Goins, Writer

On Writing, Ideas, and Making a Difference

Lessons from the Life of Author William Gay

From Jeff: This is a guest post by Brett Henley. Brett is the author of i am convicted, a story of reinvention and the American prison system. He is deeply passionate about storytelling, especially in the context of social good, and absolutely believes in the power of unicorn tears.

Behind and below them the church loomed, a pale outraged shape, no more, and only the impotent dead kept its watch.
—William Gay, Twilight

The lines stretch and sag across a tired man’s cheekbones. I see his gait, a careful and slow kind of walk akin to the drawl of his speech. Underneath is the genius of an artist, a man so humbling with his talents that he’s been whispered among giants — Faulkner, McCarty, O’Connor.

He talks and I’m reminded of a distant Summer storm, a rumble that softly peaks and dips. On surface to some, he would seem simple, just a hardworking, blue collar man embracing the slow, molasses way of the South.

But I know better, because the truth of William Gay’s art speaks so much louder than these surface perceptions.

Flower Photo

Photo credit: Brett Henley

It’s been more than two months since his passing at the age of 68 due to heart failure, and I’m still a few shades removed from shocked with a heavy heart in tow.

I didn’t know William, but I know and love and mourn his voice — what could have been, and what should still be.

This man from Hohenwald, TN

Writing’s grip came at 15, then the Navy and Vietnam, then brief stints in New York and Chicago where William assumed a writer had to be in order to be considered a writer.

Upon returning to Lewis County, TN in 1978, William found steady work in drywall hanging and carpentry jobs, on a television-tube assembly line and other odds and ends.

He’d hard labor during the daylight hours to support his family, chasing the ghosts from his shelves of books at night and devoting what time he could to his writing.

William Gay was often ostracized, an outsider among his own family and friends and the community of Hohenwald, despite spending the majority of his life as a contributing neighbor and kinsmen.

He kept his mouth shut, his existence as a writer an uncommon topic of discussion. These gnarled fingers, used to the strain of hanging drywall sheets, would quiet the muse in relative obscurity. Men with these hard, calloused hands don’t usually share their latest poetic triumph at the construction site.

Many of William’s characters were depictions of simple, working folk under extraordinary mental and physical distress. His young male protagonists came from the belly of the South, common men thrown into inexplicably difficult situations — moral indecision, the balance of good and evil, youthful idealism and violence.

Like his young, steel-strong protagonists perhaps, William’s perseverance is nothing short of remarkable.

Despite lack of support from family and friends and the back-breaking work that put bread to table, William’s art and output endured. His devotion to a craft that he so loved — even when the chips often fell directly into the lap of hard times — is nothing short of admirable.

This man from the rural byways of Tennessee finally broke through the battle lines in 1998 when two of his short stories were published by literary magazines.

He was 55.

An enigmatic man of success

William published three books, multiple articles and essays and two short story collections between 1999 and 2006. His final novel, Lost Country, is forthcoming.

Reviews of his work declare “an author with a powerful vision” and “remarkable talent and promise,” as if he had arrived from the writing womb just in time to be deemed worthy of recognition for his life’s work.

In On the Passing of William Gay (published just after his death), Sue Freeman Culverhouse captured the essence of a writer who believed that unless you were paid for your work, you weren’t actually a real writer.

I disagree with William’s assessment of what constitutes a “real writer.” Though I appreciate and admire his drive to succeed in spite of compelling reasons to give up, I don’t believe at all that a “real writer” is defined by such material terms.

It’s about owning your role in the idea market, and continuing to own it through the inevitable ups and downs of this crazy roller coaster we call art.

On being totally committed

William’s example should light a fire under the ass of every struggling writer with something to say.¬†For every story of great success, there are thousands of William’s that never pass beyond the veil of obscurity.

We’re too often caught in a spin cycle, fearful of being told our art isn’t good enough. We start, stop and wait to the point of stagnation (and sometimes giving up), when we should be defining new paradigms that require movement and action, not cowering under the weight of rejection.

The modern writer has the technology and tools available to create compelling work without waiting for the query landfills to clear out, something that William didn’t have when he was a struggling writer trying to publish and share his art with the world.

Though our paths and William’s path are different in many ways, each started from the same place.

