Ella Boureau: The Art of Change After Traumatic Brain Injury

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Ella Boureau is an NYC-based writer, editor, events curator as well as the Awards Administrator for Lambda Literary Foundation. She founded and ran the online magazine and reading series In the Flesh for several years. Her writing has been featured in Guernica, Tin House, Slice Magazine, and Full Stop. “Helps to Hate You a Little: A Lovestory,” is her first play. It is currently playing at Cloud City through November 20.

You’re someone who does very intersectional work between the arts and advocacy.

I’m trying.

What did you want to be growing up?

A writer. [Laughs]

Do you have a favorite writer?

I love Violette Leduc. She was like this bisexual bastard child, and her way of seeing the world was startling. At once very country-French and expansive, sort of from nowhere and everywhere at the same time. I would give her a read if you can.

I love that you love sex-positive literature, and believe that it can be literature.

It’s just a part of life. It feels weird to me to have a book that’s just erotica. Where does sex start? Where does it end? How do you make this line? It feels artificial to me. I like books that [aren’t as compartmentalized]. It’s just life force, you know?

What do you like about writing? What’s your least favorite thing about writing?

[Pause] What I love is when you experience things, it’s all kind of nebulous, and it’s all stimulus. You write it down and it’s there. It’s an object now. It’s from you but it’s not you anymore. You can do this with things like visual art and writing. I like to sing but I’m shy about it, because it’s not separate from you at all. Your voice is you. If they don’t like your voice, it almost feels like they’re saying they don’t like you. I like that you can separate yourself from writing.

Writing is the hardest part about writing. You know this. [Laughs] One struggle I’m having as a relatively new playwright is knowing when to step back and when to come forward during a production.

I think that just comes down to intuition and then repetition in seeing your work projected. You’re trying to make the best work with the collaborators and practical components you have, and that’s not necessarily the same feeling you had when you completed the play. It’s basically two separate things.

Yeah, it becomes another thing, and with every iteration of it, it’s different.

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As this interview takes place, you’re one week away from the opening of your play. How are you doing with self-care?

I don’t have it all figured out. I don’t feel like I’m in a panic. I have a hard time sleeping and I’m an anxious person. I was in a car accident three years ago and I had a mild traumatic brain injury. It’s mostly better, but one thing that’s still hard is sleeping and getting out of a weird brain loop.

How has your self-care changed after the accident?

I go for long walks before I go to bed. That helps me empty out from the day. I can’t physically run right now but I used to do that. I have a really excellent girlfriend who is very nice to me.

Did the injury change your creativity?

The weird thing about brain injury is you don’t seem that different on the outside. The thing that changes is your cognition. How someone understands the world is so intimate that you don’t even know it’s happening until it’s not happening in the same way. I don’t know if I can explain it, but it’s almost like there’s an off button sometimes. I’m here, but I’m not here. There’s a dulling of feeling and definitely a dulling of creativity. You can’t take in as much and everything is more overwhelming.

[Pause] People became complicated in a way they weren’t before. I used to be very extroverted and love talking to people. I’ve become much more introverted. It’s gotten better, but I’ll be at a party and suddenly I’m like, I have to go. I can’t even say goodbye because I’m going to explode into tears. It’s weird and it fucks with you on a very deep level, and I can’t totally explain it.

It used to be that, for example I’m 28 now, so usually 28-year-old Ella is driving the car. Sometimes 4-year old Ella is driving, but usually it’s me at my current age. After the brain injury, 4-year-old Ella is behind the wheel a lot more and is dealing with more situations that are way beyond her maturity level. I am reduced to a child in situations that I used to handle relatively effortlessly. I don’t know how visible it is, but that’s how it feels inside.

What’s amazing is how keenly aware you are of your boundaries and internal processes.

