Elissa Washuta is the judge of the 2019 Pinch Literary Award for Poetry. She is the author of two books, Starvation Mode and My Body Is a Book of Rules, named a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. With Theresa Warburton, she is co-editor of the anthology Exquisite Vessel: Shapes of Native Nonfiction, forthcoming from University of Washington Press.
Is there a topic that you would like to write more about, or that you would like to see be written about more?
I would like to write so much more about magicians. I’ve written just a little bit about magic (the illusion kind) in my book White Magic that I’m finishing drafting—the book is mostly about the occult kind of magic—but the more I learn about magic as an art form, the more potential I see for essays about it. If anyone wants to get me an invitation to The Magic Castle, let me know.
Do you have a favorite childhood memory, or one you remember most vividly?
The most vivid ones are not my favorites—in the most vivid ones, I am beginning to see the gap between what I want the world to be and what it is, like the time I was in preschool and had to adhere to a schedule imposed by someone else (it was NAPTIME) and had a meltdown. My favorite memories take place at home, in the yard, in the summer, wandering into the woods without any sense of what time it was or what I was going to do.
In your mind, what sets a really good nonfiction essay apart from the rest? Are there a number of factors, or is it more of an indiscernible quality?
I don’t think an essay can be really good unless it’s apparent that the writer absolutely loves sentences and is making deliberate stylistic decisions about their construction. Personally, I love essays that are at least a little strange in some way (not so much in the subject matter as in the way the writer sees the world and conveys it in prose), but I could be convinced that non-strange essays can be really good. An essay definitely can’t be good if the writer didn’t come to it with some desire.
Is there a series or show you are watching right now, or one you have watched previously and loved, that you would recommend?
I’m not really a big watcher of anything anymore. I’m playing Red Dead Redemption 2 a lot, which feels like playing inside a movie. I love that it can hold both narrative and anti-narrative modes: there’s a plot, but there’s also a lot to do beyond the plot, like pick flowers and buy outfits. Some of the writing is just so good! And eventually the plot takes a very Dances with Wolves turn, right down to the inclusion of Graham Greene. It’s a game about many things that have been on my mind for a long time. (I’m writing about it.)
For you, how is the reading process different for a highly personal essay versus a more objective, distanced one?
This is a tough one, because for me, differences in my reading process mostly have to do with what’s expected of me: am I giving feedback? Am I just reading this because I want to? Will I be expected to know what’s in this essay and talk about it with somebody? Am I reading this to find something specific for my own research? I recently read a batch of essays that would be workshopped, some of which were personal, some researched and less personal, and I found that my approach was pretty much the same across the board: something needs to be at stake for somebody, the pacing needs to be appropriate, and the sentences need to be well-styled.