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In this special live episode, Laura Maylene Walter interviews Elissa Washuta, author of the essay collection White Magic. Their wide-ranging conversation covers the craft of essay writing, research and memory mining for nonfiction writers, revision, rejection, unique writing residencies, cultural appropriation, witchcraft, and more. Washuta also offers on-the-spot literary tarot readings to Laura and five audience members.
Elissa Washuta is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and the author of White Magic, Starvation Mode, and My Body Is a Book of Rules. With Theresa Warburton, she co-edited the anthology Shapes of Native Nonfiction: Collected Essays by Contemporary Writers. Elissa is an associate professor at The Ohio State University, where she teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing.
This episode was recorded before a live audience on September 23, 2023, at Cleveland Public Library as part of Literary Cleveland’s Inkubator writing conference.
In this episode:
- Literary Cleveland
- Coast Salish
- Cowlitz Indian Tribe
- The Ohio State University MFA program
- Tin House Books
- Seattle Office of Arts & Culture
- SDOT Bridge Artist in Residence
- Double bascule bridge
- “White Witchery” in Guernica
- Rider-Waite Tarot
- The Fool
- The Sun
- The Tower
Elissa Washuta: I want you to think about your project for a second. Just kind of hold some image in your mind. And choose a card. All right, so we've got the fool <laugh>. Laura Maylene Walter: I like that. No, that's good. Elissa Washuta: It's a beautiful card. <laugh> Laura Maylene Walter: Welcome to Page Count, presented by the Ohio Center for the Book at Cleveland Public Library. I'm your host, Laura Maylene Walter, the Ohio Center for the Book Fellow and author of BODY OF STARS. We are in person with a live audience at Literary Cleveland's 2023 Inkubator Writing Conference. Give it up for Elissa Washuta for being our guest! <Applause> Laura Maylene Walter: Today we're going to discuss the art of essay writing, the publishing journey for creative nonfiction and a lot more. Including at the end, offering our audience members literary tarot readings, but more on that later. We've got the cards up here. For now, I would like to introduce Elissa Washuta, author of WHITE MAGIC an essay collection published by Tin House Books. Elissa, welcome to the podcast and thanks so much for being here in Cleveland. Elissa Washuta: Thanks for having me. I'm so happy to be here. Hi everybody. Laura Maylene Walter: Well, for those of you who don't know, Page Count is a podcast with an Ohio literary focus. So all of our guests either are from Ohio or live in Ohio or have some kind of Ohio connection. And I thought we could start there, Elissa, with telling us about where you're from and how and why you ended up in Ohio. Laura Maylene Walter: And I would like to read a very short quote from WHITE MAGIC, "In Ohio, the land and I talk like strangers". So if you'd like to discuss that quote or just more generally your connection to Ohio. Elissa Washuta: Yeah, absolutely. So I was born in New Jersey, lived in Maryland for four years for college and then I went out to Seattle where I lived for ten years before coming to Ohio. My job at Ohio State brought me out here and I really didn't know anything about Ohio before my job interview, but I was just really taken with Columbus and the program and so, you know, decided to take the adventure and come out to Ohio. It was rough at first. It was really, really rough and that's what that quote is speaking to. So my tribe is from western Washington, not from the Seattle area but from south of there, the Columbia River Plateau area. Elissa Washuta: So the land is quite different in many ways, but not as different as Seattle to Ohio. And so I did a lot of work in Seattle to try to get to know the land because it felt like, I could feel the ways in which I was related to it and the plants and I was really, you know, just really invested in learning about our traditional medicines and plants and and everything. And got out here and you know, there's no Oregon grape and salal and western red cedar and yellow cedar and I won't name all of them. And I found that growing things was so different here, you know, rather than like struggling to grow a huckleberry bush. I was like struggling to contain my land in Ohio. Still am, as I'm sure you all know about that. But there were so many new plants and the weather, you know, continues to be pretty rough for me, really mostly the humidity. But I think it's been a great process of I guess learning to become familiar with what's native to a new place and what species are invasive and just kind of what's here now. Elissa Washuta: And so yeah, I've been here since 2017 and very happy in my little corner of near south, near east Columbus. Laura Maylene Walter: Well, even though Page Count does have an Ohio focus, that doesn't mean we are only here to promote Ohio and we appreciate honest answers. I'm also not an Ohio native, I grew up in Pennsylvania and with a lot more hills, rolling hills and valleys and quite different landscape. But you know, at least we have a beautiful day today. It's not humid and it's gorgeous outside. So <laugh>. Elissa Washuta: It's perfect. And I will say about the hills, I've been biking a lot recently and I could not do that in Seattle even with my electric bike. I could not do the hills, I don't think. So there are definitely things I appreciate and I again, I am happy here now. Laura Maylene Walter: Well let's turn to talking about WHITE MAGIC, your essay collection from Tin House that came out a few years ago and has received so much good attention and good press. Can you tell us how this book came to be, how it originated and how it evolved before we see the beautiful, final version before us today? Elissa Washuta: Yeah, you know, I could spend a whole hour talking about this because it was so hard and it took so long. So my first book, MY BODY IS A BOOK OF RULES...it came out in 2014 but it was finished I think around 2011 and just took a while to get out into the world. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to write a second book. I mean I was in a literary community in Seattle and I think that there was lots of pressure from within and from without to get that second book out. And I had such a hard time finding a publisher for my first book. I just wanted the second to be easier. I just wanted it to be...I didn't want to struggle with anything I never do and, and yet <laugh>. Laura Maylene Walter: I love being rejected by tons of publishers. <Laugh> Super fun. Elissa Washuta: I tried so many things. At first I thought I was gonna write a novel, you know, even though I have a degree in fiction, I can't do it. There are just craft things I would rather be an admirer of from afar like plot <laugh>. But I was trying to write a novel. I was trying to write a sort of more cohesive memoir narrative than my first book, which you know, was experimental essays. A memoir in linked experimental essays. I even thought at one point that I would try to write like a paleo diet book because paleo was, you know, it wasn't really big yet then. And I thought, oh this is going to, this is gonna be big. I could write a book about this. There's no big mainstream books about this. I could have