Guest Post: Bill Gaythwaite, Continents Away

Photo of a globe and fountain

Photo by Tom Westburgh

When I was just out of college, a man I barely knew left me some inheritance money. He had been a friend of my father’s when they were both very young. This man didn’t have any family, had never partnered up or had any kids of his own, so when he died, his estate was to be divided up among the children of his old friends. I’d met him maybe two or three times in my whole life, when he’d come to visit my family in Boston from his home in rural Maine. These were awkward meetings. He seemed much older than my father, spoke with a thick Maine accent and wasn’t used to being around children. His first name was Wesley, which seemed to fit. He’d ask me the standard questions about school or sports, which I would grudgingly answer, while my parents looked on, raising their eyebrows at me, willing me to be more polite. I did my best, but I couldn’t wait to be excused and dodge the guy.

Later, of course, getting a windfall from this odd, shadowy figure would be a big surprise. It was not exactly an amount I could retire on.  Not trust fund money or anything. I think it was a little over $4000. But since my family wasn’t wealthy by any stretch, and it was over thirty years ago (when this sum went a lot further) I considered it a fortune. I got a lot of advice about what I should do with it, which mostly centered on putting it in the bank or using it to pay off some school loans. But there was never any question. I was going to travel. I was afflicted with a serious case of wanderlust back then. I’d been lucky enough to study in Italy for a semester and travel a little in Europe. Now I wanted to see everywhere else.

I bought a round-the-world ticket from a now defunct airline and first flew to Tokyo. I had no set plans really, from one day to the next, though I’d had to secure some visas before I left home and get some shots in my ass and had started taking malaria pills too.  Aside from the plane ticket, this was going to be shoestring travel. I was always keenly aware of how much money I had left.  If I didn’t spend cash on lodging or food, I’d be able to travel longer, further. A youth hostel or a room in a YMCA was a real luxury on that trip. I spent a lot of nights sleeping in train stations or airports or simply curled up outside.  I was gone the better part of a year, made it to over 30 countries and lost 40 pounds. Somehow I still came home with a few bucks in my pocket.

I did a lot of stupid things on that trip. I was too trusting by half and got ripped off a few times. As an over-privileged American, I probably deserved it. I got lost, missed travel connections and made a mess of basic phrases in a variety of languages. Still, by the time I reached Bombay I was feeling invincible. (This was before the city’s name was changed to Mumbai.) I drank water out of a trough on a filthy street and then was miserably ill for several weeks. Given the real suffering in India, I didn’t have a right to complain too much. I learned some things when I was traveling. One time a local man in Kowloon quite accurately called me an idiot when I gushed about how much I loved Hong Kong, how I’d love to live there. He asked me what I could possibly know about what it meant to live anywhere, other than where I was actually from. “You rich tourists are all alike,” he snapped.  “You see what you want to see.” I hardly felt like a rich tourist. I hadn’t eaten for a day and I was staying in an overcrowded flophouse, but he was right, of course. No matter what my personal circumstances, I had a rich person’s opportunity. I was, after all, traveling around the world. I didn’t fully understand what this man meant until much later, but it humbled me enough to know when I should keep quiet.  One of the reasons I liked traveling alone was because no one was there to see me screw up in these ways or fight with me about directions or tell me which museums to see. I liked the idea of controlling my own narrative and there was something very freeing about doing that half-way around the world, continents away from anyone who knew me by name. The memory of that freedom has stayed with me.

Another real gift of that trip is that it was the beginning of my writing life. Alone in the evening, wherever I was settled for the night, I’d pull out my notebook from my backpack and write about what I’d seen that day, quick snapshots of my life on the road. I was quite faithful to this little journal.  I also had another notebook where I started writing stories and some poems, which I guarded feverishly for fear this book would wind up in the wrong hands — meaning anyone with a passing knowledge of the English language. The work was terrible (this is not modesty) but at least I was doing it. I liked the idea of putting words down at the end of the day, of creating characters and plots, imagining dialogue.

Maybe that’s one of the reasons why I was never lonely on that trip. Not once. I was creating other lives and situations to keep me company. The writing itself might have been triggered by my travels through China, Thailand, Egypt, and all those other astonishing places, but the nightly ritual of jumping into the work didn’t go away when I came home. It remained part of my life when I moved to New York City and then on trips to other countries in my twenties and early thirties. (Wanderlust percolated in my system for a long time.)

Later, as a busy suburban dad, when I wasn’t going anywhere more exotic than the Jersey Shore, my writing habits stayed with me too. I never felt right if I didn’t spend a little time on my work before I turned in for the night, even if that meant only editing a paragraph. Mine is often a slow process, but it’s a deliberate and fairly constant one. Today this all feels more like reflex than habit, as if my writing routine is hardwired into me, a kind of muscle memory. Wesley couldn’t have known what I’d do with his inheritance and I couldn’t have imagined the impact it would have on me to this day.  I will always be very grateful to him.  And I do still think of Wesley, in fleeting moments and sometimes longer.

