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Berea Writer Embarks on New Adventure

Normandi Ellis’ office at the Public Relations building has a huge window that allows the sunshine to beam in. If you walk by the building, you’ll see various CASE awards prominently displayed in that huge window, along with back editions of the Berea College Magazine, which she works on dilligently as editor. She also heads the PR photography department. Ellis can sometimes be found teaching classes like “Writing Life Stories,” which she co-taught with English professor Libby Jones this past short term. You might even spot her in a writing group that meets once a week.

Normandi Ellis is a recipient of a grant from KFW this year.

You may already know all of this about Ellis; none of this is new information. There is, however, something that may catch you by surprise: Ellis is a published author, and has won her second grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women (KFW) in order to write her first novel.

The KFW awards Artist Enrichment Grants to feminist artists in order to pursue various ideas and projects, and to deepen their skills in their areas of interest. This year, 46 grants were awarded to artists who demonstrated creative potential and a desire to use the power of art to bring about social change. The total of all the grants equaled an impressive $100,000. Ellis was awarded $3,000.

In order to receive the grant, Ellis had to submit a proposal as well as two strong letters of recommendation. When she received the letter informing her of the award, Ellis couldn’t believe that she’d won a second time. “They sent me a letter, and I opened it two or three times just to make sure it was the same letter each time I opened it. I was pretty excited because I’d been turned down once, got one and got turned down again, and I thought maybe they wouldn’t fund me twice. I was very, very happy that they did."

She also had to draw up a budget, most of which will be used for supplies and research trips. Ellis was also able to use some of the money as a donation to the Hopscotch House in Louisville, a retreat that is free to artists who are approved to live there for a length of time. Ellis recently spent a few days there, immersed in the quiet and her writing. “You don't have to worry about bothering anybody,” she muses. “You can go straight to your work. It's like living for four days inside the novel.”

Ellis grew up in Frankfort, Ky., in the same house for much of her life. She graduated from the University of Kentucky with a bachelor's degree in journalism. She left home and moved all the way out to Colorado where she attained a master's degree from the University of Colorado at Boulder. After moving around a while longer, she finally came back to the place she’s always called home: Kentucky.

Ellis' love for language and writing began early, and at the dinner table. "My mom just wouldn't let me not eat my green beans," laughs Ellis. "I had to sit there and she read poetry to me, and that's how she got me to eat my green beans. So I learned to love poetry, to love language. If you could think of every one of those words as a green bean, I'd just put it in my mouth and moved it all around. That's what writing was about to me. I guess I was 'fed' it."

Ellis’ writing career started off quietly enough. She wrote for magazines and newspapers; she worked for book publishers and as a technical writer. Ellis also worked as a public relations and marketing person for small graduate schools in Colorado, in addition to teaching creative writing classes. After coming back to the Bluegrass, she worked for the Kentucky Arts Council as a literary artist in the schools.

Eventually, Ellis’ road led her to Berea College. “I don’t think I would have taken a job anywhere else,” she says. “I had to take something that I totally believed in, and Berea was something that I believed in.” While Ellis’ career here at Berea involves many facets of writing and photography, she does have a favorite aspect of her job. “The best part of the job ... is that I get to interview the most interesting people and write about them. I’ve always loved to find interesting people and write about them,” she says in a voice that equals her passion for what she does.

Her "job" as a writer knows no bounds or schedule. "I like to write wherever I'm seized," she says. "I've written short stories while driving down the road with a pen in one hand and a Dairy Queen napkin on my leg ... because it's like, 'Oh! Big idea! I gotta do it now!'"

What may be most surprising about Ellis’ history as a writer is her foray into translating Egyptian hieroglyphs and publishing books on the stories they tell. While taking a workshop on translation, and primarily working with the Spanish language, she was prompted by her instructor to find a third language. Not having experience with anything other than “a southern dialect that didn’t count,” Ellis picked up Egyptian hieroglyphs and translated the Egyptian Book of the Dead for eight years. She published “Awakening Osiris” in 1988, "Dreams of Isis" in 1995 and “Feasts of Light” in 1998.

Ellis has also published “Sorrowful Mysteries” and “Voice Forms,” both of which contain short stories, the form of writing that she enjoys the most, and prose poems. Additionally, "Fresh Fleshed Sisters,” a collection of short-short fiction, will come out this summer. Ellis is also finishing up a memoir ten years in the making titled, “In Memory,” which deals with the passing of her father.

As if all of this isn’t enough, Ellis is sitting down to writing her longest piece of writing ever: the novel that has been funded by KFW. The book, which has a working title of “Ghosts in My Mother’s Kitchen,” looks to be an epic one. The book is set to span nearly 100 years, or three generations, in the story of a particular family. Drawing on inspiration from her great-aunt, the book tackles the issues of disconnect between mothers and daughters, the bonds of sisterhood and the spiritualist movement in the 1900s.

“Since I have 100 years to play with this,” says Ellis, “a lot of things have happened between 1900 and 2000: the women’s suffragette movement, Roe versus Wade. There’s an explosion of things that I get to explore as a part of this process, in addition to the rise of the spiritualist movement during the influenza epidemic (and) the world wars; there’s a lot there." So far, she’s about 75 pages into the book.

Even though she's had many different experiences with her art, Ellis is thankful for each and every one of them. "I've had lots of really fun experiences," she says. "It's been an adventure, really, and a blessing. I feel really blessed to have done what I've been able to do. I've always wanted to be a writer, and I've always wanted to live like one. I thought, 'I don't care if I'm ever published, as long as I live like a writer, then I'll be happy.' I've been lucky to do that and more."

For more information on the Kentucky Foundation for Women, please click on the links at the bottom of the page.

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