Aaron Gilbreath has published widely both as an essayist and a journalist in magazines such as Harper’s, The New York Times, and the Paris Review. His essays have been listed as notables in Best American Essays and Best American Travel Writing, and a group of these essays, including the winner of Bayou Magazine’s 2008 Nonfiction Contest, appeared in his debut collection, Everything We Don’t Know (Curbside Splendor, 2016). In 2017, Outpost 19 will publish Gilbreath’s latest book, This Is, a collection of essays about jazz.
We recently spoke with this prolific essayist and past Bayou Magazine contributor about voice, subject, and truth along with his take on where they intersect.
You call yourself both an essayist and a journalist. Where does one leave off and the other begin for you?
Essays and articles overlap enough at certain points on the nonfiction Venn diagram that sometimes my division is arbitrary, especially when an ‘I’ narrator is involved. Over all, I distinguish them when an article either conveys information about a person or subject. or tells a story that is about someone other than the author. A personal essay involves the author in a central way, either trying to make sense of something or recounting their experience to find meaning, and it can weave together narrative, ideas, anecdote, theory and opinion, sometimes to make a point, if only a thematic subtle one, not a thesis. An article is usually about something other than the author, and it delivers information. It can be expository rather than narrative. Questions don’t drive it. Answers do. Essays accommodate questions and don’t demand clear answers. They don’t need resolution. Granted, the best personal writing looks both inward and outward, but since I’ve written about myself a lot, I feel like I should separate my personal and experimental writing from my other writing. Then again, when writing about music, I often call my music stories essays, because they rely on narrative, and some of them use some part of my personal experience to frame the larger story.
You write a lot about music, specifically jazz, and a lot about Japan. What drew you to these subjects?
If I [wrote]for the money, I’d write breaking news or trend pieces that commercial magazines might want, but I write because it makes my life enjoyable and, I hope, edifies readers, so I follow my interests.
Japanese culture and natural history have fascinated me since fifth grade, so I write to explore and understand them, to narrate my experiences with Japan, and share that culture with other interested English-speakers. Part of what keeps me coming back to music is this sense that there are always more untold stories to find, forgotten corners of music, events with layers that people have neglected or forgotten about. Mainly, I come for the big personalities who make music outside the mainstream and whose fascinating lives and creativity deserve telling. That’s the thing: The music moves me as a listener; I couldn’t live without it. Musicians and their struggles more than music’s sound. How can a genius be such an asshole? What drove a musician to abandon her career during its peak? Why did this incredible band only release three songs before detonating? The questions that drive a lot of my music writing are the ones that drive most human stories: Why do we do what we do? People interest me more than ideas, and music is filled with incredible, mysterious, driven people and dramatic tensions. And because mid-century jazz’s moment in time has passed, the window-into-another-world effect captivates me.
I’d characterize your narrative voice as irreverent, smart, and demanding of a reader’s participation. What does “voice” mean for you when it comes to the role of an essayist?
That’s high praise because I enjoy irreverence, and voice is one of the most important aspects of first-person writing. As Mary Karr says in The Art of the Memoir, “Each great memoir lives or dies based 100 percent on voice.” For me, voice is part of an essay’s humanity, the sound of a person telling you a story over a beer or campfire, whispering in your ear. I feel comfortable now that my essay voice is as close to the real me as I can get. When I hear myself bullshitting, a bell goes off and I revise.
As you age and evolve as a writer, your voice changes. My wild, rambunctious youth went from long, winding sentences and lots of hyphenation to a more controlled voice made of much shorter sentences. I love short sentences. My students probably get tired of me talking about “the power of concision” and punchy lines, but when you put two tiny sentences up against each other, you can create magic. Like French cooking, you only need a few ingredients to produce potent flavors, and nothing sets up a punchline better than a short line.
What draws you to nonfiction as a genre?
When I first read narrative nonfiction that moved me, during my undergrad years, I knew immediately I’d found my genre. Granted, I wrote fiction for a long time while learning to write prose, but I came back to nonfiction. Maybe the reason is that I both want to record things as a documentarian and folklorist, to preserve moments, and I want to make sense of things. I crave meaning. I need to understand what happened, not just experience what happened. I want to read well-rounded portraits of people. That means going inside the human heart and mind. Capturing the human experience requires a multi-dimensional medium, and fiction and nonfiction provide that. Although I did both with passion for years, I grew up drawing and taking photos. I love visual mediums, but I can’t use them to explore ideas and feelings and meaning the way other people can. I can try to do that with nonfiction. I mean it when I say that when I found narrative nonfiction I finally found my place in the world. The platform let me tell the stories I wanted to read. It also captured my vision of myself as an explorer, which gave me purpose and a tribe back when I felt like a solitary lost weirdo running around my college campus with no friends or faith in the future.
In your interview with Powell’s Books, you said of truth that it’s “a slippery thing, especially when you’re part of the story.” Do you ever attempt to mitigate this slippage?
Objectivity is essential to me, and I absolutely think all kinds of nonfiction writers can be objective.
First, journalists deal with facts. Journalists don’t doubt their access to objective, observable, verifiable reality. A personal essayist or memoirist is a different sort of animal, but we too can be objective. We can train ourselves to be honest with ourselves and the facts of our lives and motivations. To get close to objectivity, we really have to dig deep into why we do what we do, and to be honest with our own ugliest, most vulnerable, least flattering aspects. Otherwise, you’re just inventing reality. You acted like a jerk? Well, write it that way. I try to treat my own behavior with the same objectivity as the dates and names in a story. In my book, I analyzed my youth, and it was filled with selfishness, confusion, ugliness and self-destruction, as well as curiosity, enlightenment, beauty and compassion. One essay details how I kept a huge dark secret for years because I felt ashamed, and I tried to write that story as someone would when viewing it from the outside. I lied. I hid. I did these unfortunate things. I wanted to understand why, and to show other people that these dark impulses, mistakes and feelings are okay, even common. You’re not alone. Other people have experienced what you struggle with. That only works if the author is honest with themselves and objective.
What’s the best place to be a writer?
The best place to be a writer might be the place you can concentrate and have the most time to write, which partly means the lowest expenses. Time is money, and you have to make and buy time; one way to do that is to spend less money so you have to work fewer hours at traditional jobs. As Grace Paley wisely advised writers, keep a low overhead. Unless you have a big chunk of savings or a free place to sleep, that’s hard to do in New York; if you have to work and commute constantly, that means less writing time. Also, all the cultural events and social activities that make it such a livable city can compete with a writer’s attention.
All those opportunities, tons of jobs, you meet editors, agents and teachers who can get you work, but for me, living far from the hub of publishing actually encourages me to focus on my work. In the internet era, do you need to physically live near publishing in order to get work and publish?
This isn’t to say that Portland doesn’t have a lot of activities to distract you. It has tons. But it’s no New York, and you can still hunker down here and concentrate. Unlike New York, Portland doesn’t shoulder you with that pressure to get out there and network. There’s no sense that by staying inside writing, you’re wasting your opportunities. I love going to literary events and hanging out with other writers at readings, but I do it because it’s fun. And then I spend the rest of my time with my head down doing my thing.
Writer Harry Crews said the only secret to writing is keeping your ass in the chair. Writers need to ask themselves what factors their city needs in order to help encourage them to stay at their desk and work, and then they need to cultivate their ass-chair system themselves. Writing requires discipline, and no city, no writing program, no how-to book can provide that, only you can.
Sven Birkerts said that when we’re at our desks staring out the window, we’re writing. But revision and all that big important stuff only happens at our proverbial desk. Find your place that encourages you to stay immersed in your work.