Guest Post, Bill Gaythwaite: Any Particular Day

swimmerIt occurred to me recently, not for the first time, that my swimming reminds me of my writing process. I’m a lap swimmer in a community pool.  I swim very long distances. My pool is not part of a fancy gym. The locker room is way too small. Sometimes it’s as crowded in there as a subway at rush hour.  There’s a grungy gang shower too, with cracks in the tile and some broken fixtures.  Hot water is more a hope than a reality.  You have to bring your own towel to this place and last week someone pried open my combination lock and stole the money from my wallet while I was doing my laps. I was grateful they left the wallet though, and figured maybe they needed the $22 more than I did. Actually, I love this gym and I love the pool, which, unlike the locker room, is clean and well-maintained. The lifeguards are friendly. Now, writing has its challenges too.  Sometimes the water isn’t hot and the fixtures are broken. And the most obvious comparison between the two is that lap swimming is this solitary effort, where you literally throw yourself into the deep end and just take off. Most writers understand that part. Personally, I’m not the flashiest swimmer or the fastest. My technique isn’t the prettiest either, but I do keep at it. That’s like my writing. And like writing, the benefits of swimming work best when you stick to a regular schedule or routine. You increase your stamina over time. Writing a short story is like a long swim for me. It’s tough to get started sometimes. You can struggle at first. You flail away. And then you eventually find a rhythm and you pace yourself. You don’t stop. You try not to lose steam before the finish. (If writing a short story is like a long swim for me, then working on my unpublished novel was more like running a marathon at a high altitude – but that’s another topic entirely.) I don’t think of lap swimming as only a metaphor. It has become part of my writing process too. Sometimes a swim will clear my head and get me back into a space where I can work. But I’ve also tackled plot problems, created back stories for characters and tried out dialogue as I thrash around in the pool, sometimes losing count of my laps as a result. I’m grateful for my time in the water and for my time at the computer too, when things come together and I have enough momentum to carry me through. I think my writing and lap swimming have become somewhat linked in my mind, the endurance part anyway, the personal challenge, the dogged persistence. As with anything, it comes down to commitment — that happy dedication to something that will eventually become part of who you really are, at any moment, on any particular day.

Guest Post, Bill Gaythwaite: The Inspiration Game

I think about creative inspiration a fair amount. It can be hard to explain to others because it is so specific to the individual.  Like every other writer I have certain authors that I simply worship — Edith Wharton, E.M Forster, Alice Munro, Ron Carlson, Lorrie Moore, Katherine Mosby, Michael Cunningham. These are just the first few names that come to mind as I write this. But it’s a rather long and varied list, a haphazard collection of the famous and the unknown. I keep adding to it over the years and no one ever really gets knocked off. It’s not like Survivor — there’s room for everybody here and they all inspire me one way or another.  But my creative inspiration can come from some pretty random places too. For instance, in the 1980 movie Ordinary People there is a climactic scene on a golf course, where the character played by Mary Tyler Moore has this huge meltdown. It is where her character’s true nature is revealed for the first time. I have a lot of thoughts when I watch this scene.

Ordinary PeopleFirst, I think of Judith Guest, who wrote the wonderful novel and created the characters on which the movie is based and then I think of the screenwriter Alvin Sargent who faithfully did the screenplay adaptation and won an Oscar for it. I think of Robert Redford too, who directed the film and (according to an interview I saw once) shot this difficult, pivotal scene in one fluid take. And of course, there is Ms. Moore’s performance which is so raw and terrifying; it kind of takes your breath away, particularly because she had long been known as one of Hollywood’s sunniest performers. Her acting here was considered something of a revelation. The scene had an enormous impact on me the first time I saw it, but even then I realized a number of very talented people had collaborated on it. Everyone was working to get their piece right. I think it gave me a very early sense of how one can aspire to create something (or be a part of creating something) that will have a lasting impact on others. This is true even if you are not tackling a major motion picture, but working on a much smaller scale.

Still, if we are lucky we can be inspired everywhere we look. Creativity exists on a number of levels, from Tom Brady’s surgical precision during his triumphant fourth quarter performance in Super Bowl XLIX (defaltegate be damned!) to my own son’s insane (and for me heartstopping) landing of a 16-stair jump with his battered and beloved 5Boro skateboard. These breathless moments, whether they are on the page, on the screen or on the playing field, when I am left asking “How did they do that?” often energize me to jump back and focus on my own stuff, to see what I can do. I am always grateful to encounter amazing work, whether it’s reading a flash fiction piece in a little magazine or hearing Broadway star Sutton Foster sing a show tune — or watching some terrific episode of Girls or Looking — those two beautifully written, character-driven shows on HBO.  Yes, I’m one of those people who believe Lena Dunham is a true genius; and my devotion to the characters of Patrick and Richie on Looking (created by Michael Lannan and so persuasively acted by Jonathan Groff and Raúl Castillo) approaches the restraining order territory (HBO’s recent cancelation of this show is perhaps the first real sign of the Apocalypse!).

At any rate, in these random ways (and countless others) I have been moved and been better off for it. But it all comes back to the idea of trying to make an impact with your own work, of adding to the conversation, of attempting to put something out in the world that hasn’t been there before and, most of all, paying attention to what truly inspires us.