Pressing On the Pain to Get to the Truth
Elissa Washuta in Conversation with Chelsea Hodson
Elissa Washuta is the author of the memoirs My Body Is a Book of Rules (which was a finalist for this year’s Washington State Book Awards) and Starvation Mode. A member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, she serves as adviser for the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington and nonfiction faculty for the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Washuta’s books revolve around rules—both the attempt to adhere to them as well as what happens when boundaries are crossed. Her lyric style maneuvers through pain in a way that is at once stoic and raw, careful and free. I interviewed her over email to find out more about how she works with memory, literature, pop culture, and the disappointment of finding you may not be the hero of the story you’re writing.
Chelsea Hodson: In My Body is a Book of Rules, you write: “I am glad to have been born, glad to have suffered. I am glad that I can look back at my self-torment as though it happened to a fictional protagonist.” How important is distance to you as you write? Can you write about things as they happen to you, or do you need some time for reflection in order to approach certain topics?
Elissa Washuta: When I was writing My Body Is a Book of Rules, I wrote about some events—my early treatment for bipolar disorder, my experience of being raped as a college sophomore—after enough time had passed that I could make connections among the pieces and build a narrative. After I began drafting chapters, things kept happening that fit into those narratives, including a sexual assault that took place during grad school, and those events fit naturally into what I had begun to build. That made for a mix of intense immediacy and somewhat-removed perspective.
Now, I have a hard time writing about things as they happen to me. I still value the qualities of intensity and immediacy on the page, but unless some time has passed, I have a hard time seeing the story. I need time to do some mental processing, because the story isn’t really in the events. It’s in the way my mind battles with itself as I try to make meaning.
Chelsea Hodson: How often do you reference old journals when you write about the past? Do you ever worry about the unreliability of memory?
Elissa Washuta: In writing My Body Is a Book of Rules, I relied on my college online LiveJournal to back up my memory. Years of drinking, psych med use, and repression of memory created some holes in my remembering. Once I got into the journals, I found that the voice in those entries was so vital that I needed to dump the text directly into the book.
Since writing that book, I’ve found diaries from kindergarten and third grade that are incredible repositories of feelings I never would have been able to recall otherwise. Remembering events is easier than remembering emotions. I make little mental stories out of events, and every time I recall or retell that initial story, it changes a little as I layer new emotions on top of it. There are so many memories that I wrote about in my first book that exist less as real memories of the events and more as memories of the rendering I created and retooled.
I’m not worried about the unreliability of memory. When I began writing, I really wanted to make sure every single detail was factually correct. In the process, I realized that the transformative remembering process was much more interesting than those bits of fact.
Chelsea Hodson: If I’m writing memoir about something painful, I have a tendency to look away from it and therefore have a lot of problems finishing it. Do you ever experience this kind of resistance to your work, especially in writing about trauma? Or is there something therapeutic about it?
Elissa Washuta: I find it perversely pleasurable to press upon painful memories. It’s how I get my kicks. I want to keep digging deeper into my discomfort, because that’s where the revelations live. My default mode these days is happy and stable, which makes it easier to pull things out of my guts like that. It’s an exercise and it’s safe.
I think writing has been therapeutic in that I’m able to take ownership of things I used to feel ashamed of, like having been raped and being diagnosed with and treated for bipolar disorder. I’m in charge of the narrative. And creating detailed renditions of painful memories always leads to the surfacing of other memories I’d buried. Overall, for me, the writing process transforms pain into something manageable and useful. It’s powerful to be the agent of that.
I realized the limits of the therapeutic effect, though, once I started regular psychotherapy. Writing is therapeutic, but for me, it can’t replace therapy the way I thought it could for years. Talking to my own head for countless hours and unspooling my mental knots onto the page always seemed to be effective therapy. Now I know that it can’t compare to the clarity I get from talking to another person with the skills to help me dig more deeply than I ever thought I could. And, unsurprisingly, my writing is so much better because of that.
Chelsea Hodson: In the “Sexually Based Offenses” section of My Body is a Book of Rules, you discuss your fascination with Law & Order: Special Victims Unit years after being raped. You write, “I sought to watch until everything in my head, every doubt, every piece of fuzz obscuring some memory, would be replaced by Olivia’s voice telling me that I was so, so strong. But I didn’t feel strong, didn’t feel that I had ever been, and those lines running through my head were water against my oily memory. But then they clotted, and I thought about how it might have been if I’d talked, or how my story could be portrayed in episode form, neat, sectioned, with closure.” You proceed to write an imagined dialogue between characters from SVU and yourself. What differences did you notice in your writing when you wrote your dialogue as a fictional character? Do you ever seek or find solace in other kinds of pop culture?
