The Brain Wants What It Wants: Talking with Elisa Gabbert
“I’ll go gentle into that good night if I fucking want to,” Elisa Gabbert writes in her poem, “Desiderata.” I remember reading this line on a plane to Portland and at first thinking, Wow, yes, and then immediately: Thank God this line is not a tweet. Nothing against tweets, but I worry we’re all shooting our best shots in that ugly, dilapidated arena, forgetting that these shots, made rather in a book, could not only score points but sing as they do so. I think we’re all concerned right now about how and where to do our best thinking with the existence of the Internet. At least Elisa Gabbert is.
Her newest book, The Word Pretty, is a collection of essays about the ways we, as writers and readers, construct identity through literature and culture. It is a product of a reader and a tweeter, of both prose and feed, a singular thinking and the hivemind of culture. The essays are fun to read: short, easily digestible, meta-nonfictional, ars-poetical, talkative, purposefully digressive. But that is not to say they’re cheap or simple. The writing is crisp, invisibly belabored, and fortified with the philosophy that can only come from a passionate reader thinking slowly, a brilliant mind doing what it does best—taking the time to assess itself. Gabbert closes an essay on writing with this thought: “I like writing that knows what writing is for; it can express things you would never say. The hard thing is judging the right level of writtenness—more than you would say, but not all of it.”
Throughout the spring I spoke with Gabbert over email about intuition, the ego, dog-earing pages, and how reading (and thinking) has changed (or hasn’t) with the ubiquity of the Internet.
The Rumpus: Who is the woman on the cover?
Elisa Gabbert: The woman on the cover is an artist named Katharine Gaudy. She’s a friend of the designer, Julian Montague, who took the photograph. I didn’t know this when we chose the image for the cover; to me it has a very timeless, iconic feel, like an old film still.
Rumpus: I’d seen your Twitter avatar, so I knew it wasn’t you, but I wonder if any readers will think it is, given your essay about visualizing the author as the protagonist. Your work often plays with this idea of the self watching the self, as if from a third-person perspective. You say in the essay, “Dream Logic” that you will fantasize in the third person. Throughout The Word Pretty, you find subjects and digressions that explore this in/out dichotomy. Where did this interest stem from?
Gabbert: I was obsessed for a while with the concept of the “self model,” this idea that we all construct a kind of avatar of ourselves in our minds, which we usually fully identify with, so it acts as our “user interface” for reality, but which can sometimes glitch away from us, so we see it from “the outside.” This is what’s happening, probably, when you have an out-of-body experience, but there are other, more common ways we encounter it (in dreams, say) and also really weird ones, like this one delusion where you can’t see your own reflection in a mirror (in which case, I guess, you don’t encounter it). I wrote a whole essay about this (it’s not in The Word Pretty), which is more about the cognitive science, but I love it as a way of thinking about art, too, that inside vs. outside thing, which, apart from perspective, can also be looked at as a question of scale, or of resolution. It’s honestly very hard for me to be “present in the moment”—I’m always going meta, narrativizing, thinking about what I’m thinking about, imagining the future—which, rich inner life, I guess, but it sucks when I just need to concentrate on the reality at hand.
Rumpus: Do you feel that way during reading as well, that even as you turn the pages you’re slipping in and out of the “dream” or “present” of the book, going meta, thinking about the book itself, the construction of the book, (or even what you’re going to eat for lunch)? Basically: How do you read? Pen in hand? Do you dog-ear? Do you tweet between chapters, pages?
Gabbert: Yes, completely. It’s especially bad (if it is bad) when I first start a book. I’ll read the first several pages incredibly slowly, starting over multiple times, because I’m almost devoting more brainpower to figuring out what I think about the book than I am to just processing the words. I abandon a lot of books, so there’s the looming open question, always, AM I GOING TO KEEP READING THIS??? And even once I’ve more or less decided to finish a book, the question becomes, WHAT AM I GOING TO SAY ABOUT THIS??? Because I write, at least a little, about every book I finish. I think sometimes I stop reading a book because I don’t want to have to worry about how I’ll talk about it. When I’m in the middle of a book I really love, there is still a lot of meta-reading going on: underlining, dog-earing, making notes on a piece of paper I’ll keep in the back, tweeting lines and thoughts, etc. It’s rare for me to read a book in one sitting, and when I do, I often think it doesn’t speak very well of the book. (But I don’t take it as an insult when people tell me they’ve read my books in one sitting.)
