April 27, 2021
In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.
Elissa Washuta's collection White Magic is yet another example of why she is one of the most talented essay writers writing today. Moving, smart, and resonant, these intertwined pieces are brilliant.
Booklist wrote of the book:
"Powerful. . . . Washuta’s essays refuse the mandate of a tidy resolution. Instead she circles around each subject, inspecting it as symbol, myth, metaphor, and reality, all while allowing her readers space to draw their own conclusions, or to reject the need for any conclusion at all. Like a stage magician, she asks readers to look again. White Magic is an insightful, surprising, and eloquent record of stories of magic and the magic in stories."
In 2017, I drove my ex-boyfriend Carl up I-5 from Seattle to Everett in a massive rented Expedition to see the Laura Palmer house. Technically, it was only used in Twin Peaks: The Return and Fire Walk with Me, but I didn’t remember the Palmers ever living in a house that wasn’t this one near Possession Sound. Carl had broken up with me almost a year and a half earlier, and I had moved to Ohio. I was back in Seattle for a visit, and since I was writing about Twin Peaks, I needed to see the house, and he thought he should come with me.
“This is a good playlist,” Carl told me as I drove, which I took to mean that he was still in love with me, because he knew that “Still Loving You” by Scorpions was on the playlist. In fact, he had asked me: “Is this still your playlist?” It was my playlist. The song was one of the 432 I needed if I was going to endure the fact that he could not yet love me back again. He asked me to share the playlist and I did. Its name is “go on and hold her til the screaming is gone.” He asked, “Is this the title of the playlist?” In the end, he didn’t hit follow.
“#1 Crush” by Garbage
Who is Carl? A long story. Carl was my boyfriend. Not for long, not even four months. Carl is the eyes of the magician that will make you forget what’s happening in his hand. As a character in a book, Carl serves only as the catalyst for my transformation. The story is mine. My story of Carl began like this: I will sell my soul for something pure and true. Someone like you. I am not the first person to put Carl in a book.
“All these dark forces are powerful. At the same time, you can keep your home warm with anger but you can also burn your home down with it. It’s power. … I think people that don’t want to explore the dark are missing out on so much. Melancholia is powerful. Sadness is powerful and beautiful sometimes. As long as you don’t drown in it.” -Shirley Manson
“Summer Boy” by Buffy Sainte-Marie
Bliss is a bad subject, devoid of tension, but it only takes a few paragraphs to get that part out of the way. It’s hard to remember and feel at the same time. Face of joy covering all your fears—summer boy, give me your tears. I remember the way the stairs to Carl’s front door looked from the street. This is the way to do it: one detail at a time. From the stairs to the railing and, balanced on it, the Phil Collins mug I bought him. The beaten Vans in a row by the door, the thicket of amps and synths. I remember it all because the house is my memory palace. I wanted to convince the reader he had been real, and before that, I wanted to convince myself.
"Aboriginal music has been good for a very long time, but nobody has been listening to it." -Buffy Sainte-Marie
“Blood in the Cut” by K.Flay
And just like that, it was over, and I was turning the key in my blistering car, waiting to combust. The boy I love’s got another girl; he might be fucking her right now. Technically, no, he was not, he was posting Instagram videos of him with his guitar and his songs and his eyefucking of some imagined viewer. Lately, I’ve been killing all my time, reading through your messages, my favorite way to die. Not imagined, actually, but as far as I could tell from my research, a younger guitarist from another country who’d been on tour with him and mostly looked like me but had the distinct advantage that she wasn’t.
“I’m a firm believer that the right thing to do creatively is the scariest thing. And for me, the scariest thing was to be positive. To look for light.” -K.Flay
“I’m the Only One” by Melissa Etheridge
I scheduled a phone meeting with him to ask whether he’d cheated on me with that woman. No, he said, but he acknowledged that my intuition was strong. (Did he? I checked my book. I recalled it there as insight.) Go on and hold her ‘til the screaming is gone. But I’m the only one who’ll walk across the fire for you. The problem, of course, was that the more I followed the threads of his internet attention, the more I realized that I wasn’t the only one who was walking through flames to reach him.
“I really — all I wanted to do was be rich and famous. That's really it. I wanted to make music. I wanted to have the comfortable life of a rock star.” -Melissa Etheridge
“Silver Springs” by Fleetwood Mac
More happened. I talked to him, I didn’t talk to him, I sent him angry texts, I apologized, I met up with him, I fucked him, I left Seattle. I began repeatedly watching the live performance of “Silver Springs” from The Dance. Carl took days to respond to my texts.
