Elissa Washuta casts a spell in the alluring ‘White Magic’

The author and Ohio State creative writing professor will celebrate the release of her new memoir with a virtual event via Two Dollar Radio tonight

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Elissa Washuta

As White Magic opens, Elissa Washuta recounts purchasing a mood ring at the mall, describing the way the cheap trinket would change from black to green to orange on her finger, and how the those mysterious color shifts instilled in her a desire to explore magic and “bring change to the world using unseen forces.”

As the memoir unfolds, though, what emerges is a picture of how unseen forces bring change to the author, with a pivotal, post-sobriety breakup serving as the catalyst for a wellspring of self-discovery.

Before Washuta landed on this crucial turning point from her near-past, the importance of which she said was magnified by occurring when it did along her path to sobriety, she spent years sketching out various essays, unsure of how the various pieces might connect.

“I had drafts of essays in various stages of completion, but I wasn't sure how it was all going to hang together. ... But once I gave myself permission to write about that breakup, and to make it a central part of the book, that’s when things jelled,” said Washuta, an assistant professor of creative writing at Ohio State and the author of Starvation Mode and My Body Is a Book of Rules. “All of a sudden, I had all this feeling, and I really understood what drinking had been about for me, which was trying to change the way I feel. And that sounds like a simple thing, a very simple realization to have, but it became very significant and profound once I understood it so fully in being so heartsick over this person. And there was nothing I could do. I had committed to not using alcohol to change that feeling and to numb it, so I had to sit with those feelings … and wait for them to pass. That was really hard, and being human became painful for me in a new way.”

Magic relies on distraction — a flourish or gesture that draws audience eyes away from the central action — and Washuta described this relationship in similar terms, saying it was “pretty ordinary as far as relationships and breakups go,” and that it was only in allowing herself to write about the hurt it caused that she began to see the layers that existed beneath the pain, and the patterns that had repeated themselves time and again over the course of past relationships. “If I don’t exit these time loops, these men echoing men, their cause, my effect, I’ll meet my tragic end,” she writes.

The concepts of time and memory weigh heavily on White Magic. In one passage, for instance, Washuta embarks on a search for a public service video made by D.A.R.E. that she recalls viewing as a child in vivid detail, but which appears to exist solely within her memory.

“In writing and teaching nonfiction, there’s always been a conversation around the reliability of memory,” said Washuta, who will celebrate the release of White Magic with a virtual event via Two Dollar Radio, appearing in conversation with Ruth Awad, Eloisa Amezcua and Weston Morrow at 7 p.m. today (Tuesday, April 27). “Our memories are not like a surveillance camera tape. They’re not meant to work like that, and my memory, in particular, is bad beyond that baseline human error. And yet, that doesn’t matter for the essay, in my opinion. I’m getting things down to the best of my recollection. And that’s part of my story: what stands out in my memory and why. Why have I formed the narrative of my past and myself in the way that I have?”

Throughout the collection, this narrative is interwoven with the mystic, an interest that Washuta, a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, traced to childhood and which resurfaces in a more profound way amid the book’s central breakup, a fallout accompanied by apparitions, visions and other universal signs.

“I truly felt I was tapped into some kind of power,” said the author, who described writing as an immersive process for which she prefers to block out long, eight-hour stretches that enable her to lose herself more fully in the material. “It was absolutely thrilling to feel like all of the prayers I’d never had answered as a child, all of the answers I had always wanted, they were all coming to me through these signs and synchronicities. I felt like I was in this universal current that was so exciting, as exciting as being a child and reading those books about tesseracts and time travel.”

In the memoir, Washuta writes of “ungrowing” and rediscovering this sense of youthful wonder, which she described in part as an unexpected side effect to quitting drinking.

“The first couple of years of sobriety, I started to feel like my old self was coming through, this person I thought I’d lost as a part of growing up,” she said. “In a way, I started to come back to some of the feelings and some of the personality characteristics that I had in early college and high school, back before I experienced so much trauma, and before doing so much drinking. Sobriety allowed me to peel back these layers I had built up around myself. All of this residue of guilt and shame and self-loathing got stripped away, and I finally started feeling like myself again.”