to add that the two approaches are not mutually exclusive. We’re talking tendencies here, gender reflex.  And if you let me get away with that, here’s another, even worse: women talk; men act.  Can you see why women universally shun me?  Again, I hasten to point out that this is just a predilection toward one strategy for problem-solving over another. Men incline toward physical resolutions, each a kind of triumph of physical resources over resistance; women incline toward persuasion or psychological manipulation or emotional resolution, thus causing change in the obstacle. Hoo boy, which way to the exit?  Anyway, if you’ll buy into just a 51% to 49% trend along those gender lines, then grant me a similar nod in the way this gets expressed in fiction, by genre, and in reading tastes. I don’t mean simply with the gender of the characters here, but rather in the way the author exploits the characters, the handling of the conflict, and what she/he tends to emphasize – emotions or actions?  Do you start to get an idea where I’m going with this?

It is not neatly divided, however.  Languages of the type I’m describing – arbitrarily dividing, really – do not exist in a vacuum. When I cover this in a speech, I can usually play off an audience for examples and direction that make the interplay abundantly clear. There are ardent devotees of language types just as there are ardent devotees of fictional categories.  Think of your own stages in life and what you were consumed with at a given point and how language cued into that. Think Junior High.  Think college.  Think personal life.  Think career.  And if you are old enough, think where you ended up when all those stages finished pounding you into a conglomerate pulp.

You are still being pounded.  If art is a mirror of life, then maybe your fiction is a mirror of where you’re at.  Duh. The stage is now set for the second language: the language of things and events.  But that’s the next column.

And the final column in this series will try to put it all into balance in a way that lends some direction to self-analysis of the writer (and the reader, really).  He said.

Okay, back to the owls.  If you didn’t catch the last column, I am referring to an owls nest and a chance meeting with a comely young thing training in a nearby nature preserve. The owls went one at a time – like the von Trapp Family Singers fading out of the spotlight at a Nazi rally. First the sexually ambiguous parent disappeared.  Actually, that makes sense. Abandonment was probably a subtle cue aimed at telling the owlet chilluns to get out of the nest and find a job.  But then the nest itself disappeared.  Don’t ask me how or why.  The two “watermelon-size” chicks were still there, jammed more or less into the crotch of a tree, scowling down at me like juvenile judges at a felon’s trial.  Hey, I’m not a house burglar, and if I was, I wouldn’t steal a house any more than a cat burglar steals a cat. Watermelon #1 was gone the next day.  And Watermelon #2 hit the airways the day after that, I guess.

So I’ve been left to my lonesome, clop-clopping up the trails where women occasionally flash me America’s most famous digital gesture but little else.  I am a pariah, destined to die unloved in the wilderness.  But, hey, I’m a writer, I will make something of this. Writers suffer, right?  Must suffer.   So far I’m doing great. If you don’t feel life in its excruciating extremes, you can’t write about it.  This is where you find the people for your books.  This is where you internalize the psychology that will bring your characters to life. Take today.

Out there blading when my radar pulls in a leggy blip in pink shorts on the horizon.  I turn on the after-burners and in a couple of hills I’m closing in on a delightful mirage, moving like a racing blader. The pink shorts contrast a gorgeous tan, one of those I-hang-out-at-the-beach-with-buff-bronze-guys tans.  I’m more the Casper the Friendly Ghost type.  But hey, albinos can be buff too.

Another hill, and it’s confirmed: female, exemplary specimen.  Add competitive.  Because now she sees me and begins to pour it on.  She is no doubt one of the femmes training for the Tri who I run into every day on the trails or in the pool.  I’m out here for the “Try” myself, so we’re sorta compatible already.  The first curve (not counting hers) reveals the 5-wheel skates of a serious athlete.  I am wearing Fischer-Price Tonka PlaySkool 4-wheel jobbies with little yellow duckies on the side.

Now, the number one rule for these spontaneous races is that you must never show effort.  She is showing no effort.  Long, easy strokes, one hand working the turns, glide, glide, glide.  I am going clip-clop, clip-clop, stagger, stumble, stutter step, pant, pant.  I give up trying to breathe through my nose.  If I swallow one more species of insect, I will have ingested one sample of all the entomological varieties available in the park. I am a veritable Noah’s Ark in Nikes!  Mere mortals on bikes veer out of our way, as do family gaggles and terrified infants.  Mile after mile (that’s two miles) we yo-yo uphill, downhill.  Finally she slumps into a long glide, exhausted.  I’m thrilled to see it’s hurting her, ‘cause it’s killing me.  When she goes left at a juncture in the trail, I go right, happy to be able to slow down and too whipped to pursue conversation. Gorgeous tan goes one way, the Friendly Ghost the other.