gotten in there but you know, I couldn't really do that either. All of those things are just, you know, not my skillset. And so I was writing these various things. I think I was doing my fifth outlining of a novel that never happened when I had this moment when I was going home on the bus and I saw this woman who looked exactly like me except ten years older and I just didn't know what to make of it. All I could do of course was write about it and post on Craigslist about it, asking if she would...if she had seen me too. <laugh>. Laura Maylene Walter: Did you get responses to that ad? Elissa Washuta: I got a few responses. I got, I think they were mostly like, I really hope you find her <laugh>. Laura Maylene Walter: People were invested. Elissa Washuta: Yeah. And then I saw her again a couple more times, but that was really I think the seed of WHITE MAGIC and that moment is in the book. And then over the next few years, I don't even know, that was probably 2012 or something, I struggled with more attempts to try to write something that I thought would be more successful. But yeah, none of it was really exciting. And so if I'm not excited about the work, of course the reader's not going to be. So I was kind of working on essays and abandoning them and had sort of partial things and an idea of what I was doing and something sort of like WHITE MAGIC was beginning to take shape by the time I got to Ohio in 2017 and teaching in a creative writing program has been amazing for my writing. Like having to explain craft concepts to absolutely brilliant MFA students who are writing at just such an incredibly high level. It made me get good really fast I think. Like have to really think deeply about craft in a way that I had somewhat but not, not to that level, not with that kind of immersion. And so then I just started writing and the book really began to take shape and I revisited some of those essays I thought were garbage and realized like they were great. That I, you know, I just needed to finish them. So kind of came together my first year here. Laura Maylene Walter: I think that's really helpful for people to hear because you know, this is a writing conference so a lot of people here are working on books or want to write books and it can be frustrating if maybe you have a vague idea for a book but it's just not coming together right away. And I think that's just a natural part of the process. I actually marked down some quotes from WHITE MAGIC about working on a book, "I wrote messes and disappeared them into hard drive folders" and lines like, "I had to descend into the gloom, the underworld". And that really is what it feels like sometimes to write a book. And so, you know, even if you don't have your idea fully formed, just continuing with it and eventually you'll have something like a WHITE MAGIC, right? Elissa Washuta: This is one of the hardest things I think about writing nonfiction is that you can't do it all at the desk. The essay can't answer every question. It can answer lots of questions but it's not the sort of like life device that I think we often want it to be if we're, we're doing a lot of writing non-fiction. Some things we've got to just work through in life, in therapy maybe? And, or you know, just figure stuff out and then come back to the page and it takes a frustratingly long time sometimes, but you know, that's just how the work goes I guess. Laura Maylene Walter: Well you had mentioned experimental essays. Can you talk a bit about the structure of WHITE MAGIC, both the overarching structure but also some of the innovative structure of individual essays. For anyone who hasn't yet read the book, give them an idea of some of those forms and shapes and what it was like writing them. Elissa Washuta: I'm going to take a look at the book because it's like... Laura Maylene Walter: It starts to feel like a stranger after a while sometimes. Elissa Washuta: It does, yeah. And I also think about it very visually in my mind. So it's helpful to see the table of contents and see that shape. So it's in three acts, which was something I imposed on the book at the very end. I think it was like inherently part of the structure as I was assembling it. But that structure was not clear to readers, I came to realize. So it's got these three acts. I think of it as a memoir in essays in a way, or like a book length narrative. A book length essay that is in essays. The first act kind of takes place right after my arrival in Ohio. It's about my ex-boyfriend Carl and who I dated for like two months but couldn't get over and he plays a very big role in this book. In act two I get into some of my recent past in Seattle and then you know, childhood playing the Oregon Trail 2 video game and talk about Seattle through the lens of a project that I did for a grant where I was supposed to write about a bridge, which I think we're gonna talk about later. And then the third act is having figured out where these cycles had started and how pain had set itself into cycles. The third act kind of takes me out of it and you know, goes back to the actual breakup and allows me to do some even more experimental work than the previous essays to kind of figure out where timelines overlapped and finally break those cycles. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah and the book also, it has some intentional repetition and also these meta elements and moments where you're addressing the reader directly. One of the lines I liked was, "Do you think I understand everything in this book? If I don't, how can you?" Which I thought was really great because who really understands all of their writing? I don't. Elissa Washuta: Yeah, I imagine you must have had this experience too, like after your book comes out people see things in it that I didn't see and I didn't necessarily consciously intend for those effects to be experienced by readers. But I'm delighted. It like sounds great and I'm happy that that's happening. I think that the process of meaning making in a book is collaborative between the writer and the reader, across distance and across massive gaps of various kinds. Yeah, so I think that that's one of the delights of writing a book and bringing it out into the world that you don't know what the meaning is going to be because you don't know anything about most of your readers and where they're coming from, where they're going to meet you. So I think that comes from one of the footnotes, right? So there's these footnotes in the book that are asking the reader some questions and kind of teasing the reader. Elissa Washuta: I think this was a frustrating gesture for some readers and I kind of intended it to be, but I think of it as one of the elements that makes this like a really Coast Salish Native book. The teasing tradition is like very important to us. It's part of like how we show affection is like through certain kind of teasing and teasing the reader about what they think they know about what a book is good. I thought it was both that kind of gentle playful teasing but also speaking to something that had become really important to me as I began teaching Native lit and of course teaching creative writing and and talking about what's good and how we know. It made me realize I really don't know how to definitively talk about what's good. I don't know that that's a sort of answerable question for me and it has such huge