Writing to Heal: The Millions Interviews Elissa Washuta

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I once heard writer and educator Elissa Washuta say that writing essays can get very exhausting when it feels like the essayist is expected to be an insight machine. I took comfort from that acknowledgement, as a young writer who was (and still is) wrestling with the limits of my perception and self-awareness in a genre that often depends heavily on those qualities. And I continue to take comfort and inspiration from her work. She writes well about the difficult and sometimes fruitless struggle to shape narrative out of the mess of experience—from romantic entanglements to searches for the supernatural to our place in the troubling histories of our nations and peoples—and enacts that struggle on the page. The narrator Washuta’s readers encounter is not a sage on a mountaintop doling out wisdom to the worthy, but a friend writing from the middle of confusing and painful experiences, letting you listen while she considers the failures of life to cohere.

Washuta is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and an assistant professor of creative writing at The Ohio State University. She is the author of My Body Is a Book of Rules and Starvation Mode, and her book White Magic is forthcoming from Tin House Books. With Theresa Warburton, she is co-editor of the anthology Shapes of Native Nonfiction: Collected Essays by Contemporary Writers. She has received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Creative Capital, Artist Trust, 4Culture, and Potlatch Fund.

I met Washuta when I was one of her graduate students in the MFA at Ohio State, and this spring we exchanged some thoughts via email about White Magic.

The Millions: This is your third major publication, after My Body Is a Book of Rules and Starvation Mode, and a third book seems like a special milestone. Does it feel that way to you? What’s different about this publication from your previous two, in terms of your career or development as a writer?

Elissa Washuta: This book feels massive to me—it feels like my book in a way that the first two no longer do. I guess that’s not unusual. But I wrote those relatively quickly in comparison, and I didn’t know what I was doing to the extent that I do now. Starvation Mode was actually an offshoot of the project that eventually became White Magic, though the starting point (ancestral diets, disordered eating, and chronic health problems) is completely gone from the book at this point. I think of White Magic as my second book, and the second book is notoriously painful to write: we know our bad habits better, we’re more self-conscious, we know the literary marketplace is real and “the reader” isn’t an abstraction.

I believe I’ve told you (probably multiple times) my sad story about my first book as a cautionary tale about taking seriously the knowledge that when something is published, it’s beyond the writer’s control forever, to some extent. I wrote My Body Is a Book of Rules when I was in grad school and in the year following. I believe I finished grad school at the same age you did, but I didn’t have as much good sense as you do. I was reckless, and I just wanted to get the book done and published so I could become a literary celebrity. That’s not how it happened. Finding a publisher was hard, and readers arrived slowly. Once they did, I began to really understand that all my MFA school learning about the distinction between personal essay narrator and self was not really a thing in the real world. The narrator and I are seen as one in the same, which is a problem because we’re not. I was trying to write myself as a flawed, authentic character. Now that version of self will live forever.

I spent a long time on White Magic—about eight years or more—because I understood the enormity of a book. I wanted to stay with it until I felt certain that it was exactly what I wanted. In that time, I began teaching creative writing, and that made me a dramatically better writer, especially after I came to Ohio State and had to explain craft concepts to a bunch of brilliant grad students. My confidence in my knowledge became very strong very quickly, and I was able to push myself to take bigger risks, like writing a 100-page essay with overlapping timelines, that I knew could either flop or pay off. I also became really clear about where I stood in regards to narrative structure, and the acceptance that I was not at all anti-narrative made the book come together in a way that was a real departure from my first book.

TM: Your “Oregon Trail II” essay is so much about narrative, as is the rest of the book. On page 185, you write, “A trail is both more and less fixed than a narrative. When you’re writing the narrative, choices are infinite; when you’re reading it, your only choice is whether to continue or not. The trail is somewhere in between: when you get to the river, you can cross or not […] This river may prove a little tricky. You ford the river. This river may prove a little tricky. You ford the river. This river may prove a little tricky. You ford the river. This river may prove a little tricky. He’s been silent for a week but you don’t know what it means. You ford the river. Text him or don’t.” Later, on 187, you quote other prompts from the game: “Try to find another path – You were unable to find another path. Wait for conditions to improve—”. These moments reminded me of something I’ve heard you say, which is that a collection of essays is a series of failures to make sense of your experience, and that it’s through the accumulation of these failures that the narrator (and reader) arrives somewhere new. Your use of the game’s mechanical text prompts helps make these attempts and failures feel as rote as they feel in life, where sometimes we can end up asking ourselves, “How am I at this juncture again?” and “Will I ever get past this?” Do you think writing has had a direct effect on the way you understand the events of your life? Do you think writing about your life has impacted the way you approach life choices?

