Alumna Reflection: Elissa Washuta

By Guest Author

Categories: Alum Experiences, Women's Voices,

In 2009, nearing the completion of my MFA in creative writing, I sat in on a panel of faculty and alumni who shared their post-MFA experiences and let us in on their secrets of productivity after the quarterly deadlines disappeared. This was the first time I’d ever heard of a writing residency.

“I will never do that,” I told my friend, even though I desperately wanted to do it: nothing had ever sounded as sweet as some unencumbered time away from the world, with meals made for me, no distractions. But back then, my impostor syndrome ran deep, worsened by the streams of literary magazine rejections coming into my inbox and mailbox without any offset of an acceptance here and there. I was good, at that point, at rejecting opportunities before they’d reject me. And anyway, I had a cat. You can’t leave a cat for a month. So it was settled: I would never get a writing residency.

In the years that followed, I found more reasons to believe that was true—reasons that really did seem legitimate (and still do). I began working at an hourly office assistant—a wage earner—at the university and couldn’t afford time off. Later, after getting a half-time salary job as an adviser and year-round work as a contingent faculty member (what most people call an adjunct) in the same department, I knew that for the most part, I wouldn’t be able to leave town for more than six days at a time. I applied to Hedgebrook one year when I was only scheduled to teach for half the summer—and I got in. But I had to cancel when I began my current teaching job at the Institute of American Indian Arts, and the start date coincided with the residency.

I stopped thinking about residencies. I wrote in the mornings, on the weekends, after work. I finished my second book this way. I’ve been teetering on the edge of burnout for years, trying to fit it all in: my office job, my teaching, writing books, promoting books, supporting other writers by going to their readings, making dinner for myself, trying to practice “self-care,” dating, maintaining friendships, commuting. The list goes on.

When I heard from Hedgebrook that there was an opportunity for me to come out for a few days, I was so ready.

This summer, I came up to teach at the salons and stayed in a cottage for a few days preceding that. I was nervous—I hadn’t written much in the previous year, just a couple of essays here and there, because my writer life, with the frequent filling out of contracts and answering of interview questions, had overtaken my writing practice. I was glad to have opportunities to share my work, but I became increasingly fearful that I might actually stop writing.

I didn’t really know what I was going to work on at Hedgebrook, so I brought a bunch of the books I was using for research for three different projects. When I arrived, I took a deep, avoidant nap. And then I woke up and I wrote.

For three days, I barely stopped writing, except to take walks, eat the meals prepared for me, make coffee, and sleep. In that short time, I wrote ten thousand words—much more than I’d written all year, and definitely much more than I’d ever written in a few days.

A month later, I came back for a few days. I thought there was no way I’d match that output, but I was determined to try. And I did: I wrote another ten thousand words.

I’m not sure where that writing project is going, and I don’t know what I’m going to do with most of those words. But the experience showed me that when I am taken care of, when I can walk away from the commute and the cooking and the emails, I have the capacity to write more than I tell myself I can. That knowledge has taken some fear out of my writing process, and the experience of being cared for at Hedgebrook has come home with me. At home, nobody is going to cook my meals or leave me jars of snacks—if I want that done, I have to do it. Now, I realize how important it is. Self-care is not just an exercise or a wellness website recommendation; in the words of Audre Lorde, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

I can only continue to write about sexual violence and colonization if I am well cared for, and now I know that if I am cared for well, with everything I need at hand and the clutter of life shelved, I can write for days without exhaustion. I can wage war.

Learn more about the Writers in Residence program: www.hedgebrook.org/writers-in-residence/

About the Author:

Elissa Washuta is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and a writer of personal essays and memoir. 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. Her work has appeared in SalonThe Chronicle of Higher EducationBuzzFeed, and elsewhere. Elissa holds an MFA from The University of Washington and currently serves as the undergraduate adviser for the Department of American Indian Studies at the University of Washington and a nonfiction faculty member in the MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. She is a faculty advisor for Mud City Journal and Saturday editor for The Rumpus

Elissa has received fellowships and awards from Artist Trust, 4Culture, Potlatch Fund, and Hugo House. Born and raised in New Jersey, she now lives in Seattle.

 


 

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