Back at the car I discover the carton of HeartSmart that fell out of a grocery bag yesterday.  Keep Refrigerated, it says on the label.  I’m out a couple of bucks. Stuff makes good suntan oil, though, and “tomorrow is another day.”

Thanks for reading. Your thoughts are welcome and your attention valued.

posted by Sully at 12:10 AM   


David Niall Wilson said…

Hah…if the ladies don’t string you up, you’ll be remembered for these words. I thoroughly enjoyed this, particularly the part where the girl in pink shorts gave you a run for your money, and your watermelon chicks hit the highway…now I’ll have to watch the trees for them.

Near home we now have a nesting pair of American Bald Eagles…truly majestic, and very startling if you happen to catch them out of the corner of your eye while driving…unexpectedly catch them out of the corner of your eye, I should say.

We’ll be getting the columns and interviews linked to the side soon.


10:55 AM  

Sully said…

A fine line between strung along and strung up, but I’m always game for the game.

Eagles are common fare around here, too. Actually see one land in my yard some times, and I chase them down the twilit shore nightly when canoeing (me canoeing, not the eagles).

11:05 AM  

Janet Berliner said…

Thans for the chuckles which, as always, hid many kernels of good sense and arguable logic. [g] I wonder if The Lady in Pink knows The Lady in Red? –Janet

7:16 PM  

Sully said…

Oh, I live dangerously, don’t I? Romance Writers of America once dressed me in a $700 tux for fun at their national convention and let me do my thing as far as irreverence. When I think back on those three days, I feel like I walked a high wire across the Grand Canyon during tornado season. Must find safer ways to get my kicks…

8:13 PM  

Mark Rainey said…

Ah, women. Gotta love ’em, right? (My wife certainly thinks so!) 😉

Entertaining stuff, Sully. Many thanks.


10:05 AM  

Sully said…

Vive la femmes. Thanks, Mark.


11:50 AM


Thomas “Sully” Sullivan

You can see all my books in any format here on my webpage: http://www.thomassullivanauthor.com

or follow me on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/thomas.sullivan.395

Thomas Sullivan: SPIDERS AND SPUDS

[NOTE: two Facebook friends of mine, Karen Waeschle and Yvonne Austin, have requested that I revisit columns I wrote over a decade ago which were lost when StorytellersUnplugged made format changes. This is one of them with the original reader comments included.]

I am not – strictly speaking – writing a column.  I am avoiding writing a novel.  This is a switch, because for days now I have been avoiding writing a column by writing a novel.  But the deadline is upon me, so it’s time to face the question that’s been mired in my thoughts like a spider in the mashed potatoes.

But do I want to attempt a single column on a subject that used to take me an hour in front of an audience to cover?  When I get talking a hundred words a minute (gusts up to two hundred) for an hour, that’s a lot of potential column.  I think you can relax – me too – because the answer is “no.”  Small servings, that’s the way to do it.  A dollop of mashed potatoes here, a spider there.  Yum, yum.  And besides, the subject I am writing about divides itself naturally into three parts.

The three parts add up to a philosophy of language.  Every writer should have one.  I’m not talking about vocabulary here, but rather what language represents in ways we humans look at the world.  The ways I chose to sum up the world are: Emotions; Things & Events; and Ideas.  I chose those because I could see where they weighed into the writing of literature, and in what proportions.  The areas I’ve chosen are arbitrary, and maybe you could do better in making divisions, but these worked for me when I first saw the need to get a handle on writing many years ago.  So, I’m going to do them in several columns, because this stuff travels a bit, and in order to say everything I want to say, and to relate it back to specific fiction, I need some room.  Otherwise, it would come out too many spiders and too little mashed potatoes.

Now, there is nothing holy about my particular method, just as there is nothing holy about language.  Language is a bunch of grunts and scribbles that people agree upon.  That makes it a social contract.  If you and I agree that the term “scudburgers” are paddies of pre-masticated dead cow, incinerated and laid to rest on biers of stale bread served at the Porcelain Rooms (White Castles), then “scudburgers” it is.  No one can tell us we’re wrong.  That’s an example from real life, BTW.  Ex-Frogman (now called Seals) named Harry Hauck (pronounced “Hawk”) christened them, and he and I lived off them in the Caribbean for a time back in another millennium.  The point being that the social contract of language is whatever people say it is.  It isn’t ordained by God with every falling in and out of usage and it does not come to us on tablets of stone.  It changes when enough people have misused something enough times, or coined a usage long enough, for it to enter the common culture through media of every form and in every day communication.  Sometimes a famous quote can make it in one scream, as with Howard Dean (though no one has yet figured out what he meant), or in the lyrics of a hit song (which also are not figured out). Meaning is shifty. And change is resisted by some, as in India where 300 dialects may be spoken in relatively small regions and bloody language riots ensue. Often language changes are a corruption, a shortcut, or something jangly and colorful, like “ripped off” or “stonewalled.”  I have personally made up tons of words.  So far no one else has used them.  They are called “grammatical mistakes.”