EW: It really has. In 2015, when I was not really writing much and hadn’t yet found the direction this book would eventually take, I was diagnosed with PTSD, and the psychiatrist said that it was clear that creating a narrative of my trauma through my first book had a significant positive effect on my mental health. I really held onto that—it was affirming. At that point, I had very little recognition as a writer. I didn’t yet have big grants or a tenure-track job. I had a small press book that had great reviews and very modest sales. It had made me almost no money. I was really beginning to wonder whether I was wasting my time, whether I even had another book in me, because I couldn’t find it. I don’t think I immediately consciously appreciated the significance of what the writing had done for me as a person working on healing, but the doctor’s words stuck with me, so I know they’ve mattered to me.

In 2017, as I talk about in White Magic, I was trying to figure out why I was so stuck on a failed relationship, and I was also newly in Ohio, without any furniture but a new couch while I waited for the movers to show up with most of my possessions weeks after I arrived. I spent those weeks watching Twin Peaks: The Return and re-watching the original run of the series. The book began to jell as I wrote down quotes that felt related to the feeling I had that I was experiencing a kind of magic I didn’t understand. I started writing to figure out what that relationship meant to me and why I wasn’t moving on, and as I wrote into that, I realized that the answer was much bigger and more complicated than I knew (though I did suspect that, which is why I started writing about it). I kept writing until, 100,000 words later, I had my answers, and I felt that I was free and could move on. I really did break the bad patterns of my life by writing this book and coming to understand myself.

TM: In “Centerless Universe,” you write, “Our old stories are about things like excrement, dreams, and learning to copulate, because they’re meant to teach us how to live,” which is a small part of a longer reflection on ways of knowing, in this essay and throughout the book. There used to be a lot of anxiety in the nonfiction world about the integrity of the genre, and of “truth” in the genre. I think people have mostly tired of that discussion. But as someone who often writes outside of, or even against, rationalism, can you discuss how your thinking about how to pass on or express knowledge (especially in this genre) has developed over the course of your career? Did you ever receive criticism for engaging with forms of knowledge like magic or astrology or spirituality, and how did you respond—not directly; I mean in your own life and writing, how did you respond?

EW: Oh, definitely! I think this book is very much a product of my feelings about who gets to make facts. That’s something I was thinking about in writing My Body Is a Book of Rules, which is about the documents that defined me and sometimes overwrote my stories about myself. I was very conscious of the veracity debate when I was writing White Magic, even before it was focused on the “supernatural” in the way it is—it was always concerned with ancestry and Indigeneity, because I wasn’t satisfied with the writing I’d done on that in my first book.

The problem, though, is that Coast Salish and mid-/lower-Columbia River epistemologies aren’t easily approached by settler fact checking, and the disruptions of colonization have complicated this further. I have ancestors who had a number of different first names and last names at different points, for example, my great-grandmother was named Abbie but was also named Lucy—I can’t explain it—and she had a number of last names during her life. There’s a lot of conflicting information out there about my family history, and a lot at stake in understanding who we are. For example: some of my relatives were disenrolled by their tribe of enrollment, the Confederated Tribes of the Grand Ronde Community of Oregon, and the history of our family in the 19th century became very important in the battle over disenrollment.

My friend Theresa Warburton wrote about my work in her new book, Other Worlds Here: Honoring Native Women’s Writing in Contemporary Anarchist Movements, and this analysis really struck me as capturing the difficulty of writing the truth about our history: “My Body Is a Book of Rules use[s] genealogical approaches to self-storying to imagine what a practice of memorialization can look like when it seeks to hold in one space multiple, conflicting histories whose synchronism refuses absolution, either personal or collective. In fact, this rejection of the assumed division between the individual and the collective is central to the employ of such a genealogical method in the first place.”

So that’s one part of it. The other is the astrology, tarot, synchronicities, and the occult. The tension around what’s unverifiable is at the heart of the book: I was looking for some kind of proof from the universe that I was on the right path. But the universe doesn’t give proof. That’s a human obsession, and its importance is supposed to be self-evident, but we so often operate from a place of wanting the trick instead of the truth. Ultimately, the book is factual because it’s true that I believed all these things, and the book isn’t meant to inform as much as it’s meant to evoke.

