McMicken College of Arts & SciencesUniversity of Cincinnati

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Page After Page, A&S Alumna Savors Writing Life

Her first official body of work was presented to the world in a ribbon-bound spiral notebook.

Date: 8/16/2006
By: Britt Kennerly
Phone: (513)556-8577
Her first official body of work was presented to the world in a ribbon-bound spiral notebook.

One of Ellen Birkett Morris’ more recent essays centered on housecleaning to the strains of Barry White music. That piece made the pages of “Nesting: It’s A Chick Thing,” by Ame Mahler Beanland and Emily Miles Terry – which in turned landed on the New York Times bestseller list and can be found on the shelves of the UC bookstore.

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A&S alumna Ellen Birkett Morris earned her master's degree in communication art in 1989.

Being a writer is everything this McMicken College of Arts & Sciences grad always wanted – and she’s writing about just about everything, too.

Morris, who earned her master’s degree in communication art in 1989, lives in Louisville, Ky., her hometown. Her memories are many and rich.

For example, an essay Morris penned about a game she used to play with her sister, in which the two pretended they were stuck together or something bad would happen to them, wound up in “The Girls’ Book of Friendship,” published by Little, Brown & Company. Her work’s also found in the “The Girls’ Book of Love,” “The Writing Group Book,” from Chicago Review Press, and Rodale’s “Hidden Kitchens.”

The essay on cleaning to Barry White was “so funny, such a hoot,” she said.

“With my work, it’s finding the right format,” Morris said. “I may have an idea for one that that turns out to be another – it’s an interesting journey for me, figuring out what each piece should be.”

Morris worked on her high-school newspaper and majored in English at University of Louisville. She wound up at A&S for graduate school, finding her niche in the communication department.

“One of the things UC taught me that you didn’t necessarily always get at U of L was a sense of intellectual rigor, that you’d be tested and asked to really examine these ideas that went fairly deep,” she said

“I found that the coursework was demanding in a really positive way that taught me to discipline myself to take the next step. I came to the program as a somewhat shy girl from Kentucky … I benefited from the attention and example of teachers like Gayle Fairhurst and Teresa Chandler Sabourin. They in particular were attentive to making sure we got what they were trying to get across – what it takes to succeed, to be disciplined and analytical. I found that to be just the right message.”

Post-graduation, Morris went from a job indexing newspaper articles for a computer database to teaching as an adjunct at Louisville-area colleges and universities.

“I found that was an incredible experience,” she said. “It was fascinating, the different things different students brought to the classroom.”

After 10 years, feeling like “I had given most of what I could give,” Morris was “drawn back to the writing,” she said.

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Ellen Birkett Morris' work is included in "Nesting: It's a Chick Thing."

She started small, freelancing for a business journal and then, working her way up with Today’s Woman magazine in Louisville. She began to identify, she said, what areas were most important to her, what intrigued and motivated her.

“It takes so much time to build that base,” Morris said. “What I found I most enjoyed doing was medical writing and health writing, writing about travel and food.”

She’s trying to put together a collection of poems to enter in a chapbook competition, and is shopping an essay about Hurricane Katrina and a short story set in Iraq.

And, to supplement what she loves to write, Morris consults with small nonprofits on public relations and writes press releases: “That’s the central basis of my money-making,” she said.

It’s no secret that freelancing’s tough. Morris has toughened up, too.

“I’ve had a great year with great success, but for every acceptance letter, there are 10 or more rejection letters,” she said.

“I keep a list of everything I send out, whether it’s accepted or if they pass on it. It’s a very long list. But I’ve come to the belief that there’s a market for everything. It’s a matter of finding the right market, and the people with the kind of sensibilities that match the tone of what I’m writing - hitting the right editor on the right day with an image that resonates with them.

“There’s a certain element of happenstance and a certain element of studying, knowing what these markets are. That makes me able to not be quite as dejected when rejections come in. I think about it again: Where might this work?”

Morris calls her father, a writer, “very encouraging,” and her mother, a nurse, “such a big fan.”

The support of her husband, Bud, is constant.

“He’s a great sounding board,” she said.

“When I reached my 10-year anniversary of the beginning of my freelance journalism career, he interviewed me about what that had been like and made a tape for me… I was flabbergasted. It comes to you in those moments, when you do get it right, that without this kind of constant, quiet support it would be much harder to do.”

Finish this sentence:
1)When I get a rejection letter, I: read it, note it on my work log, throw it away and think about where to send the piece next.
2)The first time I made a mistake that appeared in print: I became more detail oriented.
3)When I can’t seem to finish a story or project: I walk my dog, Tippi.
4)The literary figure I’d most like to spend time with is: Jane Austen or Eudora Welty.
5)J.K. Rowling should: not kill Harry Potter in the final Potter book because God knows we need heroes these days.

Ellen's fiction
Ellen's home page

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