I’ve thought about it a lot. [Laughs] I can’t really drink alcohol. I can’t stay out late more than one night in a row. I absolutely have to sleep. I’ve gotten better at noticing when I’m getting emotional for no reason. But it’s that thing. The hardest things you go through can end up saving your life in a weird way. I was 25 when the car accident happened. When you’re at that age, you’re just like, “Everything is amazing and I’m not going to think about taking care of myself at all.” I came out as queer a little late, at 20. I was just going to be gay and drink all the time and get myself into ridiculous sex situations.

Well, you’ve spent so much time repressing it.

Yeah, so then you go really nuts. I’m glad I can’t do that anymore.

When you write now, are you on or off?

It depends what kind of writing it is. If it’s an essay and your thoughts have to be organized in a certain way, I’m much sharper. I don’t know if you get this way when you’re writing, when you get into your groove, you go down this path and it just feels like it’s going to be a good writing day. You feel like you’re in your element.

Yeah, like you’re in the zone.

Yes. That doesn’t happen anymore. It really sucks. If it happens, it happens for, like, five minutes.

So writing has gotten harder.

Yes, it’s harder. I wrote a lot the first year-and-a-half after the accident, but in my mind, I felt like I couldn’t write and nothing felt right. I think it was probably just depression.

I’ve been feeling a bit of that myself lately, and it’s coming out of what has felt like two years of writer’s block, even though no one could tell. I felt like what writing to giving me had changed.

What did you feel like you were getting out of writing, and how did it change?

[Pause] I’ve either felt very anxious or a numbness to the physical act of writing, and also in the aftermath, like during workshops and hearing my work out loud. The way I enjoyed it had changed.

So it wasn’t necessarily your writing that had changed.

My voice and my approach changed as well. My dream at the time was to be a television showrunner, but I realized, oh, I could achieve that and still be unhappy. I needed other things and I couldn’t be singularly focused anymore without that becoming unhealthy.

[Laughs] I’m feeling this so hard. It’s so painful. It’s not the only thing to define yourself against.

What’s amazing is that even as you describe your struggle with creativity, you continue to create. What is your play, “Helps to Hate You a Little: A Lovestory” about?

I wrote this sex scene, and when it first came out I thought, this is a play. Then, I got into a relationship with a woman who had a very serious boyfriend, and basically had an affair. It went so wrong and things fell apart. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around how it all happened. There was also an aftermath in the community and [dealing with] how people we knew reacted to what happened. Even in my little Brooklyn queer enclave, I fell into this hole of, “You’re the scary lesbian monster who breaks up heterosexual relationships.” It surprised me and it really hurt, and I wrote it from that place of pain. I felt very self-righteous and blameless at the time, because I was so defensive. I wished the situation had been different and all three parties could have examined our motives.

I always say, everyone makes break-up art, where we produce something in the aftermath of a relationship.

I’ve since been on the outside watching it happen to friends. It’s also very female, the idea of being labeled the suspicious woman. I guess I was surprised by sexism. You know how sometimes that happens?

There it is!

Yup. I want to show that shit happens and it’s very confusing. We don’t know what people are going through. We don’t know the internal anguish that is happening, so to create this extra layer of punishment is cruel. We are also in an age where we’re called upon to have an opinion about everything. People make mistakes and there will already be consequences. The least we can do if we are watching it unfold is to have some compassion.

The play is going to be at Cloud City in Williamsburg, and it runs through November 20. Everyone come see it!

What are your thoughts for other people who are trying to overcome severe trauma?

I’ll give the advice someone gave me. I have a family friend who I call my godmother. She was hit by a Mack Truck while stopped at a stop sign, so her brain injury was much more severe. She told me, “Don’t panic. Just observe the changes that are happening. You can write them down, but try not to judge what’s happening to you.” I’m not very good at it, but when I succeed, it’s helpful.

I went through a period where I just felt this vast desert of nothingness for months and months. That can be really scary, especially in New York where you’re surrounded by people doing a million things. I was complaining to a friend about this and she said, “Sometimes you just need to feel empty. You can’t be full of shit all the time. You need that emptiness to make way for new things, new experiences.” It’s all about not judging yourself.

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