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Talk to the Practitioner: Elissa Washuta

In this month's Broadening the Bookshelves interview, we sat down with author Elissa Washuta to talk about her craft and the process of publishing into a world that doesn’t always know what to do with you.

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Writer Elissa Washuta, who is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, is known for her riveting, unusually structured narratives. Diving into either her debut memoir (My Body is a Book of Rules, Red Hen Press, 2014) or her most recent release (White Magic, Tin House Press, 2021) feels like falling into a rabbit hole of curiosity: In any given essay, Washuta is exploring everything from pop culture to her own history to the use of epigraphs. Washuta’s next book is about money. 

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The Writer: Your essays use the braided technique to make your final point: You’re pulling together many strands, many narratives, in order to craft your work. How do you choose the strands that go into each essay?

Elissa Washuta: I have taught the braided essay in the past by having students identify potential threads. But I think at this point, it doesn’t work that way for me now; I’m confident about going into the unknown. I basically just start with a starting point, and it’s sort of like a friendship bracelet or something: I have everything gathered at the beginning at one point. But there’s lots of knotting and stuff that’s going to happen along the way, that’s determined as I go. So I’ve got my starting point, and it’s something that’s an interest of mine, something I’m curious about, something I’m obsessed with, some experience that I feel like I need to unpack on the page.

Then from there, I just keep folding in things that have occurred to me that are related questions. I have points of research, and always through the research, I get to other things that seem relevant. As I’m working on an essay, it’s a long, long process for me. And so as I’m out in the world, [I’m] still mentally 20% at the desk. It’s noticing things and taking in things I realize are relevant, so I’m basically just pulling in things as I go. Just picking up more things and pulling them in. So I’m never really identifying separate strands. It’s more that I’ve had all these things in my hands, and I put one down sometimes and realize if it’s going to stay in the essay, [it] needs to come back. I can’t just start the essay with this thing and totally abandon it. But there’s not so much of a patterning that happens, or really, there’s no deliberate patterning. There are just the associations, and the points of pausing and moving to a different thread.

TW: I think one of the things that goes really undiscovered or talked about is the nuts and bolts of that research, right? In the MFA classes that I teach, there is no class on how to organize the stuff that you’re gathering in your head. How do you keep it organized so that you’re not going bananas, trying to make sure that all the stuff is together? How does that work for you?

EW: Sometimes there are things that are the starting point that are OK to drop or to move on from: They’re just where the journey began, and I don’t have to go back there to have completed the journey. But you know, there are other things I realize should be carried all the way through the essay. And so that’s just a fairly easy revision task; the hard thing is organizing at all…I just have such a hard time with memory and mental organization that I have all these very structured systems in place to organize research and notes. So for writing White Magic, I used Scrivener….Ultimately, it wasn’t totally useful to me, and it wasn’t quick when it came to entering things.

So, for the book I’m working on now, I’m using Notion. [Ed. note: Notion is a digital tool for knowledge, research, and task management.] I have this massive, massive database in Notion of every article that’s in any way relevant to what I’m working on. It’s so many articles and lots of tags, lots of sorting. And I also have a notebook. I wanted to experiment with having one instead of one big document with everything in it. I wanted to experiment with trying to have a page for every section because I’m writing a book-length essay. So, I also have a notebook where I write outline-type stuff in and big-picture things. I don’t write prose in the notebook, that is all done on the computer, but I do do organizational stuff in the notebook.

TW: When you are writing, do you have a sense of where you’d like the essay to end up? Or is it more a question of, do you have a sense of where you want the reader to end up?

EW: No, no. I used to. Definitely, with my first book, I wrote those essays – I don’t remember whether it was the case with all of them or how many, but I do remember with a few of them, I knew exactly how they were going to end. But I think my process has changed. I feel not only comfortable not knowing how it’s going to end, where I’m going to end up, but I feel like it’s necessary because there’s some sort of interrogating that I’m doing, there’s some sort of question that I need answered, even if I don’t [answer it]. And I think I don’t know what the question is at the outset usually. So part of the essay is the process of drafting and researching. [It] is working toward finding out what that narrative question is. And then from there, I need to find the answer, or at least, the end of asking. So, I don’t have a sense of where or when an essay is going to end until I’m very close, and I can kind of feel just that sense of the momentum changing and a halt coming. I feel like I’m almost at the end of something and then, you know, pretty quickly close it.

