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Thomas Sullivan: GIVING UP THE GHOST

November 16th, 2006

Old writers never die, they just switch to invisible ink and become ghost writers. I’m not sure whether that puts them in Writers’ Heaven or Writers’ Hell. This is because I’ve already been a ghost writer, and it was a little of each. I’m only going to tell you about Writers’ Hell, though, on account of the heavenly experiences were for people whose names I can’t mention, while the Hell stuff was purely of my own design. I should get credit for time served for the Hell stuff.

If ghost-writing isn’t the most satisfying profession in the world, it has a lot in common with the oldest. You have to be able to walk whatever side of the street you find yourself on, discretion is always called for, the paying client’s wishes are your command, and it’s pay for say if not for play. I absolutely must reinforce the great divide, however. Those few times I wrote for well-known people were without exception rewarding experiences; and the anonymous things I wrote for anonymous people were the most problematic. Funny, because you might think it was just the opposite. Fame and high profile enflame ego and vanity, don’t they? Not so in my limited experience. The only explanation I can offer is that the glitter jobs came to me when I wasn’t looking to do anyone’s writing but my own. The smaller ones were a consequence of actually starting a business called Mouthpiece Phone & Letter Service. “Scared money never wins,” as a con-man mentor of mine used to say. The harder I pushed to promote myself earlier in my career, the less anyone cared. The more I resisted jobs that came at me later when I really didn’t want to write for anyone else, the better and more tempting the offers. I don’t know, maybe you can just let your work speak for itself over time; but it seems to me that people have to be told that something is meritworthy, and then – deserved or not – you get your shot. That’s always the first hurdle for any kind of an artist.

Right out of the chute Mouthpiece was ill-defined. But that was okay with me, since creativity and words were all I intended to sell. Could’ve cared less about the format. That “anything goes” attitude probably doomed me from the start, because it is all too easy to slip across the border between the abstract and the real, inserting yourself as a player in a comedy or a drama. And the first client I had was a thirtyish woman who barely spoke English and wanted me to write a love letter for her to an octogenarian millionaire with whom she was having an affair. I will call her Zeta. Tough to write with a Greek accent, but I was up to the challenge of coy passion writ simply, I thought. That was before I learned that the well-heeled geezer was on his deathbed and that Zeta didn’t want dying to interrupt their pending marriage. Small problem. I revised the letter to reflect desperate passion writ large. It wasn’t until the plea was delivered that I met the extended cast of thugs, lawyers and expectant heirs arrayed against the sobbing siren from Greece. At this point a reasonably sane professional writer would have understood that the handwriting on the wall was not his own. I am not reasonably sane. Sex and violence, I thought, I am gathering material. It wasn’t until it came home to me that I might have a whole lot to do with the violence that I returned Zeta’s fee, escaping barely wounded with my head permanently turned around backward so that I could keep looking over my shoulder. Yes, I am drawing the curtain a little short of the final lines, on account of revenge is not subject to statutes of limitation. And I shouldn’t tell you this, but I am hampered by carpal tunnel this month and inclined toward economy.

My wife (now ex) was not thrilled, but then she was less “not thrilled” than she would have been had she known the full extent of the story. I taught school during the day, and so she often answered the phone, and this gave her steadily growing reasons to dislike the new business. For starters, there were the crude calls from creatures who wanted her to say anatomically graphic things to them. Nowadays they are called “Love Connections” or “Love Line,” but back then we just called them “obscene phone calls.” And there were any number of alarming requests and desperate stories that poured in. Rending entanglements, incoherent pleas, pure psycho rants. I regret that I probably never heard the best of those calls. I did get the one from the president of a local dairy, however. He wanted me to play a gag on a friend of his. “You make it up,” he said, “but this guy will go to any lengths for a practical joke, so feel free.”

Free. My favorite word, and “freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose,” according to Janis Joplin.

The target was a steel executive who had this huge isolated house backed up against the woods in opulent West Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and a patch of emerald green backyard just begging to have something buried in it. I will call him Bob Thompson. Now you’re probably thinking, Sully screwed up by moving a body from a cemetery or something, right? And I admit to mulling over some far-out possibilities – like running railroad tracks stacked at a nearby trestle up to his back door or burying the Man of Steel’s dog in an airy box with a breather tube until he heard it barking. But Rover was a Rottweiller without his owner’s sense of humor, and so I bought the biggest bottle of gin you ever saw – Gilbey’s, 3-feet tall – and made a coffin for it – 3-foot coffin. The small coffin would turn out to be a luckless detail.

