One of the things I like best about social media is that I “meet” new people without ever having to leave my living room. Ellen Birkett Morris is one of those folks I’m in touch with over my computer, but have yet to greet in person. She is an accomplished author who writes short fiction, plays, essays, and more, several of which have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and her book of poetry, Surrender, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2012. In addition to her vast writing portfolio, Ellen speaks on panels and is a teacher. most recently sharing her knowledge at The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and The Carnegie Center for Literacy and Learning in Lexington, Kentucky. With such a busy schedule, I’m grateful that Ellen spared some time to answer several questions.
Christina: In 2017, you took a year off from writing conferences and concentrated on your work. You wrote that now, “I am less satisfied with my first efforts. I am taking the time to explore the various paths a story can take and asking myself which of these paths is truest to my characters.” Using this new method, do you see a difference in your end products?
Ellen: I do. I want to start by saying that writing conferences including the Antioch Writers’ Workshop and Kenyon Review Writers Workshop have been instrumental in my development as a writer. I learned so much and received important encouragement at conferences at pivotal points in my career. My experience at conferences led me to pursue an MFA, which pushed my work to the next level.
That said, the time I took in 2017 to integrate what I learned and focus on the writing has changed my work. A recent story of mine involved a determined, strong young woman with limited options in a tough situation. I wrote an ending that made sense but lacked drama and, when I examined it closely, wasn’t in keeping with the integrity and courage that was central to my character’s make-up. I went back and thought again and had her make a really tough choice. The choice heightened the drama and was in keeping with her character. It was the right choice and it came from going further, questioning my assumptions, and pushing myself as a writer.
Christina: You sometimes write prose poems. What can you accomplish in a prose poem that you cannot with standard verse poetry?
Ellen: I think prose poems allow for a bit more storytelling and let the poet delve more deeply into the narrator’s voice. My poem What Broke My Heart is a good example of this. The prose poem form allowed me to pile on the details that paint the portrait of this farmer’s life and the narrator’s connection to and regard for him. It is important that the language had a certain musicality to it. I saw it as a flow, a cascade of words and images, that leave the reader with a final poignant observation. In standard verse poetry I feel more compelled to write very tightly, to sharpen each word, to compress meaning until I can discover what that compression yields.
Christina: You call yourself a multi-genre writer. Do you have a favorite genre? (I promise not to tell the other genres!)
Ellen: I don’t have a favorite genre. I love them all. When I started as a writer, poetry felt like a safe space to develop my skills. It was a sandbox, a small safe space to play. Then I tried short stories and when I felt comfortable with them I went on to take the great leap into the world of novels. That took some courage, but it was the only canvas large enough for the big idea (what happens when the life you have is not the life you expected to have) that I needed to explore in the novel.
This year I have focused a bit more on essays. I think it is good for writers to play with form and to let each piece tell you what it needs to be. I will always allow myself this freedom because it helps me grow as a writer.
Christina: Where do you find inspiration for your writing and what authors inspire you?
Ellen: Inspiration is everywhere. Part of our job as writers is to learn to pay attention to what holds our interest. This can be news stories, things we read, events from real life. What fascinates us and why is a big question. I love the fact that as a writer I can work through the tough elements of life on the page and have some emotional catharsis and self-knowledge come from that imaginative exploration.
I love the work of Elizabeth Strout, which is nuanced and unflinching with an undercurrent of generosity and kindness. I liked Lily King’s Euphoria for its ability to transport me physically and emotionally. I like the poetry of Ted Kooser and the elegant way he personifies objects and creates emotional and physical landscapes. I love W.S. Merwin’s work for the truth I find there.
Christina: You just recently signed with an agent–congratulations! What can you tell our readers about that journey?
Ellen: Thanks! I started querying the novel several years ago, way before it was ready to be seen. I’d advise other writers to be patient and wait until the book is as good as you can make it before you send it out. A project that big needs time to develop and to go through the crucial revisions that it takes to make it good.
After several rejections, I slowed down and focused on revisions. I let my writing groups and trusted friends and relatives read it. Then I went through AWP’s fabulous Writer to Writer Mentorship Program. They paired me with Masha Hamilton, a novelist and teacher, whose generosity and thoughtful critiques pushed my understanding of what a novel could do.
After that I asked two of the smartest alumni from my MFA program (Queens University-Charlotte) to read it and they offered really useful feedback. When I queried again I wrote to famous agents with full lists and continued to get rejected. Then I remembered the advice of Barbara Jones, an editor who is on the faculty of Tinker Mountain’s summer workshop. She said send the manuscript to young agents who are eager to build their lists and hungry to sell good work. I did that and found my agent. The book is under consideration with 15 publishers now. I know several great writers who found agents, but did not end up selling their first book. My fingers are crossed for a good outcome.
Christina: How do you write? On your phone? Your computer? By hand? Or do you mix it up?
Ellen: I always work at my computer in my home office in my quiet neighborhood in Louisville, Kentucky. I am really able to focus here. I may take notes elsewhere, but my best work happens here with my little dog asleep in his crate nearby.
Christina: What is on the horizon for you?
Ellen: I am excited that I will be presenting “Paths to Publishing” at the Antioch Writers Workshop this summer. It is a short course that is part encouragement, part tools to find outlets for your work. I offer resources that come from years of submitting across genres and also encouragement for staying focused on your work and becoming your own champion.
I am still at work looking for a home for a collection of linked short stories, which have appeared in Antioch Review, South Carolina Review, Notre Dame Review, and Shenandoah. It has been tougher than I expected to find a home for them.
I am also contemplating the next novel idea and letting it roll around in my head and take shape before I attempt to get it on paper.
Thanks to Ellen for agreeing to this interview! If you know of an author who’d like to be featured in an interview ((or you are an author who would like to be featured), feel free to leave a comment or email me at the address listed on my contact page.