The Tetris Effect
Catherine Nichols: How has the Internet affected your thinking style?
Elisa Gabbert: Well, I’ve been using the internet since I was 15 and my email address was email@example.com and I posted poems to chat groups (I distinctly remember that one of these poems half-consciously plagiarized a Tori Amos line and someone called me out on it). I never had a chance to be a thinking adult without the internet, so it’s hard to say. I can definitely tell how Twitter has changed my thinking, though. When I first joined Twitter I experienced a very strong version of the Tetris effect: I started thinking and even dreaming in tweets, by which I mean my thoughts started to form into pithy sentences of 140 characters or less, and I would actually see the Twitter UI in my sleep, or dream about people I only know from Twitter. Another, possibly embarrassing thing: when I’m waiting for something I’ve written to be published, I often think about how I’ll describe the piece in the tweet I use to promote it; I also think about what paragraph is the most worthy of a screenshot to attach to the tweet, the paragraph that is most representative of the ideas in and style of the piece. (As you know I am much more wonky about paragraphs than sentences.)
Can you talk to me a little about your relationship to Twitter? A, we met through Twitter! (And it would also be fun to talk about how our impressions of each other formed through the medium and how our online relationship differs from our in-person relationship.) B, You have a very interesting Twitter style: It seems to me that almost all of your tweets are replies, with very little broadcasting. Why is that?
C: Twitter started as the online version of talking to strangers in coffee shops for me--I used to talk to people in public all the time, since I was in high school. It went from being sort of a habit to being one of the pleasures that felt significant to my sense of self in my early twenties. Then I moved to a town without the kind of public culture where people just talk to each other. I want a river of new people to meet all the time--in my current town, starting a conversation at the Starbucks would feel as weird as leaning over to another table at a restaurant and just starting to talk. So that’s where I was when I started Twitter, and it filled that need so well it was like the pure form of something that cafe chit-chat had just been practicing for. I got into the habit of replying to other people’s tweets rather than starting my own because that feels to me like we’re under the cloche of conversation together rather than saying something that people would read without context. The feeling of being in conversation with various people is one of the metaphors that I rely on a lot in my mind--when I’m happy writing it’s usually because I feel like I’m in conversation metaphorically with some book or person or idea. I’m always, on some level, responding to someone else’s tweet.
My Twitter impression of you was of a kind of hard intelligence, and I wanted to impress you when we first met in person. I didn’t expect you to be so easy to talk to--but then now that I know you better, I would say that my Twitter impression was probably more reliable than my first in-person impression. I think you’re good at making a personable and pleasant impression on people, but I think the truth is that you do have a hard intelligence and I should want to impress you.
So I’m interested in what you think is the difference between our Twitter relationship and in-person, and also I’m interested in how you feel people often misunderstand you, or what people often read correctly about you.
E: I read an essay this morning, by Sven Birkerts, about this time when he was in a coffee shop talking to an acquaintance, not a close friend, about writing, and suddenly noticed that a well-dressed man at the next table was clearly listening to them, and he felt absolutely sure the man was also a writer, and from that moment on it was like a “split screen” in a movie, he could not turn off his awareness, his projected perception, of how the conversation would sound to this third-party. I didn’t think of it at the time, but now I realize how often Twitter is like this, how when we reply to our friends’ tweets we do it sort of knowing which other friends we have in common might see it, how it’s as much for the friend in question as it is for this potential “crowd.” Which is maybe a roundabout way of saying that it seems to me our public-facing Twitter relationship is very limited compared to our in-person friendship; we don’t chat on Twitter all that often and when we do I think we are both aware of the performative aspect of online conversation. (Which of course we are enacting here too!) When we get to see each other in person, which is not all the time since we don’t live in the same part of the country, it feels like we’ve each been saving up all these topics we want to cover and there’s never quite enough time to talk about them.
As for impressions and misunderstandings and such, I almost think that over the years, as I’ve heard more people tell me their impressions of me, first or otherwise, I’ve adjusted my outward-facing personality to be more in line with my self-image, such that it’s much more rare now, compared to say, high school or college, that someone will tell me they thought I was going to be one way or another and it bothers or even shocks me in some way. At some point, and I’m really not sure when, I think I started cultivating an intimidating personality. Like people do meet me and say “you’re intimidating online but you’re really smiley and warm in person,” and I’m fine with that, the smiley part, but I’ve come to realize that I actively want people to find me intimidating. Like, the (giant) picture of me that’s on the homepage of my website, I think it conveys what I’m like in person, but I don’t think I can use it as an author photo on a book, because it doesn’t look intimidating enough.
