I am always bothered by those questions that go like this: “If you could share a meal with some famous person from the past, who would it be?” It bothers me for several reasons. First, I would be so filled with anxiety that I couldn’t eat. Second, I can never think of anything sensible to say if I am around anyone who is famous, prominent, or in any way intimidating. Third, some people that I really love from the past would not be very congenial to be around. Along with that, if more than one of my heroes were there, I am not sure that they would get along. I would positively dread sitting at a table with Ronald Reagan, William Faulkner, and John Calvin.
That being said, I think I could enjoy having some real contact with the late South Carolina author Pat Conroy. Conroy does not rank among my “most favoritist writers.” I don’t think he would rank as one of the greatest writers of all time. But the man could write. He could craft stories. He could create plots that trap the reader and remain in the mind long after the book was finished. He could delight, amuse, shock, offend, heal, and touch his readers. The man, in spite of criticisms of his overblown prose, could deftly handle the gestation of literature that happens when the right pencil and paper meet.
My most recent brush with Conroy came through reading Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy, edited by Nicole Seitz and Jonathan Haupt. The book has been published by the University of Georgia Press.
This book consists of a large number of memories, tributes, eulogies, and accounts of writers who knew Conroy. Many of the contributors were unknown to me, but the fact that Rick Bragg and Ron Rash both contributed to the book was enough to pique my interest. Upon starting the book, I found myself enjoying it, but thinking that it would be a book that only Conroy fans would care for. No doubt, anyone who likes Conroy’s work would enjoy this collection, but it is more than a farewell tribute from fellow authors. This book is a biography, but it is also the story about writing, about encouragement, about the role of authors, the need for mentors, and the power of love.
In case after case, Pat Conroy reached out to new, aspiring, and struggling authors and pressed, pushed, cajoled, and forced them to write. If they had already written a book, he use the same tactics to get them to finish their second book. Repeatedly, Conroy would embrace these younger or novice authors and brag on their books. He could have written a whole book consisting of blurbs he wrote for other and often unknown writers. Although he had no shortage of reading materials in his own personal library, he bought lots of novels by those who he was encouraging. He both read and remembered, praised and sometimes constructively criticized, and created a whole cadre of writers, largely but not always southern.
I discovered more authors and book titles than I will ever be able to read just by reading this book.
Conroy would end letters and notes with the words “Great Love.” My goodness, the man looked like a cross between Santa Claus and a teddy bear. Many writers speculated that Conroy’s own pains, abusive upbringing (all related to accounts found in The Great Santini), and struggles in life gave him a strong heart of passion for all he did and people he touched.
Conroy was no saint, either in his own Catholic tradition or in the Protestant sense of the word. He recognized that the writer is searching for God. His own search was part of his overall search in life and desire to write well, live well, and love well. Conroy was, maybe even more than a writer, a teacher. His early book, The Water is Wide, is an autobiographical novel about his experiences teaching in an African-American school off the coast of South Carolina. The teaching profession lost a gem when he was fired and when he turned to writing as a career. But he was always the teacher, the coach, the mentor, guide, and helper.
I wish I could have met the man. I wish I could have sat down to a meal with him. He would have talked the whole time. I would have been falling over in laughter at half his stories and turning red from embarrassment at other stories. I would probably be working on a novel right now if I had met him.
Years ago, I attended a pastors conference and heard a prominent theologian whose books I own and have read. I ran into him during the conference as he was going down a flight of stairs. I stopped and told him how much I loved a certain book he had written. Being tall and standing on a higher step, he was already over-towering me. What I always remember is that he just stared at me when I spoke to him. Maybe there were some reasons why I was left cold by that encounter. But if I had met Pat Conroy, the story would be drastically different. He would have made me feel like I was the king of the hill.
I started reading Conroy books way too late. It all started when I picked up a copy of My Losing Season and fell into the trance of his prose style. I still have several volumes to go before I can say that I have read all he ever wrote. That’s the best we can do now. He is gone, but his influence, his personality, and his books live on.
Post Script for Christian readers of this blog:
- The accounts of Pat Conroy are the best examples I have seen of someone who had and used the gift of encouragement. Although famous, he always took time for others. He expended himself on helping others.
- R. C. Sproul spoke and wrote about his own experience reading Conroy. He read The Lords of Discipline and wrote to Conroy praising him for the book. Sproul was then surprised when he got a letter back from Conroy. Sproul had been grappling with how to write a dialog when the speakers are using “non-Sunday School” words. Conroy expressed his own frustration that church folks had with his books.
- As Conroy would say, people cuss and do violent things. His writings are realistic.