November 29, 2016KR BlogUncategorized

What Should You Be Writing? Encouragement from All Around

A poll I found somewhere said that eighty-one percent of Americans think they “have a book in them.” Naturally, I’m one of them.

I’m currently writing a book about California’s rural San Joaquin Valley. The Valley runs 265 miles through the center of the Golden State, and it produces most of its food and dairy products, yet most outsiders ignore the region, or worse, denigrate it. My book is meant to counter that. It uses a road trip I took through the Valley, and weaves it with a boat trip a historian took in the 1930s, to explore the strange, overlooked, fascinating area’s many facets, from agriculture to natural history, music to literature, highway life to public perception, and contrasts Valley culture with the state’s beloved, iconic, influential coast. Pickup trucks versus surfboards, truckers in place of movie stars ─ that sort of thing. The book is tentatively titled A Hundred Flowers at Every Step, a phrase I lifted from John Muir. I’ve been exploring the Valley for twenty years and trying to write about it for nearly as long, so it’s exciting to have finally found an effective framework for the subject, and for the book to be taking shape. The book almost didn’t happen, so now that I’ve started, the problem is I keep telling myself it’s not taking shape fast enough. I wonder: should I be writing more?

I first discovered the Valley by accident on a summer road trip in 1995. As an undergraduate, the natural world fascinated me. This place was colonized and ugly, but something about it captivated me, so I started reading about it, choosing books about the Valley over assigned course material. I took my first exploratory trip there on spring break in 1996. While other college kids did normal things like hit the beach and get drunk, I hiked a wooded nature preserve on a river that flowed through farms, bushwhacking off-trail through thick wild grape and blackberry vines, alone in the pastel morning air, and then I ate tacos at a mom and pop shop nearby in a town no tourists had reason to visit. That did it. I fell in love with this place ─ the landscape, the rural calm ─ and I wanted to know more, see more, and understand everything. This was not the California I knew. This was dusty flat, small town, mom and pop, burger shop, uncool, off the beaten path, free of tourists and far from the ocean. It felt right. Back home, I bought the few books I could find that talked about it. I did research in my university library, and naturally, I started writing about it. Back in college, that meant journaling.

I took many more yearly trips after that, exploring different parts of the Valley and its small, uncommon parks and nature preserves any time I could get away from school, and I filled books with notes. Eventually I’d explored most of the Valley’s edges and middle, and could identify seemingly look-alike locations by sight. If you’ve ever driven between Sacramento and Bakersfield, you know what I mean. Finally, I published an essay about it. Then another. They were short and personal, and didn’t begin to capture the scope of the area or all the things I wanted to depict in it. The Valley was too complex. It demanded a book. So I kept planning, sketching book idea after book idea. Many times over the years I thought I’d found the right way in. Each time I was wrong. When I discovered one local person’s historic boat trip from the early nineteenth century, it seemed the perfect frame. I’d retrace his trip, and use that to write a book that gave readers a portrait of this unique area’s essence, in pieces that mixed travel writing, personal essays and reportage. This hadn’t been done for the Valley before. But everything I tried with that frame failed.

Years passed wrestling with it. Abandoned drafts cluttered my hard drive. I gathered all the info I could about this trip till there was no more to find. Finally, I got frustrated and quit. I’d tried so many times. I couldn’t make it work. I didn’t want to waste my material, so I did what any crazy person who had a good story would do: I wrote an email to William Vollmann’s literary agent and said I wanted to give him a story idea that I thought he might like, given his interests and his location, and that I knew he could do justice. I gave up!

Months passed. Vollmann didn’t respond. He was too busy, I figured. People probably inundated him with similarly weird intrusive requests, and he always seemed to be traveling all over the world writing multiple enormous tomes at once about huge subjects like poverty, violence (seven volumes), and an ongoing series of historical novels about “the settlement of North America and the conflicts between natives and settlers.” No hard feelings. I moved on. Then I got an email from his agent. “William Vollmann would like to have your address to send you a letter,” she said. I was stunned.

Days later, my wife Rebekah pulled a small envelope from our mailbox and unfolded it. “Sacramento,” she said. “Who do you know in Sacramento?”

“Not many,” I said with a shrug. The envelope was folded in three, creating a tiny square that nearly got lost between our bills. To jog my memory, I studied the handwriting. There were two different sources, one precise, one rushed. A mess of black scribbles covered the center of the envelope, leaving a dense matt that resembled hair in the place where another address had been. The sender had recycled the envelope. Then it occurred to me. “Oh my god,” I said.

Inside our apartment, we dumped all of our stuff and lowered ourselves onto the couch, where I carefully extracted the paper and read it out loud. “Dear Mr. Gilbreath, Thanks for your letter,” Vollmann said. “Sorry that nearly 4 months have passed.” Although he wasn’t sure he was the one to retrace this historic boat trip, he was also not sure that he was not “an adequate candidate.” Sure, he could do it, but why shouldn’t I instead? “It makes me sad that you’ve ‘tried over the years to write about it,'” he said. “Why have you failed?”

Rebekah and I looked at each other and nodded.

“Your letter shows intelligence and knowledge of English, together with what Steinbeck could call ‘heart,'” he said. “Have you yet made this trip? If much of it must now be [made by] car, how long would it take? If I were in your shoes, I would make this trip over and over (perhaps in the winter!) and do my best to follow my passion to educate myself for however long it took. If the book requires the rest of your life but will then be entirely yours, why not?” Signed, “Your friend (I hope), Bill.”