Since we ended up here, can you talk to me a little about photographs of you? I know that you take a lot of self-portraits, and have been doing so for many years, since before iPhones, which fascinates me. Let’s say we fast-forward to whenever your novel gets published and it’s time to make a decision about your author photo. Do you already have one picked out? If not, do you know what you want it to look like? How will you make that photo come into being?
C: Okay, I saw this bust that had been made in an 18th century European style, but it was unmistakably modern because the expression on the face was a frozen microexpression--the kind of thing we only see since we’ve had cameras with fast shutter speeds and, I also think, enough casual photography that we catch a variety of expressions that aren’t staged. That’s how we’re used to seeing expressions now, but no one in an actual 18th century bust has a big crinkled Duchenne smile, their expressions are more rounded--it’s a still image in both cases, but old portraits seem to encompass the beginning, middle and end of an expression, the way it would look if you were in a room with that person, rather than the camera version that has just one instant out of it.
Anyway, when I first got a cheap digital camera, there was no limit to the number of photos I could take without worrying about paying to get them developed. I wanted to know what I looked like with my eyes closed--that kind of thing. With the webcam on my computer, I had this idea that I’d be able to see my own neutral face, not my face reacting to looking at myself, the way I am in a mirror. I started taking a photo of my face every day, while I’m thinking of a thought with actual content, not looking at myself. The idea was to trick myself into making the expression that I’d have on, say, the subway. These neutral-expression photos are much more varied than photos other people take of me where I always put on my photo-being-taken face. I realized that my neutral face was actually telling the story of my life, so I kept doing it. All lined up, the pictures approximate the look of a portrait painted by an artist like John Singer Sargent, someone who doesn’t paint a camera-snap expression, but the whole beginning-middle-end of an expression. I think this is actually what photo portrait artists do, they take a million pictures then choose one that best encapsulates the feeling of that person’s rounded expressions.
For an author photo, I don’t know--the photo I had as my Twitter avatar when my Homme de Plume essay went viral took on this different meaning for me, it started to look like a sort of sneaky triumphant smile when it was reprinted alongside that story in newspapers. I’d only seen it as friendly in a social media context. I think I’ll choose a photo with an expression that looks like it corresponded with the content of the book, once I get that nailed down.
We’ve talked about your selfies too--and how you often take a picture of yourself for someone in particular, and your expression communicates with them even if they’re not in the room. Have digital cameras changed how you interpret images of yourself?
E: That idea of trying to catch yourself off-guard reminds me of a story that a friend of mine told me about being a door-to-door salesperson one summer, and how she was coached to be “caught” looking off into the distance, as though distracted, when someone opened the door. I suppose this helped them look innocent and unassuming. Maybe you would even feel tenderly toward them.
I think digital cameras, by enabling both self-portraiture and regular portraiture to proliferate cheaply, have given me a more real sense of what I look like. Back when photos of me were taken with film cameras, I was usually smiling, and they were usually taken from a distance of six feet or so. I guess that setup became canon because it’s flattering. All the little weirdnesses and asymmetries of my face are much more apparent from closer up. And from seeing myself on video I’m much more aware of how ridiculously expressive my face is when I talk; it’s almost cartoonish. I’m like, Be still, woman. Stop sneering.
Now I’m thinking about the verbal traces we create on the internet and how we have to confront those too. A while back I was cleaning out an old file box and found a folder of papers I wrote in college. I read a little bit of a philosophy paper and had this uncanny experience; I didn’t really understand what it was about because I don’t remember all the context and references. But it sounded like me. It was like confronting a doppelganger, someone who would think like me and write like me except they aren’t me, so I’m not inside their consciousness. At a talk the other day this woman said that our “core personality” is pretty much baked by age 7. That sounded like garbage science to me (what is “core personality”?) but for me it honestly feels kind of true, like I’m often surprised by how little I change. I’ll read my old blog posts from seven or eight years ago and the voice still sounds completely like me. I also like to search through my old tweets and find all these throwaway thoughts I forgot I ever had or typed. Though that can be disheartening, because I think I was doing my best tweeting a few years ago. (In June 2016, I tweeted: “I feel devastated by how good my tweets were in April of 2014. Clearly I was smarter then.”)