implications for our careers, for what art exists in the world, for what art reaches us. Laura Maylene Walter: And I did want to ask about how your Native heritage is woven into the book of the book cannot be removed from the book and especially in the earlier essays you have a lot about witchcraft and what you call white witchery. One thing I always think about your book now if I'm in some kind of new age shop and they're selling sage, I think about how you wrote that...that's often being harvested from Native communities and it's actually not such a good thing to support those stores run by maybe white people selling them. But would you like to talk about that a bit in the book, this concept of a white witchery or the witchcraft kind of fads and how you interacted with that while you're working on this book? Elissa Washuta: Yeah, that was definitely my way into the book and my way into some of the essays. I think before I really understood what WHITE MAGIC was going to be, I understood it to be a book that was about cultural appropriation and witchcraft and some things that really didn't end up having a role in the book. Like the idea of like Native spirits at seances being a big thing at one time. In the end I think that was my way in and it does have a pretty big role at the beginning of the book to talk about that. But in a way reminiscent of some of the Coast Salish storytelling that I'm familiar with. I think a lot of the time those stories begin in one place and end up somewhere that does not feel necessarily like the expected or natural end point. Sometimes there's an ending with a line that just feels completely out of left field. This is something I really notice in my work and and in my process is that I really like to start at one place and end up somewhere totally different. Elissa Washuta: I think of the way in as not being really what the essay is ever going to be about fundamentally. That's one of the ways I think of it as a really Coast Salish book. Another like very Coast Salish characteristic of the book is this kind of refusal that happens throughout the book. Writing about Native spirituality presents a fundamental problem and presented a fundamental problem in writing the book. In that there's a lot of things we are not allowed to say for various reasons. There's like a huge spiritual life that I had and have and things that I certainly could have written about that would've been within the scope of the book. But I can't and I won't. I wanted to create some of that sense of gaps through the foregrounding and backgrounding of various like narrative elements, offering the reader a story about cultural appropriation and about Native spirituality and about land and instead inviting them into a story about my ex-boyfriend Carl who I dated for two months in 2016 <laugh>. Laura Maylene Walter: I think especially for the non-fiction writers in this room and who are listening at home when this airs. It might be helpful to hear about your research process for this book. When I think about non-fiction research, there's kind of the external research of going out there, reading things. I know you came here to Cleveland Public Library once to do some research, which maybe we can hear about, but also sort of this internal memory mining that you have a moment in the book when you're trying to find on YouTube an old DARE video and you can't find it. And I know that feeling of like growing up in a certain time when I was a kid there was no internet but kind of, I feel like it should all be accessible via the internet, you know what I mean? Like I should just be able to look up my memories online, but I can't from back then. So can you talk a bit about what that process was like for this book? Elissa Washuta: Yeah, we were told that anything we did on the internet would be forever and we were, we were lied to. Laura Maylene Walter: Only for the embarrassing stuff. Elissa Washuta: Yeah. But the people who were in the DARE video, like doesn't hold true for them. Yeah. So I did a lot of research for years before getting really started on this. So I, I told you all about the woman on the bus. After that I started thinking I would write an essay about that neighborhood. It's a really interesting neighborhood in Seattle. There's an essay in WHITE MAGIC about it called White City. I was interested in it as a place with spiritual significance and historical significance. So I did lots of research for years. I had a beautiful organizational system of research. I had blog entries filed into these little document folders. I did not have any writing done but I had lots of research. I have that bad habit. I'm probably never going to rid myself of it. This feeling of just procrastinating through doing research. Elissa Washuta: I still have no idea when to stop, what's enough, but I just kind of do it because the way I write, the way I kind of find my subject, it ranges so far and dips kind of shallowly into a lot of different areas. I'm using that research and using the things that I'm learning and finding and like going down the rabbit hole as a sort of like...track that my thought can slide along. And so in a way I need it, but in a way it's like a huge time-waster. Once I got to Ohio and I had a stronger sense of what the book was about, I did realize that the book in part was going to be about that process of trying to find things. Like in part because of the DARE video you mentioned, which is something I take up in an early essay that was kind of my way into the essay, that there was this like really haunting video that we were shown in grade school about teenagers drunk driving. Elissa Washuta: I found it very haunting. My brother saw it too. He found it very haunting. We talked about it over the years and can't find it. And I think that that was part of my way into thinking about research as being part of this story. Like trying to find things and feeling like there are mysteries out there. The kind of gaps in my research, the things I couldn't find, the things that I found that I thought were wrong, you know, some things like about Mark Twain's biography that did not seem true. All of those things came into being part of my subject matter. Laura Maylene Walter: Writing students will often ask me how they know where to draw the line between researching and starting to write. Like when is too much research too much and you're just procrastinating? And I never know how to answer that. It's just you have to go by your instinct or when you can tell that you're putting off the writing, I think, to do the research. Yeah. Elissa Washuta: Yeah. It's like well your essay is due to me at some point, so you've got to write it at some point. But me <laugh>. Yeah, yeah, you can do whatever you want but me, I'm stuck. Laura Maylene Walter: Well, a few minutes ago you alluded to there are some things you can't or won't write about. So in general, can you talk about being a non-fiction writer, being an essayist and the concept of privacy and vulnerability for everything that is in the book or is in your other writing. How have you handled those feelings? How have you have you had to draw boundaries and what suggestions could you offer other people who are writing creative nonfiction who might feel that vulnerable sensation of you know, their secrets are out on the page? Elissa Washuta: Yeah, I love that question. It's a big