TM: In “Centerless Universe,” after mentioning a man who was stalking the narrator, you write, “And now—I’ve gone and opened a door, introduced a wrinkle of a plot point, and I will have to deal with the stalking on the page or delete it. Can I ask you to deal with it for me? In my opinion, I’ve done enough. I’ve served as a sturdy container for men’s anger and need, so often overlapping. I’ve disclosed for the curious. Learned to wear my suffering like a mimesis of suffering, a tolerable performance, heart turned human interest story.” I’m interested to know what you think is owed or not owed to the reader when it comes to disclosure. I’ve often heard the phrase, “delve or delete,” in workshops, but you resolve that tension simply by acknowledging it. Do you think that’s usually sufficient, that we can disclose as much or as little as we want in an essay as long as the reader knows we’re aware of what is or isn’t there?

EW: I think this is an under-utilized tool. We talked often in workshop about whether essays were trying to do too much, scope-wise—“I think this is a book” became a joke pretty quickly, if I remember correctly—and I’m also reliably reluctant to tell students that I think they need to split one essay into two if there are multiple things going on. I think it’s always worth investigating why things assert that they need to appear in an essay we’re working on, even if the connection isn’t clear.

But yes—in this essay I mentioned the stalking, which began in 2015, paused in 2016 when I got a restraining order, and briefly resumed when the order expired in 2017. That was not originally in the book at all, and not because I didn’t want to disclose that to the reader, but because I just didn’t feel it tugging at me as something I needed to work with in an essay. The dynamics at play there were similar to those I’d written about elsewhere. In revision, I added the passage you quoted, because it was a significant experience in my life, and it did intensify the hypervigilance I was writing about in that part of that essay. I felt that the reader needed to know it as backstory, but I really didn’t feel like getting into it. So I just dropped it in there like that. Why not? If I were bringing it to a workshop, I know I’d probably be expected to answer for the exclusion—but in a book, the reader gets what they get. If they’re unsatisfied with my refusal, they can put down the book, but if they’ve made it to page 230, they probably won’t mind the scantness of my mention of this huge thing.

I tend to think readers want to know more than they need to know—readers are busybodies, that’s the deal. In writing this book, I came to realize that giving the imagined audience everything they wanted would mean engaging in the same self-destructive people-pleasing behavior the book is about. I think calling attention to this moment was an act of boundary-setting that is a sign of my growth.

TM: Your depiction of the narrator’s relationship with Carl was familiar to me. I recognized (and I’m sure others will, too) the feeling of having a love interest you’re always circling but will never be with definitively. By the end of the book, it seems like the narrator’s extricated herself from that pattern. How did she do that? Is there any such thing as the right person? Will you let me know if you figure that out?

EW: I did that by becoming a powerful witch. I’m being flip, but really, I think the process of writing the book was incredibly empowering, and increasingly so as it went along, because the most ambitious and technically challenging work came at the end of the drafting process. I believe I understood, at the end of it, what’s behind that whole thing about having to love oneself before being able to be in love with someone else. I had understood it to mean that a person wasn’t lovable or worthy until that point. But now I understand that, for me, it meant that I wasn’t fully open to accepting interest and affection I thought I didn’t deserve. So I got out of that by developing self-worth as part of the ongoing process of getting and staying sober, and through writing a book I’m immensely proud of.

I don’t know how the “right person” thing works, but I know I did meet the right person for me immediately after finishing the draft I’d then send to my agent. The next day, I believe. So, yes, I did figure it out, and my advice to you, as always, is to work on your book.

TM: There are a lot of parallels in the book drawn between body and land (each essay is so centered in place), and the violence done to people’s bodies seems always linked to violence done to the land (white settlement is both geographical and physiological). At what point did that theme enter your writing process? Did you already understand that was what you were writing about when you began, or did you write your way into it?

EW: Even though my first book and my chapbook were all about my body, I resolved nothing about the topic, because even as the tension in the plot of my life diminishes over time as I get boring, the thing about being alive is that the body is always changing. The physical effects of various medications have been significant for me, and (related or unrelated, I don’t know) my chronic health issues have intensified. I have a constant awareness of sensations (throat soreness, spinal pain, presyncope, dizziness) and changing characteristics (dry eyes, hair loss, etc.) that potentially signal problems, as I was trying to solve the mystery of my sickness for years. That was actually a much more significant area of inquiry when I was aimlessly researching in the early 2010s as I tried to find my way toward a book. I was gathering research on the health impacts of intergenerational trauma. But, as I’ve probably told you many times, not all questions can be answered by the essay, and some questions couldn’t be answered by bloodwork or any other tool I had available to me. The illness just had to get worse, which didn’t happen until last year.

