Elisa Gabbert’s Earlier Essays and a Memoir of Art Modeling

Authors Elisa Gabbert and Kathleen Rooney have similar, or at least compatible writing styles: meditative, super-smart and humorous, deeply self-aware, and literary without feeling academic. I think they’ve even collaborated on a poetry book together. It worked out well to read two of their books in tandem over this past week.

Gabbert’s The Unreality of Memory immediately became a favorite as I read it, one of those I couldn’t wait to reread even before I finished it the first time. I couldn’t even review it properly because there’s so much there, and she’s really a writer you have to experience yourself: the way her mind works is brilliant to witness and difficult to describe.

The Word Pretty is her earlier essay collection, with briefer pieces and more scholarly, writing-focused subject matter. She still touches on politics, pop culture, and ideas of the moment that make up a heavier portion of her most recent book, but these skew more towards the philosophical (ideas of self, appearance and beauty, including an excellent look at the Canadian TV version of Anne of Green Gables in this context). It’s smartly humorous, highly intelligent, and always readable, but the perfectly-honed magic I felt in Unreality of Memory isn’t sparking yet.

In the opening essay, Gabbert discusses keeping notebooks. Most of her work feels to me like it began in a journal and we’re seeing her thought process as she works through her own ideas and punctuates them with research. Her writing is a combination of confessional personal essay with something more academic and literary, but shot through with humor and a down-to-earthness that it would be easy to bypass in something so smart.

I love seeing my favorite authors’ progression, and I read her weird-but-wonderful sort-of poetry, sort-of mini-essays The Self Unstable in July, which gave the same impression of thinking through her thoughts with pithy one-liners and developing ideas that she would later expand in brilliant form. I like Gabbert any way I can get her.

Some favorite lines:

There should be a name for an emotional mix of happiness and sadness–and not just a mix but a feedback loop, as though you’re overjoyed to be so sad, or witnessing your own happiness from a tragic distance.

When describing a recurrent stress-dream she has involving something she regrets but has been forgiven by an old friend: “I think M is just the shape my dreams give to regret, whatever its cause; she is my mind’s own personal cliché, the worn path I keep going down.”

On her grandmother’s home during her childhood: “I often wish I could walk through that house now and see everything exactly as it was, all the old furniture and knickknacks in place, as if it were a museum.”

“…perhaps why we find our long-term partners “more attractive now than ever”–we look at them all the time–and yet prefer our younger selves. A few glances in the mirror each day can’t compete with all our memories of past images, becoming idealized and multiplying each time we access them, almost infinitely.”

Published 2018 by Black Ocean. Used or new @SecondSale.com

As soon as I learned author Rooney’s memoir Live Nude Girl: My Life as an Object existed, I dropped everything to get and read it immediately. I worked as an art model starting in college and then full-time for several years after, and during my first years in Europe as well. I last modeled in 2016 or 2017, when I fully transitioned to editorial and translation work. It was a huge part of my life, even of how I defined myself, for so long. I struggled with the transition out of that work and into another kind of life and career, and it was a long time of asking myself who I was if not that, even as I’d always told myself it was “just a job” for more than a decade.

I like my job, sincerely and deeply in a way that I am terrified that most other people do not like theirs.

Posing helps me to think, helps me to write, and is virtually the only time when I hold still and walk meditatively around the landscape of my mind; otherwise I tend to be fidgety, multitasking, preoccupied beyond compare.

Yet it’s difficult to discuss, thanks to people’s common misconceptions or ideas of what it is and why you do it and what it must be like. Rooney has faced all that too, and she explores the nitty gritty of what art modeling entails and why someone chooses it from so many angles (including her own background and how it may or may not have influenced her choice), looks at historical “muses” and categorization of art models, describes some gigs, and examines the weird things that get connected to the act of art modeling and the sometimes surprising thoughts you find yourself having while doing it (awareness of mortality is a big one, perhaps not least because you often find yourself posing near or being compared to anatomical skeletons).

Incredibly, she captures everything that’s so strange and unique about this job, from the fear and self-consciousness somehow spliced with confidence and a confusing sense of self to the sexual element, whether perceived or imposed and absolutely different depending on whether you’re working with male or female artists, to the strange “vampiric nature” of it, where you can feel your “life force sucked in service of a greater, longer-lasting version of myself.” I’m never one for talking about your personal “energy” or what “energy” someone else has, but I did know from posing that it takes something indefinable from you, that you sacrifice something of your own vitality and selfhood in the service of allowing others to make art. How that works, I have no idea, but I can unscientifically confirm that she’s right, it happens.

The misconceptions people have about the work is a major topic, as Rooney calls it “this conflation of selling images of your body with actually selling your body itself.” She notes that “female models have only recently overcome a long-standing perception that they were women of ill-repute.”

Rooney also writes about the significance of her own validation from this work, as well as posing for nude photography for artists, and the ever-present awareness that it would be hard to do this forever, something I always felt weighing on me too. She examines the differences between being naked and nude, and what an ocean of difference that is. This put into words so much about the job that I wished I could elucidate myself, or would like to try to. I was so impressed with her ability to do that, and it felt very brave in that sense: I know the reactions you get from anyone outside of a creative field – the judgment or embarrassment, when actually it’s work that’s come to mean a lot to you, and that you hope will leave something of yourself behind, forever.

This does go off the rails a bit – it’s impressive that she weaves in so many other subjects: poetic, philosophical, literary, art historical, and so on, and they make this more than just a memoir of art modeling, but the tangents occasionally go a bit wide. But if you’d like an idea of what art modeling entails and how it feels, it’s gorgeously written perfection.

Published 2009 by University Of Arkansas Press. Used or new @SecondSale.com

12 thoughts on “Elisa Gabbert’s Earlier Essays and a Memoir of Art Modeling

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  1. Gosh, that second one in particular looks fascinating! Thank you for continuing to share such interesting books! I’m reading mainly novels at the moment (weird times / trying to get my TBR project done) but will be back with the non-fic myself soon.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Right?? What I wouldn’t give for that!!

      I’m so glad the quotes connected with you – sometimes when I’m struggling to capture what was so special about a book it’s easier to just share some of the words themselves and hope they find someone who will appreciate 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. these both sound good, but I’ll definitely be picking up Live Nude Girl! I did a life drawing class in college and modeled once or twice for an informal life drawing group, both were wonderful experiences I’d be happy to repeat in the future!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. how cool you’ve done it too! It definitely is such a fun way to be a part of art, and feel more creative. I miss it! Hope you’ll get to try it again. I would be a disaster at life drawing, but everyone says how fulfilling it is as a hobby too.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow! I’d not have thought to pick up Live Nude Girl, but now I’m very excited about it. You know I love a good book about an interesting career and the fact that this one resonates with your experience makes me think it would be worth picking up.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This would be such a perfect read for you with your love of books about interesting or unusual careers! I think you’d like the writing too. I only noticed how popular her novels were after I read this, and it really has some beautiful, novelistic writing (published by a university press, no less!) I was really in awe of how she captured things about it that I never realized were universal, so I’d say it does give a vivid perspective of what the work can be like. I’m so glad I could put it on your radar and I’d love to hear what you think if you pick it up! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Also, in case you’re interested, I read it through the UPCC Books Archive on Project Muse, which gives you a PDF download of the book with a valid library card. It was linked through the New York Public Library site. Maybe available to you through your library that way too!


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