Time cast a spell on you but you won't forget me
I know I could've loved you but you would not let me
I'll follow you down 'til the sound of my voice will haunt you
You’ll never get away from the sound of the woman that loves you
I needed him, but he was gone, so I had to make him exist for me again. I began to write.
“I’m so angry with you. You will listen to me on the radio for the rest of your life, and it will bug you. I hope it bugs you.” -Stevie Nicks on inspiration for the song
“The Chain” By Fleetwood Mac
The problem with writing about heartbreak, or with feeling it, is that nobody cares. Books should be about sea battles and the narrative history of medical breakthroughs. They should not be about loving too much, unless they’re self-help books. So I mostly kept it to myself. By “it” I mean a manuscript that grew large enough to hold my whole heart. I can still hear you saying you would never break the chain: the problem was that if I wanted the book, he could never love me again, and that I would have to still hear him saying it forever.
“We were in the worst shape. But it was helping us make the best music.” -Stevie Nicks
“Tusk” by Fleetwood Mac
A year after I moved, I came back to visit, and without really meaning to, I saw him again, and then again and again. We found ourselves doing the same things we’d done on that same day in 2017 or 2016. That, we said, was auspicious. Of what, though? Maybe nothing: like always, he turned cold and a little mean, and I begged him to love me. And then I went back to Ohio and I had to ask again: auspicious of what? The answer wasn’t in him. It was in a stack of index cards. One day per card. I noted every event that seemed meaningful: 3/5/17 Carl texted me & I tore into him. 10/14/17 Carl & I went for a walk & had lunch. Cemetery. I put the cards in order, January to December, yearly timelines overlapping.
“I was losing a great deal of myself. … [I had] an extreme focus which was in many ways to the detriment of other parts of my life, I know. My thought was, let's subvert the norm. Let's slow the tape machine down, or speed it up, or put the mike on the bathroom floor and sing and beat on, uh, Kleenex box! My mind was racing. I love it.” -Lindsey Buckingham
“Curse of the I-5 Corridor” by Neko Case
As I wrote the book I began to wonder, am I heartsick for Carl or for Seattle? Because I strained to essay into his face but I remembered drawings on barroom walls and the texture of the amp he briefly stored in my apartment. I miss the smell of mystery: reverb leaking out of tavern doors and not knowing how the sounds were made. You know, I used to have trouble with “sense of place” in my writing. And then place took over my senses. I understood that no part of place is permanent: the bar will shut down, the apartment will get cleared out by movers who ship my life to Ohio. In the book, though, they are infinite, and so am I, frozen in hope and transformation.
“I take a lot more time than a lot of people do to finish things. I go down a lot of rabbit holes, and I live with things for a while, just to make sure that I’m okay with those things, which can be a money pit sometimes. But I don’t know how long I’m going to make records, so I want to make sure I do a good job. … I hear songwriters, like, [affects airy voice] ‘I’m just a vessel for the idea. It just comes to me!’ No. You’re not. It’s work. And it is experience, selection, taste. None of those things are just something that happens to you. You’re not just an antenna.” -Neko Case
“Geyser” by Mitski
How do you write a hundred thousand words about a breakup? What are the stakes? Here’s how I do it: by opening up the cadaver of my love to see how it worked when it was alive. I look beyond the dissection to find the fins and jawless mouths of the fishes deep in our ancestry. I have to look for a long time before I can stop hiding in metaphors just like that one. The insight is like the skin under a blister, like the right rock in a quarry of the wrong ones, like the one true love I recognized right away when he found me in the days after I finished the manuscript and solved my heart’s riddle. You’re my number one, you’re the one I want, and I’ve turned down every hand that has beckoned me to come.
“Usually my songs have a narrative of some sort, but this song is all feeling. I hesitate to say what it’s about, just because once people find out what it’s about, they might find it unromantic, but I’m just gonna say it, ‘cause it’s you, Bob Boilen. I wrote it about music, or … a music career, or an ability to make music … I wrote it over a long period of time thinking about all the things I give up for it, but I gladly give it up because I love it so much, and I can’t imagine doing anything else. … I will be whatever it needs me to be, I will do whatever it needs me to do, in order for me to continue to be able to make music.” -Mitski
Essays don’t have to end with resolution, but that doesn’t mean you can’t want it.
Elissa Washuta is a member of the Cowlitz Indian Tribe and a nonfiction writer. She is the author most recently of White Magic (Tin House). Her other books include 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 Shapes of Native Nonfiction: Collected Essays by Contemporary Writers. She is an assistant professor of creative writing at the Ohio State University.