I lowered the paper and raised my jaw. He was right. I’d been approaching this project piecemeal over the years: a trip here, an essay there. I needed a unified approach. I’d spent the time on the ground. I’d done what amounted to twenty years of preliminary recon. It was time to focus on something comprehensive. The one thing I hadn’t done was retrace the historic boat trip.

Rebekah smiled. “I told you basically the same thing.”

She had. It’s true. She is wise and saw what I could not. I was fortunate to have met Rebekah and to be loved by such a fierce, intelligent woman who had sharp eyes and a probing mind and the desire to push me to do the exact thing I hadn’t yet done: take the trip rather than write about it from a distance. And Vollmann was generous for taking the time to ask the questions that I needed to hear, me, a perfect stranger to this literary giant, asking something strange of him, and here he did what good mentors do: identify what you need and give it to you for free.

So I followed their advice and booked a flight. I picked dates. I set up interviews with sources along the way and mapped a travel itinerary that would let me build distinct sections and chapters while leaving room for spontaneity and discovery. After I landed in Sacramento that fall, I drove south to Bakersfield and slept in my rental car for eleven of the thirteen days it took to drive north through the Valley, on my own dime, doing the preliminary reporting for the story and collecting intel from strangers and gathering scenes. Things began to make sense. Rebekah’s and Vollmann’s advice saved my book.

Nearly two years have passed since that trip. I’ve written a number of the book’s chapters and published parts of them as essays. Now instead of sitting on an idea, I’m sitting on a pile of notes. I’ve got the material. I’ve got the motivation. And I’m gradually turning the notes into sentences. ‘Gradually’ is the key word. I’m afraid I’m not writing it fast enough.

I know this line of thinking can be a pointless exercise, but I can’t help wonder how different things might be if I could pick up the pace. Would I have a good teaching job if I’d published this book already? Would I feel more satisfied professionally, as a writer? Or personally, as someone preoccupied with this Valley? Probably not. I’m always preoccupied with something. I like it that way. What if I’d published this book during California’s historic drought: since it would be more timely, would more people have read it? Even while I think this, I recognize that there’s just not enough time in the day to do everything. Work weeks are filled with competing demands. The plants need watering and dog needs walking. We need to exercise, and we need cook to save money, but we also love hanging out with friends and going out to dinner. And don’t forget to call your parents. Between my many jobs, this book ─ which I’m writing on spec so it pays me nothing ─ is low on the list of priorities, though in my mind, it’s very high on the list. I’m always thinking about it: get it done, says my inner voice, get it done, and enjoy the process. I’m not distracted. I’m highly focused. I’m just trying to attend to this other stuff in my queue, too, and there’s a lot of stuff in there. Prioritizing makes my work more productive, and yet, I beat myself up about not working on the Valley book enough. “Enough.” That there’s the logical error. I commit it because I’ve been carrying this subject with me for two decades, along with all the books about California that I’m using as sources, which have accompanied me everywhere I’ve moved, from Arizona to Oregon to New York, back to Arizona and Oregon, and which now stare at me from my bookshelves, and I feel like enough is enough. It’s time to finish this fucking thing, good god, how much longer will it take? But as Vollmann said, and as his many books can attest, the way to write is to gradually educate yourself for however long it takes, because “If the book requires the rest of your life but will then be entirely yours, why not?”

Writing is a marathon, not a race. Stay in it for the long game. Conserve your energy and keep your eyes on the horizon as well as on your feet. I push myself, but my rational mind knows the problem isn’t that I’m not writing the book fast enough. The problem is that I often frame my pace as a problem. I’m trying to finish a collection of travel essays about Japan, tentatively titled Tanoshii: Travels in Japan. I had to revise my personal essay collection, Everything We Don’t Know, a few different times, and I’m setting up readings around the West while trying to blog here and write new essays, and fall semester resumes soon. Meaning, the problem is that I think about not working on the California book as a problem. But it’s fine. I’ll get to it. In one sense, during those early years of exploratory Valley trips when I was failing to find the best way to write about it, what I really needed was my writing abilities to develop enough to handle the subject. It’s a big story about a big place, and I wasn’t ready back them. My enthusiasm outstripped my abilities. Those weren’t necessarily failures. They were practice shots, warm ups on the court as I got ready for this one. Now I’m ready. That’s how the shape of our writing lives often looks in hindsight. Failures were practices. Fruitless years were apprenticeships. When you look at your past, do you see the same “problems”?

The problem is that I keep telling myself that I “should” be writing the California book. Should isn’t the productive way to think about it. Why should I be doing anything? I’m enjoying writing the Japan book. It’s progressing well; in fact, it’s almost done. It’s not a problem that I’m writing another book. One book isn’t in the way of the other book. It’s just the book I’m writing now, and it’s nice to have a second to switch over to when I get burned out on the first. I guess I just feel that now that I’ve finally made headway on it, I feel obligated to keep momentum. But I haven’t. I started, then I stopped. Started then stopped. But that’s how it often works. The fact is, very few people can write even remotely like Vollmann. We can’t write two books at once. Most of us struggle to write one. These things take time. A book is a complex machine. You can’t rush it, but you can work hard to move it along. Keep pace. Maintain momentum. And also, rest. Let the material breath, along with yourself. From the long view, I’m still writing the Valley book. I’m sitting on it thinking. Breathing is writing, too, and I’m taking a breather from it now until I pick it back up.