Aaron Gilbreath is an essayist, a journalist, and previously a contributing editor at Longreads. He has written essays and articles for Harper’s, the New York Times, the Paris Review, and the Dublin Review and his work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and Best American Travel Writing. Gilbreath is the author of two essay collections, Everything We Don’t Know: Essays and This Is: Essays on Jazz along with the recently published, The Heart of California (Bison Books, 2020).
The scenes, moments, and material that don’t make it into finished books
When I asked someone I respected to read my book manuscript for The Heart of California, I mistakenly sent them the long version instead of my scaled down working draft.
“As a reader, I’ve been enthralled with a lot of this,” they wrote me, “but have also at times felt like I was getting kidnapped by your every inclination. You have to be considerate of the reader along with your own enthusiasms.” They were right. The version I’d sent was 400 pages long and 132k words. That was down from 541 pages and 168K words! Of course no one was supposed to read either of these versions but me. I felt embarrassed for my error. After trying to write this book for twenty years, I was so excited to share my work, but I’d failed to put my best foot forward, and I’d wasted their time. Granted, I had a two-year-old, too many jobs, too many documents and emails and deadlines. I was overwhelmed. I apologized and, thankfully, they stuck with me and read the corrected manuscript. It was an enlightening experience. Hearing their feedback helped me see how I worked. Besides getting sloppy with the emails, my approach was to intentionally overwrite then scale back my drafts to something detailed and layered but lean and clean.
In my old working draft of The Heart of California, I had done what the reader called “emptying the notebook,” where, as they put it, a writer lets their reporting lead them rather than the other way around. The idea was: Just because you spent time and energy reporting on something, and just because something interesting happened to you out in the world, that doesn’t mean it belongs in the story. “You don’t want all the good stuff to be buried too much,” they said. I agreed, which was why it didn’t have the section about San Joaquin Valley literature, or the profile of the small town poet, and it didn’t include my reporting about the then-booming almond milk industry and the ethics of almond farming during California’s historic drought. I’d cut all that. Hearing this readers’ observations let me clearly see the dangers of how I worked on my stories: I packed too much in, then distilled, condensed, and chiseled with the readers’ experience in mind. I write long. Then I simmer my watery drafts over a low heat for a long time during revision, in order to produce a potent, nutrient dense final version packed with info, flavor, and personality, and that justifies its length without drowning its best parts. But I walk a line—as I did in that previous sentence. Was that too long? Maybe it could’ve been two sentences. I’m always asking this of myself as I write, because in many cases, to get to the material that serves the final story, I have to excessively research, write way too many notes, report more than readers see, and polish text I’ll never use. All those transcribed interviews? Those polished pages? It can be sad to see them go. The natural urge is to put them to use. Why waste good material? But they aren’t wasted just because they don’t appear in a story’s final pages. That material, and those efforts, get writers like me to the stuff that matters most, so they are essential. To borrow a musical term, I call them outtakes. Outtakes are recordings, be they guitar solos or full songs, that never make the final album and that, instead, remain as castoffs on the studio floor. In literary terms, the process of over-writing The Heart of California reminded me of writing a story’s introductory paragraphs. To find the place where the story truly starts, you have to start much earlier while drafting, then cut off that narrative scaffold to reveal the final, polished, big entryway when you discover it. Ah, you think while revising, this doesn’t start there, it starts here. That’s how my book went.
But even after cutting, certain outtakes remain in my mind. Like random people I briefly meet on trips, I think about that unused text—certain quotations, certain moments—knowing I’ll never see them again.
On the 2-week reporting trip that became this book, I remember the day I spent with a small family of almond farmers near Modesto, talking agriculture and the future of water. The hour I spent standing beside a big wooden barrel full of bulk almonds in a Modesto Sprout’s grocery store, interviewing shoppers about the efficacy of almond farming and almond-eating during a drought. (The Sprout’s manager eventually kicked me out.) Almond milk had become both the en vogue dairy replacer and a symbol of destructive corporate agriculture—the Great Creamy Satan of 2014—so I was interviewing a 64-year-old almond farmer and processor to write about almond’s impacts here in the Valley, where most of the world’s almonds were grown. The New Yorker web editors had accepted my reported piece on spec—and later declined to publish it—and I planned to use that and related reporting on the subject as a chapter tentatively called “Milking a Nut.” I hoped it would say something important about water use, water waste, and the roles we consumers play, even as we consider ourselves enlightened, thoughtful shoppers. But the material disrupted the larger flow of the book, so I cut it. Now here it is, unfinished, for you to read. Maybe this is my way of refusing to let certain outtakes wallow on a dying laptop. I can’t clearly decide without outside readers’ perspectives. I’ll leave that to you.
Having the New Yorker’s name attached to a story legitimized my request to interview this one almond farmer, and added enough gravity that it alarmed the Almond Board of California enough that they sent a representative to sit in on the interview, monitoring the exchange. It didn’t phase me. I wasn’t there to cause trouble or undermine their business. I was there to find the truth. If growers had nothing to hide, then no story should worry them.
The New Yorker ultimately declined to publish it. The material ended up abandoned in an old draft on a dying laptop, and I moved on. But it was hard. I wanted that big time magazine’s name on my bio. I wanted to feel like I’d made it to the top of the literary food chain—me, a solitary dirtbag from the American West, sleeping in his car. I wanted to stand as proof that you can make a punk rock life of literary journalism and still succeed doing it your way. And I wanted so, so badly for that big time magazine’s name to get potential employers’ attention so I could one day get the kind of job that paid enough to let me sleep in motel rooms—wanted it more than anything else at that time of my life. I got over it. I had better things: this whole Valley story was a better thing, and I was determined to make it into a book I would always be proud of and that locals could be proud of, too. I decided to change my own narrative. After all, writers choose to shape the story of their own lives, too.
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