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)