- Elissa Washuta
I reviewed Pacific Northwest writer Elissa Washuta's memoir My Body is a Book of Rules this week, but there are many gems from our interview that had to be cut for space. Here are some of the things Washuta told me about using yourself as a nonfiction subject, writing advice from David Shields, pain scales, and the new book she's working on. Washuta reads tonight at Loggernaut reading series at Ristretto Roasters, 3808 N Williams, at 7:30 pm.
Can you tell me a little about working with David Shields at the University of Washington? Did you work with him on your memoir?
I took a couple classes with him my first and second quarters of my MFA program at UW, and just talking with him completely cracked open my brain. I started thinking about prose and form in a completely new way... and my second year, I just took independent study type stuff and thesis credits and I just worked alone a lot and then eventually just came back to him and was like, hey, look at this thing I made, and he was into it and gave me a lot of really good advice on it, but I was so influenced by that first class I took with him where he introduced me and my classmates to the idea that things didn’t have to have logical transitions, basically, in prose, which just blew my mind.
And if you look at traditional memoirs, we so often expect that.
Yes... [Working with David Shields] totally changed my life. We did read some things that really were kinda on the wackier side of things, that had weird symbols in them. The Pain Scale by Eula Biss was an essay that was super influential for me in that it was a collage type piece and uses the pain scale—the thing that’s tacked up on the emergency room wall and you’re supposed to assign 0-10 for your pain—[as] the form of the essay. That was really influential to me. That’s a lot of what I brought with me into the writing of the book. I learned a lot about just how to approach things in a different way if I didn’t want to have one paragraph flowing into the next like a river or something.
Your memoir does this incredibly smart thing, where the reader gets to know the details of your experiences early on, so when they recur later—and they recur several times; the form actually takes on an element of trauma—we remember them. Was this intentional, or did it happen naturally?
It kind of happened naturally... The structure was really hard to settle upon, but one thing that I did know was that I didn’t want there to ever be a reveal of any detail... This wasn’t going to be a book in which plot was driving narrative, so the revelation of details wasn’t going to be satisfying in a suspenseful way. So what was really going to be interesting was how the narrator [was] growing or changing or dealing with things. There wasn’t really a temporal progression, but it had to be some kind of progression. So I guess I always knew that there wasn’t going to be an aha! moment, like, “Oh! Okay, so she was bipolar the whole time!”
You started out as a fiction writer, didn't you?
Yes, I was a fiction writer going into the MFA program... I don’t think I ever really cared that much about [my fiction stories]. In the first quarter of grad school, I started really writing nonfiction, because I really cared about what I was writing about. David Shields told us in class that we could write about ourselves if we wanted to. We didn’t have to have had our arms pinned under boulders or whatever in order to be the subjects of nonfiction. Everybody could write about themselves if they wanted to. We didn’t have to have done something exceptional.
I think it can be really helpful to have someone say that to you when you're a young writer.
Yes. I think when you’re just starting out it is really helpful to have someone tell you, “No, it’s okay, you can write about yourself. But it’s not about the story. It’s about how the story is told.”
In a bunch of interviews with you, people have asked why you wrote a memoir, since you’re "so young." I am not going to ask that question, for reasons that I hope are obvious, but I am curious to know how you deal with it when it comes up.
I do get that question a lot. And I think people ask that because there’s a lack of understanding about the difference between memoir and autobiography, and so sometimes I just explain the difference and talk about what a memoir is. And I try to do it in a funny way and talk about Bill Clinton’s autobiography—I think it’s like 800 pages or something—and how long it is and talk about how autobiography is something that someone writes when they’ve lived a very full life and they have a lot to write about... But memoir is a genre that has a lot of room for everybody... My feeling about memoir is that the best ones are not about some exceptional event that happened, but are just well told and well written and have an interesting focus that isn’t necessarily hinged upon the exceptional event but on the writer’s interesting perspective on it.
I wish I had that written down on a notecard.
Yeah, I probably should have it written down somewhere.
What projects are you working on now?
[An essay collection] about being Indian and living Indian every day in a world in which there are all these strange external forces that are trying to define Indianness in ways that are just sort of vulgar... There’s a lot of external pressure against Indian identity, trying to define what we look like, what our spiritual practices look like, who we are... and if we get upset about it and say that we don’t want to be defined that way, we’re up against a lot to try to change things.