But my philosophy of language is not meant to pioneer new directions, only to identify existing ones.  Grammar books try to do that, and they are always out-of-date.  English teachers die with them clutched in their cold, dead hands, but they are still out-of-date (both the Warriner’s and the English teachers) — passé, dinosaurs, last week’s lunch.  I wanted to create divisions that would not become dinosaurs.  So I based my divisions on the purposes of languages.  And I did this with an ear toward the different categories of writing.  More on that in the final column of this series.  So that’s where all of this is going: a way of understanding what types of writing go where in the marketplace.  Because, if you once get that, then you will be able to analyze your own writing and readership and understand what makes it what it is at the root level of wordsmythery.

Check that.  Indulge me while I qualify a bit of semantics here.  “Understand” is a bad word in my method.  “Understand” implies that you can learn creativity as if it were a set of principles. Learning what can be learned that way might qualify you to be a critic (yuk), but it certainly won’t give you two main assets of any creative person: insight and imagination.  Insight and imagination are native abilities that allow a person to take a little information or experience all the way to the horizon.  They are probably a limited resource, different in amounts for each of us, but they can be sharpened and maxed out in any person.  “Learning” them, “understanding” them, is too often packaged and sold along with snake oil to hopeful writers as if the magic beans, the SECRETS (shhhh!), are available to all if you just memorize the quality of “insight” on page 269 of the text they are selling.  Can’t be done.  If you don’t have your own secrets, your own magic beans, and your own potentially successful voice already inside you, you need to get out and live a little until you awaken and develop those qualities.  For sure no one is going to graft them onto you.  You can’t lead by following; and writing is an attempt to be original, unique.  So a word that comes closer than “understanding” to what I’m trying to convey here is “recognize.”  I’m hoping (betting) that you will recognize some things you already know but maybe haven’t ever consciously sorted out, if only I can get this little language perspective I’ve outlined down in a couple of columns.

If you wait for fully formed stories to put on a lampshade and dance for you, creativity will slip right out the back door. You have to make something out of whatever is at hand. The universe is in a grain of sand, and if you’re a good enough artist, that’s all you’ll need. That ringing phone that is annoying you, distracting you, keeping you from thinking that great thought hovering just out of reach, has an entire world on the other end of the line.  Pick the damn thing up!  Use your imagination.  Get interested in life.  Go out to meet it with your eyes and ears open, and it will give you something every time.

Hmmm.  Full moon out as I write this.  Gibbous anyway.  And the air is the temperature of life tonight.  Can’t tell you what a longing that puts in me.  You know what?  I’m gonna practice what I preach.  Time for a little research, time to fill the well, find some impromptu inspiration.  Tomorrow when I wake up, I’ll have a whole new set of associations to fire my imagination.  This night will not end without an adventure.  Met someone blading yesterday and showed her an owl sitting on a nest with two fuzzy “chicks” the size of watermelons.  She was entranced – with the owls, drat.  But maybe a little with our conversation, too, because she wanted to exchange email addresses.  Said she was a compulsive person.  Said she hoped we’d see each other again.  Whatya think?  Too quick to email?  Of course.  Am I not gonna email now anyway?  Nay.  An hour or so hence, with or without her, I’ll be canoeing on the lake behind my house past swans on black glass, looking for owls.  With a little luck I/we won’t find any.  But I/we will find the moon….

In the coming months, my writer’s philosophy of language: emotions…things & events…ideas. A column for each. Thanks for reading. Your thoughts are welcome, your attention valued.

Thomas “Sully” Sullivan

You can see all my books in any format here on my webpage: http://www.thomassullivanauthor.com

or follow me on Facebook:



posted by Sully at 3:25 AM


David Niall Wilson said…

Though I have reams of email dealing with many of these concepts…I never get tired of “hearing” you write/talk about them. Good luck with the moon, and the owls, but maybe the owl IS wiser…all snuggled in with a pair of cute chicks while you paddle about?


