An Environment for Thinking: A Conversation with Elisa Gabbert

Emily Adrian talks with Elisa Gabbert about her new collection of essays, “Any Person Is the Only Self.”

An Environment for Thinking: A Conversation with Elisa Gabbert

Any Person Is the Only Self by Elisa Gabbert. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 240 pages.

“ANYTHING YOU DO every day—that’s your life,” writes poet and essayist Elisa Gabbert in her new collection, Any Person Is the Only Self. Across 16 essays, Gabbert reveals that she has spent her life reading books. Whether she’s roasting Ray Bradbury, mourning Sylvia Plath, or marveling at the implausible details of Percy Shelley’s death, Gabbert’s work is searching and dialectical—always curious, never performatively clever.


Any Person Is the Only Self is Gabbert’s seventh book, adding to an already impressive body of work that includes The Unreality of Memory (2020) and her wildly popular poetry column for The New York Times. In an unsolicited Goodreads review, boygenius band member Lucy Dacus described Gabbert’s most recent poetry collection, Normal Distance (2022), as being “like a collection of thoughts in the notes app of one of my smartest friends. […] Every third line is a great sentence to start an essay I would probably enjoy.” The essays Dacus imagined have arrived, and they are a joy to read.


In Any Person Is the Only Self, Gabbert enters into conversation with the texts that have shaped her life and writing. Her prose is so warm and alive that it seems to solicit the reader’s own ideas—or so I told myself when I asked to interview Gabbert in early April.


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EMILY ADRIAN: One of your book’s main ideas is that the self is what a person does and what a person pays attention to. It’s a more radical idea than it might seem. I think this idea should disturb us—if we were honest about how we use our time. I’m curious about your relationship to this idea and its application to your own life.


ELISA GABBERT: I think it’s the kind of thought you don’t have until something makes you realize the shortness of life. For me, it didn’t really hit until my mid-thirties. I can imagine it would occur to you earlier if you had a terminal illness, or your parents died when you were young, or something like that. But I didn’t have that kind of tragedy in my life. I felt like time was infinite in my youth. It took a while before it hit me that my goals and ambitions for the future were not going to happen if I didn’t make them happen—the future is rapidly approaching. I have limited time on this earth and I have to spend it doing the things I want to do or they will never get done. And that became even more apparent as my life got more difficult—as my parents aged, as my husband developed a chronic illness, as my day job grew more complicated and energy-consuming. And at the same time, I became more and more invested in my writing career and my relationships. Choices about how to spend my time became easy, in a way. Like, why would I want to binge this shitty TV show when I could be reading a brilliant novel that I think about for the rest of my life? I don’t even think that’s a special revelation.


Structurally, your essays are distinctive. Rather than introducing an argument or an opinion and assembling your evidence, it’s like you’re beckoning readers into a house full of curiosities and leading us from room to room. Often, the end introduces a new idea or insight. It’s like you’ve thrown open a window no one knew was there. In “Infinite Abundance on a Narrow Ledge,” you write, “I like to think of a piece of writing as an environment for thinking, a semi-contained space with some wandering-around room.” It was thrilling to learn that your approach to your work is so similar to the effect of your work. I want to know more about this approach.


It’s so gratifying when you’re trying to create an effect and you find out you actually did. It’s often years before you find out. I always wonder if film directors feel this way, or, I guess, any kind of artist. A book takes such a long time to make that it’s impossible to know what it feels like to experience it the first time, quickly, instead of very, very slowly. But that was exactly my goal. I want someone to feel like we’re taking a walk through a conceptual space together. Sometimes, just after I finish a piece, I think, I did it, I achieved it. But then, through edits and revisions and time going by, you completely lose access to that, and it feels like every idea is so overly familiar that you can’t imagine that it won’t feel familiar to the reader as well.


In terms of the endings—it’s funny, I actually started using this trick in college, maybe even in high school. When I was writing a “paper,” I never wanted the last paragraph to feel like a summary, so I’d always save one good point to make there. Now, I do a lot of the thinking and connection-making in the notes process before I even start writing the essay. Then, when I sit down to write, I’m trying to have at least 20 to 30 percent new thoughts, so it doesn’t feel too predetermined. Ideally, some of those new ideas are happening toward the end—it’s like we got there together!


Your work isn’t straight criticism. Nor does it really belong to the genre of the personal essay. But insofar as these essays are written in your voice, from a first-person perspective, and situated within your life, they are personal. They are somewhat autobiographical. At the same time, your work is devoid of the narcissism that fuels a lot of popular creative nonfiction. You’re not preoccupied with making sure the reader sees you in a certain way. In “On Jealousy,” you note that “wanting to be special isn’t special.” In fact, you seem less interested in what makes anyone special than in what makes people the same. Do you consciously write away from yourself in pursuit of the self?


I’ve had a relatively long career at this point, not crazy long, but I’ve been publishing for 15 years. There’s just not that much about myself that is still very interesting to me. The novelty is gone. And what’s left is the sliver of what feels like a novel reaction to something coming into me from outside, which typically consists of art and books. That’s the sliver I focus on, because I’m so sick of everything else—like, I’ve lived through so many thousands of days, right? Yes, it’s what I’m doing with my days, but it’s the same shit. I have a nine-to-five desk job, so most of the time I’m sitting at my desk, and not enough changes to make me feel new to myself. I mostly get that from books and art. So that’s where my writing resides. Coupled with the loss of the sense of my own novelty and specialness, I just really value humility and a sense of historical perspective. I have read enough vain, self-aggrandizing writing to know that it’s annoying and people hate it. It doesn’t make people love you; it makes them hate you. I would rather align myself with the kind of writing I love to read, which is, you know, generous in spirit! Humbled before beauty!


