Gabi Abrão's Notes On Shapeshifting Will Soothe Your Existential Woes
Gabi Abrão's internet writing is made physical, with a collection you can slip into any bag for when you want to microdose existentialism,
The purpose of poetry makes life’s existential conundrums seem a little smaller, a little easier to digest. It makes sense that people really like writing poems on a platform like Instagram, a tool that equally invites and distracts from existentialist questions. Gabi Abrão has been sharing her writing online since the days of Neopets, where, despite not being a form of social media, she would find a way to finagle little quotes or poems into her profile. She started sharing writing on the Instagram account @sighswoon in 2017 as a place to exorcise anxieties around growing up or share funny stories about people she met in L.A., as well as make memes about texting your higher self, or penning long, meandering captions about the expansiveness of her feelings.
Her book Notes on Shapeshifting takes old and new works to create a collection that is part poetry, part manual on how to take in the intensity of feeling so much. Weighing less than a cappuccino, it’s a guide that you can slip into any bag for when you want to microdose existentialism, ultimately coming out in a place where you’re most soothed – because watching a young person coming to terms with the immense, boundless feelings they have, which includes their big disappointments and bigger realizations, is deeply relatable.
The book features sections involving love, home, and heartbreak, quoting everyone from the Brazilian surrealist poet Clarice Lispector (one of Abrão’s greatest inspirations) to Lana Del Rey, whom Abrão loves for her “unceasing indulgence.” Abrão has big thoughts better fit for the page than the screen for the seemingly innocuous times in life that occur “somewhere between my mattress on the floor and the toaster oven, somewhere between breakfast and the demands of the day.” She has a 17-part guide for how to heal heartbreak (Step 6: manage digital illusions”) and handwritten poetry on her birthday ritual (staying in a hotel alone one night, with friends the next.)
And though Abrão has been writing for her 149,000 followers for quite some time, it’s an important chapter for the internet part of her life to exist in tangible form. “The internet is really taking your attention and will make you feel really special for getting 2,000 likes on your poetry, but nothing compares to having a real book in the world and having it in people's bags and getting all coffee stained,” Abrão tells NYLON. “I just think it's so important that we really think about the mediums that we fell in love with when we were falling in love with art…The internet's cute, use it as a notepad, use it to meet people, do all that. At the end of the day, art is art. A book is a book.”
How have the last few weeks been for you? How has the reception of the book been?
It's honestly been so great because so much of the stuff I've shared has always been on the internet. It just feels more profound than I thought. It feels like something new has opened. I read reviews on Goodreads, I don't know; there's this whole thing happening.I'm always half-half, I always put out something that's my taste, but then the other 50% is people’s response that teaches me where it is. With this, I’m like "Okay. People like it." And I think I just gave everyone what they wanted, which is what I wanted to do.
Initially you would put your writing online, but weren't a part of it. You didn't reveal who you were or photos of you.
Never, and that's why the influencer thing is funny because I never led with my face even before. Even when I just had a personal Instagram, I was never interested in posting selfies. It was always about art and writing or things I found. And so @sighswoon, the account itself was actually anonymous for two years and was only writing, so it was only captions and memes. Most always memes, it was all memes, which would get longer and longer and longer and the captions would get longer. And then it wasn't until two years in where I just was tired. It just turned into this thing where people knew who I was and it was a labor that didn't need to happen. It was like, why is she anonymous if everyone knows who she is? And that's kind of the only way that I let go of it.
But what I find so interesting about that is when I started showing myself, that's when opportunities kind of started to happen, actual real ones. And I just think psychologically, people just like to know where things are coming from. It adds a layer. So that was really interesting to see. But yeah, anonymous for a long time.
What originally made you want to put your writing online?
I guess I've always been a serial sharer in a way. Even when I was on Neopets, I would get in trouble all the time because I would try to make little graphics and share poetry or quotes. It's always been natural to do that. And as well as with Tumblr. I was turning 21 and I grew up in L.A. And when you turn 21 in L.A. you start to meet the people that everyone warns you about or whatever. I like everyone in L.A. I'm not one of those haters, but the whole dimension of the city changes. It goes from just you being a teenager, bouncing around, getting on the bus to being like, ‘Whoa, people are asking me what I do for a living.’ And it’s like, I'm now in L.A., the one that everyone always talks about.
Initially the account started just because I wanted to anonymously talk sh*t, to be completely honest with you, in a petty way. I wanted to get on there and make fun of Tinder and make fun of the classic 21-year-old who just moved out sort of things. And then it very quickly got way more spiritual and introspective and aesthetic and stuff, which is funny.
“How you experience the profoundness of life for me started with heartbreak. That's the first time you're like, I'm experiencing a big unknown feeling.”
At what point did you decide to write a book? What book did you set out to write?
I wanted to write it for a really long time. I think it was three years ago. It was always like, what would it be? I feel like I talk about so many different things. It was like, is this going to be a self-help book? Is this going to be a spirituality thing? Is this going to be more artistic or more about symbols or theory? I was always going back and forth and my first lead on a book was actually with a bigger publisher, but a publisher of more gift books. They wanted me to make a very easy coffee table, cutesy little gift for your niece's graduation type book based on things you can pretend to be when you feel un-centered. I went really hard on that, because that was my first lead. That was the first time I was in contact with the publisher and I got really excited.