Sully said…

Alas, you had to point that out. The owl was much less a bird-brain than I was. Nevertheless, it was an adventure…

Teresa said…

I can’t reconcile this as an image in my mind…

an owl sitting on a nest with two fuzzy “chicks” the size of watermelons.


Sully said…

Teresa –

Well, if u read abt and author found dead at the base of a tree in Minnesota with a tape measure in his hand, you’ll know what happened. From the ground they look like tawny feather dusters, or if you like, bigger than a football, smaller than a duffel bag. The mother (or father, as I’m told they share housekeeping) looks like something out of a Japanese horror film – horns inclusive. For all that, he/she takes wing about half the time I stopped to gawk, electing to watch from a more remote perch. The chicks seem fearless, “watermelons.” But what do you expect from a guy who thought Audobon was a German Expressway?

Janet Berliner said…

“…a guy who thought Audobon was a German expressway?”

A brilliant writer and a comedian, too. How does he do it?

Sully said…

Brilliant fans.

Wish I could live up to your praise, Janet. But I’ll tell you, being in touch with quality people is much the best part of this biz.


An update on Robert Carl Jones as he is recovering from the accident that put him in ICU. His situation is still dicey, but he is out of the main medical facility and in an assisted care environment where he can receive prompt medical attention if required. It is an observational setting while he acclimates to getting around. For the time being he cannot get to a computer or do the research that has produced so many fascinating essays here. He’s looking forward to a time when he can and wishes everyone well. I am in touch with him by phone and will post any new news.

— Thomas “Sully” Sullivan


I search far and wide through old emails to keep these Q&A’s specific, though your welcome correspondence is often broadly philosophical and psychological. Granted that creativity, as well as authors and artists in general, and personal questions about this particular author, are all relevant, a lot of your sharing reads like Ann Landers. And I’m deeply grateful for those candid glimpses. Your daunting questions into the complexity of human nature inform my own people stories and add to my grasp of characterization. Read on for this latest assortment of wall-to-wall questions:

Q: [Baltimore, MD] Are there any taboos you won’t write about?

A: Not if I think a theme has something valid to say about the human condition. True, graphic shock wears thin quickly for me. Little boy Sully 1.0 wanted to know the literal guts and bodily fluids of everything whether it was a bloody murder, drenching sex, or evolutions eating evolutions. But Sully 2.0 is more interested in the three M’s: METHOD, MOTIVE and MEANING. If you dwell on a roaring locomotive vividly splattering a child in visceral detail, I’ll wonder what your point is. The shadows and echoes of things are much more sustaining and informative to me. I’d rather get the shock, outrage and obscenity by seeing the blue steel rail vibrate, hearing the roar of the engine and the scuff of running tennis shoes, followed by an awful silence. Physical stuff is important as long as you point the camera at nuances and subtleties in imaginative ways. I can explore any subject as a writer as long as I’m not pandering to the reflexes I wore out as a child.

Q: [Traverse City, MI] Have you ever written under a pseudonym?

A: Um…lemme see – oh, yeah, there was William Shakespeare, Edgar Allen Poe, Mark Twain [wheezing laughter]. OK, none of the above. But I ain’t tellin’ my nom de plumes. You might like them more than you like me.

Q: [Zephyrhills, FL] My novel is about two people who try to kill each other out of jealousy, but I end up with two unlikable characters. Just showing instead of telling doesn’t work for me. I know this is pretty vague but any suggestions?

A: Sounds like you may have a relentlessly downer narrative. Do both your protagonists have to be victims? What if one of the jealousies is justified and the other not? That opens up all kinds of possibilities. Here’s a test you might try. Put into words a description of what each one does to make the other one feel betrayed. Do it completely and in detail. Then compare them. If they just sound interchangeable, maybe that’s your problem. Now play with the quid pro quo. What if they are both loyal but paranoid; or what if one is a concrete betrayal and the other not? Doesn’t that open up a psychological tour de force? You could play that out in any number of ways from tragedy to redemption. See if that doesn’t make your characters come alive with change, growth or ultimately a failure to escape themselves, any one of which could make a meaningful story with relatable characters.

Q: [Huntington Beach, CA] I tried to friend you on Facebook and you didn’t respond.

A: Oh, that makes me feel bad – don’t like to do that, but I’ve had to be somewhat discreet. Just too many bad actors, status chasers, sex peddlers and scams. If an ulterior motive is obvious in a request, I ignore. If it’s a gray area, I just leave them in a group I call “purgatory,” which I go back to now and then to see whether their site seems to be legit and not a self-serving crusade. Right now I have six people in purgatory, three from very nice ladies who don’t wear very many clothes and may turn out to be two guys in an apartment in Moscow, another half-written in Arabic that may turn out to be worse than political, and two that are either commercial enterprises or hackers trying to mine settings from the inside. Now that I know more about you, I’ll be on the lookout, if you’re willing to reach out again.

