Heartbreak, Sobriety, and Witchery in Elissa Washuta’s New Essay Collection, White Magic

As a member of the Cowlitz Indian tribe, Elissa Washuta grew up in a world full of trinkets and fake commodities inspired by Native traditions. But struggle with heartbreak, abuse, and addiction, encouraged her to seek real spells and witchery through the internet, a process she writes about in her new book and Creative Capital Project, White Magic. The collection of intertwined essays details Washuta’s journey through sobriety, a breakup, occult practices, and a search for a DARE video that apparently doesn’t exist outside of her memory. The book, published by Tin House, is out now.

Washuta spoke about White Magic, how the internet changed her life, and the real witchery of the writing process.

Alex—So, tell me about your book.

Elissa—White Magic is an essay collection about land, heartbreak, colonization, and witchery. I think of it as both an essay collection and a book that is just one very long essay, in that everything is meant to work together as a unified whole. All of its parts are meant to speak to each other. The essays take different forms, and could be read separately for the most part, but they really are meant to live together and be experienced together.

I’m an essayist who writes about personal experience using research and cultural criticism in order to inform my investigation of self, memory, and my personal history. This book has quite a few sources of research and criticism—to name a few, the Fleetwood Mac song, “Silver Springs,” the Claymation video, The Adventures of Mark Twain, a video from the DARE program that seems to not exist at all on the internet, but is very present in my memory, and a treaty with the US government signed by one of my ancestors.

Alex—I was expecting a collection of essays, but it’s very clear from the beginning that it’s more of a narrative, almost literary book, but in essay form. So, you’re kind of playing with those two forms, right?

Elissa—Yes, I think this is the book format I’ve always been drawn to as a writer, not necessarily as a reader, my tastes are pretty wide in my reading. But I think I need for my full length books to have a really wide range of formal approaches, narrative questions, and ways into my subject. I can’t really see myself writing something that’s not like that. I think I would get bored, or I would exhaust my approach very quickly. That’s probably part of why I wrote it this way. My mind simultaneously tends to focus on the small part of an essay, and the larger whole at the same time.

Alex—This is a very personal and intimate collection of essays, which of course is natural for the essay form. Can you talk about your background?

Elissa—I am a member of the Cowlitz Indian tribe. I grew up in New Jersey and lived in Seattle for ten years from 2007 to 2017. A lot of the collection is centered around my time in Seattle. I live in Ohio now where I’m an assistant professor at the Ohio State University teaching creative writing. My first book, My Body is a Book of Rules, came out in 2014, and that was an intensely personal collection of essays that was, again, really varied in form. It was about trauma. Trauma is always either at the heart or in the periphery of my essays because the questions I’m still trying to resolve for myself are around the ways that I’ve been hurt.

The ways in which White Magic is personal is that it’s centered on a breakup that happened in 2016. I was in a relationship that was very short, it wasn’t particularly serious, but I was really devastated. In part, I think that the devastation was a result of that being my first serious heartbreak in sobriety. I was an alcoholic before that point. I got sober in 2015, and the book is really concerned with this process I went through, trying to figure out how to be OK with intense feeling and intense hurt in sobriety without anything to numb me or change the way I felt. I just had to look at these feelings, and my history, and figure out why I felt this way, and whether there was a way to make the pain stop.

It turned out that when I started into these memories and pain, I clearly could see the pain that preceded it—the bad relationship patterns that I was getting into, and perpetuated with every relationship I got into for years. While the book looks at the relationship and the attempts to get back together with this guy, there’s so much more happening in the book’s peripheral vision that was the stuff that was coming up as I was writing.

Alex—Your journey to seek healing coincides with and is a part of your exploration of mysticism and magic. In your writing, there is a clear connection between magic, and the internet (which has this shamanistic source of knowledge), as well as the narrative form. I’m curious how you define magic?

Elissa—That’s a good question, and I’m not sure I’m settled on the answer right now. Through the course of the book, I move away from magic, or from spells, witchcraft, astrology, tarot, divination practices, and the collecting of synchronicities. It became clear to me that those were tools that were helpful to me in reassuring myself that everything was going to be OK, and that I was being taken care of by the universe, and all of that stuff that occult internet talks about—being part of the divine. Those were tools that I could see later were helpful to me in giving me a sense of control. There were also times when I tipped too far into that and really felt that I could use astrology, tarot, and spells to make situations better or to find different approaches to relationships, and fix problems that really were unfixable.

