Sunday, March 6, 2016

Belated Thanks to a Writer

As I opened my Facebook news feed on Friday morning and scrolled through the political posts, the selfies of friends, and the hijinx of assorted animals, I was stopped short by a notice that a friend had died. He was 70 years old, and the cause of death was his recently diagnosed pancreatic cancer.

Though I call him a friend, our friendship was extremely one-sided. In fact, I'd never met him, written to him, or even seen him in person. In spite of these facts, it felt like losing a friend because I had read and been intrigued by his books for over thirty years.

Pat Conroy. Writer of novels and memoirs, among them The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline, The Water is Wide, and The Prince of Tides. You can read more about his life and literary achievements here.

Why do we as readers connect so strongly to some authors they come to feel like old friends? Why do we not make that connection with other writers--even the ones our friends or the critics tell us we should love?

You would think as someone who teaches literature for a living I might have the answers to those questions, but I don't. I know it goes deeper than subject matter or shared experience. The writer of a letter to Sports Illustrated complimented an SI writer on a recent article by saying the writer made him care about a topic in which he had no interest. So we can like an author, even if she writes about a topic we don't much care for.

And while shared experience certainly helps, it's certainly not essential. I've never gone on a whaling expedition, yet Moby Dick remains one of the novels that interests me most. That's where the vicarious quality of literature comes in.

Tone and style definitely have a lot to do with why I gravitate toward a writer, but as I look at my reading experience, I'm inconsistent on this front, Pat Conroy's style being an excellent example of that inconsistency. Conroy's style can be overblown and verbose. His early model, after all, was Thomas Wolfe of Look Homeward Angel fame. The article linked above notes that Conroy's first draft for the novel Beach Music was some 2100 pages long, so he and his editor spent four months trimming it back to a mere 650+ pages!

But in Conroy's case, I can forgive his florid and the over-the-top style because he tells such powerful stories. And those stories invariably revolve around family.

The Washington Post article points out that most of Conroy's novels were actually thinly veiled accounts of his own life experiences, especially the way growing up in the company of a verbally and physically abusive father shaped him. The article also points out this tendency caused many family members to quit speaking to him. I admire him for writing about his painful experiences anyway. As Anne Lamott rightly observes, if people didn't want you to write bad stuff about them, they should have treated you nicer while they had the chance!

All these reflections still don't answer the question of why Conroy's been one of my favorite authors, so I'll take a shot at it:

Back to the shared experience thing, I was not attracted to Conroy's stories of highly dysfunctional families because those stories mirrored my own experience. Compared to the children in a Conroy novel, my childhood looks like growing up next door to Disneyworld with a perpetual all-day pass.

I think I was attracted to those stories because, while far different from my own experience, they had the ring of truth. They revealed to me that there are parents who do horribly damaging and irreversibly hurtful things to their children. And they showed me that part of the human reality is that children who go through such trauma are forever changed, that they must live their entire lives dealing with and trying to come to terms with that strangest of all creatures: one who can seem to offer love and affection one minute but in the next perpetrate violence and hatred of the worst kind.

A few years ago, I was writing a nonfiction piece about my childhood for a class. I was wanting to illustrate a tendency of my mom's, specifically her fear that someone would think badly about our family. As a child, I often thought Mom was overly concerned about what people might think. It was the reason I couldn't wear jeans to church (even Sunday night service!), to cite a really serious example.

In trying to think of a story outside my own experience to illustrate this point, I remembered the secret that Tom Wingo has so much trouble telling his psychiatrist in The Prince of Tides. It's an horrific tale. One night when their father is away, three escaped convicts break into the Wingo house and rape both Tom and his sister, Savannah, before the older brother returns to the house and unleashes the family's Bengal tiger (something every family should have) on the convicts.

It's such a horrible tale you can understand why a child would supress it and be reluctant to share it with anyone. However, it's what the mother does after the event I've always found most fascinating. The mother orders the boys to bury the dead bodies, and they spend all night scouring the floors and walls to remove the blood. And then she tells the children they are not to tell their father about the incident nor tell any living soul about it as long as they live. Wow, I thought, that's someone who's really serious about keeping secrets! But then what parent would burden their children with such a secret?

I was pleased with myself for remembering the story and thought it added some drama to my nonfiction piece, but the members of my workshop group were not so sure. They failed to see a strong connection to the story I was telling and thought it could be left out without hurting my essay. When the instructor said something similar, I had to agree, so even though I was still reluctant, I decided to drop the Conroy story.

From this experience, I learned two things.

First, one reason I love Conroy is his ability to write really powerful stories and scenes that stay with you as a reader. In the case of my nonfiction piece, I had been so impressed with the story, I had tried to wedge it into a piece of my own where it really didn't fit.

Second, though I said earlier that Conroy's violent childhood was very different than mine, it's also true that most of us probably can find points of connection with the family stories he tells.  My family never had escaped convict-rapists enter our home, but we weren't perfect and we even had our secrets, and when a child observes that it's somehow more important to keep the family secrets and the family reputation intact than to be open and have healthy discussions about our problems, some lasting, psychologically harmful effects can result.

I'm grateful Pat Conroy had the courage to tell his family secrets and to write about his joys and sorrows in such a compelling way. I wish I had written and told him how much I appreciated his work while he was alive, but I didn't, so this will have to do: I will likely watch the film version of The Prince of Tides soon in his honor. And re-read his novels.

And, partly because of his example, I will continue to look for creative ways to tell my own story, for as Conroy showed us, magical things can happen when an author uses powers of memory and imagination to tell his story, which is in some mysterious and wonderfully complex way, my story and your story too because it is the human story after all.

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