I got a question for my Blunt Instrument column (which I haven’t answered yet) from a writer who said they felt embarrassed by their earlier work that is available for all to see on the internet. When you read your old writing, like five years old or more, how do you feel about it? Didn’t you publish your first story in high school?
(P.S. Don’t let me forget I want to talk about sentence fetishization!)
C: That’s so funny you mention finding one of your college papers because I had that exact experience a few weeks ago. It was hand written which added the layer of seeing a version of my handwriting that was sort of girly and young but still felt like it was mine. I had the feeling you described--the writing sounded like me, but maybe more so. The sentences were longer than I’d use now, with more subordinate clauses, which I fight as an adult. The argument seemed clear to me, though I didn’t know what it would be until I read it again.
The first time I remember feeling great about something I wrote, it was a seventh grade paper about the Lord of the Flies. I had this feeling I was creating an argument like putting the stones of an arch together. It wasn’t a question of good writing or bad, it was more like--either this stands or it doesn’t.
Before then when I’d write stories, I’d just imagine stuff like “what if the eggs in the kitchen hatched and there were magical creatures in them?” but the older I get the more I think about my fiction as sort of a logical proposition that I’ve either proven or I haven’t. The seeds of my novels are often causal progresses I want to explore rather than images like the magic eggs. So for instance, I’m writing about ballet right now rather than another art because I wanted to understand the steps of how someone would go from thinking as a dancer to thinking as a choreographer. I think it protects me from “I’m amazing!/I’m terrible!” mood swings about my work, either while I’m writing or in retrospect. It’s just like the lightbulb either goes on or I need to keep working on the circuit. It’s mechanical.
When I look at my old work, I definitely still see things that make me embarrassed aesthetically, but I’m more likely to look for places the logic is weak, and that doesn’t feel emotional the way ugly sentences do.
& yes, I did publish my first short story when I was in high school! It made me confident in both a good and a bad way--mostly good. Obviously I don’t wish I hadn’t had that experience, but maybe I would have looked harder for writing teachers or gotten an MFA if that hadn’t happened? I spent a lot of years reinventing various wheels after that.
But let’s talk about sentences--you’ve said you’re not a “beautiful sentences” writer as much as a “beautiful paragraphs” writer. What’s the difference? Can you tell the difference in other people’s writing?
E: The “thinking as a choreographer” thing reminds me of writing my last book of poetry. They were persona poems in the voice of a character who is not a poet, so I had this limit in my head as to how “poetic” they could be. Like obviously all poems are poetic by definition, but I didn’t want the voice to ever sound too self-consciously lyrical. Of course in the end they probably just sound like me.
Anyway, yes, sentences: I don’t like the way people talk about them. Like when people say so and so is “a good writer” who “writes good sentences,” I think, how can you be a good writer without writing good sentences? Like isn’t that just table stakes? I also feel like people who obsess about sentences get to this point where they think if they can just find the right adjective or change the semicolon to an em-dash they can somehow make a boring idea interesting. (This makes it sound like I don’t obsess over my own punctuation but I do. Like when editors remove or add a comma I usually think, I thought about the comma more than you did.)
So as a unit of prose I’m a lot more interested in paragraphs, I’m trying to build great paragraphs. I love a paragraph that has its own internal cohesion, that while it serves the purposes of the larger piece, is also somehow self-contained and beautiful on its own. I’m also very interested in what happens between paragraphs, in everything that’s unspoken when the writer decides one paragraph is over and another one begins. I don’t like transitions between paragraphs to always be very overt and spelled out, and it’s one of those sort of unwelcome interventions I sometimes feel pushed on me by editors. I don’t always want to show the work behind a transition, you know? Sometimes a transition is implied!
A writer that I would say is very paragraph-oriented is Wayne Koestenbaum. His essays are often structured in a way that you feel you could move the paragraphs around into a different order, or add some or take some away; their relationship to each other is not one of linear argument-building, it’s more fluid and parataxic. Or take a look at this crazy essay I just read yesterday by a writer named David James Duncan; these are amazing paragraphs! The paragraph is the unit that matters, not the sentence.
