Colleen McElroy was born in St. Louis, Missouri, to a military family that moved often. She earned a PhD in ethnolinguistic patterns of dialect differences and oral traditions from the University of Washington. McElroy has written short stories, plays, television scripts, and nonfiction; her collections of poetry include Winters without Snow (1979); Queen of the Ebony Isles (1984), winner of the American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation; What Madness Brought Me Here: New and Selected Poems, 1968–1988 (1990); Travelling Music (1998); and Sleeping with the Moon (2007), winner of the 2008 PEN Oakland National Literary Award.
McElroy started writing intensely in her 30s. In an article for Seattle Woman magazine, she attributed her awareness of language to her training in speech pathology. McElroy’s work is influenced by her extensive travels, the landscape of the Pacific Northwest, and the experience of African American women. Her books of nonfiction include a travel memoir, A Long Way from St. Louie (1997), and Over the Lip of the World: Among the Storytellers of Madagascar (2001).
McElroy was director of speech and hearing services at Western Washington University before becoming a professor of English and creative writing at the University of Washington. She edited The Seattle Review from 1995 to 2006.
Her awards include grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, a Rockefeller Fellowship, and a Fulbright Creative Writing Fellowship.