Random Thoughts While Reading Elisa Gabbert
Last fall my wife and I drove from Colorado into New Mexico. The direct route would have taken us over a high mountain pass; a predicted snow storm led us to drive a more circuitous route through Utah. The scenery was impressive.
We stopped at one look-out point to take in the view. My wife suggested we get a “selfie” – I don’t do that habitually; in fact, I think this might have been the first selfie that I attempted. My lack of experience was immediately clear to my wife. She didn’t look at the photo until we had walked back down the hill to our parked car. That’s when she learned that I had set the phone’s camera on portrait mode – after all, isn’t a selfie a sort of portrait? – which meant that the wonderful background was blurred. “The point of the selfie is to show whatever it is that’s behind the person or people!” I didn’t get it.
But Elisa Gabbert would say that most people are clearly on the side of my wife. “When people take a selfie with a landmark or celebrity, they want you to be able to identify the thing of fame…. You are not the monument, but your presence at the monument is what you’re buying when you book travel” (The Word Pretty, p. 120). But, Gabbert says, it’s really more complicated than this. She notes that before photography, those with means to do so had portraits made in order to “confer and confirm status.” Presumably, a person with status would need only one such portrait. One and done, so to speak. The ubiquity of cameras has changed that, and now people take many different selfies in an attempt to show that they exist. “Photos extend our existence, since they can live on after our deaths like poems or mummy masks.” She continues, though, to say that it’s still more complicated, at least for her. She takes selfies not just to prove that she exists, but to show that she’s the woman she thinks herself to be. But even the selfies she posts, the ones that she thinks succeed in showing her as she sees herself, seem empty somehow. “The end result never looks like it did on the screen or like I do in the mirror, but it’s not just that; they’re almost a tautological proof, like telling a joke to myself.”
Better, she says, to find herself randomly in a candid or accidental photo. That would capture who she is and how she appears in the world. That would capture herself.
On the first page of her book, Gabbert reports an early conversation. “When I was seven or eight, I confessed to my mother that I couldn’t stop narrating my life back to myself; I thought it meant I was crazy. No, she said, it means that you’re a writer. I’ve since gotten used to it, that layer of language like running commentary between my direct experience and the external record of it” (p. 3). This is the passage that led me to purchase the book, because I saw myself in it. I don’t remember when I developed this sense of my experience – I was surely older than seven or eight – but from a relatively young age I found myself not only narrating my life back to myself, but then attempting to live out the narration’s next steps. So I narrated my immediate experience, and then responded in the “real” world as I would expect the character in my narrative to respond. Like Gabbert, I thought perhaps I was crazy – after all, isn’t it crazy to attempt to play out a fictional character in the “real” world? She has me thinking, though; might I be a writer? Is that what’s pushing me to find something – anything – to write about in this blog?
I have precious little writing that would provide evidence of that. Internal narratives, yes. After years of failed attempts, regular – indeed, almost daily – journal entries, yes. And this blog, such as it is.
There’s another level to my process of internal narrative building. The process includes not only the writing – the drafting of a narrative – but also the editing. And, I have to say, my internal editor is much more harsh than effective. Either nothing remains after the editing – the idea has slipped away and the screen stays blank – or the narrative seems empty, “almost a tautological proof, like telling a joke to myself.”
For the moment, at least, I’m going to continue the attempt. Gabbert suggests that a selfie, like a poem or a mummy mask, might extend one’s existence long after one’s death. Perhaps a blog post does the same, at least as long as there’s a wayback machine and enough electricity to power it.