James Salter seems to be the prototypical “good sentence” writer. His sentences are actually too careful for my taste, a little too tea-sipping. I do think I can tell right away when I start a novel, say, if the writer thinks of themselves as a sentence person and I often quit reading, if it’s doing a big overwrought, performative Lolita thing. Although I love Lolita.
As a writer, though, I don’t know if I’d think about paragraphs in the same way if I was writing fiction versus nonfiction. Though I’m starting to get an uncomfortable itch to do so, I don’t write fiction. How is your mindset or approach different when you write an essay compared to when you’re writing a novel?
C: I’m so happy to have this written out in front of me--it’s a way of thinking about reading paragraphs that I just haven’t considered, or you’ve told me part of it but I’ve forgotten to look for it when I read.
It reminds me of an essay by Howard Jacobson, that’s theoretically “on taking comic novels seriously” but--I am skeptical that Anna Karenina and Middlemarch needed the defense. I think it’s really an “I noticed a thing” essay. The thing he noticed is a series of these moments in novels where some emotionally or intellectually straight-faced scene is undercut by goofy physicality. So, one of his examples is Oblonsky carrying a large pear to his wife when he goes to apologize for his infidelity.
It reminds me of what you see in the gaps between paragraphs, because I don’t think I’ve gotten that sophisticated in essay-writing, but in fiction, I love the possibility of infinite complexity through moves like that. I’m not sure what to call this--a motto? A mantra? A reassurance?--anyway, whatever it is, I often say to myself “No amount of thinking is too much thinking about this.” It is objectively false, but it gets at the thing I love about novels--there is no limit to the potential for complexity because you can use the logic of causation and then that kind of contrapuntal logic of large pears. I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t have any moves in nonfiction that can reach meaning beyond what I’m officially saying. I think I’ve only written one essay where a reader would get to the end and that would potentially shed new light on the beginning, but it feels clumsy compared with the moves I would use in fiction.
Okay, you’ve written an amazing essay about the moves contemporary poets use, let’s talk about moves. What are some that interest you in either fiction or nonfiction these days? Are you seeing any new ones?
E: Oh, what a fun question. Here’s a move that I don’t like. I don’t like when writers try to capture all the complexity of life and time (Happiness! Sadness! Joy and pain!) in a single ecstatic list, like a kind of piling up of nouns and adjectives. I’ve seen this move in both fiction and nonfiction, but noticed it most recently in Dani Shapiro’s short memoir (memoirella?) Hourglass: “We lived in cities and on remote islands. We were struggling, contented, bewildered, joyful, full of longing, grief-stricken, fearful, searching, at peace.” (Aside from this I enjoyed the book.) It’s easy to come up with nonfiction moves I don’t like, actually. I hate little rhetorical phrases like “Let’s be clear” or “Let that sink in” which are really common in political writing. It’s just so smug and unnecessary; either you’re making yourself clear or you’re not. But I also hate when essayists perform uncertainty to a ridiculous degree, like pretending they don’t know the definitions of basic words so they have to look them up and tell you how Merriam-Webster defines “pain” or something.
As for one I do like, and maybe this is too big to be considered a move, but I love when each chapter of a novel has a self-contained feel, kind of like what I said about paragraphs before, when it has its own mood and voice and sense of perfect completion. The best example I can think of is the chapter in The Beginning of Spring by Penelope Fitzgerald where the children torture the bear. I love that whole book--it gave me a feeling like I was viewing a whole world in a snow globe--but that chapter in particular is unforgettable.
I would love to know if you have favorite or least favorite moves like this, but I also want to get back to what you said about “I noticed a thing” type essays. I think that’s one of the loveliest things criticism can do, just take a small observation and kind of blow it up like a detail on a painting. It’s one of the ways that good criticism teaches you how to be a better reader.
Can I ask you what you think about the recent Kirkus kerfuffle? It left me feeling really disgusted with the state of critical discourse.
