To Thine Own Self...Remembering Pat Conroy

            The most honest writer in America is gone.  Pat Conroy passed away last week and the literary world is remembering him as a giant who used the stuff of his own life to craft unforgettable fiction and nonfiction.  I remember him as one of the warmest, most generous people I’ve ever been around.

            It was 1986.  My first novel, Home Fires Burning, was scheduled for publication, and my editor, on a lark, had sent Pat a copy of the bound manuscript.  Pat was already a household name in American letters with The Water Is Wide and The Great Santini, both of which had been made into acclaimed movies -- not likely to have any interest in a novice like me.  But, incredibly, he did.

            Pat had been living in Italy, but came home to do the promotional tour for his new novel, The Prince of Tides, which was becoming a huge success.  One of his stops was Charlotte and a signing with his longtime friend, bookseller John Barringer.  And one of the publicity events in conjunction was a visit to the television station where I worked.

            I made it a point to meet Pat, mostly because I admired his work so much, but maybe secretly hoping some of  his talent might rub off on me.  He recognized my name immediately.  “My agent gave me your book, and I read it on the plane back home.  It’s terrific.”  I, who made a living gabbing on television, was speechless.  Pat was not only effusive in his praise and encouragement, he offered on the spot to write a “blurb,” a brief appraisal that my publisher could use in promoting the book.  Over time, I learned that Pat was just that way – a kind-hearted man who always had time to share himself with other writers, especially the new and struggling.

            Several years later, I introduced Pat to a standing-room-only crowd at a Charlotte literary festival.  We had a chance to visit backstage before the event, and I told Pat that like him, I was raised by a hard-nosed military father.  “I’m so sorry,” he said with a smile.  Pat’s dad, a Marine Corps pilot, was a monster who browbeat, belittled, and physically abused his wife and children.  Pat captured him exquisitely in The Great Santini.  My own father was mild by comparison, but Pat and I toted around similar baggage. 

            Pat was brutally honest in his writing.  In both fiction and nonfiction, he used the angst of his youth to craft stories that were so painfully authentic that they could make you cringe and cry.  He stepped on some toes and made some enemies, but he did it anyway because he had to.  “The reason I write,” he said in an interview, “is to explain my life to myself.  I’ve also discovered that when I do, I’m explaining other people’s lives to them.”

Pat created out of himself, and in that, he was a great inspiration to me and so many others who scribble, and even those who don’t.  He was the epitome of that oft-quoted line from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, when Polonius says to his son Laertes, This above all: to thine own self be true.

I’m working on a new novel now, and reaching back into my own sometimes-painful youth, the way Pat Conroy did so eloquently and unflinchingly.  As I write, I’m aware of a dim figure looking over my shoulder, and with that presence, I feel braver, more sure of myself.  No, the Pat Conroy I knew did not die last week and never will.

How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall?

It’s an old joke.  A fellow goes to New York to attend a concert, but gets lost.  He spots another fellow who’s carrying a violin case.  “Sir, can you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?”  The musician smiles and says, “Practice, practice, practice.”

I think of that story sometimes when I’m working on a writing project.  In this sense, practice doesn’t mean practicing writing, it means all the work you do to get ready to write.  It’s like a sports team, spending the long hours it takes to hone skills and work on a game plan before the game actually happens.  The game itself is the culmination of all that practice time.

The practice time a writer spends often means the hours of research that go into making characters and their story authentic, and that’s true of both fiction and non-fiction.  If your audience finds something in your work that doesn’t ring true, it’s likely to affect how they perceive the whole of the work.  If the inauthenticity is serious enough, the audience member thinks, This guy doesn’t know what he’s talking about.  Why should I believe anything he says?  Get the details right and the audience will willingly take a leap of faith into the story.  Get it wrong, and you’ve lost them.

I know from experience how that can happen.  In my novel Old Dogs and Children, I have a character cutting his finger in a woodworking accident.  He goes to the emergency room, and I have the doctor splashing alcohol on the cut before sewing it up.  After the book came out I was talking about it to a group that included a retired physician.  He said, “A doctor would never put alcohol on a wound like that.  Alcohol damages tissue.  There are much better things to use to sterilize.”  So the doctor in my audience didn’t believe my emergency room doctor, who – in my bumbling representation of him – didn’t know what he was doing.  I don’t think the error ruined the book for the doctor in my audience, but it taught me a lesson: make sure you know what you’re talking about.

Now here’s an example of how my practice worked.  A few years ago I wrote a play for Children’s Theatre of Charlotte called “The Drama Club,” which featured as its theme a struggle across racial divides in a high school.  I knew going in that I had to portray an honest and authentic world of high school, so that the high schoolers who came to see the play would find it plausible.  If they got it, I was successful.  If they didn’t, I lost them.  So I did a lot of research, including spending hours with a high school drama group, just being part of the furniture, watching and listening.  Several thousand high school students saw performances of “The Drama Club,” and the overwhelming response was, Yeah, they got it right.

I also know about bad practice, and that comes from my totally undistinguished career as a high school football player.  One season, our team won 1 game and lost 9.  The team we beat was 0-10 and we thrashed them 7-0.  Our practices were abysmal.  We spent most of our time just banging into each other, the harder the better as our coach saw it.  We learned nothing about our upcoming opponent, had no game plan to speak of.  The results spoke for themselves.

Writing practice – the kind I’m talking about – partly involves thinking about the heart and soul of the characters and having some idea about the general shape of their story.  Given the characters we’ve imagined, is what they do, say and think during the story believable?  It also involves getting the other details right, as much as humanly possible. 

It doesn’t all have to be done before a word is put on paper. The danger there is getting so caught up in practice that the game itself never begins.  Instead, it’s an ongoing process as the story unfolds and we began to understand more about who our people are and how and why they move through life, bumping up against themselves and each other, making sparks, making a story. 

So if we’re going to get it right, we practice, practice, practice.  Because it’s the only way to get to Carnegie Hall.