The comings and goings of the family were a problem, and I had to use some ruses to get them all out of the house, but when the moment came, I struck with precision. Shovel, wooden cross, gin, coffin, parking with access to the woods. Some sidebars I won’t go into, but I had to take a neighbor into my confidence when she spotted me while the Rotty went crazy inside the house, and I didn’t count on the bees. Not killer bees or a swarm, just freelancers. Stung twice, I must have looked like something all elbows from the Kama Sutra as I dug and whirled and swatted, and I am certain that I achieved the notorious “grasshopper milking a cow” position when I embraced the coffin to lower it gently into the earth. Authors shouldn’t actually dig plots, they should write them. Ideally, the hole should have been deep enough so that Bob Thompson might stumble on a few Chinese artifacts before getting to the coffin, but I was discovering that a hole barely three feet d
eep contains several cubic miles of dirt. Alas, the inscription I put on the cross has faded from memory. Let us assume it was infinitely clever. And there must have been a clue, or a challenge, or a tease, because of course Bob Thompson would know it was a joke, would resist digging; so it had to be something that would haunt him and keep him awake nights until he gave in and went to the shed for a shovel.

I do remember the fatal step in this elaborate folderol as far as I was concerned. It was a Happy Ad in the Detroit Free Press. Happy ads are subject to editorial scrutiny, but somehow I talked my way past the Classified’s editor over the phone. The single line was: “Who is buried in Bob Thompson’s backyard?” And I guess that should have been a satisfying conclusion. The dairy guy was delighted, the Man of Steel now had revenge to keep him occupied, and I got generously paid. Except that for nearly two years a serial killer had been mounting a grim tally in southeast Michigan, and I never considered that. Someone quickly drew attention to the Happy Ad, and the Oakland County child murder task force wanted to know just who was buried in a backyard in West Bloomfield Hills.

I was not there for the exhumation of the 3-foot coffin. But my ex was there for the first phone call. The school was sort of used to calling me out of class for bizarre reasons, but this was more than just flamboyant. Smiles were hard to come by for a spell, and Hell had clearly frozen over by the time I got home to Happy Valley. My ex never said a thing, and I just sort of zipped up Mouthpiece for good. No more surrogate letters for disgruntled employees, unsavory lovers, and grudge-holding victims. I’m still not officially out of the biz, though Mouthpiece has not advertised or had a customer in twenty years. Not a good repeat biz rate. But then not much that happened could be repeated.

The funeral for the gin bottle all came back to me this Halloween when the family down the street turned their lawn into a cemetery. You know, miniature iron fence, dead leaves stuck in fake spider webs like sucked-dry insects, crooked tombstones with killer rhymes (“Here lies Jeb/his life was full/until he tried to milk a bull”). Most of the trick-or-treaters this year were older teens who looked like they had taken a night off from boosting car stereos. They came to the door sans costume in the middle of the night with pillowcases, smoking cigarettes. Next year I’m giving out Marlboros – candy, of course (do they still make candy smokes). Teens should be thrilled. Well, it is TRICK or treat, and playing jokes dies hard.

Must apologize, as I had intended to write a couple more pages, heavy on the encouragement and advice for writers. Sad to say, the 3rd and 4th carpal surgeries don’t seem to be relieving the problem, so I have to quit early. If you absolutely lust for my deathless prose, or just can’t believe I actually get paid for it, feel free to check out the sample chapter of my new paperback release THE WATER WOLF [www.thomassullivanauthor.com]. At $7.99 it’s a great stocking stuffer! Thanks for reading. Your thoughts are welcome and your attention valued.

Thomas “Sully” Sullivan


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  1. Teresa
    November 16th, 2006 at 03:38 | #1

    You have lived a very interesting life to be sure, Mr. Sullivan.

    I’m sorry to hear your surgeries haven’t been helpful. Please take care of yourself. I have my copy of The Water Wolf, but I’m not allowing myself to read it until I’ve finished torturing myself by doing my first NaNoWriMo, and doing it badly I might add.

  2. Rick Steinberg
    November 16th, 2006 at 04:27 | #2

    One of the reasons I stick around this place is for essays like this one, Sully.

    It constantly amazes me how many writers have started out the same way, or by journeying into similar wildernesses. In college, I wrote love letters for Varsity athletes. Later – and, to this day, I have often kept hearth and home together by “doctoring” TV scripts, and by writing speeches and drop-ins for politicians. Both tasks requiring me to keep my mouth shut and allow others (original teleplay writers or politicians) to take credit for my rather wonderful work. So, how do you measure your success in these endeavors?

