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Elisa Gabbert on Writing and Capturing Beginner’s Luck ‹ Literary Center

What follows first appeared in Lit Hub The craft of writing newsletter—sign up here.

For a period in the late 2010s, I was lucky enough to belong to a regular poker game. Every time someone new joined us saying 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 have.

Beginner’s luck is real. Poker always depends on luck, but there is something else, underneath luck, that feeds luck, a root system. Beginners are not afraid. They have no performance anxiety because they have nothing to do. They don’t know the habits of other players, so they don’t have any distracting expectations. And they’re not afraid of their own cards, whether particularly good or bad, because they don’t know how good or bad their cards are; they have no internalized sense of probability. They aren’t afraid out of ignorance – you might say, aren’t afraid for the wrong reasons – but fearlessness is always an advantage, and it’s a skill you need to relearn. Most players, once their beginner’s luck is exhausted, remain mediocre because they never make it.

People say, “Trust the process,” but I’ve found there’s a danger in trusting my writing process too much. Once a process becomes entirely routine, I learn nothing. I know I can write a short literary essay – what a friend of mine calls an “I noticed something” essay – of about a thousand words. I wrote a book about it. I know I can write a research-based essay of around four thousand words, usually in three sections – almost three subsequent essays that become a super-essay. I wrote a book of those too. I know there is a certain amount of material, mostly books and other writings, that I can consume to have enough interesting thoughts to construct an essay. I didn’t always know that – first I had to try to succeed several times in a row. (The only measure of success: I liked the effect.)

A surprising thing happened when I published this second book of essays. Many people have told me that the first one I wrote was their favorite in the collection. There was something wrong with this essay, something weird about the balance, something structural that I had 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 I wrote for the book, because I had accidentally taken too much material for a three-part essay. I had so many notes that I couldn’t organize them that way; I needed a new system. I read Crowds and Power, so I took a page from Elias Canetti and wrote a bunch of short, unobtrusive sections, like mini-essays, and gave each a little title. It’s the longest piece in this book and the only one in this form, and other people have told me this was their favorite essay. I think these two stand out because I didn’t quite know what I was doing. Unwittingly, I had found a way to capture beginner’s luck.

Over the past year, as I finished another book of essays, I challenged myself to try a new formal approach with each of the essays, because I don’t want to know what I’m doing. I want to beware of the process. I read a memoir with no chapters or section breaks, just a long dump of paragraphs, and found it fascinating, so I tried to write 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 cannot be solved, or rather, they have to be solved again and again, every time you write.

It seems to me that students often turn in something great for their first assignment and then their work deteriorates for a while, after all the encouragement – now they’re overconfident, now they have to fail, they have to learn what they do not know. I like to cultivate the conditions of the first year student by “inventing” new structures. (There are no new structures, only structures that are new to me.) I love the game feel of inventing a new set of rules. I often think, the more I write, I don’t get better as a writer, exactly. I gain experience, but I also lose something, the generative energy of ignorance. And even if I improve, I always want my ambition to exceed my abilities.

There is a question, a craft question, which I have pondered for years and which I have never been able to answer: if there is a line in a text, whatever the genre, which tells you “the purpose” of the text, should it be in the play? I sometimes think you should just say the thing. Clearly and directly. This is perhaps the most quoted, most emphasized part of the writing. Other times I think you don’t have to say the thing – not in one sentence – because the whole piece is so strongly implying the thing. The thing, the point (insofar as one can say that everything written has a point), emerges from the writing. It will appear in the mind of the reader as obvious. And yet, other times I think it doesn’t really matter, and I know a piece is done when I can remove “the dot” or leave it in and the piece also feels well anyway. You can say it or not, it’s still there.

I like this question because I can’t answer it. The most interesting problems in writing cannot be solved, or rather, they have to be solved again and again, every time you write. You come to them every time as a novice. That’s why I write about the same things over and over again. I see that I haven’t solved the problem. I think I have more to say.


normal distance by Elisa Gabbert is available through Soft Skull Press.