Every Wednesday, I feature a writer and his/her workspace.  My aim is to get to know fellow writers better through their workspace and writing habits, and have them  share some of their writing wisdom here.

Today, I am most eager to welcome freelance writer Mary Ellen Sullivan. You can find her blogging at

Welcome, Mary Ellen!


Tell us a little bit about yourself. What do you do for a living? What genre do you love to write? What are some of your hobbies or interests? Do you have a hidden talent?

author photo

Author Mary Ellen Sullivan

I have been a full-time freelance writer for the past 21 years. Before that I ran a corporate creative group and was a magazine editor at an educational publishing company. What I love about freelancing is the variety, and the fact that I have an opportunity to learn about so many different topics nearly every day. Over the years, I have written art and architecture books, travel guides, magazine articles, annual reports, speeches, ads, liner notes for record albums, white papers and, in the digital age, websites, social media messaging, even other peoples’ Linked-In pages. Right now I have a blog about joy called On the Wings of the Hummingbird, which I love dearly, even though I don’t make any money on it. And oh yes, I have two secret superpowers: One is the ability to tell other people’s stories in a way that captures the essence of who they are in the world. The other is the ability to pick the absolute right restaurant for every occasion. So if you are ever in Chicago (a great restaurant town, I must add) I’m the one to call.

On Workspace

1.  Where do you do most of your writing?

I have a separate home office, which is important so I can shut the door at the end of the day and unplug. That’s where I do all my writing. However, I get my ideas everywhere—especially on walks by the lake, upon waking up from a nap and, most of all, in the shower. I keep notepads everywhere, many of which are water-stained because I leap out of the shower to write down the ideas before they slip away!


Mary Ellen’s Workspace

2.  Where did you get your desk?  How did you go about arranging your work area?

My desk and chair come from a fairly high-end office furniture store. I decided to splurge on the good stuff since I spend so much time working. I have had my current setup for nearly 14 years, and it works well for me and still looks good. For us Libra girls, who love beautiful surroundings, that is key.

reading corner




3.  What are some important things on your desk?  Are there specific things you need to have around you as you work?

More than anything, I need lots of space to spread out notes and papers, along with tons of file cabinets for interview notes, hard copies of client changes, and the too-numerous-to-count file folders of ideas, clippings and inspirations.


vision board


4.  What do you love most about your workspace? Do you have any favorite objects on your desk, or things you use often?

My workspace is set up to support creativity, and it is important for me to be surrounded by books and other objects of beauty.



Most of the art in my office was made by people I know, which brings another level of creative energy to the space. I also keep my mesa, which is an altarlike collection of objects that have specific meaning and intention, in my workspace.

mesa tall

The Mesa

The mesa is a cornerstone of  Peruvian/Andean traditional medicine, which I have studied and practiced for many years. I believe that there is a spiritual, unseen, even magical component to good writing, so I make sure that spiritual energy and inspiration always keep me company.

mesa spread



5. What’s your writing beverage?  What do you love to drink while you’re writing?

Cup after cup of ginger tea.

On Writing

1. Who is your favorite author?  Who inspired you to write?

I’m what I call a book slut. I love every kind of book, and read voraciously. It was my love of books in general, not one specific author, that inspired me to write. Some of my favorite authors, however, include Graham Greene, Salman Rushdie, Barbara Kingsolver, Jumpa Lahiri, Kate Atkinson, Raymond Chandler and (after recently tearing through The Goldfinch) Donna Tartt. I also share the weakness so many writers have for well-written detective fiction, and will always read a new book by Michael Connelly, Barry Maitland, Lee Child, Denise Mina, Laura Lippman, Donna Leon and most of the Scandinavian noir practitioners.



2. What’s your typical day as a writer like?  Do you have any writing related rituals or quirks?

Blessedly, no two days are the same, so I have a lot of freedom to make my own schedule. I generally start my mornings with a pot of tea and the NYT crossword in my favorite chair to jumpstart my brain. Then I just get to work. If I have a huge project and I’ve set aside time to work exclusively on it , I’ll do two hours of writing, then two hours off, then two hours of writing, then two hours off until my back aches and my eyes blur. During the two hours off , I may nap, take a bath, eat a meal or walk to clear my head. I’ll stay away from books or TV, however, to keep other people’s words from invading my thought process.

fave photo

Mary Ellen’s favorite photo:

This is one of my favorite photos because it captures the joy I take in life and, in particular, the joy I take in being an auntie and fairy godmother to all the children in my world (including my nephew David, who is pictured here at about age 10).

3.  Do you write every day?  How many hours a day do you spend writing?  What are some of your worst writing distractions?

Yes, I write every day, but some days more than others depending on what I have going on. I have to do a lot of telephone interviews for pieces I am working on, so I try to group them together on one day of the week in order to write uninterrupted on other days. That doesn’t always work, so I have also gotten used to being fragmented and writing whenever I can. When you have a looming deadline, you don’t have a choice. I would have to say my biggest distraction is email. I am happy to turn off the phones when I write, but I can’t seem to turn off my attraction to opening an email as soon as it arrives.


4. Why do you write?

 It’s who I am and what I do, both my passion and my profession.


5. Any writing tips or techniques or words of wisdom you want to share with us?  How about a favorite writing quote?

I also teach writing workshops and classes on starting a writing practice. The first thing I tell students is that writers write. Every day. If you wanted to be a good tennis player, you wouldn’t sit around thinking about it. You’d get out on the court and start hitting balls. The same with writing. To get good you must practice. There’s that famous quote about “I hate writing but I love having written.” That’s a terrible quote, especially because so many young writers tend to believe it. You must love the PROCESS of writing, rather than the end result. I know that’s very practical advice, so I also want to address the mysterious, alchemic part of writing. This quote by Annie Dillard gets at it quite well, and not surprisingly it’s a lot like life—you have to go all in.


“One of the few things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.”



Thanks for giving us a glimpse into your writing life, Mary Ellen!

Wednesday Writer’s Workspace is an ongoing series, and if you’re interested in being featured here, simply leave me a message in the comment box, and I’ll be sure to email you.


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5 Responses to “Wednesday Writer’s Workspace Welcomes Mary Ellen Sullivan”

  1. Southpaw says:

    Nice to meet you Mary Ellen. I absolutely love your superpowers – both of them. And I love your Mesa.

  2. mooderino says:

    One day I hope to have such a well put together working space. One day…

    Moody Writing

  3. Karen Lange says:

    It’s always good to meet another writer. Thanks for the intro, Nutschell! :) Love Mary Ellen’s office!

  4. Great interview. I especially love The mesa and it’s objects.

  5. LD Masterson says:

    Now THAT’S a writing space.

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