Q [Norman, OK]: When are you going to get older?

A: LOL – well, for sure I have Peter Pan’s terminal immaturity (he said with pride). If only I had “negligible senescence” as well. That’s a quality crocodiles and some other life forms have that keeps them from aging. Seriously. Crocodiles do not lose their physical capacities over time, from hunting to mating. They don’t stop growing either, and outside of disease most of them die of starvation because they get too big to sustain their size in a limited food chain. I have plenty of food in the fridge, but alas, I do change my lifestyle to fit the passing of time. Like water, time always wins. I may be ahead of the norms, but inevitably age catches up to all of us. My goal then will be to make sure my mind stays young!

Thomas “Sully” Sullivan

You can see all my books in any format here on my webpage: http://www.thomassullivanauthor.com

or follow me on Facebook:


Robert Carl Jones note to friends and fans…

Probably should’ve posted this before, but Robert Carl Jones sends his regrets that he couldn’t post on his usual date due to an accident that has put him in an ICU. Hopefully everything will turn out just fine, but he has to wait out some observation for an indefinite length of time. Gifted writer that he is with an impeccable character and integrity, he wanted me to let people know he hasn’t forgotten or ignored them.

— Thomas “Sully” Sullivan


[NOTE: two Facebook friends of mine, Karen Waeschle and Yvonne Austin, have requested that I revisit columns I wrote a decade ago which were lost when StorytellersUnplugged made format changes. This is one of them with the original reader comments included.]

K-Y, K-Y – not “KY,” Sully. “KY” is what Rodan shrieks when it is lumbering out of the ocean or flapping through Tokyo popping tourists for fingersnacks. Yes, my bad in titling last month’s column wrong (KY JELLY & THE HEADLESS SQUIRREL: http://www.storytellersunplugged.com/2016/04/15/thomas-sullivan-ky-jelly-the-headless-squirrel/#respond )Titles aside, last month’s column introduced Cannibal Essays or How to Edit Life, my attempt to inspire writers and people in general to see the content of their lives and to put frames around it. Agent Bingo was supposed to be part of that ramble, but I ran out of space blathering about roaring down the expressway with my arm out the window until a bug flew up my cast. Cast, cast, I said a bug flew up my cast.

That essay was mostly lunacy, life in a funhouse mirror. I was going to balance it off with a switch in tones and some further comments on drawing stories out of events and relationships. That’s what I’m catching up to here.

Most of the time I like to go alone out in nature, but if I meet someone special who I think can get something out of it, I very much like to share it. And to be honest, about half the time that I go out, I wind up meeting someone and sharing it that way. You can make transcendent things happen in your life. In fact, if you’re sitting around waiting for them to happen, you are living in slow motion. As a writer, you must not only learn to recognize life, you have to go out and meet it. Here’s an example of something that had plenty of spontaneity, unknowns and wild cards, but it also arose because I knew it would happen sometime, somewhere and with someone.

Anyone who has read even a little of my writing, knows that exquisite journeys into nature each day are prime resources for me. Whether I’m soaring along rivers of light cascading through autumn leaves in a pristine forest or gliding phantom-like through gluey green shallows in a canoe, I breathe ether outdoors. Naturally, I have special places and things to share, and they hold the potential for indelible memories. For me. And for someone I might invite to an inner sanctum.

Just such an epiphany of elements came together for a friend and me last winter. But part of the point here is that this occasion wasn’t left entirely to chance. It was different from just running into a friend or a stranger, as I seem to do every day on the trails or elsewhere. The latter are terrific but distinctly random: a gymnast rehabbing her knee, a recovering alcoholic who has discovered the runner within himself, a solitary cyclist who has grown away from her sedentary husband, the serious Olympic team contender who wants one more shot before her college career fades, a young architect who reads Ayn Rand while she walks until I show her the living cathedrals of light and motion all around her. Each of them offers me a glimpse of their life and I reciprocate, as if we share a yellow brick road and a Technicolor adventure in an Oz of our own design before returning to the black and white Kansas from which we entered these escapes. These are stolen hours, secret lives where the ordinal things of prescribed days are suspended. It’s very addictive and impossible to adequately describe. But a lot of it has to do with choice: what we talk about, knowing that it is said in a sanctuary that won’t carry over to the rest of our lives, what we see along the way, and how we interact with our surroundings and ourselves. It’s a full sensory press when you’re out in nature, when you’re using your body, mind and spirit to capacity. And there are settings that are just wrong for some, right for others. So I had this set of things I wanted to share, and it had to be with the right person.

