Traditional Publishing

Elisa Gabbert on Writing and Capturing Beginner’s Luck – Saturday September 3, 2022

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.)

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