So much of the book is an attempt to get at knowledge that is difficult to reach.

During the course of writing the book, I felt that something I was experiencing in the writing process—seeing my research come together in ways that were eerie and completely magical—made me become so much more interested in what was clearly real magic, and so much less interested in divination and those other tools. I think that in the end of the book—even though at that point, I wasn’t reading tarot anymore, or looking at astrological charts, and I definitely wasn’t doing any spells—I felt like I was intensely tapped into something powerful. I think that just came from the process of working intuitively through my subject matter and through my research, trusting that it was all going to come together. I don’t know what magic is, precisely, but I think it is the product of being tapped into some kind of power and trusting in it.

Alex—It’s common for people who are intensely on the internet to have a shared idea that there is a sense of magic or otherworldly power because we’re all existing in this virtual realm. You tap into that in your writing—that we’re all aware of this phenomena and that we’re part of this collective consciousness, like the whole thing with the DARE video not existing.

Elissa—Yeah, I really didn’t set out to write a book about the internet. I mean, I didn’t set out to write a book about anything, but going into this I had no idea what was going to come out of the writing process. It turned out that what came out of it was a fascination with the internet, or at least a narration of my fascination with it. I was about 11 or 12 when we got the internet in my house growing up. It changed everything, of course, as it did for everybody. It changed the way I related to knowledge, and I think that’s why it plays such a role in this book.

I was writing so much about the process of knowledge acquisition and searching for knowledge, not just searching knowledge about what my then-boyfriend wasn’t telling me when I asked him what was going on, but occult knowledge, knowledge about my ancestors. So much of the book is an attempt to get at knowledge that is difficult to reach. That was all knowledge when I was a kid, and even for a while as an adolescent. As a teenager I worked at a library and books were where knowledge existed for a good chunk of my life. It was not at all unusual that knowledge was out of reach—just about everything was.

The shift toward the expectation that all knowledge can be had is really interesting to me. I don’t remember when that shift happened in my life, I just know that it did shift. I no longer felt the wonder I remember feeling when I first looked something up. It was the blue morpho butterfly. I searched for it on AOL or something and was absolutely astounded that I could just type something in and have search results show up, and get articles about this thing. Of course, eventually it flipped, and now if I don’t find something on the internet, it feels like there’s a glitch in the Matrix because something is unavailable.

Another part of being fascinated by the internet, that I wasn’t conscious of until later when I realized how much I was mentioning the internet. Then, I became conscious of it and really intentional about it. I had not previously done so much research in the process of writing. Once I really started getting into it, I realized that it’s such a drag that so much on the internet is unreliable. I was feeling really weighed down by the fact that so many things were not factual, difficult to source, or unverified. As I was becoming frustrated and trying to figure out how I was going to do all this research, I realized that maybe the unreliability of this information was a feature of the process, rather than a flaw, since the book is so much about searching for information.

Alex—You are very transparent and informative on Twitter about the writing process, and what you need as a writer to make your work. Can you talk a little bit about the writing process itself?

Elissa—I started around 2012, but it’s hard to pinpoint the exact start date of the process. After my first book, My Body is a Book of Rules, was done, I really wanted to write a book that was easier in every way. I wanted it to be easier to sell, and to arrange for sure, because I really struggled with the structure of My Body is a Book of Rules. It took a lot of help and a lot of revision. I figured if I was really intentional about the shape of the book from the beginning of the process, it would make my life so much easier.

Instead, I messed up my writing process for years. I tried outlining a memoir, then a novel. I tried writing about things that would sell easily based on fads, like the Paleo diet, which I practiced for a surprisingly long time. I really struggled with drafting for years, and I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to follow up my first book with a second one. I was just writing things, discarding them, and at the same time just struggling to make ends meet in Seattle. Eventually, I worked really hard on getting sober, and I focused on that. There were long stretches of time when I didn’t write, or wrote things that I’ll probably never look at again because they were failed ways into the book manuscript.