subject of the book that I'm working on now and I did not realize that's what I was writing about when I set out to write. You know, I started writing nonfiction when I was about what, 22 and I think I was a very young immature 22 but with a lot of terrible life experience and I was huge risk taker and I wasn't sensible in thinking about the future. I didn't really, I don't think I had a way to visualize the future. I didn't think about like what it really would be like to have books out in the world that are about the worst times of my life. The first book I was writing, I didn't think anybody was gonna publish it, not through the writing process, certainly not once I started querying agents then I thought, ah, I was right. Elissa Washuta: This is not coming out. And so I really had no inhibition when I was writing. I just wrote, once it was written, it was really painful to kind of interface with that draft. Like I could revise it, I revised it a lot, I did a lot of work on the book. But there's like a different kind of revision that you can do and that I certainly do now where you, you really think about it in the world and it's not necessarily revision that you do with craft in mind. You know, there's a lot more choices that you have to make that might make the book worse craft-wise but will make your life better and somebody else's life better if it's about them. And so I think I just wasn't emotionally ready to do that. I was like in denial about a lot of things and I really wish I had done more of that work and had known how and had had the maturity to do that. Elissa Washuta: I learned a lot from my first book. I learned a lot from the process of having that book come out and having it live in the world. And I think it did affect relationships for me. I met people who knew the book before they knew me and they had a very different idea of who I was gonna be based on who I really thought of as a character as I was writing it. That's how I was taught nonfiction that we turn ourselves into characters. I think in WHITE MAGIC, I'm not so much of a character. I think I really wanted to unify my voice on the page and my speaking voice and all my writing voices. And I really wanted it to feel less like a persona and more like me because I knew that I would have to live with it. I have changed so much, I've changed so much since I wrote WHITE MAGIC. Elissa Washuta: I've changed certainly since I wrote MY BODY IS A BOOK OF RULES. I've changed completely. I feel like a very different person. Some of the things in my past that I don't like, traumas I don't think about anymore. I think about how they would've receded in some ways. Like there could be things that I would never think about again that had happened to me. Except there are so many people in the world who are holding those things for me now. Like they're in books. So many people know about those things and I don't think it's necessarily a bad thing. I mean it's not a bad thing. It, it did something concrete for me. Like something noticeable, substantial for me to take control of my own narrative and to tell my story. So it's not that I regret doing it, but I do think very shortly after WHITE MAGIC came out, I just felt this like really strong shift into wanting to be private and you know, wanting to be private on social media, wanting to be private just in my life in general. And for the first time really wanted to have things to myself that were just mine that I wouldn't write about. And I still feel that way. I've lost some of the compulsion to turn everything into subject matter. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah, that's really interesting. I haven't thought of it that way, but it is true. When you write something down about your life, you're going to probably remember it longer and it's really interesting to think about things that might have just faded away into your memories. But now they're sort of more present forever, which can be really good but maybe not always good. Yeah, Elissa Washuta: There was an interesting effect between MY BODY IS A BOOK OF RULES and WHITE MAGIC as I was wrapping up that draft of the first book, terrible things were happening to me in one of my relationships that I was in at that time. You know, that wasn't in my first book and I think it obscured what had happened somewhat because in revision I was going over and over and over the other memories as I wrote things I would remember more things. It would be like just like pulling along a rope or something going back into that kind of pool of like trauma and memory for WHITE MAGIC made it a much harder writing process than I expected. There were some really, really hard moments in that writing and revision process because I was shocked to be remembering things that I'd forgotten. I thought I already had a book about my trauma <laugh>. I already knew it quite well but I guess I didn't fully. Laura Maylene Walter: So speaking of the past and the future, you've said that you've learned a lot from your first book, so I'm curious if you could give your past writing self advice, what would you say to your past writing self? Elissa Washuta: Same thing I say to my grad students, like hold onto it, don't rush to publish it. You know, make sure that you really feel like it's as good as it can possibly be. There are so many reasons why like there's so many reasons to do that. I used to do this, I know I talked to so many writers who do this, like they just want to get it out of their site and so they can't just like put it away. They have to send it out like publishing it will get it out of their sight. <Laugh> I mean, I know know I used to feel that way, but I've found a lot more ways to satisfy the impulses to share or to get it out of me to like have somebody else come into it. I mean that's what I would say is like really think about whether this is the book you want in the world for craft reasons and for personal reasons. And Laura Maylene Walter: On the flip side, if you could give advice to your future writing self if you saw yourself on a bus again from the future. I don't know how one gives advice to their future self, but if you could, what do you think you'd say? Elissa Washuta: I don't think I could give my future self advice. I would just ask like am I gonna finish this book by my publisher's deadline <laugh>? Laura Maylene Walter: I did want to quickly ask about the experience you had being a writer in residence on a bridge. Because one thing I love about being a writer is sometimes you have these opportunities to apply for things that are really unique experiences, maybe confusing to other people who aren't writers. But can you tell us what was this program or residency? How did it work and what was it like for you? Elissa Washuta: Yeah, it was wild. So the city of Seattle Department of Transportation, and I can't remember the name of the office, but their arts and culture office in collaboration offered this writing residency in one of the four towers of the Fremont Bridge over the Lake Washington Ship Canal. It was not a residency in that like it wasn't full-time, you couldn't live there. It was just a very, very small room that fit like a desk. And that was basically it. But they had done this, they had done an artist residency there years before and the person who had been the artist in residence was working for the city and wanted to