Rumpus: I want to focus on your above parenthetical—”(if it is bad)“—and ask you: is it? Or, maybe I’m wondering if you think this is new for our generation? Were humans reading (thinking, living) in this way one hundred years ago? Five hundred years ago?
Gabbert: I hardly ever think anything is really new.
Rumpus: In the opening essay of The Word Pretty you write about how creative projects work best when “interrupted as often as possible” and how the “unconscious mind is smarter, and more creative, than the conscious one.” You call this being in an “open mode.” Your best lines of poetry come to you when you’re in this mode, not writing, but rather, say, walking the dog. Can you give a specific example where one of your best ideas came while in a roving, “Open Mode” setting?
Gabbert: I think the concept of “open mode” applies best to longer projects, because it’s so central to problem-solving, to figuring out what to do next or how to make something better. One recent example I can think of: I wrote the first half of this essay not knowing where I was going with it, then got on a plane with a copy of a book of short prose pieces by Javier Marias. I started flipping through it and found that several of the pieces were relevant to the topic (the jealousy of writers, their territorialness), and they guided me on how to end the essay. This is the thing about Open Mode: when you’re in it, everything seems relevant. There’s something about moving that helps, too. Recently while working on a particularly difficult part of a long essay, I kept getting up spontaneously from my chair, like in the middle of typing a sentence, to pace around. It wasn’t something I was consciously deciding to do, it just happened, reflexively, like the pace of my thinking required me to be upright and moving my legs. The brain wants what it wants.
Rumpus: So much of this book is writing about the physical act of writing, reading, and developing habits. Has there ever been a time in your adult life when, for an extended period of time, you couldn’t write? Any periods of non-reading? In Madness, Rack, and Honey, Mary Ruefle tells about a three year period of not being able to read. That befuddles and scares me.
Gabbert: I did go through a period like that a few years ago—I called it reader’s block. For months, nothing I started seemed worth finishing. It’s never been quite that bad again, but I do go through periods where I’m starting and abandoning a lot of books, where it’s hard to find the thing I’m in the mood for. Lately, I have a lot of anxiety around my next book (which doesn’t come out for a year, so I really need to find a way to deal with it) and I think that anxiety is making it harder for me to read new books, because I’m distracted by stuff like how the book has been packaged and marketed and how people are talking about it. Which makes me think it’s a good time to read, I don’t know, Proust.
I don’t really get writer’s block, but I also don’t try to write every day. If I did, I’d probably feel blocked! I had the opposite problem this month—I had an essay to write and it was all queued up in my head, but I was traveling and working so much (work as in my day job, my other career) that I didn’t have a chance to sit down and write it for over three weeks. It was driving me crazy.
Rumpus: Given how much energy and thought you put into what you read, how you read it, whether or not you’ll finish it, how you will write about it, I get the sense that you always know why you like a book or why you don’t. Can you talk about a book that you love and you have no solid sense of why you love it?
Gabbert: As you know, I keep track of all the books I finish. For a while I toyed with the idea of keeping track of books I start and abandon and the reasons why. But I quickly realized it would be too mean, unless I anonymized it, in which case what’s the point? I generally do know why I like or dislike something—if I don’t know why, I’m not even comfortable saying that I like or dislike it! Like if a sentiment is unexamined, it doesn’t count. Many times I abandon books because I’m just not in the mood, which is not the same as thinking they’re bad. I need to come to books at the right time, when my life is ready for whatever they want to bring to my life.
Rumpus: Many of your essays on writing have this exciting quality where the reader can find example after example of your argument by paying attention to your own prose style throughout the essay. For example, the essay on punctuation includes a giant, size seventy-two dingbat; “The Point of Tangency” is even more tangent-filled than your other essays; “Aphorisms Are Essays” begins with an aphorism. Were you conscious, in either the drafting or the editing, about heightening your stylistic choices in each essay, or am I just noticing them more because the arguments prime me to do so?
