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Classy Talk with Elissa Washuta

Posted Tue, 8/13/2013 - 6:11pm by  |  Category:

Elissa WashutaWhat is the title of your class?

Writing Your Darkest Days

People should take this class if…

Many of us are driven to write about our most painful and elemental experiences, but the process can be riddled with frustrations. Writing about darkness can send us into dark places, sometimes shutting down the creative process and forbidding us from accessing the material we’re trying to render in writing. Raw emotion, burning so hot in the belly, sometimes lies flat on the page, or worse, comes off as melodrama. On the other hand, corralling an experience into a literary moment can distill its intensity into a reading experience so intense the reader can’t get past the first page.

In this class, we will read examples of powerful, compelling, effective works of memoir and personal essay that deal with trauma and darkness. We’ll ground ourselves in what works, and we’ll approach our own projects and subjects with this in mind.

If you are working on — or want to work on — a memoir or personal essay project concerning a difficult subject, and you want to benefit from the camaraderie of a group of writers who are doing the same, you should take this class. None of us will tell you your work is “too depressing.”

Can your students connect with you on social media? If so, how? 

Absolutely! I’m on Facebook and Twitter.

Are any of your works online and available to the public?

I recently read the opening of my current memoir-in-progress, Starvation Mode, at Hugo House. My essay “How Much Indian Was I?, My Fellow Students Asked” is available from The Chronicle of Higher Education.

What excites you about the material you’re teaching?

The entire process of working on my first book, My Body Is a Book of Rules, was really a system of strategies for accessing and translating difficult material. I had a hefty pile of dark things to write about, and I was able to make the material lively and accessible by using form: lists, fakes (fake term paper, fake letter from a psychiatrist, fake online dating profile), collage style, and other logical arrangements. I used humor. But the material has been, in various drafts, too intense for some readers, and I had to find strategies for toning it down and making it palatable. I’m excited to share what I’ve learned along the way.

Since beginning to take classes at Hugo House, I’ve found that many other writers struggle with similar problems. This is a constant battle in my work, and I can’t wait to talk about it with our class.

Tell us a bit about your previous teaching experience.

I’m a lecturer in the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington, where I teach classes on literature and film. My current class is “The Twilight Series: Native Image and Myth.” We watch all the Twilight movies and dissect their representations of indigenous peoples — it’s ridiculously fun.

What do you like best about teaching at Hugo House?

I’ve been taking Hugo House classes for years, and my classmates have always offered thoughtful, challenging, supportive critiques. I’m excited to spend time with eager writers who have something at stake in their own work. Also, Hugo House is haunted.

What’s the best piece of writing you’ve read in the past year?

Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir by Lauren Slater. It’s an incredible book that refuses to conform to the mandates of the mainstream memoir genre. Slater’s brilliant response to a critic who panned the book is icing on the cake.

What books made you want to write?

The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues by Ellen Raskin was the big one — it was my gateway drug into the juvenile fiction section at the library, and I still read it often. It’s a very weird mystery. Also, anything published by Francesca Lia Block before 1999 (when I would have been in about ninth grade); the combination of her glittery settings and tragic characters thrilled me.

If there was one piece of advice you could give an aspiring writer, what would it be?

Write a lot and workshop with other people. I have been workshopping more than ever in the past couple of years — even more than when I was in an MFA program — and I have become a much better writer. Although I have received invaluable feedback from others, I believe most of the strengthening of my writer muscles has come from my own work critiquing the work of my friends and classmates.

What are you reading now? If you could pair it with a beverage (alcoholic or otherwise), what would you choose?

I just finished re-reading Rat Girl by Kristin Hersh, lead singer of Throwing Muses and 50FOOTWAVE and accomplished solo artist. It’s an incredible memoir by a phenomenal musician whose work buoyed me through the writing of my own memoir and the period I wrote about. Rat Girl is a book that blazes its own trail: just as in her music, Hersh knows the rules of writing well and chooses which ones she will adeptly break. I’ve never read such a powerful, vibrant account of a bipolar brain.