create this program again but offer it to a writer. This was 2016 and people kept sending me the application and like saying like you should apply for this. And I was thinking what do I have to say about a bridge? Because the writing project was to write about the real or metaphorical significance of the Fremont Bridge <laugh>. I was like, I honestly don't care about this bridge. I really don't at all. I barely use it. But then I thought well it's, you know, it's $10,000. Elissa Washuta: <Laugh> Do I really not have anything to say? Once I really thought about it, I realized I actually am writing about the Lake Washington Ship Canal, which the bridge goes over. So like yes, this is extremely relevant to my work. So basically the way it came into the work, it's in the book, there was like a serpent spirit that lived above and like around Lake Washington a long, long, long time ago. So there were connections between that spirit and the ship canal and the sort of like geological history of the area. So yeah, I got that residency. I was there I think a few days a week during one summer it was really hot, had windows on all sides. It had this neon sign of like Rapunzel, which was really cool, some public art and you know, it's a, it's a working drawbridge and so the other towers, one of the other towers had the bridge operator in it. Elissa Washuta: That whole thing was like very stressful because I had to call the bridge operator when I arrived, when I was going to leave. If I was going to go out of the tower at any time, I had to go under the bridge on these catwalks. I had to wear a hard hat If I wanted to go to the bathroom, like that's where I had to go is under the bridge on the catwalks and that's the most dangerous spot on the bridge because the bridge operator can't see you and if they open the bridge, the catwalk you're on goes vertical, you fall into the ship canal or I think there was like concrete below some of it, terrible. So they had to keep track of me at all times and that was stressful. But it was so cool to be talking to these bridge operators and watching this bridge open and close all day. It's a very, very busy bridge and I learned a lot about double bascule bridges. I can't explain any of it to you. I've lost that. It's been replaced by some other weird knowledge. But it was really lovely. Like there were these really lovely sunsets. It was really interesting to watch the ship traffic come through. There were like super yachts that came through. There were all sorts of different boats. There's a pirate ship at one point. I don't know what it was about <laugh>, there were pirates <laugh>. Elissa Washuta: I was trying to write an essay about the bridge and it was very, very difficult. Lots of research, lots of boring research and that was the hardest essay to revise and a lot came out in revision. I had to be long away from the bridge I think to kind of figure out the true significance of that experience. Laura Maylene Walter: Do you have any advice for writers who are applying for either residencies or any opportunities like this? Like what would you suggest they focus on when applying? Elissa Washuta: I think it's really important to write with the confidence that you can do this, that like this project will exist. In drafts I see of writers' application statements for various grants and things. I just get a sense that writers are hesitant to over promise, but it's kind of expected that you'll over promise, you know? And you just have to kind of commit to your vision. Like that's what that kind of statement is all about. If you're asked to give a budget, think of that as a story too. You might not be held to that. The way that you allocate the money, it tells the story of what you need and what you intend to do. Elissa Washuta: I always tell writers to think about what they can do on their own and what they could do that's even better if they had this funding or this opportunity. Laura Maylene Walter: Well let's touch briefly on publishing. So your experiences, your journey of publishing your books, you could focus either on WHITE MAGIC's publishing journey or if you'd like to talk more broadly about what you have learned throughout your career. Elissa Washuta: Yeah, I think process has been so different every time. My agent from my first book had left agenting and so a lot of the time I was working on WHITE MAGIC, I didn't have an agent, I was just gonna wait. After talking to a couple agents who are not really a fit for me in various ways, I got connected with my current agent and just like via Twitter and the literary magazine that she had just opened, she really felt like the right person to represent my work. So in like 2018 I think she began representing me and I made a decision that I really did not want to sell the book from proposal. I had had a conversation with an agent who I think had seen like one of my essays that I think of as an outlier. It's not as experimental as my other work. Elissa Washuta: And it became clear from our, my conversation with that other agent that she wanted a book of essays like that and I just didn't think I had any more in me. I mean I might, but I'm not gonna promise a book of them. And so I really thought, you know, Monika, my now agent, she really understands my work, she understands what I want to do and I just wanted to work with her and finish the manuscript, not try to sell it on proposal and get to an impasse with an editor who wants me to do one thing and that's not the thing that I can or will do. So I decided with WHITE MAGIC I would get it as perfect as I could. I would get it to the point where I would be happy and proud to publish it on the spot. I knew that I would need to be kind of flexible in working with an editor and accept feedback. Elissa Washuta: I'm not the best at that sometimes. I'm great with positive feedback but <laugh> negative feedback, I always know better. <Laugh> I'm improving, I'm getting better at it. Anyway, I didn't want to have any regrets going into the process of looking for a publisher with MY BODY IS A BOOK OF RULES. I think once I started querying I knew that I could have written a better book or I could have revised it into a better book and I didn't want to ever have to like live with that feeling again, think that like I'm being rejected cause my book is not good enough. The book that we went out with was the book, you know, I loved it. I thought it was perfect and you know, it changed. But like I'm so glad that I did that because when Monika got rejections at first she was showing them to me. Elissa Washuta: She kind of suggested maybe I wouldn't want to see them, but I thought I knew better. She showed me a few and then I was like, okay, I get it, I get it. I don't want to see any more rejections. When the book did get rejected, I knew that just wasn't the right editor for me. That wasn't the right place for it to be because they wanted something else and it was just being rejected because it wasn't a fit. And that's fine. Yeah, I was just so happy with the process all the way through. Not super happy with getting rejections, but overall it was. A great process and I was so happy to work with Tin House. I was so happy to, you know, have that first phone call with my editor Tony Perez and really felt like he understood the book so well and immediately I trusted him. Elissa Washuta: I needed to be able