Enter Agent Bingo, aka Katie Hilpisch, a young biomedical engineer, who has a literary side to her. We met at a hockey game, and she is one of my muses. I have a number of those, some who failure test my work, like Elizabeth Fortin (who always influences what I am working on), some who inspire thoughts and conversation, some who do not even know they are my muse. Agent Bingo is not my demographic of age or background. That’s a plus. She reads a ton of books. Another plus. She knows where I’m coming from. Not necessarily a plus, but inevitable if you are lucky enough to find a good muse or two that you can utilize close at hand. She is blunt and honest and has no need to prove her insights. Plus, plus, plus. If I dig for her thoughts, she provides them – thoughtfully – but is immune to any leading of the witness I may commit. I don’t remember why I call her Agent Bingo, but she calls me Snowman or Ninja or whatever names we have made up in our correspondence, which seems vaguely set in a pseudo world of espionage and missions. We keep the farce going and share occasional sojourns in the great outdoors, which we both love, or wander bookstores and chill out at coffee bars. At 29, she plays hockey, softball, blades, bikes, triathlons. Until last winter she had not skinny skied, but I guessed she would love it, and that she would feel the rhythm, get the poetry, and add to both.

So Agent Bingo was the right person to share some elements that were gathering that winter, if only she would accept my invitation; and her enthusiasm for the idea when she did accept seemed to confirm that. I knew it would be memorable and that sooner or later I would draw on it as part of my life and my work, if they are not the same thing. And they often are. I stress that this “making of memories” is anything but formal or even dramatic. On the contrary, it is subtle. One of the mistakes I think people make is believing that the high points of their lives center around some distant vacation or organized event. Not that those things aren’t highlights, just that if you need to be orchestrated full symphony like that, then you are missing a lot of duets, solos and combos in the interludes. Life happens. Be there. It is not necessarily over the horizon or glittering with planned perfection.

Planned perfection. There was some of that at the vast and varied Three Rivers nature preserve called Elm Creek the day Katie and I went out. Well, unplanned perfection anyway. It was the night before Valentine’s Day. A full moon. Air as thin as ether. Crystalline snow that makes a caressing sound as you carve through it on cc skis. Animated silhouettes slipping through the trees on wing or hoof or furry pads. Actually, Katie took off from work at noon, giving us time for a little anticipation and spirited talk looking out my window at a frozen lake where eagles make daily visits. Include Christmas visits. Because it was a holiday gift of Godiva chocolates and black cherries in brandy from Eagles’ music legend Glenn Frey and his talented wife Cindy that we stowed in my backpack. The plan was to reach a certain distant deer overlook I knew of where we could sit on a promontory, eat 78% of the world’s chocolate reserves while Willie Wonka lurked in the bushes, and gaze out at vistas of white diamonds and yellow reeds brushing a cobalt sky. But, of course, whatever you imagine, it will be different and better. A short drive and we were fitting rental skis on Agent Bingo, and then we were out on the trails.

She took to it like I knew she would, an athletic natural but heedless of a few soft falls and the breathless challenge. Check out some photos in my free newsletter (email mn333mn@earthlink.net and I’ll send you one every month). We didn’t push it, just enjoyed the climbs and exhilarating downsweeps, pausing on stone bridges or wooden bridges, finding stories in the tracks in the snow, playing an espionage game when I clued her to uncover an overgrown windmill almost invisible in a thick and towering woods. We put the hemorrhaging sun to bed on one horizon and birthed the full moon on another. The latter rose like a luminous pearl over the crest of the trail. Then down phantom blue lanes into near midnight where Agent Bingo discerned a deer I missed in a copse as thick as a pile of Pick-Up-Stix. And now the moon was louvered by cloudy fingers as we reached a high meadow, climbing, climbing, until that “ghostly galleon” sailed free on top of us (shades of Pirates of the Caribbean) and we were sitting on a stone bench.

We ate Godiva chocolates and sampled the cherries in brandy, and as if cued to perform, the most eerie chorus of coyotes erupted close by. They do this sometimes. A corybantic frenzy from somewhere just around sunset or moonrise. You never see them. But their discordant howling chimes in suddenly as if their territories have converged or they have found an atavistic trigger in the galvanizing moon. Blood-chilling and beautiful.

