50-for-50 interview: Ellen Boughn, trailblazer

ellen boughn

When I picture the women who came before me—the ones who led the way, who blazed the trails westward into the Lands Where Once Only Men Had Roamed—I envision a rather grim, stoic, weatherbeaten bunch. No wonder I didn’t recognize Ellen Boughn straightaway. Bursting with curiosity, crackling with wit, all-style and zero b.s., Ellen exudes perpetual lust for a life she has already lived the hell out of, but which she has no intention of easing up on anytime soon. Over the three glorious long-weekend conferences we spent together this Spring, she regaled me with tales of her Auntie Mame-like exploits around the globe (all financed by her various careers), in between swapping stories about the best places to eat bacon. Here’s a woman who has easily earned the right (several times over) to kick it on the sofa with The New Yorker (on her iPad, natch); instead, she jets off to Paris to teach, and plots who will be at her next Thanksgiving extravaganza. I predict that Ellen will live the shit out of several more decades; I can only hope I’m around long enough to score an invite to one of those turkey dinners.

When did you decide to become a writer?

I first understood the power of the written word when I observed a snake’s nest of squiggly lines come together in front of my eyes to form a word. The word was “orange” and it was in my ABC’s book next to a drawing of an orange. WOW! My toddler brain couldn’t believe it.  Weird lines that said what a thing was AND what color it was all at once.  This is my first memory of an exciting discovery. (The next most exciting event happened the same year when I discovered electricity. I nearly electrocuted myself when I blew up the Christmas tree by repeatedly pulling its string of lights in and out of the socket.) Both foretold of my future brief career as a science writer.

Who was your favorite teacher?

Miss Ray—Kindergarten. Dr. Beidleman—College advisor and ecology professor. Miss Ray because she was pretty and kind. Dr Beidleman because he thought a woman could be as good at science as anyone.

What do you love to write about?

I like to write stuff that makes people laugh. The rest of the time I get a thrill out of pounding out my opinions on most anything, especially if I’m angry. For money I used to write about science and presently photography.

What has writing taught you?

I’ve always kept a journal, at first under lock and key, in the sixth grade, with interesting notations such as, “Today Dr Salk discovered the polio vaccine”—April 12, 1955. Writing has taught me that the written word can be better than memory when it comes to keeping things straight…like the truth unless it’s about politics or religion.

How has writing made you stronger?

Nothing like a slap on the back for job well done by effectively translating thoughts into words to perk up one’s day.

If you could go back in time and tell 10-year old you anything, what would it be?

You are a writer.

What are your five favorite books, blogs, or things to read?

Just finished The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle, a writer I gave up on years ago. But this one is a stunner…reminded me of The Grapes of Wrath. Daily/weekly reads: The New York Times, The New Yorker, Huff Post—all iPad versions and the plain old Subscribe to the Bainbridge Island Reviewpaper version. My favorite thing to read is generally the last thing I managed to finish.

BIO (of my writing life, by Ellen Boughn)

I didn’t have teachers, mentors or family that acknowledged my writing skill. Consequently I didn’t develop the confidence to go out in the world and call myself a writer. I was hired to write stuff off and on while I pursued making a living as a teacher and then as a business owner. Being a writer was what other people could call themselves. People like Mark Twain and the woman who wrote the Nancy Drew mysteries.

I became a ghost.  I hid my talent behind the famous names of another as I tried my best to sound like a French oceanographer even though I had never been at or under the sea and can’t speak French. For a time I crafted scripts for low budget educational materials. I married a writer.

Even now I don’t believe much in my ability to write even though I have been published many times.  Now as I arrive at the tail-end of a long non-writing career, I wonder why I wasn’t able to convince myself to go full time doing the one thing that gave me joy and that was also called ‘work that would make me a living’. It was because as a young woman no one believed I could write or in a writing life. Enough said.

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