to trust an editor if I was going to work on cutting things from the book, which I knew I would have to, it was very long manuscript. I needed to trust that person and I trusted him and he had me cut one of the essays and I knew immediately he was right even though I thought I wasn't gonna cut any essays. I just knew the way he approached it. I knew he was right and I was totally willing to do that. It was just such a great experience working with Tin House. Their team was so thoughtful about who I am and what I wanted the book to look like and what I didn't want it to look like and tropes I didn't want used in the artwork. It was just such a, such a lovely experience all around. Laura Maylene Walter: Yeah, I really identify with that, with wanting to write the whole book and get it to where you have taken it as far as you can to your vision and you have written what you want to write. I think probably everyone here might know, but if you don't, sometimes you can sell a book on proposal, which means basically it's not written yet and there would be some anxiety of when you sit down to write it. Maybe it comes out differently from what you first expected, right. When you have the proposal, depending on what kind of writer you are and what kind of writing you do. But I'm definitely someone who I don't really know what a book will be until I've written like seven drafts of it. Not even one draft will do it. But you had a quote in WHITE MAGIC that I think relates to this perfectly: Laura Maylene Walter: "Any narrative is a magic trick. The unfolding happens where you're not looking." Which I think is really apt, to think about the writing process being elusive and unexplainable. I also just want to ask as a final question before we get to some Q and As and some literary tarot is: Now that WHITE MAGIC has been out in the world for a little while, what for you has changed either in your relationship to some of the subject matter in the book, to the book itself? What would you like to say about how it feels to have the book be out in the world a few years back and of course now you're working on something completely new. Elissa Washuta: I mean it changed everything. Elissa Washuta: It felt like, I don't know, it sounds kind of corny, but I think it really was the kind of spell that I was trying to cast. It really helped me break out of those cycles of bad relationships and in love with a man with an <laugh>. [Ed: Here, the sound of an audiobook begins briefly playing in the audience.] Ooh. Ooh. Laura Maylene Walter: It's like a collaborative hybrid interview. Elissa Washuta: I like this, I like this. What's going on? Well, speaking of being in love with a man without actually knowing him <laugh>, I'll embarrass my husband who's in the back. The day I finished the full draft, that was sort of when I met Wess, that was when we really connected and started hanging out writing the book. I really knew that I just needed to write this book to change my life. It felt so vital not to just write a book to create art, but like to really help to understand why I kept doing this, why I kept getting into these relationships with losers like losers and worse but definitely losers. And I felt something shift. I was in Port Townsend, Washington at our writers' conference, looked out the window and saw a fawn standing there. I was like, I feel like this is a sign. I don't know what it is, but like I don't see fawns all the time. I think like it really allowed me to figure out how to get out of that cycle and also put some of that subject matter to rest that I had been writing about for so long. Laura Maylene Walter: I think we'll move on to some audience questions and then we'll get to the tarot. So first if you have any questions for Elissa about writing, publishing, WHITE MAGIC, anything along those lines. And if you ask a question I'll probably repeat it into the mic so that I have it for the podcast. Laura Maylene Walter: And I'll just quickly repeat hopefully the gist of that, which was a question about the gaps in the books, the parts that Elissa decided not to write about, kind of the secrets to keep and in terms of coming full circle to the community to kind of check in about it. Elissa Washuta: Yeah, I definitely did do some of that. So the essay "White Witchery," I published that with Guernica before the book came out, that deals a lot more not with anything that is currently or like any more specific to one community. It deals with pan-Indian appropriation or appropriation of practices and elements that are shared among a bunch of cultures. And I think I sent it to four native writers to see what they thought. Native writers who I knew had, you know, a spiritual life and were from different communities and I got some great feedback about one thing that I knew I needed to scale back on. One person pointed that out as something that could be harmful or hurtful to some tribal peoples. And the two essays that deal with Duwamish history, the people who have always been in what's now Seattle, I'm not Duwamish, but it was important to me to include their story in my book when I was doing the bridge residency. Someone I know who's Duwamish did ask me to talk about some of these things and some of the dispossession and displacement. And so, you know, I knew it was an important representation to put in there and of course I wanted to write about it but I knew that I did need to run it by a few Duwamish people and so I did late in the process and you know, mostly everything was fine. There was one little thing I needed to tweak that was a super easy fix that came from a, a history I had not been aware of at all. And so that was really useful. So those were the main things I did. Things that were sort of more personal to me and my own community were just left out. They're just not there. Laura Maylene Walter: Okay. I saw another hand. So the question is about younger adults struggling with their mental health right now and asking where or how maybe writing could fit into helping people work through mental health problems and getting that kind of support. Or maybe your thoughts broadly about mental health and creative writing, I suppose. Elissa Washuta: It's a tough question. I don't know that I have an answer to the question directly because I, I would have to think about it more, but I honestly, I'm not sure that writing always helps. You know, I think that it can help later. I guess I'll just speak about myself. Part of what MY BODY IS A BOOK OF RULES is about is I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and medicated for that for about 10 years. So something I get into early in WHITE MAGIC is getting sober, going to a different psychiatrist and getting that diagnosis reversed and getting a new diagnosis of PTSD and getting off those psych meds. I was not in an ideal situation at all. I was not getting the therapy I needed for PTSD. I was getting medications that were like really lifesaving and treating some conditions but not the condition I had and were very hard on my body. Elissa Washuta: The circumstances were far from ideal. My psychiatrist noted that it was obvious from the hours that he talked to me in order to kind of rediagnose me that I had written this story, that I had written a book about this because of the way I had shaped the narrative and the way I delivered the details of the meaning making process