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TW: I feel like in Body, there was a sense of your needing to tell the reader something, like you wanted to push them to meet you. It was almost like you were urging them to come to the same conclusion that you were coming to. Do you think the lack of that urgency is in part due to your gaining more self-confidence as a writer?

EW: It’s definitely part of it. I started [Body] when I was really young. Twenty-one, I guess. And at the time, I was still very much in crisis, really traumatized and really lonely, and there were not books out there that I had access to, that I knew anything about, that were speaking to the things I was going through. I really deliberately looked for these books when I was in grad school, and there were lots of great books out there that individually dealt with bipolar disorder or disordered eating or trauma and various forms. But there wasn’t anything that brought them together in the way I wanted to. And I really just needed so much to be heard, and I needed to render the account in the exact way that I felt I was experiencing it. I don’t know that I was even thinking about narrative questions back then. I’m not sure that that was part of my craft toolkit at the time.

But I know that I had the forms that I wanted to use. I had the topics that I wanted. And in the process of assembling the book, I did have an overall larger question of where it was going to end. I remember talking to my professors about that, asking them how you know where a book is going to end. And I hadn’t finished writing the book when I found the ending, but I knew that I had found it.

TW: About a book’s end…There is the narrative end, and then there’s the publication and marketing end. And for what you’re describing, this idea of your needing to be heard and yet not finding anything out there that already exists – what is that process like? How did you end up with the publisher that you ended up with?

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EW: Well, I queried 68 agents before I found one [for Body]. He had a really hard time selling the book. I’ve fairly recently looked back at the rejections he passed along to me. And it’s pretty brutal to read. I got a lot of people saying…the editor couldn’t connect with me or couldn’t get close to me, couldn’t identify with me. I just found it so baffling that I would be told that because like, the book is about the inside of my body. I’ve given you everything, right? Everything. It’s like I took off my skin.

I was actually teaching Native lit at the time, and I was just so emotional about the whole thing that I don’t even know what I was thinking about it, but I can look back now and see that at the time, there was just not a lot of work being published by Native writers by the big publishing houses, and there was virtually no lyric essay by Native writers being published by anybody at the time. Of course, we have our elders and Native lit and predecessors who did things that were super influential to me. But I think what I was offering was unusual and was not really recognizable.

So many things have happened in recent years that have broadened the editors’ interest in Native writers’ work. We’ve always been ready with our books, but they have not been ready for us. The more of us get platforms, the more we are able to remind people in publishing that they may not know what to look for, that their expectations of Native might be, you know, like based on Dances with Wolves or something. ([Although] I love that movie. It’s a great movie.)

TW: You do a wonderful job of breaking the fourth wall in your essays. You spend a good amount of space talking directly to the reader about the epigraphs and footnotes, for instance. Can you tell us a little bit about using this technique?

EW: The way I’m thinking about it is how it feels to be spoken to when nobody else will talk to you about real stuff going on. And when somebody does break what feels like the fourth wall in life and talks to us, it’s very powerful.

In some ways, this was a response to Twitter. I was just working on [White Magic] by myself for so long. And there are times when it comes up that people [on Twitter] talk about how much they hate epigraphs. And I was like, I like them, and I’m not going to get into this conversation; I’m going to respond through my book by putting epigraphs on everything. I’m basically trolling literary Twitter. I think it was a way for me to tease the reader in a way that was both indirect, sort of passive-aggressive, in that I wasn’t going to bring it up on Twitter.

I just wanted somebody to think about these absolutes of their reading preferences.

Some people have been very frustrated with the footnotes and the epigraphs, and thought I was making fun of them. I’m not. It’s not the same as teasing. Teasing is…just asking someone to relax, take themselves and their experience of reading less seriously.

Everything came from my world view as a Cowlitz woman, but I was consciously thinking about teasing traditions and the role of affectionate teasing in our conversations, in our relationships.

I have affection for the reader, and yeah! I’m smiling as I’m asking those questions in the footnotes.

 

—Yi Shun Lai is the author of Pin Ups, a memoir. She teaches in the MFA programs at Bay Path and Southern New Hampshire universities and is a founding editor of Undomesticated Magazine. Visit at undomesticatedmag.com.

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