Then, as I was working with them, it really showed me what I really wanted to do, which was to make the book that I think all the followers wanted, which was really just all of the different content mixed together and refined a bit more. It's the captions that people loved, but longer form and edited. The poems that people loved, talking about love, and having a couple guides in there, but also talking about existential stuff. I really thought about it and I was like, when you love a musician and you go back to their first album and it's all DIY, I wanted that. I didn't want to just be like, "Hey guys, big fancy book," that's not me. I wanted to be so me and what people wanted. This is a chapter, I feel like this book is @sighswoon. This was the past five years of sharing on this account, modified to this screen or whatever they say. I just want to give people what they've always loved and then also honor my own integrity to stay true to myself.
In the book, there's a certain self-consciousness with sharing your writing or taking your writing seriously. Because of that, I'm curious how it feels to put it in a physical form, which sort of exalts it in a bigger way. How did it feel to do that?
As you said, there is that difference where it's uneditable, you know what I mean? The internet is this funny thing. I was thinking where it's in between ideas and solids, because ideas are so fluid, they come and go. Then the internet is this mini offering where it's structured. I don't know, I just feel like the internet can be turned off at any second or you could just delete it. This book is ... I can't get rid of it. You know what I mean? It's not in my control anymore. It's truly an object in the world that will have many lives beyond me. I can't go back and edit it. There are a couple typos that I've spotted and it's like, it's just here.
Then at the same time, that gives it so much more life. Internet writing is great, but it is so finicky. It just doesn't have that weight. I guess what I would say is the weight of having a physical object, a physical book is just as rewarding as it is challenging. They always say it's the risk versus the reward. The bigger the risk, the better the reward. That's how I feel about this. It gives greater things with greater challenges, I think.
“The best artists give you permission to do something that you want to do, and then they show it being done well.”
People are very quick to call something “Instagram poetry” as an insult. I feel like people can be very reductive about it.
In some ways, I do like that, because that is what pushed me to do this. There is a difference with the book. There isn't an immediate numbers game or algorithm or virality game. It's really just people who like me and then the rest of the world does what it needs to do. I think the internet's getting more and more centered around virality and likes. I do think that when you have an incentive to just produce so quickly and produce something eye-catching, you might not make something honest and true. You might play into the idea that it will catch people's eye, but is it good work? Is it work that you really stand by? I do enjoy that barrier, because it pushes me to be like, there's internet writing. And there's internet writing that can be refined into book writing. I don't know. I do like it.
That totally makes sense. I feel like what really sticks out to me is that it feels like a young person coming to terms with just the immense, boundless feelings that they have. There's something really soothing about watching someone come to terms with all of that. Do you feel better after writing it? Do you feel like when you look back, are you reading and you're like, I still feel these things? Or is it more: I remember when I did feel like that and I'm in this other place now? Is it a combination?
I think it's a mixture of both. Some stuff does feel very youthful to me. I think a lot of it is the love stuff. That's why I put it at the beginning, because the trajectory that me and the editor chose was how you experience the profoundness of life for me started with heartbreak. That's the first time you're like, I'm experiencing a big unknown feeling. Then my first big lessons were always from love and heartbreak and crushes. We put that at the beginning and then it forms more into existential questions and thinking about home and things that are beyond crushing on somebody. I do feel like the more love sections and crushing sections, I'm like, that's some early 20s stuff.
Everyone feels like that about the early heartbreaks. The guide to getting over a heartbreak is so good because even if I'm not actively getting over heartbreak right now (thank God), I'm reading that and it puts me right back to when I was.
With the Heartbreak Guide, I wanted it to also be mindfulness advice. I want it to be like, remember that you can change things. I wrote it when I was so freaking heartbroken, but then I like it as a reminder of how you can keep moving if you try. It's fun.
What is on your personal mood board for this book?
There's this writer Clarice Lispector who is a surrealist writer, and she's also Brazilian. She just does the best existential stream of consciousness in the world. It's somehow just equal parts, somewhat innocent and naive in the way that all streams of consciousness always will be. Then also just so adult and so profound. It's amazing. Her work, especially Agua Viva, I think that was something that was in my heart the whole time. The best artists give you permission to do something that you want to do, and then they show it being done well. For me, I was like, I have this way of writing where I just get on my phone and I write a caption in that moment. I feel so passionate about it, but you don't know if it has that weight. Hers had so much weight, so I was very inspired by her.
Also, Lana Del Rey as a person, because yeah, she's so great. I find her to be one of the best artists of her time and she's just completely herself. She is such a channeler and she's not afraid to be indulgent. I think that my favorite thing about her is that she's just unceasing indulgence. I even have her quoted in the L.A. section because she also is such a great L.A. person. L.A. is one of her mediums, her symbols. She was huge for me, as well, and just feeling just this love for those people before us that are just not afraid to just be so indulgent, so in their feelings. I love it.
I actually had a friend I talked to yesterday and he was saying, ‘I love that it's indulgent, but it's not self important.’ We did that on purpose. It was a poetry book that's like this thick, and I'm just like, I can't even get through it. I find myself doing this thing where you're like, I'll go to a random place. That's me mimicking it, feeling less indulgent. I was like, let’s make it small. I want you to not feel it in your bag and throw it in there. I wanted to be a companion. I'm just so happy that it's alive.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.