It starts (and ends) with owning how we create and share our art.

It doesn’t mean that traditional publishers aren’t a part of this equation. It just means that it’s you art, so you should decide the how and when and why you create and ship.

Lead the charge, instead of waiting for someone to give you permission to participate.

Whether you knew his work or not, what’s something you can learn from the life of William Gay? Share in the comments.

*Photo credit: Brett Henley (Used with permission)

About Jeff Goins

I write books and help writers get their work out into the world. I am the best-selling author of four books, including The Art of Work. Each week, I send out a newsletter with free tips on writing and creativity.

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  • Patricia W Hunter

    Thank you, Brett, for introducing me to William Gay. I followed your link to “On the Passing of William Gay” and watched the embed video interview with this southern gentleman writer. Wow. What can I learn from his life?  As an artist-come-lately, I’m certainly inspired by his example of perseverance. I also wrote down a quote from the video interview that speaks to me. “I still believed that I had something to say, if I could ever…figure out a way to say it.” William Gay  

    Thank you Brett and Jeff for this.

    • YW Patricia, thanks for sharing.

      I loved that quote as well. It was actually in this post originally, but I left it out at the last minute.

      It speaks to William’s arm’s length relationship with the publishing industry. He never really embraced or understood it, but he kept moving anyways.

      Best of luck in your new creative adventures – just never forget to keep pushing no matter what. It’s your art, and no one else can define that.

  • Mikezserdin

    Very, very good Brett. I actually printed this to highlight and contemplate…”owning my place in the world”

    • Thanks!

      You have to own your role as a writer. It’s the only mindset that will drive you forward. As Jeff says – “You are a writer.”

      So be one 😉

  • Mark Cross

    I wrote about this same mentality in my own blog post yesterday. Allowing externals to define our status as writers. And yet Mr. Gay’s perseverance and passion is a worthy example for all of us to follow. As Jeff is always saying, you just have to “put your butt in the chair and write.”

    The real impact and sobering reality of this article, and of Mr. Gay’s story, for me is that the William Gay’s of the world are legion. Writers toiling at their craft in relative if not complete obscurity and yet… they continue to write. As I wrote in my own post yesterday. Fame is not our calling. Writing is. Bravo Brett for an inspiring start to my day.

    • Thank you Mark, and I think you nailed it.

      For me, it’s simply a matter of movement. You don’t allow external to define how and when and why you write – only you can define those parameters.

  • Heather

    Wow.  My dad lives in Hohenwald and I have never heard of this author.  Can’t wait to check out his work.

    • It’s not surprising. William kept very quiet and to himself for the most part. I believe that a lot of members of that community didn’t know he was a writer at all.

      His work speaks for itself, hope you enjoy.

  • Lena

    Inspiring. We must realize how truly  blessed we are and how grateful we should be.  Thanks for sharing. 

    • YW – thank you for stopping in. Couldn’t agree more, unfortunately we don’t always appreciate the moment to moment. 

  • I had a discussion with some people last night about something similar. We buy a lie. It may be a lie told to us in high school when we get a paper back full of red marks telling us we can’t write. Once we buy that lie, it may take years to overcome it. William Gay bought a lie and then broke through. What lies have the rest of us bought?

    • Too many to count Larry … I say make your own truth instead.

      • I agree. It took me too many years to figure that out.

  • JamesPrescott77

    Wow, an incredible story. Might have to find out more about this guy. An inspiration to keep on going, even when no one is paying attention. I admit I get disheartened at times, but this is a great boost and encouragement to keep going. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Thanks for stopping by James. Definitely recommend checking his work out – the comparisons to some of the Southern greats were not given lightly. He’ll go down as one of the truly unique voices.

      I agree on the need to keep going, especially when no one is paying attention. It’s the mark of a pro when you can power through with only your confidence to guide. Best of luck!

      • JamesPrescott77

        Thanks Brett – believe me, at times I do feel like I only have my confidence to keep me going, and often don’t have much of that – can be so frustrating.

        Thanks for the comment and encouragement.

        • YW – Jeff can speak a lot to the issue of confidence. As he’s told me more than once – fake it till you make it.

          You have to manufacture confidence until it becomes inherent.

