When does a writer become a writer? When they start writing? When they publish a book or begin to teach writing?
When I asked Eleanor Morse this question, she said she started writing at seven or eight years old, but didn’t identify herself as a writer until she reached her early forties. With her recent novel, Unexpected Forest, winning multiple awards, and her position as a faculty member in the M.F.A. program at Spalding University, it’s hard to think of Eleanor as anything but a writer these days (other than the most compassionate human being you’ve ever met).
Ironically, a major in English literature was as close as Eleanor could get to creative writing while attending Swarthmore College as an undergrad. And that wasn’t very close. “There was no way to use that part of myself,” she told me over a cup of tea and her own homemade rice crackers. “It wasn’t until after college that I reconnected with my writing self, but not until my early forties did I decide to move writing to the center of my life.”
While raising two children and working full time at Maine Medical Center as an adult educator, Eleanor enrolled in a full-time M.F.A. program at Vermont College. “It was lunacy,” she said, “but I couldn’t not do it.” At Vermont College, with Sena Naslund as a mentor, Eleanor charted her own course. “I didn’t always do what I was told in my M.F.A. program. People would always say ‘write what you know.’ Well, I didn’t want to do that. For me, writing is an expansive process.” When Eleanor wanted to stretch and learn more about the ancient paintings of the San or Bushmen of Botswana, she created a character who needed to research them. “All along, as a writer, I’ve headed into areas that I don’t know. I don’t want to be bounded by my own life experience.”
Eleanor started identifying as a writer “at the point that I started trusting my editorial instincts. Until then, I needed a ‘thumbs up’ from other people to tell me whether or not my writing had value.”
These days, many people are eager to value her writing. Sena Naslund recruited her onto Spalding University’s faculty. Unexpected Forest, published by Down East Books, won Independent Publisher’s “Gold Award” in the Best Regional Fiction of the U.S. Northeast. Also, Maine Writers and Publishers Alliance awarded it Winner of Best Published Fiction at the 2008 Maine Literary Awards.
Those who know Eleanor won’t be surprised to hear that she shrugs off such accomplishments and awards. “When I think of the future, I hope I’ll continue to write books as long as I have breath and a brain in my head. Writing means doing my best not to shy away from characters, scenes, or story lines that are hard or emotionally challenging. To create characters that are vulnerable, I need to be vulnerable myself, willing at times to be scared. People often think that writing and living are quite separate. But they’re not.”
Island writers who enroll in Eleanor’s Sudden Fiction classes know that being a good writer and a good human being are synonymous for Eleanor; it’s part of what draws us back to her.
As Eleanor said, she has “come home to writing.” She’s come home indeed and seems very comfortable there.