that came through to him. I think it would've been way better to do that in therapy. <Laugh> I think, you know, writing was therapeutic in a very powerful way, but I think therapy would've been healthier. Another thing about writing after I became a lot more mentally healthy and was writing WHITE MAGIC and was, especially as I was doing the last round of revisions, I was opening a lot of things up and getting more deeply into them and lengthening them and I was in a really good place. But like going back there like to really be present with those memories and the way I needed to like that was deeply triggering. It like messed me up and I didn't notice it at first. I see this with students, it's a really hard thing to undertake, especially when students are in workshop environments and trying to meet deadlines and just trying to get these drafts and revisions done. I think it's something to take a lot of care with overall. I think it's very powerful but maybe too powerful sometimes. Laura Maylene Walter: That was a great answer. We could take one more question before we get on to the tarot. . . If not using the oral traditions and not telling the complete story, is that what you're asking? Elissa Washuta: You know, I think what I've heard from people is that they can relate to this story. We have our places where we share stories, you know, like in the longhouse or in tribal gatherings of various kinds. And in the kinds of spiritual gatherings that I don't write about, people who are active in their cultures are able to access those things and don't need to get them from my book. What I've heard from readers is meaningful about my book in part is like the way we are forced to interface with colonizer culture and the realities of being in this like broken world that is not the world that is maintained through the longhouse is not, you know, informed and shaped by the stories that have been handed down to us over 10,000 years that teach us how to live, teach us how to be people. I hate the language of like walking in two worlds because that's not that, but it is like layers of experience and sort of like concentric circles of experience, some of which we participate in divorced from our culture or displaced from our culture or simultaneously while we are with our people. Laura Maylene Walter: I think we will move on to some tarot readings. This is something new. We've never done this on Page Count, but we're gonna keep it really simple. So if anyone has a question about a literary project ideally that they're working on it will just be a one card draw. Is there anything you want to share about the tarot or about this? You could do a really short one for me just to get the ball rolling. Elissa Washuta: Yeah, yeah, that sounds great. Laura Maylene Walter: But anything you'd like to fill us in on first? Elissa Washuta: So I have the Rider-Waite tarot deck. You'll see if you're listening to the podcast, you won't see, but it's very skinny because it's only the major arcana because I am really rusty and I don't want to get one of the court cards and have to look it up on my phone. We don't have time for that. I've just got the majors here. I've mostly read for myself, but I can kind of give the broad strokes of the way that the card might be reflecting something that I'm hearing in your situation. Laura Maylene Walter: We'll just see how it goes. Okay. Do you want me to tell you a little, like a tiny bit about my project time? Elissa Washuta: Yeah, tell me a tiny bit. Laura Maylene Walter: Okay. I'm working on another novel. It is really ambitious for me. It's a challenge. It covers a lot of time and characters and it's also speculative and I just, this summer, completed a fairly significant restructuring of it. So right now I'm in a place where I'm letting it sit to see if it's working. So I'm letting it rest right now, but that's basically the gist. Elissa Washuta: All right. So I want you to think about your project for a second. Just kind of hold some image in your mind. Okay. Choose a card. Elissa Washuta: All right. So we've got The Fool <audience laughs>. Laura Maylene Walter: I like that. No, that's good. It's good! Elissa Washuta: It's a beautiful card. Okay. So if you're listening to the podcast you can, you know, if you're not driving or whatever <laugh> you can Google. If you're not familiar, Google the Fool tarot card and the Rider-Waite deck is the one that you're most likely to see come up. So the Fool, there is a figure on it. Beautiful yellow background. Elissa Washuta: This figure is looking up at the sky, the sun is shining, the Fool is wearing this gorgeous garment that looks very fancy, fancy sleeves. There's a little white dog who seems very excited. So this card I am getting the sense of starting out on a new journey. And the thing you know about a second book, I was just talking with some writers about this yesterday, how hard the second book is when you're at the very beginning of something for the first time. It's just this like excitement of like, I'm writing a book. Once you've written a book, you know all of the pain and torment that's ahead. And I think that that can really interfere with the writing process of a second book. So The Fool is a card that's like, you know, it's not a negative term really, it's just this idea of being at the start of a journey, the excitement of that. Elissa Washuta: Like not knowing what's going to happen. But if you have seen the rest of the major arcana, you know that things are gonna get pretty bleak at some point, <laugh> such as the second book. <Laugh>. Laura Maylene Walter: All right, great. Well thank you so much. Let's take a volunteer. Hey. Yeah. Hi. Can you tell us a little bit? So it was a YA fantasy and right now the stage of the process is trying to write the ending. Elissa Washuta: Yeah. Come on up and pull for yourself. So what I will say is, I, I can't tell you what's going to happen, but I can tell you, we'll just see what the cards say. <Laugh>. So image in your mind. Pick. Yeah, that's a good one. All right, what have we got? We've got The Sun. Okay. The Sun is a beautiful card. They're all beautiful, but this is such a positive card. Elissa Washuta: We've got a big sun with a face on it and there's a sort of like baby figure on a horse. The baby's super excited. Has like arms, you know, outstretched, there's sunflowers, there's a tapestry. It's just got like these warm colors. I mean, the easy thing to say is that maybe you'll find a happy ending, but like, I don't think that that's what this card is saying. What comes to mind is that I think endings are so tough because they need to be landed in a certain way. I'm trying to think of what cards come before it. I think that there's some pretty rough cards before this in the major arcana. There's some rough stuff in there. And so I think like in the writing process, yeah, we need to go through some like rough, rough drafts. At least for me, I can get caught up on being so afraid of writing something bad that I just don't write. Elissa Washuta: But if you don't write, you're not going to get to that point of like having that satisfaction of finding that perfect ending where you feel a click. This is one of the most satisfying parts of like writing a book is like finding the ending and like how hard it clicks when you find where it ends. The thing that you've come to say ending a book