Elissa Washuta on the Desire to Write a “Big Book”
The Author of the Essay Collection White Magic Talks to Eliza Smith
As a student of Elissa Washuta’s at Ohio State, I had the distinct pleasure of following the threads of her then-collection-in-progress, White Magic, through her latest preoccupations and ideas about craft. During her office hours, she’d offer me a La Croix and then lean back from her desk to show me the constellation of notecards she was gathering about Stevie Nicks, or Twin Peaks, or the colonial history of Seattle. At readings on campus or at her neighborhood bookstore, Two Dollar Radio, I’d find myself entranced by her essay drafts about Instagram-aesthetic witchcraft or falling in love with the Red Dead Redemption character Dutch van der Linde.
“I want to do that thing Elissa does,” I said to a classmate while starting a new essay, “where it starts with jokes about dick pics and then you end up crying at the end.”
In the first months of 2021, we talked over email about self-doubt and validation, using place as an anchor for nonlinear chronology, what social media’s done to essayists, the sidelining of romantic heartbreak, and more.
Eliza Smith: First off, we decided that the best way to do this interview was by email, one question at a time, because we’re both feeling scattered and unfocused lately. How has this last year of quarantine been for you, particularly as a nonfiction writer? I had the realization, back when I was your student, that my essays would get more fragmented the more fragmented my mind felt, from stress and lack of sleep. Has this period affected your writing?
Elissa Washuta: Writing has changed for me over the past year, but—this is complicated. I finished revisions on White Magic in the summer, I believe, and really had no interest in starting something new after that. I just didn’t feel done with the relationship with the book, didn’t want to end that intimate, cocooned feeling of the work. But ideas for new essays were coming up, and I wanted to work on them. The complicating factor has been my health: not good. I haven’t gotten covid, but for various reasons, the pandemic has made me sicker, and chronic illness is a compressing force on all of my life.Once my self-doubt dissolved, I was able to see how stifling it had been for years.
Still, I did draft one long essay over the fall and early winter. Isolation has made my memory such a smooth void space, so I would forget I was working on it, then open the draft and really not remember writing those words or thinking those thoughts. I think you and I have talked about sleep and memory—I feel like my whole head is inside-out. It’s sort of like a complicated knitting process that requires holding a bunch of strands. The hands of my head just can’t do it these days.
ES: Yeah, I can’t imagine wanting to rush out of that relationship with the book. You worked on White Magic for how many years? I know from talking to you while you were working on it that writing a big book was—I’m not sure if it was a goal or just an outcome of the material, but it was on your mind. Can you talk about that?
EW: So, it’s sort of hard to say when work on White Magic began. I was working on a follow-up to My Body Is a Book of Rules as early as 2011, three years before that book came out. I really wanted to write an easy book: easy to write, easy to read. The process of trying to sell my first book was incredibly painful, and I still can’t fully let that go, maybe in part because I’m using the hurt and anger as fuel. I wanted to write a book that would never prompt an editor to say they didn’t know how to sell it. I tried to write that book for years. In 2012, I had an experience I knew was the center of something: I saw my future self, quite literally, in the real world. I wrote about it, and kept rewriting it. Over the next few years, I tried writing various books I discarded. I went long stretches without writing at all, because I couldn’t see the point and didn’t know whether I had anything to say about myself anymore.
Then some things happened: over the course of two days in 2016, I got a big award for arts innovation and a competitive local grant in Seattle. It was truly jarring to have to believe that maybe there was value in my work, because I was holding actual checks. Later that year, I went on the academic job market and was hired by Ohio State. I began writing a lot, and suddenly, I understood what the book was. I think that happened not only because my life was suddenly full of essays, and because you all were working at such a high level that I needed to really understand my highest-level ideas about essays in order to put them into words for you—it was also because an R1 institution had made an investment in me, and I was finally able to truly believe that my writing was valued. And, aside from a few essays here and there, the writing I’ve published has always been the formally weird stuff I want to do. So I had to get over my wallowing and believe that I was doing something that would have a future. The tenure clock also helps.
Once my self-doubt dissolved, I was able to see how stifling it had been for years. I wanted to do something nice for my past self, something delightful for my present self, and something that my future self would still be proud of: no compromises, no flinching. I wanted to take up a lot of space. I wanted to write a big book.
ES: Oh, I love that. Probably writers of other genres would disagree with me, but I feel like tangible validation is even more important to writers of personal narrative, because in some ways it’s not just their craft that’s being validated; their life story and identity are wrapped up in that, too.
Speaking of Seattle and Ohio, I was really struck by how important places are to the book—Mountain Lake, New Jersey; Seattle; Columbus. Each felt so tactile and whole. What’s your relationship with place, as a person and as a nonfiction writer (if you feel a difference between the two)?
EW: Sense of place was one of my biggest craft challenges to work on after finishing my undergrad writing classes and making the move to grad school. I can see now that the problem was probably that I had lived in the Midatlantic (NJ and MD) my whole life before leaving for Seattle at 22, and I didn’t fully understand “place” because I’d never had an extended experience of getting to really know somewhere outside of that region. So working on “place” was on my mind as I began writing personal essays, and I think that probably makes it fundamental to how I approach the essay.
Also, in revising my first book manuscript, it became clear that nonlinear chronology was only going to work for me if I gave the reader a clear sense of where things were happening, and a strong association between time and place: New Jersey, then Maryland, then Washington. The book’s movements through time would be pinned to a psychic map.