But some pieces began coming out of me. One of them was part of an essay about the Oregon Trail II video that eventually became a full chapter in the book. There were also a couple of essays that I wrote in 2016 as part of a residency in Seattle’s Fremont Bridge Northwest Tower. I didn’t know how everything was going to fit together. I thought that I was probably working on a collection of essays that were not super closely linked, and that would just be parts of your standard essay collection, in which things are in the same universe but not necessarily interdependent.

In 2017, I moved to Ohio to take a job at Ohio State, and I started writing about my ex-boyfriend. I thought it was a separate project at first, but the ways that everything fit together pretty quickly became apparent to me. I just worked really hard on writing new essays, and finishing essays that I had abandoned over the previous few years. It took me about two years to have a full manuscript, and it was long—about 125,000 words.

I made a timeline, partly thanks to the Creative Capital application, which asks for a timeline for the project. I had never wanted to make a timeline for my work. I really resisted the idea of planning out what I was going to do because I felt that I couldn’t predict the future, and didn’t know how long things would take. For my Creative Capital application, I guessed a timeline and it ended up being precisely what happened. I showed the manuscript to friends, got comments, revised, showed it to my agent, got her comments, revised. When I felt like the manuscript was exactly what I wanted it to be, I told my agent that I was ready to show it to editors. In December of 2019, my agent began pitching editors, and when I talked to Tony Perez at Tin House, I really loved what he had to say about the book. I felt that he really understood it, and knew where I was coming from, and what I wanted the book to be. I was already familiar with Tin House, having taught for their winter workshop, and having a lot of friends who published books with them. It felt like a really great fit.

It’s been so great to have input when it comes to all of the various parts of the process, like the cover and the interior—they’re perfect and it’s going to be a really beautiful book. I’ve been doing interviews and other sorts of promotional activities. The time between when I signed the contract and now has really flown by.

Alex—You mentioned Creative Capital was helpful in terms of the timeline. How else has it been helpful with this book?

Elissa—Definitely. The first way that it helped me was just the application process itself. I find that my writing is so often strengthened by the process of applying for grants because I have to talk about what my work is, what I do, what I do well, what I need, where I’m going, and what the features of the work are. Having to describe my work has been incredible for my writing. So the application process was very useful in that way.

The Creative Capital application in particular was useful in making me really seriously commit to this as a project—with a budget, with a real plan of how it would be in the world. I think that that’s a little bit of witchery to visualize a thing become real and then making it real. That’s The Secret, right? It wasn’t so much something that happened, the writing of the book, it was something that I did. Just having the shape of that in my mind was really important in helping me motor through the writing process.

Then, actually receiving the award was such important validation for me at a really crucial time. I had just started my job at Ohio State a few months earlier, and I had some imposter syndrome. To have this affirmation that my work was exciting was really important for me. Connecting with other artists in my small cohort has been so wonderful. As you know, we’re all really tight. It’s been great to have the support and friendship of other people along the way. For me, it’s particularly useful to be able to talk with and think alongside artists in other disciplines because there’s not really anywhere else in my life that that happens. The way they think about art spatially, visually, or sonically has had an impact on my work.

And, of course, the funding has been really helpful. There have been various things I’ve needed along the way that I definitely wouldn’t have had otherwise. I think that one thing that is great about having significant funding before my agent started pitching the book to editors to find a publisher, having that financial support from Creative Capital gave me some freedom, as did my job in Ohio State. Both of those things meant that I didn’t have to weigh the book advance as much as I might have had to if I had less financial support from other sources. So, I was able to factor a lot of other things that mattered to me like book design and the relationship with the editor, and the plan for publicity, and how I felt about the publisher’s list, and so many other things. I was able to prioritize the things that mattered to me and deprioritize the financials a little bit.

Of course, the financials in the end are important to me—it’s a reality of this world that we live in that I have to think about that. That’s another thing that has been really great about Creative Capital: being able to be open and realistic about the way financial situations influence our work. My own relationship with money has been so much better since I decided to stop pretending it was fake. Having a plan for my money, the ways I’m going to make it, and being on top of my taxes, all that has given me a lot more emotional freedom to focus on my work. Worrying about money was taking so much room in my head. Now that space is somewhat cleared—I still worry about money, but not nearly as much as I used to. That’s not just because I have more of it, but because I understand how to treat it as the real thing that it is.

Read more about and purchase White Magic by Elissa Washuta.