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STARVATION MODE: a new writing project

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I am working on a new book, a memoir about growing up loving Cap'n Crunch straight from the box and Top Ramen with extra bouillon; about two years of antibiotics that left my gut defenseless against raiding parties of "bad bacteria" that would stake out spots in my villi for a decade; about deciding my gallbladder could just get snipped out because I was in college and over it and couldn't stand the nausea when it stopped functioning; about needing that gallbladder for every fat-containing meal after surgery and dedicating a page in my Martha Stewart scrapbook to how much I missed it; about going vegan because Skinny Bitch told me that veganism was the answer and "Healthy = skinny. Unhealthy = fat" (11) and "Don't be a fat pig anymore" (184) and recommended the daily affirmation, "Every day in every way my ass is getting smaller" (190). The new book will be touch on the South Beach Diet and the Okinawa Diet and Ultrametabolism and paleo and the diets I make up in my notebooks to rationalize my habits. It will be about psych med weight gain and the unfortunate side effects that show up years after the commencement of treatment. It will definitely be about the cruelty, and appropriateness, of celiac disease striking someone who grew up rejecting every food but macaroni. After all that, I will write about where to look for answers.

But first, I had to finish revising my first book. A couple weeks ago, at around one in the morning, after many days of eating pretty much nothing but Costco salted caramels from an endless plastic container and sweet potato chips, I finished revisions on My Body Is a Book of Rules. I had received excellent, substantive comments from three readers and took a crazy week to overhaul the book. I became a sasquatch, hulking around the apartment and scaring my cat at four in the morning while contemplating sleep. I have finished my memoir before, but this time, I really finished it, printed it out, and mailed it to my editor at Red Hen Press for editorial input. I will make changes based on this review, but I call this draft “finished” because for the first time, I would be comfortable publishing it as it stands. I am done with it; it is my personal finishing. I say that every time. Hopefully this will be one of the last times I say it.

A day later, at 7 pm, I showed up at Richard Hugo House for the first session of the Master Class in Memoir with Peter Mountford. I had taken Peter’s fantastic Master Class in Fiction last autumn, and it really didn’t matter whether I had gotten any down time, had a breather, or was ready to write. The class would start with or without me. If I wanted to take it, I would be ready.


I had no pages written, no words, just an idea for a second memoir, and some grant applications out with the idea crystallized and buffed, but not yet put onto actual pages. I signed up for one of the later workshop dates.

The idea for the new project, tentatively titled “Starvation Mode,” has grown from the topics I’ve discussed on this blog, including celiac disease, misguided dieting, and sugar bingeing. I want to delve deeper into the personal history of my shape—skinny legs and a persistent tummy—and the appetite that built it. I’ll go into childhood predilections like late-night Top Ramen preparation and my desperate longing for pink and purple Sweet Tarts. I believed I could eat anything I wanted without consequence long after that was proven to be false. I’ll discuss the psych meds that packed on weight so quickly it was as though I’d slipped on a weight vest, learn more about how my gut is still affected by the antibiotics I took throughout high school, and sing odes to my fallen gallbladder.

In this increasingly dysfunctional food landscape, which offers me endless possibilities to slowly poison myself in ways that feel deeply and deceptively satisfying, I will chronicle my search for true sustenance, looking to traditional Coast Salish foods and methods to get back on track.

I am European-American and Native American, a member of the Cowlitz tribe. My genetic makeup contains a jumble of ancestral influences. I don’t know how the genes shook out to create me, but I do know that eating fish, vegetables, and some fruits makes me feel like a champion, but there are many, many foods I can’t handle. I have a lot of questions about that. Beyond the paleo diet, what should be my eating plan, and how much of those best practices are based in ancestry? What about my physical form is distinctly indigenous? Why don't I have hips or a waist? Is there anything I can learn from the practices that have been continuously maintained over many, many generations in the Pacific Northwest? And what of my European ancestry—is it possible to know what of my afflictions and quirks can be attributed to which branch of my lineage? Does it matter?


I plan to learn from my fellow Cowlitz and other Coast Salish people about how to eat, heal, and live. Making the annual Cowlitz huckleberry picking trip and traveling to participate in cultural events, as well as other trips around the region to visit people and places, will be instrumental in this process. My first book does not end with any answers, but promises that direction is on the way; perhaps the second will deliver some resolution to the modern-induced ills through an exploration of traditional understanding.

This project is sort of about me, because it's a memoir, but I don’t want it to be completely about me. I hope to bring connect with communities by holding public readings. My greatest desire is to read alongside other Native writers. I would love to see a stronger Native literary community in the Northwest, and I want to work toward helping to create it. This year is a good time to start, and this project gives me a good reason, since I’m going to be reaching out to others anyway as I seek to learn more about traditional foods. If you would like to work with me toward this goal of strengthening the Native literary community in the Seattle area and beyond, please contact me.

It’s a little strange to talk about a project at its inception. I might jinx myself, right? What if I decide I don’t want to play anymore, and I instead choose to slowly back away, opting to watch the entire run of Twin Peaks? No. I don’t have that option—not only am I committed to a ten-week Hugo House class, but also, a few days after the start of class, I got some exciting news: Potlatch Fund has generously agreed to support this project with a Native Arts grant, the very first grant I have received. I can’t tell you how honored and grateful I am for this gesture of faith in my work and in my ability to contribute. These funds will help me travel around the region and get my project started.


Another reason for not keeping this project under wraps is that I need help. This memoir is my entry into an ongoing social dance, and this topic is important to me. Many people are doing great work with traditional foods, in the Northwest and beyond, and I am trying to learn quickly. I’m good with books, but it will be important to get out of my apartment and interact with people and places. This is incredibly scary for me, because I don’t know how to go out into the world beyond my solitary sphere, but I’m excited to see what I can learn.

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  • Jesse Minkert Friday, 28 September 2012

    You seem to be using memoir as a tool to discover your future, which is pretty original. How the past and present interact is what defines what shape the future will take. Congratulations on being awarded the grant. As a Type I diabetic, I understand the struggle with food and the impact it has on every other aspect of life. This new project seems to expand on the work of the first. I'm not good at writing cheerleader messages, but I'm looking forward to learning about your progress toward your second book, and all of the rest that will no doubt follow.

  • Elissa Friday, 28 September 2012

    Thanks, Jesse. This is an unusual project for me, as only part of it will involve plumbing my memory. The other part will involve making new material. At least I can stay in my comfort zone for a good chunk of the book while I work on gathering material. Thanks for the message--hearing from you is encouraging!

  • Jill Sunday, 09 December 2012

    This is hilarious and fantastic. I have the same shape you do, and have been agonizing over it for as long as I can remember. I think I grew up on the same foods you did in Canada and have a family history of diabetes. I am in acupuncture school and it's looking like testing time for celiac, diabetes, thyroid, adrenal fatigue, and a host of other imbalances that overwhelm me ;p after failing at vegetarianism, veganism, and the raw foodist starvation diets . My mother was anorexic and passed on her ridiculous (lack of?) eating habits, so now I'm 40 and it's been 20 years since the first insensitive boyfriend pointed out that "your belly is bigger than your butt"! Really? I never could see back there. Wish he hadn't told me.

  • Elissa Sunday, 09 December 2012

    Jill, thanks for visiting and replying! Testing can be hugely informative. I just had a broader panel of food intolerance testing from US Biotek through my doctor's office, and I learned some really important things from that. I hope you learn a lot--and if the testing does uncover some problems, I hope you don't get discouraged or overwhelmed but instead feel as though your underlying issues are out in the open and ready to be tackled. Good luck! Keep me posted.

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