Gabbert: Yes, that was (mostly) intentional! But how nice to hear that it worked. I sometimes feel like there is some mysterious magic between the intention and the execution that I don’t consciously understand. Not just in writing—like when I try to bowl a strike and then actually do bowl a strike, but (as an extremely amateur bowler) I couldn’t tell you what exactly I did to achieve that. Sometimes I have an intention about how I want a piece to feel as a whole, but I don’t go in with a ten-point plan as to how I’ll make that happen, it’s just kind of there in the background shaping all the small stuff. I have a possibly weird level of confidence in my brain (as if my brain were a separate entity from me—in a way, it is) to figure stuff out. I’ve seen writers do stuff like take a pic of a note-to-self in the margin of a draft that says something like “Make this better” and comment “Not helpful, self!” But a note like that is helpful to me! Like, I know what I mean and I trust my future self to handle it. Sometimes I trust my future self so much it seems weird that I actually have to live through the process. Like, I know how this will turn out, can we just skip ahead?
Rumpus: Are you your own best editor?
Gabbert: I kind of think I am. I’m very particular about the way I put things, my punctuation, etc., so I much prefer editors who push me to add more material versus editors who fuss with the mechanics of my sentences. And I can generally anticipate edits, the parenthetical asides that are going to get cut for example, but I try to get them through anyway. My husband is usually my first reader and my favorite thing he does as an editor is suggest further reading.
Rumpus: In the book’s ultimate essay you say, “There’s a point in a mostly optimized system where it’s harder and harder to make anything better without making something else worse.” Is this how you know an essay is finished?
Gabbert: That’s a good question. I can get a sense of true completeness, of finality, from a poem, but essays are fuzzier, they are almost necessarily unfinished. Often, right after I turn in a piece, I’ll read something that feels relevant, I’ll find some tidbit I could have added. Because when you’re thinking about something all the time, everything feels relevant. But at some point you have to stop adding. Proust kept writing and making corrections to A la recherche du temps perdu until he died. I’m not that obsessive, but generally an essay’s doneness is something I decide on rather than feel as an emergent property of the piece. It’s like a Jenga tower where you could add a little something or take a little something away and it would still basically function, it would remain standing. Here’s something I’ve thought about for years. If there’s a sentence in an essay that is, on some level, the point of the essay, the sentence that encapsulates the essay’s whole thrust most, should that sentence be in the essay? Or should the essay merely suggest it? I sometimes think an essay is “finished” when the piece is equally good with or without that hypothetical sentence.
Rumpus: After reading about your tendency toward titlelessness, I found myself detecting blips of language from your essays that I think would make great titles for other books/pieces. Did you have any alternate titles for this book? What’s the title of the next one?
Gabbert: It’s hard for me to start thinking of a project or a work in progress as a book until I have a working title for it. But I didn’t think of the essays in The Word Pretty as a book until I put them all together on a whim to enter a contest (which, clearly, I did not end up winning). I had to give it a name in order to submit it. I wasn’t sure about it at first, but now I think it’s a good title! It signals the book’s interest in language and aesthetics. My next book is tentatively titled “The Unreality of Memory & Other Essays.” What I like about it is the mystery and how the X of Y construction makes it sound like a classic philosophy text (The Art of War, The Conquest of Happiness, A Short History of Decay, etc.). I also think it will translate interestingly. Being translated is like, my goal in life.
Rumpus: What’s something you used to believe about writing that you no longer believe to be true?
Gabbert: I didn’t understand how influence worked. I thought I could just pick and choose my influences, that saying “So and so is one of my influences” made it so. And if people told me they saw a writer’s work in my work, but I hadn’t read them, I’d think, impossible. Or if I wasn’t trying to write like a certain writer, I didn’t want to count them as an influence. Now I understand that influence is complicated, takes a long time, and is usually indirect. You can absolutely be influenced by writers you haven’t read. I’m just now getting to Proust and he’s all over my work! (Also, Proust was influenced by me!) And the people I wanted to write like when I was twenty—their influence is finally showing up. I just had to wait for it.
Photograph of Elisa Gabbert by Adalena Kavanagh.