Anyway. The body was always there, and so was the violence. I was sick with alcoholism during the years I tried to write my second book but failed. I think that absence of meaning-making through essay is part of the book, somehow.

It did take me about eight years to fully understand what had happened in my relationship with “Henry” and how it had affected me. Sometimes I write from the middle of things, but sometimes I just can’t, because I don’t know I’m inside a narrative at all. This was one of those things.

TM: It seems like you gave yourself permission, in this book, to include all the sources and threads you wanted to. In terms of style, it’s pretty maximalist and meandering, while your previous two books felt more tightly constrained. There’s been an overemphasis on spareness in white Western literature, in the past (and now), and as I think about style and form in the context of your book, it makes me think about how a text, like a body, or a landscape, can be settled and straightened and made to conform. Can I indulge in a Billy-Ray Belcourt quote here? Is that allowed? “There is an art to spinning words so that they are always-already against the monotony of voice and for the polyphony of political speak. This is the terrain of NDN writing. It always has been and always will be […] Simplicity is a mode of being in the world available to those enmeshed in white structures of feeling.” I guess the subject matter and purpose of each book has to determine its form. Starvation Mode thinks about the body and consumption in terms of restrictions and rules, so it made sense for it to be spare and highly structured. How do you think the subject matter of this book helped shape its style and form?

EW: This interview is a Billy-Ray Belcourt fan page. Your observation about style is so interesting, because I think of the book as maximalist in terms of content, but minimalist stylistically. This is because I was trying to get the manuscript under 100,000 words without making any major cuts. My last revision before my agent went out with the book was focused on examining every single sentence to see how I could trim them.

But I might be thinking of something as a matter of form that you’re thinking of as a matter of style. As you know, I don’t have a lot to say about style: I don’t teach it, I don’t have words for it, but of course it matters to me. It’s just that it’s largely intuitive and sonic, an internal sense of my own voice.

At some point, I got it into my head that I wanted to write a book as long as a Franzen novel, because I know he’s allowed to and the conventional wisdom said I wasn’t. Of course, I know that’s because the length of a book is a material consideration, and thus a financial one, and I know Franzen’s audience is much larger than mine. But all that aside, I get the sense that a 125,000-word novel is more acceptable than a 125,000-word memoir or essay collection. Why is that? I mean, I know why.

So yes: I believe I used to have a nearly imperceptible feeling that I was always taking up too much space. I would pull my arms close to me if walking near someone in a hallway. Or cross my legs at both the thigh and ankle if sitting on public transportation. My legs won’t actually do that anymore, I just learned when I tried it. And my relationship with space is different now that I never leave the house, and everyone has a different relationship with space now.

In my house, I sit wherever I want, and I take up space. Nobody is going to occupy the space around me the way men sometimes do in public, manspreading on public transit or getting too close to me in the elevator, making a claim on space that I can’t. The house is my space. I think of the book as being like a house in many ways, that one included. And I decided to make it as long as I needed and, beyond aesthetic considerations, to only cut when I was told I had to rather than limiting the length in anticipation of being told to. I did end up cutting, but not just for the sake of shortening the book. Tin House found ways to keep the book under 500 pages. 

TM: What have you read lately that you want others to read?

EW: Well, it is thesis defense time, and I got to be the second reader for Mia Santiago’s brilliant thesis, a collection of essays I hope everyone will get to read in book form sooner rather than later. I’ve mostly read unpublished work lately, and my to-read pile is more like 12 piles; the coffee table is stacked high with books. Soon I intend to read all of them, including Topics of Conversation by Miranda Popkey; Good Morning, Destroyer of Men’s Souls by Nina Renata Aron; Night Rooms by Gina Nutt; The Witch of Eye by Kathryn Nuernberger; Carry by Toni Jensen, Subdivision by J. Robert Lennon; Dog Flowers by Danielle Geller; Pedro’s Theory by Marcos Gonsalez.

TM: I’ve seen you joke on Twitter that your next book is going to be much longer than this one. What’s next for you, in terms of projects?

EW: Oh my god, did I say that? I really think I just want a book as long as a Franzen novel, but I don’t know whether this one will be it. I’m working on essays about living between apocalypses. Right now I’m interested in the stock market. Something weird is happening. Perhaps it always is, and I’m just paying attention now. But I will say that this is the first time in history that a cryptocurrency created as a joke and based on a meme about a dog with a weird look on its face has spiked 400 percent in a single week. Where is the personal essay in this? I’m not disclosing my position yet, but I do not own any Dogecoin.