Elisa Gabbert on Writing and Capturing Beginner’s Luck
"I sometimes think you should just say the thing."
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For a period in the late 2010s, I had the good fortune of belonging to a regular poker game. Whenever someone new would join us, confessing they didn’t really know how to play, my friend Mike and I would tell them, “That means you’re going to win.” And they always did.
Beginner’s luck is real. Poker always depends on luck, but there’s something else, beneath the luck, that feeds the luck, a root system. Beginners aren’t afraid. They have no performance anxiety, because they have nothing to live up to. They don’t know the other players’ habits, so they have no distracting expectations. And they’re not afraid of their own cards, whether they’re especially good or bad, because they don’t know how good or bad their cards are; they have no internalized sense of the odds. They’re unafraid out of ignorance—you might say, unafraid for the wrong reasons—but fearlessness is still an advantage, and it’s a skill you have to relearn. Most players, after their beginner’s luck runs out, stay mediocre because they never do.
People say “Trust the process,” but I’ve found there’s a danger in trusting my writing process too much. Once a process becomes fully routinized, I’m not learning anything. I know I can write a short literary essay—what a friend of mine calls an “I noticed a thing” essay—of a thousand or so words. I wrote a book of those. I know I can write a research-based essay of about four thousand words, generally in three sections—almost three subsequent essays that become a super-essay. I wrote a book of those too. I know there’s a certain amount of material, mostly books and other writing, I can consume to have enough interesting thoughts to build an essay around. I didn’t always know that—I had to try and succeed many times in a row first. (The only measure of success: I liked the effect.)
A surprising thing happened when I published that second book of essays. A lot of people told me that the first one I’d written was their favorite in the collection. There was something a little bit off about that essay, something weird in the balance, something structural I’d done but didn’t really understand. I couldn’t trust the process yet, because I had no idea what my process was—I was trying something. I had to try something else with another of the essays, one of the last ones I wrote for the book, because I’d accidentally taken in too much material for a three-section essay. I had so many notes I couldn’t organize them that way; I needed a new system. I’d been reading Crowds and Power, so I took a page from Elias Canetti and wrote a bunch of short, discrete sections, like mini-essays, and gave them each a little title. It’s the longest piece in that book and the only one in that form, and other people told me that was their favorite essay. I think those two stand out because I didn’t quite know what I was doing. Unwittingly, I’d found a way to capture beginner’s luck.
Over the past year, while finishing another book of essays, I’ve been challenging myself to attempt a new formal approach with each of the essays, because I want to not know what I’m doing. I want to distrust the process. I read a memoir with no chapters or section breaks at all, just a long spill of paragraphs, and I found that fascinating, so I tried writing a long essay without any breaks. I tried a three-section essay but with much longer sections, each as long as one of my old super-essays—a super-super-essay.The most interesting problems in writing can’t be solved—or rather, they need to be solved over and over, every time you write.
It seems to me that students often turn in something great for their first assignment, and then their work gets worse for a while, after all the encouragement—now they’re too confident, now they have to fail, they have to learn what they don’t know. I like to cultivate conditions of the first-year student by “inventing” new structures. (There are no new structures, only structures new to me.) I love the game-like feeling of inventing a new set of rules. I often think, the more I write, that I’m not getting better as a writer, exactly. I’m getting more experienced, but I’m losing something too, the generative energy of cluelessness. And even if I am getting better, I still want my ambition to exceed my ability.
There’s a question, a craft question, that I’ve thought about for years and have never been able to answer: If there’s a line in a piece of writing, whatever the genre, that tells you “the point” of the piece, should it be in the piece? I sometimes think you should just say the thing. Clearly and directly. It may be the most quoted, most underlined part of the writing. Other times I think you don’t have to say the thing—not in a single sentence—because the piece as a whole implies the thing so strongly. The thing, the point (insofar as any piece of writing can be said to have a point), emerges from the writing. It will appear in the mind of the reader as a matter of course. And yet other times I think it doesn’t actually matter, and that I know a piece is done when I can take “the point” out or leave it in and the piece feels equally good either way. You can say the thing or not—the thing is still there.
I love this question because I can’t answer it. The most interesting problems in writing can’t be solved—or rather, they need to be solved over and over, every time you write. You come to them each time as a novice. This is why I write about the same things over and over. I find I have not solved the problem. I find I have more to say.
Normal Distance by Elisa Gabbert is available via Soft Skull Press.