  • For me, the lesson is don’t worry about publishing.  I am a teacher and on about 4 committees with the school and district.  I am a youth pastor’s wife.  I am the mother of a very active 3 year old.  I am a 5 day a week blogger.  I am trying to write more every day just for sake of writing.  Someday that may lead to publishing and I am thinking about shipping, but I don’t need to worry about it.  I have an entire lifetime to write and get published.  Just write and someday the publishing will come.  Thanks for the encouragement.

    • Thank you Andrea, I think you have a wonderfully practical yet inspiring way of looking at your writing. I agree 100%.

  • What a beautiful legacy.  How bittersweet it must have been (and is all to often for many) to find a level of success within the writing world, but to never have those you love and want more than anything to share your craft with–your family and close friends–never “get” you.  That is a lonely road.  William Gay’s struggle to pour out the words that refused to stay inside did indeed throw a log on the fire under my ass.  Thank you for sharing his passion and your passion for him.

    • Absolutely Dorci – best of luck in your journey. May that fire burn hotter than a thousand suns 😉 … just try and keep a safe distance if it does.

  • Erica Rountree

    thanks for sharing the story of this author! I loved it, and I think it’s true we fall into a rabbit hole if we think we’re not writers unless we’re published. How important it is to write for the sake of it, for the love of it, which William did. The Artful Heart will not be denied!

    • Thank you. 

      How easy it is to lose track of this sentiment, eh?

  • Great article Brett. I’ve been enjoying Gay’s Twilight and I’m thankful you lent it to me. His story is amazing because of the passion and dedication he had to his art. It’s a good reminder that sometimes being patient and persevering can be the best thing for our words to truly take shape and flourish. 

    • Thanks Taylor, appreciate you sharing and spreading the word.

      Just wait until the end of that book – he knows how to bring it together for sure.

  • Thamks for sharing this story. His story is similar to a lot of our’s in the way of us writing while struggling through our day jobs.

  • Tess

    Thank you for your humanity in telling William Gay’s story. If he had not written, who would know about him?  I must read up on him.

    I can relate totally and understand William Gay’s perseverance, because although none of my  family really ‘get’ me,  or appreciate how passionate I am about writing, I  persevere and only now at the age of  60 , yes, sixty, am I  using my voice.  And understanding this deep need to be ‘heard’.  Most people think I only dabble in writing, but I will have my 15 minutes of fame, and leave a legacy.

    • Tess, go for it.

      It’s your art, no one else’s.

  • Michele Schwien

    Simply beautiful. It is never too early or too late. We should write when we are called to do so. Thank you for sharing another example of what it means to be a writer.

    • Thanks for taking the time to read and share your thoughts Michele.

      Completely agree that is never too early or late. 

  • I have never read anything by William Gay, but I am imprsesed by his story of endurance and dedication. One thing I know that I need to work on is accepting that I am a writer and will find success when it is the right time. I currently try to rush things, and think that if I don’t do it before a certain time (say before I’m 35) that I’ll never succeed at it. I think that William Gay is a perfect example of why this is the wrong mentality. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, and the story of William’s life.

    • You’re welcome Josh – just keep plugging.

      Most of us have the whole impatience part down to a science. It’s a journey, so be present and enjoy the ride.

      Ironically, it’s what will get you much closer to success.

  • Loved this article and the story of a writer didn’t give up despite his adversaries!

  • Scarlett

    I was floored today to discover the passing of William Gay.  How did I ever miss the obit back in February? I’d had his latest (still unreleased) on order at amazon for over two years and was looking forward to his putting out so much more…  I was just complaining that I hadn’t yet read anything wonderful this summer; hadn’t found a really great book in so long.  Wondered how William Gay was doing…  Jeez, I’m really devastated.

  • Very impressive article. I am definitely bookmarking this page and sharing it with my friends.

  • Kailey Gay

    I miss my grandpa more then anything. We will always remember you pop. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Thanks Kailey, this is still my favorite guest post that I’ve written.

      I see you’re from Hohenwald. If you don’t mind me asking, are you related to William?

      Not trying to pry, but I truly appreciate and am grateful for his contribution to the craft. Just wanted to share that gratitude. Best of luck!