C: Okay I don’t know if this counts as a move but I love it when novels make me gasp because something happens and I know exactly why it matters for every affected character. It’s a characterization move, not a plot thing, though it feels like plot when it works. I think there’s a shift away from this technique in early 20th century literary fiction--if the story is told with stream-of-consciousness narration like Mrs Dalloway, it feels like intimacy with the character but it can be distancing. You don’t really know how that person will react or what matters until after an event happens, and then the reaction will almost always be ambivalence because ambivalence is the only feeling that can be clearly telegraphed by stream-of-consciousness. It’s a feature not a bug that you don’t fully know how Mrs. Dalloway will feel about anything before it happens, because that’s part of the point of the book. But this is *everywhere* in contemporary fiction now, and it’s ultimately weak character-writing. It can give the feeling of the author arranging the characters on a chessboard and nudging them into encounters, which I’m going to accuse Ian McEwan of, worst probably in Amsterdam but in his other books too. There’s a scene in Franzen’s Purity where the title character gives consent for sex and changes her mind maybe four times in a row and I remember thinking I had no idea what it meant to either her or her partner--it’s kind of a weightless feeling, like nothing really matters. For contrast, a book like Villette has an ambivalent first person narrator and a lot of characters, but if any one of them walks across a room to light his pipe you know it’s causing an earthquake in the lives of all the others.
This isn’t a lost technology--when Breaking Bad aired, I wasn’t yet watching it but I remember the internet lighting up for what seemed like “Walter glanced at Jesse then clenched his handkerchief”--and this would count as a spoiler, because everyone knew what that meant. If you have to wait to be told why something matters, those are not characters that anyone will daydream about, or write fan fiction about. They don’t extend beyond the page--maybe that’s not a goal of literary fiction, but why not? There are so many techniques of deep characterization that literary fiction rarely touches these days, but I think that’s a problem with how we think about the task of writing novels--when something literary comes along that can make us gasp, like Ferrante or Philip Roth, everyone goes wild. Those gasps don’t come from ineffable “voice” or themes like “female friendship,” there are mechanical things the authors are doing to create those effects. The thing I’m describing isn’t the only way a book can be good of course, but I like it when it happens. I have a lot more to say about this but I’m going to stop because this is already long.
I don’t really have all that many thoughts about the Kirkus thing! But can you tell me your thoughts? I didn’t follow it that closely. And I agree with you so much about lists, maybe even more broadly than you described. I watched When Harry Met Sally after Carrie Fisher died and I stopped before the last scene because there’s something that just makes me cringe about a list of ostensibly cute things Sally does. The writing in that movie is so good otherwise.
Okay you mentioned the state of criticism these days--what do you think that is? What is the character of contemporary criticism, and what do you think it lacks?
E: OK, well, I didn’t follow the Kirkus thing as closely as some people because there’s a lot going on in the world of YA and I can’t keep up. You can read about what happened in more detail here. But basically what interested me was that Kirkus decided to pull a published, starred review based on community response/backlash. To be clear I’m not saying the critique of the book isn’t valid. What bothers me is that Kirkus supposedly jumps through all these hoops to make sure they’re not doing anything “problematic” (for example they assigned a young Muslim woman to review the book since one of the main characters is a young Muslim woman), but then they publish all their reviews anonymously which, A, seems exploitative since I know for a fact they don’t pay very well, and B, has the effect of making it seem like some kind of objective ur-opinion handed down by the Kirkus gods. In reality any review published on Kirkus is just one person’s opinion; why can’t it just exist among a multitude of opinions? Are we supposed to believe all the other Kirkus reviews are unassailably accurate and morally unimpeachable?
So I guess I feel this is emblematic of a culture that’s generally unable to handle complexity. Like people want there to be a single, final assessment of a piece of art (THIS IS GOOD/THIS IS BAD) that works for all time, that way they can be right about it without having to think about it or even experience it. But art is often both good and bad, at least when it’s interesting, and how good or bad it seems is contextual and always changing. It’s wild to think that the second a book comes out, someone’s going to be able to form the final, opinion-ending opinion as to what it means and its ultimate cultural worth.
I think this comes out of a fear of being wrong, maybe rightfully so because we’ve created this environment where you can get mob-dragged on social media very easily, and maybe the risk of being wrong is too high to justify bucking consensus. So we demand consensus early and often. For the record I’m not pulling some Fox News move saying being called racist or sexist is worse than being racist or sexist, but I think art and criticism both suffer when we throw the negative capability out with the bathwater. Like I really believe that artists and critics are capable of being culturally sensitive and fighting oppression while also embracing complexity. I have strong opinions but I don’t expect people to just line up and agree with me; I don’t represent all possible experiences of art.