All of that informed the writing of White Magic, but probably more significant is the fact that I just like places. I like walking around. I like visiting a new place with no plans for activities, just imagining what it’s like to live there, to have a deeper relationship with the place. I have very strong attachments to the places I’ve lived—I become emotionally wrecked by moving because my relationship with that particular space is irrevocably broken. It feels like betrayal. This answer is becoming very intense. The book is a way to give me access to those rooms and their places forever. I love living in Ohio, I love my forever house, but my missing of Seattle feels almost violent inside of me sometimes, and that is probably the real heartbreak the book is about. “Probably”—it is.
ES: There’s a house and an apartment in my past that I feel that way about: if I imagine or dream of walking through the rooms, it physically hurts. Reading your answer, I had an immediate response to having that kind of heartbreak recognized, which makes me think about how readers might respond to the book’s other heartbreak, of a former relationship. I feel like there are surprisingly few memoirs/essay collections/personal narratives about this particular kind of pain, which makes no sense as so many of us experience it, often over and over again throughout our lives. Was that a conscious part of the project at all? Why do you think we tend to sideline or trivialize romantic heartbreak—or at least relegate it to the realm of fiction?
EW: Oh my god, yeah, recognizing that breakup-heartbreak was a big piece of this story was the catalyst for finally understanding what I was doing, and then actually doing it very quickly, in the shift I talked about earlier. I don’t think it’s seen as a serious subject—or at least, it’s too heart-heavy for the lyric essay. I am supposed to let my brain drive the essay through its research and insight. I just found my sad, irrational longing to be more interesting. What kind of protagonist makes good decisions?
I’m afraid that the essay’s potential for exploring the irrational self might be compromised by the push to figure things out. I don’t think there’s as much room for uncertainty and flawedness in the essay as there was ten years ago. It is really hard to be soft and vulnerable—in the essay and in life. But shaming of feeling is an incredibly damaging colonial practice. This is exactly why my heart has been broken in some of these relationships—because of men who haven’t known how to openly feel. In this book, I’m trying to show that heartbreak isn’t trivial, and my earnest desire to find love could’ve ended in my death. That’s not trivial! Those are the highest of any personal stakes I will likely ever have.
ES: Can you say more about there being less room in the essay now for uncertainty and flawedness? Why do you think that is?
EW: I think there are a couple of things that have made the essay shift in the way I’m talking about: First, the essay’s conventions are more and more its own all the time as it unlatches itself from fiction and, to a lesser extent, poetry. So “persona” is not a thing in the same way as it was. Second, I believe the growth of literary Twitter has led to the conflation of writer and narrator. The writer with a Twitter account is right there. I think the way we exist online and can talk about books online means the separation between writer and text breaks down, because Twitter is also a text.I knew, for at least the last year I worked on it, that the book really was going to be like a spell that would let me leave something terrible behind.
In my first book, I was trying (clumsily) to create this narrator who was flawed but still deserved to be well and to be safe. I was imagining the reader spending a pretty good amount of time with this narrator, enough time to understand my authorial opinion about that flawed, immature person. I don’t think we can assume that anymore. Books are excerpted by way of Instagram photos of paragraphs, and I don’t want to cringe when I see those, the way I sometimes do with my first book. People are going to assume my narrator and I are one in the same, so I’d rather not create an essay motor dependent upon my failures to be the person I want to be.
ES: You write about My Body Is a Book of Rules in the beginning of White Magic: “In every essay, I turned over the same things, asking new angles for answers. But understanding was not enough to make me whole. The book did not end with resolution. This one has to.” How do you think about insight (in the essay) and resolution (in life)?
EW: I want the insight in my essays to be organic and to truly result from the writing process. I need essays for the things I can’t think through or talk through. I feel like the insight I arrive at in the final essay is one of the only spoiler-able things in the book, so I won’t get into it here, but when that hit me, it truly changed something. I actually became free from the bad relationship patterns the book is concerned with. I think this book is a result of the trust that it could have that power—I knew, for at least the last year I worked on it, that the book really was going to be like a spell that would let me leave something terrible behind.
ES: I’m glad you’re talking about the book having that kind of power. I feel like CNF writers are constantly debating whether or not writing is “therapeutic,” and often are defensive (maybe partly because of this colonial practice of shaming of feeling that you mentioned earlier) about craft being involved in our work. Which—of course it is! But the insight work exists alongside that, and also has value.
EW: I definitely used to protest that writing was therapeutic, but I came around, in part because of that great essay by Melissa Febos (first a lecture, if I’m remembering correctly) that I’m sure I’ve shared with you, and then later, because in the process of changing my bipolar disorder diagnosis to PTSD/alcohol use disorder, the new psychiatrist told me it was clear that creating narrative had actually very likely had a therapeutic effect, which he could hear in the way I explained my life and my symptoms. I do think therapy is a distinctly different thing from writing, and I feel very strongly that not everything can be worked out through the essay, especially in a workshop setting. Some things are for therapy only. Or for journaling only. Some things need to be worked out without an audience. But yeah, the things that can be worked out in an essay can certainly be worked out artfully, and that was my real experience of finishing the last essay in the book.
Elissa Washuta’s White Magic is out now from Tin House.