Voice of Columbus: Elissa Washuta continues to find clarity

The author and Ohio State creative writing professor discusses the process of stripping down the language in her remarkable 2021 memoir ‘White Magic’

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive
Elissa Washuta

Coming up as a writer, Elissa Washuta said she often heard some iteration of the phrase “you either have a voice or you don’t” — a statement the author and Ohio State creative writing professor now rejects. 

“I think that we’re often, in our earlier general writing education, taught to scrub that voice a little bit, or to develop a different voice for academic writing,” Washuta said recently by phone. “And it can be such a challenge to pull our real voices out of ourselves in writing. It certainly was for me. Working on White Magic was really, among other things, a process of really pushing myself to drill down into that voice.”

Part of this process involved reading every sentence in the book aloud several times, stripping away words that felt too decorative or unnecessary as Washuta worked to shrink the gap between her spoken and written voice. “I noticed, at times, I was trying to thesaurus.com myself out of sounding like myself,” the author said, and laughed. “So I looked at every sentence to see if there were words I could remove, because I realized I was piling onto the sentences to hide my voice. … The revision process, I think, changed me a lot as a writer, and made me much more willing to put my words down on the page as they came to me, even if I thought they sounded ugly.”

The work paid off, too, the language in White Magic flowing effortlessly, Washuta’s streamlined prose cutting to the bone with scalpel-like efficiency. “Settler colonialism wants me to call myself ‘white-passing,’ and I do, I am. The mortgage lender and the cops don’t treat me as a menace; they think I’m white so they let me live,” Washuta, a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe, writes in one passage. “But on dates or at work, being known to be Native makes some things change. Settlers speak as though difference is only what’s visible, lying to us all while fine-tuning the structures wrapped around our lineages, constricting, trying to get us to disappear.”

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As the memoir unfolds, Washuta captures how unseen forces bring change to her life, with a pivotal, post-sobriety breakup serving as a catalyst for self-discovery. Along the way, the author also recounts how a belief in magic became rooted within her early in adolescence, explores the slippery concept of memory and reconnects with what she termed “the universal current” in an April interview with Alive. “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,” she said at the time.

Washuta said the shift in her process was inspired, in part, by her work as a teacher, the ritual of reading stories penned by graduate students leading her to reexamine her own essays. But it was also part of a larger personal realization that started to take shape as she worked on White Magic.

“I think the book is so much about creating illusions and experiencing illusions,” said Washuta, who first stumbled upon what her voice as a writer could be while writing poetry as a high school senior. “It’s a book about trying to be what other people wanted me to be, among other things. And one of the things I was working through in this book was trying to tailor who I was or how I presented myself to other people’s expectations, but often being wrong about what they wanted, and also certainly being wrong about that being any good for me. And I don’t think I could have meaningfully reached the conclusions that I reached without getting to the other side of it in my writing.”

While Washuta believes she’s come closest to capturing her voice in its purest form with White Magic, she said the process further illustrated for her that the pursuit of voice is continual rather than a destination at which one settles. While writing her debut memoir, Starvation Mode: a Memoir of Food, Consumption and Control, for example, Washuta said she focused more on syntax, realizing that some sentences took on “a sing-song pattern” in early drafts. 

“And I thought I had recognized where I was not letting my voice shine through, and I was done,” said Washuta, who is in the early stages of her next book, which she described as something “more factual” than the sometimes slippery White Magic, allowing her to write with more confidence than she has in the past. “But I was very much not done with the process of finding voice. And I’m much more aware of it now.”