Also, I think people think of me as successful. And I’m not going to say that I’m not, but I haven’t had the kind of success that would rob me of humility, if that makes sense. This is my seventh book and I still feel like I’m fighting for things that I’ve wanted for a long time. I do sometimes get things that I’ve wanted for a long time, but they’re not as life-changing as other people might imagine. I’ve never even come close to being able to consider quitting my day job, for example. The humility is always there. A failure shadow follows me around, and it probably helps my writing.


Your work feels deeply conversational. Reading these essays, one has the sense that you’re interested in learning more, in having your mind changed, in discovery and in explanations that you can’t yet grasp. And that’s an effect of your voice, of your style. It’s also the result of the book being, at its core, resistant to loneliness. The idea of loneliness is most actively present in “A Complicating Energy,” where you write about the pandemic, about your dad’s patients begging him not to retire until they’re dead. Describing your own experience of 2020, you write, “I sometimes dreamed I had a kitten or a baby. A pet has a face that sees you.” As your reader, and as your friend, I know how much you value companionship and meaningful conversation. To what extent can writing take the place of conversation and ease the pain of loneliness?


I do think the urge to write comes partially out of loneliness. That’s why you have to be alone to write. If you weren’t, you could say this stuff to someone in the room; it would off-load this need to express something. I didn’t really notice this until 2020, when my husband John and I would sometimes go days without seeing anyone else. I’ve never experienced anything like that before. I didn’t know what to do with all my language, because I was so used to talking to people all the time, this constant blah, blah, blah—I hadn’t realized how much I needed that to feel normal. Doing anything verbal helped a little. It wasn’t a cure, but it was like taking painkillers. I would do a crossword. I would write in my journal, just try to write anything. But then I desperately wanted somebody to read it. I needed to know that somebody could hear me. I’m glad that’s over, but I’ve remained much more aware of how writing almost turns loneliness into a kind of pleasure. Even if I don’t intend to publish it, there’s something about writing a word down—it’s external, it’s outside of me, it’s part of the human experience.


In your essay “The Intolerable, I Guess,” you write about printing out a galley of Heather Clark’s Red Comet (2020), a massive Sylvia Plath biography, and reading it during the summer of 2020. You write,


I had a panicky awareness of the clock ticking down, a despair that I couldn’t save her. […] In another way, the struggle gave me purpose—for days, it’s what I did with my free time; it was what I had to do—and it was oddly kind of comforting to read about someone who suffered more than me, during what had been, up until then, the most difficult, anxiety ridden period of my life. There were times when I missed my mother so much I forgot she was still alive.


That passage is so revealing of who you are, not only as a writer and reader but also just as a person. The book feels most intimate—and you seem most vulnerable—when you’re writing about Plath. Why?


It’s been surprising to me as well. I’ve had this same copy of Plath’s Collected Poems since I was a teenager; my parents gave it to me for Christmas. But I didn’t actually feel that connected to her when I got it. I was just like, “Oh, she’s an important poet, I’m interested in poetry, I should read this.” But it felt like I was trying to penetrate something that wasn’t really available to me. A lot of it seemed quite intense and difficult. And I didn’t have a teacher or a mentor—my parents weren’t big poetry fans.


How did they know to buy you the book?


I don’t know. I should ask them. They probably knew that a lot of young women poets read Sylvia Plath. So there wasn’t some great design around it. And it took a long time for me to figure out what she could mean to me. I did have poetry teachers in college, and in graduate school, and even though I never took an intensive course on her, or had somebody who specifically said, “You should read Plath,” I just kept coming back to her. And I found that every time I came back to her, she seemed more interesting than before. It was one of those great revelations—she represents for me the absolute mind-blowing reality of other people. People are so flattened by their public reputation. They become these tokens, you know—it’s a name, it’s a photo shoot. But she was such a real person: hot to the touch, a bad temper, a huge appetite. There was so much life and … information in her that I hadn’t realized from reading these one-page poems that are very polished and crystalline. She’s sort of my touchstone for that concept, which is a really vital concept in my life. People are deeper and bigger than you think. She hasn’t been exhaustible for me.


In “On Jealousy,” you quote the New Yorker poetry critic Dan Chiasson speculating that Plath, in her letters, wrote less about major literary or historical events than we might like because she knew she couldn’t use that material in her poems. He imagines that those events “settled very lightly on her consciousness.” In your life as a reader, and as a critic, do you find that certain texts settle lightly on your consciousness because you know you can’t or won’t write about them? What is the process of coming to understand that you’ll approach a work not simply as a reader but also as a writer?


There are books that I really enjoy but I don’t have much to say about them. It’s not giving me new ideas or insights about anything, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like it—it just means I’m not going to take the time to move my hands over my keyboard a lot. When I do take that time, it’s not because I’m like, “Oh God, the public needs to know my thoughts on this!” It’s more for my own benefit. I’ll want to type something up so I remember my thoughts, because I know that later I’m going to want to refer back to them and build on them to make one of my little life theories. So that’s when I get into my writerly mind, and that is the best reading, when I click in and need my little sticky tabs, and I need to have a pencil—and if it’s a book from the library, and I know I want to write about it, well, I’m going to have to buy the book, because I want to mark it up and have it forever.


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Elisa Gabbert is the author of Normal Distance (2022), The Unreality of Memory (2020), and several other collections of poetry, essays, and criticism. She writes the On Poetry column for The New York Times, and her work has appeared in Harper’s Magazine,The AtlanticThe BelieverThe New York Times MagazineThe New York Review of Books, and other publications.


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Photo of Elisa Gabbert by Adrianne Mathiowetz.

LARB Contributor

Emily Adrian is the author of Seduction Theory, forthcoming from Little, Brown, as well as several other novels. She lives in New Haven, Connecticut.

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