    Personally . . . internally . . . quietly. And by understanding that work as a ghost is only unfulfilling if you allow it to be. It’s the writing that matters, and that’s as good as it’s going to get.

    And while I’ve never buried anything in anyone’s backyard, I have come to the attention of a serial killer task force, and buried a political career or two.

    Never my client’s, though, you understand.

    Feel better, Sully. You deserve to.

  3. Sully
    November 16th, 2006 at 05:21 | #3

    Ah, Rick, what a pleasure to have met someone in this lonely cosmos that gets it. I just laugh and feel freer to read your comments. Because freedom is it, you know. That knowledge of what you’ve done, and who for, and what the realities are, and to know too that you literally wrote or spoke or refined your fire on the wind, never to be repeated again. There is no obligation that remains as a residue, nothing to live up to, no credit to be gleaned, just the knowledge. And you can go stand somewhere where you get a view of as much of the universe as you can and feel acquitted and redeemed for whatever your failings are. And there’s nothing more to do after that but to laugh for sheer joy. Of all the phoniness in my soul, I have to find a white plume, eh wot? Thanks, my friend.

    And, Terry, do not doubt yourself in mid-task. It’s always ugly in that stage, or it should be; else you will fall short of the potential. And I’ve read your subtle metaphors, remember, and I know your gift for honest narration and truth. Write on!

    – Sully (Thomas Sullivan)

  4. David Niall Wilson
    November 16th, 2006 at 09:21 | #4

    “…but just to say that I have lived.”

    I have no idea who that is from, or where, but when it popped into my head, it didn’t seem to be mine…though it DID seem appropriate. Feel better Sully, and maybe now is the time to renew contacts with the Greeks…irons have cooled in the fire…who knows what waits?

    I loved Greece…


  5. Frank Wydra
    November 16th, 2006 at 11:54 | #5

    Dear Sully,

    There’s this oblong hump in my backyard lawn that I trip over every time I cut the grass. It’s been there every since my flamingos disappeared during your last visit. Do you think that if I dig into it I will find a three foot tall bottle of gin?

    Help, I desperately need a drink, but I’m afraid that digging might exacerbate my lumbago.


  6. Sully
    November 16th, 2006 at 12:19 | #6

    Davey, never sneak up on a Greek!

    Frank, stick a straw in the ground and give it a…er, shot. Your lumbago is on account of all those ash trees you’ve been cutting down. Before you do the rest of them, holler “Timber” in flamingo lingo.

    – Sully (Thomas Sullivan)

  7. Janet Berliner
    November 16th, 2006 at 15:48 | #7

    Great essay, Sullyman.

    I tell myself that ghostwriting was the way I learned to start, finish, and craft a whole book. Most of my experiences are Tales of Hell–which is where your carpal pain needs to go. My favorite Hell Story was a book of Mormon Miracles. My assignment was to
    create 23 miracles, extrapolated from the mission journals of a powerful and rich church Elder. I turned
    in 19 miracles. The publisher was furious and ordered me to add four more. I did. That was 25 years ago. The book is still selling well in Mormon country.


  8. David Niall Wilson
    November 16th, 2006 at 20:27 | #8

    An M&M book, eh? Green Mormon Miracles are the best (lol)


  9. Sully
    November 16th, 2006 at 20:40 | #9

    My first book was a moron book. Still selling well to morons. And I just wrote this with Dragon Naturally Speaking.

    Good by carpal.

    – Sully.
    (Thomas Sullivan)

  10. Janet Berliner
    November 16th, 2006 at 20:49 | #10

    Lucky you, Sully. Wish the program would work for me.
    It refuses to recognize my accent and my Tallulah voice.


  11. Teresa
    November 17th, 2006 at 02:28 | #11

    Hey Sully glad to hear you are looking at alternatives to typing.

    I’m sorry it doesn’t seem to like you, Janet.

  12. Mark Rainey
    November 18th, 2006 at 11:16 | #12

    Your perspective is always unique, entertaining, and informative, Sully. Not to mention occasionally wow-ing. ;)

    Hate to hear about your carpal tunnel woes. A writer’s nightmare.


  13. Sully
    November 18th, 2006 at 13:27 | #13

    Thanks, Teresa and Mark. Just to show what can be done, I’m dictating this post through Dragon NaturallySpeaking. Still slow and cumbersome, and sometimes my writing looks like a the word verification cue below, but it beats immersing my arms in acid out of desperation.

    — the voice of the Dragon (Thomas Sullivan)

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