Elissa Washuta: I had been maintaining an internal monologue about the rape for a couple of years, flagellating myself, carving out a generous space for fear and shame, and cementing the story I told myself about how it happened and how I felt. Introducing the voices of the cops and the villains gave shape to the external influences I internalized: the voice doubting that it was, in the words of Whoopi Goldberg that incensed me, “rape-rape”; the patronizing voice telling me that I was so strong and so brave; the insidious whisper that convinced me I deserved it. Once I made those voices real on the page, I could react to them. My story changed when it wasn’t happening in the echo chamber of my head—the details were the same, but my interior struggle had a new texture.
I find solace in TV shows less than I did back then, just because I don’t have much time for TV anymore. For the book I’m working on now, though, I’m turning to some movies and video games that I’ve turned to. Disney’s The Little Mermaid is an example. When I saw it at age six, I had never seen the ocean, and I dreamed of going there and finding my prince. Now that I feel more like Ursula, the sea-witch, I can interrogate that longing.
Chelsea Hodson: In Starvation Mode, you write, “I planned to shape this story into a redemptive narrative. I wanted to win in the end.” What’s it like for you to be in the middle of writing something and realize there might not be a victory in the end?
Elissa Washuta: It’s terrifying! My greatest fear in writing, a fear that often keeps me from it, is the worry that I won’t be able to execute something that lives up to my plan for it. That happens all the time when drafting short essays, but Starvation Mode was a big project, and I had a deadline. I couldn’t scrap it. I had no choice but to write through it and change course.
Chelsea Hodson: You write about books that had an impact on you in the “Preliminary Bibliography” section of My Body is a Book of Rules. In the part about House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski, you write: “I was jealous: Danielewski did whatever the hell he wanted,” and at the end of the paragraph, you write, “It wasn’t until I left college, began graduate study, and made academic choices of my own that I realized I could do whatever the hell I wanted, too.” I’m curious if there are other books or people in your life that gave you a similar license to do whatever the hell you want? Both of your books place a large emphasis on rules, I’m curious—do you consider yourself a rule follower?
Elissa Washuta: Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir by Lauren Slate was a huge rule-breaking influence for me. I moved from being concerned with factuality to wielding the power of faulty memory and lying as powerful storytelling agents, tools for crafting narrative. Letters to Wendy’s by Joe Wenderoth was influential, too, because I didn’t know what it was and realized that I didn’t need to know. That helped me to see that it’s ok to give the reader less information than she thinks she needs.
In life, in general, I’m a rule-follower. I don’t like rules, but I feel compelled to follow them. It’s more natural for me to strictly adhere to rules and get pissed off about feeling bound up than to rebel. But I’ve softened in that regard, and diet is a good example, as I wrote about in Starvation Mode. I used to get some strange pleasure out of following a diet to the letter and feeling angry that the rules weren’t a good fit for me. Now, I’ve relaxed. I’m the kind of person who can talk herself into thinking that a Milky Way is a paleo-diet-friendly snack because I can’t be bothered to follow the diet to the letter but don’t want to admit to myself that I’m breaking the rules.
Chelsea Hodson: In Starvation Mode, you write about binge-eating fast food: “What can I tell you? I am full of holes. I have found many ways to stuff them full.” This reminded me of one of my favorite lines in My Body is a Book of Rules: “You define your identity by what you are counter to; I define mine by my voids.” This seems to speak to your writing as well—how conscious of omission are you as you write? How do you decide what to fill in or leave out?
Elissa Washuta: Omission is such an important part of the writing process. In My Body Is a Book of Rules, I was writing about bipolar disorder, rape trauma, Indigenous identity issues, disordered eating, binge drinking, and other huge topics. In order to manage all of it, I had to be willing to set aside anything that didn’t fit my narrative problem and bring what remained into sharp focus. In Starvation Mode, I was writing about my life’s history of eating, and so I focused on details and moments that illustrated the deranged appetites for food and affection that are central to the book. For some reason, this process never really feels like decision-making to me; I almost never overwrite and then have to cut. I usually leave too much out, intuitively, and then a trusted reader helps me find places for elaboration.
Chelsea Hodson: What are you working on now?
Elissa Washuta: I’m working on an essay collection. The essays all have something to do with my Cowlitz/Cascade identity. Many of them are about the warping influence of pop culture representations of Native peoples upon my conception of myself. A lot are about hauntings and the supernatural. I’m trying to write about genetics and epigenetics, but the more I learn, the less I understand.