By: Tai Dietrich
Elissa Washuta, a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, was born in New Jersey and now lives in Seattle. She received an MFA in creative writing from the University of Washington in 2009 and has been the recipient of an Artist Trust GAP Award, a Potlatch Fund Native Arts Grant, a 4Culture Grant, and a Made at Hugo House Fellowship. Her work has appeared in Salon, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Filter Literary Journal, and Third Coast. She is an adviser and lecturer in American Indian Studies at the University of Washington teaches in the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. My Body Is a Book of Rules is her first book.
The editors at Crossroads would like to congratulate you on the success of your first book! How has your life changed since your memoir’s publishing?
Thank you very much! Much of my life has remained as it was—I’m still writing, still teaching, still advising students, and still living in Seattle—but bringing the book into the world has changed a lot for me. After spending seven years writing my memoir, working to get it published, and getting it ready to be brought into the world, having people finally read it and react to it has been a tremendous experience. I was worried about how people would take it, but I wasn’t completely prepared for the outpouring of warmth. That’s been overwhelming in the best way.
Part of what makes your memoir remarkable is your incredible honesty and in-depth self-examination. Did you have any trouble writing some of the more intimate or private parts of your memoir knowing that your family and friends would read it? Were there any unexpected reactions from people who might have been featured in the book (even though you changed names to protect their privacy)?
While writing the memoir, I rarely thought about life post-publication. I sort of believed the work might never see the light of day because of the fractured form, which made the book impossible to describe in a snappy elevator pitch. I think this allowed me to remain immersed in the writing and postpone any worries external to the work itself. I wrote as though nobody who loved me would ever have to read it, and now that so many of my friends and family members have, I haven’t received any negativity. I haven’t encountered any unexpected reactions from people I wrote about, and I did try to maintain everyone’s privacy as best I could as I turned them into characters.
In your memoir, you reference your past experiences growing up in the Catholic Church. Interestingly enough, St. Augustine’s Confessions is one of the oldest and most well-known memoirs in history. What do you think of the idea of memoirs as confessional literature? Did you ever feel as though you were confessing during the writing process for My Body Is a Book of Rules?
My early education in creative writing emphasized a focus, when reading the work of others, on studying effects rather than intentions—and I think I’ve brought this sensibility to my approach to work that might be thought of as “confessional.” I don’t use that label or even really think of it much, because it just doesn’t feel useful to me. I’m curious about other people, certainly, but when I’m reading nonfiction, my focus is on the words on the page and what they do rather than what moved the writer’s heart.
“Confessional literature” is tossed out as a bit of a literary denunciation, but for me, the act of confessing was a good starting place. I haven’t been in the Catholic confessional since I was thirteen, and I don’t think I’d feel comfortable telling a priest the things I’ve done; I don’t think there’s a single human to whom I’d feel comfortable speaking the words of my experience in the vivid detail I’ve rendered them on the page. The writing process allows for painstaking hewing of fine detail from raw pain. I see no shame in making art from this hurt.
I couldn’t help but notice your book’s distinct cover art (Ondine’s Choice by Elle Hanley). [The image, Ondine’s Choice by Elle Haney, depicts the water nymph Ondine peering down at a trout (her mother in disguise) who has come to caution her against the perils of falling in love and bearing child with a mortal man.] How does the cover image give form to the content in My Body? What was the process of book design like for you?
The book’s cover came after the work had been written, revised, edited, and finalized. I found Elle Hanley’s work online, and the wonderful people at Red Hen Press worked with Elle to secure the photo for the cover. I’m so grateful to Elle for allowing us to use her work, because I feel that it perfectly encapsulates something about the book that I can’t really describe. And I’m obsessed with the fish!
The book design process was magical. I handed over a very messy Word document with lots of footnotes, headings, sub-headings, text in different places on different pages, columns, etc. The brilliant designer at Red Hen sent back a document that was even more beautiful than I could have imagined, with everything in order. It’s really exciting to work with people who understand my vision and see it even more clearly than I do.
As a writer, who would you say your greatest influences are? How did they impact your aesthetic and writing style? Are there any books in particular you drew inspiration from for My Body?
My influences are really a patchwork of many different books, each of which had a small but noticeable pull on me during the time I was working on the book. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides kept coming up in my craft papers. So did Drown by Junot Diaz. I loved Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen; Letters to Wendy’s by Joe Wenderoth; Shuffle by Leonard Michaels; Perma Red by Debra Magpie Earling; so many others. In general, I read pretty broadly, and I also read a lot of books I didn’t love in and after grad school while I was writing the book. That was important: I learned that there were as many ways to write a book as there were books in the world.
You’re already working on your second memoir, tentatively called “Starvation Mode.” Will this book mimic a similar structure to Body (references to pop culture and essays presented in various familiar forms) or should readers expect a different structure and format?
“Starvation Mode” will be a very short ebook in the form of a diet book. It’s about my lifelong problems with eating. It’s also about the challenges and rewards of eating animals. I’m still adopting a somewhat unusual form in that I’m mimicking a diet book’s structure in some ways, but I’m challenging myself to stick to a linear chronology.
In your interview with The Portland Mercury, you said that “memoir is a genre that has a lot of room for everybody.” What advice would you give to young writers interested in telling their stories?
Trust that you do, indeed, have a story worth telling, but know that stories don’t tell themselves—it’s the telling that compels readers. Dedicate yourself to studying craft. Find a teacher and/or a craft book to help you—Priscilla Long’s The Writer’s Portable Mentor, Phillip Lopate’s To Show and to Tell, and many others can help. Closely read memoirs and essays you love to see how they work, not just what they’re about. Keep writing until you get to something painful, shameful, embarrassing, difficult to reveal, troubling, complicated, or otherwise unpleasant, and then keep writing more. Implicate yourself but don’t forget to be kind to yourself, too.
Thank you Elissa for taking the time to answer a few questions for our Crossroads’ literary community!