And then we were coming off the meadow in graceful sweeps, down into the woods and along a picturesque creek lined with sentinel pines and dotted with quaint wooden bridges. I showed Agent Bingo where beavers were building a dam, and we skied through silent moonlit awescapes you just can’t describe, because that would be only visual and these are palpable to all senses.

Agent Bingo is a trooper. I should be shot for taking her on a two-hour first journey that lasted four. But she never complained, and she was exhilarated – is still exhilarated over the memory a year later. We came back in through a series of runs, knowing we owned the world and maybe the universe. Hard to think otherwise when you are standing steaming under the cosmos looking down an escarpment at an ephemeral white lake. And orange trail lamps beyond, like ordinal spotlights, lead you home, decompressing you back into the black and white world. Except you can never really go home again, as Thomas Wolfe said. My colleagues have been bandying that notion around of late, but in this case, once you’ve been to the White Room like that, a piece of you stays out there.

So that’s another life edit for me, a series of moments savored for themselves but which accumulate simultaneously in my artist’s soul. Like I said, my life and my work are the same thing. It is cannibalism, but it isn’t exploitation. A writer must do this. Though, of course, you don’t have to be a writer to let life penetrate you that deeply. Anyone who wants to live freely, fully, should surround themselves with inspiring places to be and people with light coming out of them to be with. Your companions are as important as your solitude. Ironically, while I was writing this, an email came in from another friend, Mystic Vixen (writer and Stumblebumstudios.com reviewer Jennifer Hairfield) whose connections with nature and poetry are equally eclectic. She writes: “Winter is already coming again. It seems like yesterday…I do tend to follow the fairy path, so when the moon is full and the flesh is willing I let them take over and play. It usually leads to a very interesting evening.” She has introduced me to the charmed backwaters of Oklahoma known as “fairy groves,” and I don’t believe I would have learned that had I not presented her with a Minnesota winter. Is she a Technicolor person or b/w? Do you think she gets it? The quid pro quo of life starts with you if you’re a writer. You’ve declared yourself a chronicler, a messenger, and you cannot be that without at least becoming an observer, and you cannot know the fuller meanings and insights without becoming a participant. “…when the moon is full and the flesh is willing I let them take over and play.” This person won’t miss the poetry if she gets close enough to it, and with a chosen name like Mystic Vixen you already know she will resonate it with words to match the deeds.

Confession. I am utterly bankrupt when I’m mired in formal situations or with individuals who are terminally narrow. They just leave me uninspired. That’s the flip side of finding those special people with whom to spend special times. Maybe that’s selfish of me, and if I were a better person I would be more tolerant, but I cannot stand to waste life. People who resist everything, including ideas, passions and communication are just down time for me. Especially communication, which can even include shared silence but never apathy. Fortunately the people who really don’t open up when you get them one on one are never writers and seldom readers. And if they are readers, then they have a closet wish to escape their narrowness. I try not to give up on people, because the most recalcitrant types have the most passion when they finally yield, but more often the bottom layer is just fear and inhibition – a selfishness as bad as my own.

Is this mercenary of me as a writer? I guess. But it isn’t just mercenary. Always nice when your work and your life are the same thing. I don’t think I’d be different in my life if I stopped writing. In fact, most of my writing is one on one – emails. Definitely not mercenary.

In both writing and life, you have to give in order to get, though. Non-judgmental honesty and sincerity will take you further in understanding people and your own character inventions than will clinical observations you make from behind a wall of your own insecurities. Just a fact. If you can’t disarm fears, don’t expect to get past the foyers of other people’s lives. And you won’t disarm anyone if you aren’t “for real.” Being a writer – the best writer you can be – means living to the max. You just happen to be a mirror of words along the way.

Check out my novel, CASE WHITE, if you will. There’s a free chapter at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00O79GQTE . Thanks for reading. Your thoughts are welcome and your attention valued.

Thomas “Sully” Sullivan

posted by Sully at 12:10 PM   


Teresa said…

Thank you, Sully. More than you know, thank you.

5:11 AM  

David Niall Wilson said…

I used to think Sully just went out skiing and blading to meet young women (:

Beautifully done, Sully, as usual…but it would be interesting (just for perspective) to see a similar piece sometime about someone lost on the inner streets of somewhere, gray walls, too much traffic, alleys and backwaters of civilization.

I love nature, as you know…I have my swamp here…but to add to your comments, you can’t write about life if you live out in the woods either…unless you’re Sully or Thoreau…all the characters (the most warped and intriguing, anyway) are scattered through the woods, valleys, and cities….

