Saturday, March 5, 2016

Farewell, Pat Conroy

Hey, out there.
That is how Pat Conroy began every blog. But last night, we lost our most affable writer, our wordsmith, our storyteller, our low country hero, whose narratives broke our hearts and told our truths in ways no one else could.
We gave Pat Conroy a lot of power. We allowed him into our core wounds, and let him use his pen to slay our dragons. His characters lived big, unwieldy, trauma-stricken lives in places where poetry was born, where God alone created beauty. If you finish one of his novels and don’t smell like a salt marsh during low tide, then you haven’t read it right.
I recently finished my first novel. The finishing was a powerful and moving feeling, but it was the writing it that proved what I could do. When I first got the idea for my novel, I sat in front of a blank screen typing and deleting pages of aimless words, paragraphs adrift in a story-less narrative. But somewhere along the way, I began to act as if I could write a story in the vein of Conroy’s prose. It is no secret that I hold him in highest regard, and that his prose has been my bible. I have learned much about my craft from him, and have been inspired to write what I was never sure I could. And, like other Conroy fans—who are legion—I find myself in the truth he is never afraid to speak.
Last fall, when I told Pat Conroy that he makes a cameo in my novel, and the protagonist asks him to join her at Fleet Landing in Charleston for a fish sandwich, he told me to send the manuscript to his editor. I haven’t yet. I will, but I haven’t. I regret that I will never be able to actually make good on that fish sandwich.
In my book, the main character explains that she loves Conroy’s writing, and in this thinly disguised fictional account, is reading The Prince of Tides, again:

I meandered to a bench by the rose garden and pulled out my worn copy of Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides. I had read and re-read the book many times since college and it was falling apart. I had recently duct taped part of the cover. Dog-eared pages marked sections that I had read over and over again, relating to protagonist Tom Wingo as he narrated the tumultuous history of woundedness that lead him to that inescapable encounter and conversion with Dr. Susan Lowenstein.
I loved to read new books—I had just finished one on the merits of whole-food nutrition— but I never tired of the ineffable beauty inherent in Conroy’s prose. I connected with it, somehow. I knew there was significance and value in hundreds of other literary giants, most of them more prolific and time-honored than Conroy. Literary types made careers of critiquing the works of bigger, more influential writers, but I found my muse in stories by a military brat whose move to South Carolina, and failed attempt at teaching, yielded stories of the human condition as experienced by a low country boy whose verbose yarns always moved something inside me.
– from The Water Birth

It is true. When I reread The Prince Of Tides or Beach Music (as I am wont to do every year or so) I find that I both make sense of my wounds and tenderness, and find the creative fire that lives in my belly, stories waiting to be told. Conroy’s stories do not skip over the pain of human existence; they do not lie to the reader about deep truth, profound sadness, or bottomless pain. But when the sun rises on them—when we see what beauty unfolds—we are awed by the power of his decent fountain pen and yellow legal pad.
In My Reading Life, Conroy perfectly explains the writer’s life:
Safety is a crime writers should never commit unless they are after tenure or praise. A novelist must wrestle with all mysteries and strangeness of life itself, and anyone who does not wish to accept that grand, bone-chilling commission should write book reviews, editorials, or health-insurance policies instead. The idea of a novel should stir your blood, and you should rise to it like a lion lifting up at the smell of impala. It should be instinctual, incurable, unanswerable, and a calling, not a choice...A novel is my fingerprint, my identity card, and the writing of novels is one of the few ways I have found to approach the alter of God and creation itself. You try to worship God by performing the singularly courageous and impossible favor of knowing yourself.

His writing helps us know ourselves, and more, it helped us to know him. It has been the great pleasure of my reading and writing life to have Pat Conroy as a teacher. If Thomas Wolfe ignited in Conroy the call to become the writer he was meant to be, then it was Conroy who did the same for me.
In the epilogue to The Prince of Tides, he says, “There are last things to say.”
It will take me a while to find the last things I need to say to such a champion of words. Perhaps I never will. I am grateful I had the chance to thank him for his work, his influence, and his vulnerability. He signed my copy of My Reading Life with To Kristi, for the love of story. And I do. I love the story.

Thank you, Pat, for every word.

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