From Developing Writer to Debut Novelist by Ellen Birkett Morris (Fiction)

Ellen Birkett Morris

I found the AWP Writer to Writer Mentorship Program at the perfect time in my career. I was primarily a short-story writer and had just come across a big idea, the kind of idea that could only fully be explored in a novel.

The inspiration was a National Public Radio story about a research program that explored the experience of young children with disturbing past-life memories. Researchers attempted to verify the children’s claims by checking them against reportage from the times. One example was a young boy who claimed to be a World War II fighter pilot killed at Iwo Jima and correctly named the plane, a friend who was killed, and the circumstances around the death.

I could easily imagine the pressure having a child with disturbing memories would exert on a family, on a marriage. I wrote a short story, took that into a workshop, and was encouraged by the workshop leader to turn the story into a novel.

My short story centered on a mother who struggles to understand what is happening to her young son, as he is remembering traumatic memories of being a soldier in Vietnam and beginning to act out in challenging ways. While there was plenty of drama inherent in that, I knew that in order for the book to be a novel, I would need to add another component. I decided to incorporate the viewpoint of a soldier serving in Vietnam.

The idea of taking on a novel, much less one with such an intricate structure, was overwhelming. But when I learned about Writer to Writer, I realized there was help for developing writers.

I applied several times before the program found the perfect match. I was paired with Masha Hamilton, a journalist, world traveler, and novelist whose own work had taken on mysterious themes. Masha is smart and generous, with an expansive worldview. She offered advice that homed in on the heart of the story, and helped me infuse the narrative with empathy. She helped me gain clarity on the emotional core of my characters and better understand the role of secondary characters. It was a true mentoring relationship, as she helped me foster and grow my own vision for the story.

As writers, we read, take classes, attend writing groups, and keep our hearts and minds open for those times when we need something a little extra, like the Writer to Writer mentorship.

Having a mentor felt like a safety net. Being accepted into the program was a vote of confidence for what I had achieved and what I could potentially achieve. What I learned from Masha made me a better writer.

I would go on to work on the book for another six years, puzzling out the narrative and connecting the threads of my two point-of-view characters.

On March 15, 2024, I’ll celebrate the debut of my novel Beware the Tall Grass, which won the Donald L. Jordan Prize for Literary Excellence, judged by Lan Samantha Chang. It will be published by Columbus State University Press and available in bookstores everywhere.

This accomplishment was once just a dream. Thank you to Masha and AWP Writer to Writer for this early, vital support and for all you do to uplift writers.

Ellen Birkett Morris

Ellen Birkett Morris is the author of Beware the Tall Grass, winner of the Donald L. Jordan Prize for Literary Excellence, and Lost Girls: Short Stories, winner of a PenCraft Book Award. Her fiction has appeared in Shenandoah, the Antioch Review, the Notre Dame Review, and the South Carolina Review, among other journals. Morris is a recipient of an Al Smith Fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council for her fiction. Find her at, on Facebook, on Twitter at @birkett_morris, and on Instagram at @ellenbirkettmorris.