How to Let Go of a Book You’ve Been Writing for Twenty Years
Aaron Gilbreath on Growing Up with His New Book
When a publisher finally picked up my third book, The Heart of California: Exploring the San Joaquin Valley, my friend Anne congratulated me on completing it. She knew the book had taken me over 20 years to write. Then she asked a keen question: along with the sense of accomplishment, did I feel a little sad?
A group of friends had just eaten dinner at our house when she’d asked this. We were hanging out in the living room. I paused, leaned into my chair. To write about California’s vast rural interior—a place where I’ve never lived—I had tried to see many sides of the region and my interest in it, but I had completely missed how this melancholic feeling had become part of the experience. Yes, I told her, I was a little sad.
I first encountered the San Joaquin Valley as a 20-year-old college undergrad in 1995. I’m 45 now. During the intervening years, the Valley was always on my mind. When you’re so invested in a project, so focused on not simply completing it but being engaged with it, enjoying the process of conceiving and refining it, the marathon exertion of pacing yourself through years of labor while challenging yourself artistically, it’s hard when that process ends. Writing can take you over, and I’d gotten used to this book’s presence.
As the parent of a toddler, I can see how raising children provides structure and meaning to parents, as well as a life to their kids. Eventually, kids go off to college, and parents set their children free to become who they will become. Publishing my book was satisfying, just as making it had been energizing. With it gone, would I suffer empty-nest syndrome? Would I fill the gap with another book? Anne’s question identified something deeper that I had only noticed in passing: Writing this book was a journey, and now I had entered what writer Mary Austin called “the land of journey’s ending.” As I let go, I was letting go of the first half of my life, acknowledging that my youth had long since ended, and the final half had begun.
When I say that my San Joaquin Valley book took me over 20 years to write, I don’t mean I’ve been hunched over a notebook, drafting this version of the story since 1995—although technically, I have been journaling for that long. I only mean that I’ve spent the last two-plus decades dreaming about, researching, and visiting California’s agricultural middle, while trying to find a way to capture it and my fascination in one story.
The Valley is huge. My attraction is complex. During my twenties and thirties, nothing I wrote could accommodate it. I kept trying and failing and trying and failing. Was it an ecology book? A history book? A collection of personal essays? All of the above? I filled notebooks with chapter outlines, rambling travelogues, and ideas for stories I never started, all while continuing to drive the Valley in my free time. Somewhere in that wondrous mess of ideas and physical locations, my experience of the Valley merged with the Valley itself, blurring with its natural history, Indigenous culture, European settlement, agriculture, aesthetics, past, present, and future, and I couldn’t untangle the threads in a way that both highlighted them and tied them together into some unique whole. The more I explored the region, the more it expanded, and the more impossible it was to represent.
As a subject, the Valley required more technical abilities than I had. This meant I was learning to write while trying to write about the biggest subject I might ever attempt to write about. I didn’t realize that until years later. I didn’t realize a lot of things until years later. What I knew was that I wanted to be a writer and that this place fascinated me, so I kept trying.
What traveling taught me was that trips to places are also journeys through our own interiors. As I was trying to understand the region, I was also unconsciously searching for my place in it—and in the wider world, since I felt so lost without a practical career path. Finding my way into this story gave my young life structure, a sense of direction, a way to develop my writing skills, work ethic, career, and confidence, all while keeping me sober after a raucous, intoxicated adolescence.
Sometime around 2007 or ’08, my research led me to the story of historian Frank Latta, who took a boat trip from dry inland Bakersfield to San Francisco in 1938. The Valley had flooded that year, and Latta had floated through the major Valley rivers that were now dammed, through the drained marshes I’d read about in explorers’ journals, and across the legendary Tulare Lake, which was once the largest freshwater body west of the Mississippi River, before it got drained for farmland. Latta was one of the last people to have experienced the whole ancient Valley’s natural ecological system before modernity erased it. If I retraced his journey, his story could help tell the story of the modern Valley. When I recognized that, all the narrative threads untangled. The book clicked. Latta’s boat trip provided characters, action, and a linear structure where I could attach all the other subjects and diversions in an organized way. I just had to retrace his journey and narrate it. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more intimidated.
The Heart of California became a book about a place told through the story of two journeys: Latta’s 1938 boat trip, and my 2014 drive retracing his route. These weaved journeys turn the Valley into something people can see, feel, and understand. Information is the basic unit of education, but story makes information more digestible, and stories have characters at their center. It took me years to figure that out.
Researching this book was a journey, as was writing it. The journey lasted from adolescence to adulthood, bachelorhood to fatherhood, and from an aspiring writer to a working writer. I write this essay while my daughter plays upstairs. Two decades is a long time to think about one thing. More than many friends, this book witnessed me become who I am. Of course it did. Only special friendships last from adolescence to middle age.
For me, the story of my Valley book will always also be my story of growing up. Anne recognized this. Although I am sad to let that young me go, letting go is also exciting, because it means entering a new valley in the land of journey’s beginnings.
Aaron Gilbreath’s The Heart of California is available now from Bison Books.