is not just about getting to the end of a story on the page. I'm sure this is true of fiction too, as well as nonfiction. I think that like when you get to the end of a book, you're completing a long, long thought. Something that you have been working through as a writer in your life, in your mind. And so that's what I think of as The Sun. I think it's like a really positive card and I think that like you're going to find that click of a moment and recognize it and be super happy to be done. <Laugh>. Laura Maylene Walter: All right. Who's next? Yeah, go ahead and then we'll get you next. So this is a question about a very new story. Very, very early stages, like a Hallmark movie in the pre apocalypse. I love it. Elissa Washuta: Come on up. Think of an image from your story as you're picking a card. Temperance. Ooh, this is a hard one. This is a hard one. It feels very appropriate for short stories though. The Temperance card has an angel on it. The angel is pouring water from one cup to another. Elissa Washuta: They are standing in a pool of water. There's these beautiful, I don't know, swamp grasses or something. There's a mountain, another sun...sun's on all these cards. It just, yeah, a lot of positivity here. Laura Maylene Walter: Bright days ahead in the apocalypse. Elissa Washuta: Yes. <laugh>. So what I think about with this card, this angel has a very serious expression. It kind of makes me think about the craft of short stories. It's been a long time since I wrote one, but before I was an essayist I was writing short stories. One of the things I love best about short stories and that I really loved about the process of writing them is that they are kind of like a magic trick. There's something that feels like extra mysterious to me about like what unfolds in a short story and the way that it's resolved, the way that it's ended. I'm struggling a little bit with this one 'cause I struggle with this card, but I do think that what I'm seeing is just kind of the process starting to happen. Having this stuff in one chalice and having it flow into another. Getting just that first draft feeling of like getting the words on the page. That's like always one of the hardest things for me in the first draft. What I've had to teach myself is to stop like gem polishing with every sentence. Stop like going on thesaurus.com to get the perfect word and just write the thing. Just get the plot points out and like something I've been struggling a lot with recently. So maybe that's what we're getting to here, is just get that story out at first and then polish all those gems later. Laura Maylene Walter: All right. I think you had your hand up. So this is a project inspired by the writer's grandmother's story. There's a lot of research, but questions of what to do with that research and is it going to be fiction or nonfiction? Where to take it? Elissa Washuta: The Tower. My favorite card. Okay. This card I know a lot about, I've gotten this card many times. So the Tower card has got a tower in the middle, black sky in the back. There is no sun on this card. There is lightning striking this tower. The tower is on fire. There are people flung out of the tower. It is chaotic and terrifying. It seems like there's some kind of crown or dome that was on top of the tower that has been just blown off. It is hard to kind of think about how this relates to the beginning of a writing process. It's a card that I love so much and is like so close to my heart because I got it so much. I write about it in WHITE MAGIC because I got this card over and over at like times in my life that felt the worst. But were so transformative. I'm thinking that this is suggesting that whatever you find, you're gonna find your way into a truth that is going to really be transformative for you Elissa Washuta: And it's going to be disruptive for you and it, you know, maybe difficult truth. And so whether you get to that in non-fiction or fiction, you're going to find the way to get there. And sometimes I, I mean, I do think that sometimes when we're stuck in the research, it's because part of us knows that there is something like really big that we're not sure we're ready for, emotionally ready for or it's such a big story that we're not sure we can do it justice. At least I feel like that all the time, what's on the other side of the tower is so beautiful and so I think it's gonna be a really important project for you. Laura Maylene Walter: That's lovely. Okay, I think we have time for one more. Yes. That was about a novel that has been in progress for 10 years, you said, right? And is it close to the end...the end of the process, I should say. Revisions are happening. Elissa Washuta: The Fool again. Laura Maylene Walter: Hey, we're Fool buddies. <Laugh> Let's take a journey together with the little white dog. Elissa Washuta: Like I said, I'm rusty with this tarot stuff, but I feel like I've heard about The Fool being sometimes thought of as both the first and last card of the major arcana. So the answer to your question is yes, you're at the beginning and the end <laugh>. So I don't know. I don't know what this says about whether you're getting close to the end. When I was in the late stages of revision for WHITE MAGIC, I had that feeling that I've kind of talked about this. So I was doing like such deep work and it was the last revision, like this thing was done. This thing was 125,000 words. What more do I have to say? But I felt like having that draft completed and not having to do that work of getting the stuff out of my head and getting it onto the page and making sure I said everything I wanted to, it also freed me up to actually burrow into some of those parts. And in a way, it was like starting something new. Part of why we need to do revision is like not just to make the sentences prettier or whatever, like there are things that we need to get to that we couldn't get to until we felt we had a completed draft or another completed round. And so wherever you end up being with this revision, it's really important that you're doing it because you're embarking on something new with each round that starts a different process that you weren't able to enact before. Laura Maylene Walter: I am not a tarot reader. I'm not a tarot expert by any means, but what I've known of The Fool is I associate it with about to set off on a really joyous journey. So, because I also got The Fool, Audrey, I'm just going to assume you and I are off on a glorious journey to come where we'll have a dual book tour and It'll all be great. <Laugh>. All right. Well, I think with that, we are about out of time, but everyone please give it up for Elissa Washuta for joining us. Laura Maylene Walter: Page Count is presented by the Ohio Center for the Book at Cleveland Public Library. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe, rate and leave a review for Page Count wherever you get your podcasts. Learn more online or find a transcript of this episode at OhioCenterfortheBook.org. Follow us on Instagram @ohiocenterforthebook, on Twitter @cplocfb, or find us on Facebook. If you'd like to get in touch, email firstname.lastname@example.org and put "podcast" in the subject line. Finally, follow me on Instagram and Twitter @LauraMaylene. Thanks for listening, and we'll be back in two weeks for another chapter of Page Count.
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