At least on the blading trail you are less likely to get mugged when perchance you meet…


6:59 AM  

Sully said…

Thank you, Teresa. Coming from someone who writes as poignantly as you, I feel redeemed today.

And, Davey, thank you for reminding me of my roots. Yeah, the woods came later and you are so right about the vitality of people/stories being vested in urban jungles as opposed to the woodsy type. I lived the streets and alleys for most of my life, and a lot of what I know about people came out of that. I’m going to cut/paste your post in my notes and address some of those instances for future Cannibal Essays.

— Sully (Thomas Sullivan)

10:56 AM  

Janet Berliner said…



12:45 PM  

John Skipp said…

Dear Sully —

Magnificent, indeed.

And much as I loved the entire vivid journey, the line that stuck with me hardest was “If you can’t disarm fears, don’t expect to get past the foyers of other people’s lives.”

Just another diaphonous but startlingly apt layer on your already infinitely layered cake.

Thanks for sharing the actual experience of being alive.

Yer pal,

12:56 PM  

Frank Wydra said…

Hey Sully, another great post.

But, man, even though you are contagious and your spirit elbows everything else aside, not everyone is you, though I suspect, more than a handful wish they were. It is easy to get wrapped in your exuberance. At the very least the ride will be wild and the course uncharted.

Keep cool, man. Summer is on the way.


4:40 PM  

Sully said…

Janet, thanks, and I’ve been meaning to suggest about those posts that get eaten up when you “word verify” or try to hit “login and publish”: I lost a lengthy post like that and ever since I’ve simply highlighted what I typed and copied it BEFORE hitting those dire buttons. Only had to use that backup once thereafter.

Hey, Skipp, I’ll bet you get past foyers all the way to the penthouse and the inner sanctums. Me, I usually walk into a closet or get led to the basement. Of course, that beats the bathrooms.

And, Frank, yeah, I know I’m a bit on the edge with some of the stuff I do, but that’s just ’cause addictions build tolerance and I’ve been addicted to nature and physical activity for a long time. Principals apply at any level, though. All you really need is people. It’s like that time in the Bahamas. You and Karen stayed on the beach and counted stars and I played with the sharks, but we all found whatever else was to be found on that island and it was damn near the whole universe.

Thanks, all!

— Sully (Thomas Sullivan)

8:19 PM  

Mark Rainey said…

I’m addicted to nature too; I like to get away from anything resembling humanity as often as possible. I agree with Dave, too — you’ve got to experience all that other life to get your -real- material.

Great stuff, as always…


10:11 AM


Thomas “Sully” Sullivan

You can see all my books in any format here on my webpage: http://www.thomassullivanauthor.com

or follow me on Facebook:


Robert Carl Jones – IT’S IN THE SEEDS

Tom Sullivan here, just letting you know that if this appears under my byline, it’s because the tech gremlins in Bob Jones access to SU are acting up and I’m posting this for him. The following is 100% from our illustrious encyclopedic compatriot Robert Carl Jones! …

This essay might be of special interest to writers of detective and mystery novels who would like to enrich their stories by providing their readers with a gift of extra details. It might also be of general interest to many other readers, especially those who are CSI and NCIS fans. The ADDITIONAL INFORMATION section of this essay contains material found during research. It is not always closely related to the main subject of the essay, but is thought to be interesting.

Living in New York was a Chinese National named Cheng Le, who hatched a murderous plan. He wanted to obtain a supply of ricin and sell it to others. He went to the right neighborhood and talked to the right person. The right neighborhood was one that included what is referred to as a “dark web.”

A dark web is basically a number of criminal marketplaces that sell items such as drugs, firearms and hazardous materials. Its websites are visible to the public. Its IP addresses, however, are not, they being hidden by an encryption tool known as “Tor.” The right person was one who sold ricin, a poisonous substance that is not only strong, it reportedly has no antidote.

Le had a several dozen conversations with the person he had found in the dark web neighborhood. They revealed much about Le and his thoughts. It is indeed fortunate that his contact was not a ricin dealer, but an FBI employee.

According to published comments made by U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York Preet Bharara, “In Le’s own words, established at trial, he was looking for ‘simple and easy death pills’ and ways to commit ‘100 percent risk-free’ murder.”

Thanks to the FBI, Le was sentenced to 16 years in prison.



Castor oil is commonly used for a variety of medicinal purposes. It is produced from pressed seeds of castor plants (Ricicinus communis). A great many persons have benefitted from its use. The internet even lists “20 strange, but effective, everyday uses for castor oil.”

Ricin is related to castor oil, but there is no ricin in castor oil.