During my final year of graduate school, I made myself go through the tremendously difficult process of writing a memoir about a painful period of my life, and, because of the nature of the MFA program, the writing needed to happen during a compressed period of time. That sort of feat requires not just “support,” not just “encouragement” or “nurturing,” but an electrifying charge that comes from the collective vigor of artists who have something at stake. People often use the word “community” when talking about Hugo House, and I believe Hugo House is an incredible community of writers, but I need to get more specific about what that means.
When I talk about a community, I don’t mean writers whose critiques consist of smiley faces and praise, only there to hold one another up—I’m talking about those tough critiques that make you curl up hurt on the inside until you wake up with new ideas. I’m talking about those moments on stage when you expect laughter and hear nothing, and then keep hearing nothing and promise yourself you’ll never read again—until you eagerly bound up onto the stage the next time and make everyone laugh so hard you feel like you’ve just done the best thing ever. And I’m talking about the instructor who has the guts to point out the huge flaws in your outline, and the heart to sit with you for a long time and help you figure out how to get it back on track. This is community: people who challenge you, people who push you, people who call you out, people who help you be your best.
After grad school ended, it would’ve been easy to slip out of the writing life, but Hugo House wouldn’t let me. Sometimes, I felt that the walls themselves were demanding that I write my memoir. I’ve performed pieces of it on the cabaret stage many more times than I can count. After five years of hard work, I accepted an offer of publication from Red Hen Press, and my memoir, My Body Is a Book of Rules, was published in September 2014. I couldn’t have done it without Hugo House.
Hugo House isn’t just a place that supports and encourages writers—it holds us up and challenges us. That’s remarkable, and that’s worth giving back to.
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. With Theresa Warburton, she is co-editor of the anthology Exquisite Vessel: Shapes of Native Nonfiction from University of Washington Press. She has received fellowships and awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, Artist Trust, 4Culture, Potlatch Fund, and Hugo House. Elissa is an assistant professor of English at the Ohio State University.