Georgia-born literary novelist Pat Conroy died at his home last Friday, March 4, 2016.
He was 70 years old.
I’d nurtured the deeply personal dream of meeting him in person for 16 years, since I plucked The Prince of Tides off my older sister’s bookshelf when I was only 12. I wanted to join the chorus of young voices who’ve told him over the years that his work has inspired them, set them on the rocky and uneven path to becoming writers.
Since I’ve missed my chance to tell Pat directly, dear readers, I hope you’ll permit me the indulgence of honoring him here, on my blog, in my own small way.
In My Reading Life, Pat said that the novel Gone with the Wind had turned him into a novelist. Well, The Prince of Tides had the same kindling effect on me. At the beginning of my seventh grade school year, I’d run out of books on my own bookshelf and had prowled the house looking for more reading materials. I pulled James Patterson’s Kiss the Girls from my mother’s bedside table and fished The Prince of Tides, the movie edition with Barbra Streisand and Nick Nolte splashed across the cover, from my high school-aged sister’s room.
Mom discovered Kiss the Girls in my room a fews hours later and, judging the material too mature for barely pubescent me, promptly hid it away in her pajama drawer.
I’m still not sure what was in Kiss the Girls, but I’m reasonably certain that the tragic and graphically described anal rape scene midway through Prince of Tides would not have made it past Mom’s inspection, had she known what the book contained. Nevertheless, it remained undisturbed in the pile on my bed.
Thank God Mom didn’t hide The Prince of Tides away, because I would not be sitting here today if she had.
The first paragraph unrolled with music and promise:
My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.
I grew up slowly beside the tides and marshes of Colleton; my arms were tawny and strong from working long days on the shrimp boat in the blazing South Carolina heat. Because I was a Wingo, I worked as soon as I could walk; I could pick a blue crab clean when I was five. I had killed my first deer at the age of seven, and at nine was regularly putting meat on my family’s table. I was born and raised on a Carolina sea island, and I carried the sunshine of the lowcountry, inked in dark gold, on my back and shoulders. As a boy I was happy above the channels, navigating a small boat between the sandbars with their quiet nation of oysters exposed in the brown flats at the low watermark. I knew every shrimper by name, and they knew me and sounded their horns as they passed me fishing in the river.
I was a re-reader, too. Soon, the pages of The Prince of Tides began to trail me in the hallways of my school, float into oblivion at the bottom of my backpack, and slide down the footwells on my schoolbus. My tired Doubleday edition was falling apart, and I would just grab handfuls of pages and read those as the book shed paper from its spine like a seagull shedding its downy gray baby feathers.
Pat Conroy, you made me a writer. You set my soul on fire for the art and wonder of the English language. Your outsize influence helped me understand that language isn’t just a means of imparting information from one person to another – it’s an end unto itself. Words offer beauty that is self-contained, contextless and purely self-referential. I watched with awe as you did things with language that were impossible and impossibly wonderful.
Like all artists, I saw that beauty and wanted to possess a little of it for myself. A flame kindled in the back of my mind, and my writing began to bloom with unexpected boldness and intensity. I took risks with my words that made my English teachers go misty-eyed with pleasure. My interior language began to faintly echo the strains of the music I heard in your works. I was not a good writer, not yet, maybe not even still, but I loved to try my fledgling wordsmith’s wings. It brought me joy that lightened my steps, filled up my throat, and burned steadily, fueled by all those lost and loose pages.
Later on in my freshman year of college, The Prince of Tides would save me from a terrible decision. Trained as a classical violist from an early age, I matriculated at Ithaca College in the fall of 2005 as a music performance major. But music wasn’t dissolving the unease I felt when I looked into my future. In fact, it merely amplified it. My love of words remained in the background as my desire to succeed in the arena of classical music performance began to outstrip any native musical talent I brought to the task.
One afternoon, after spending around 3 hours in the campus library putting the finishing and entirely too-elaborate touches on an introduction to genetics paper for an elective class, I made my way to the heart of the building where the practice rooms were. My viola and a battered black Steinway baby grand awaited, like surly old housecats. I did not look forward to our reunions.
On this September day, as I unsnapped the locks on my viola case and shut my practice room door, I felt a wave of nausea rise up in my stomach. Lightheaded, I sat down hard on the piano bench.
“I don’t want to do this anymore,” I said to an empty room.
From out of nowhere, as though in answer to prayer, I recalled a single passage that I’d unwittingly committed to memory:
My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.
Pat’s opening line from The Prince of Tides was calling me home.
I closed up my viola case, gently closed the cover on the Steinway’s keyboard, and left the cinderblock practice room. The nausea began to recede. That afternoon, I dropped out of the music program, walking from the Dean’s office feeling as light as a sparrow, with more words from my long-forgotten favorite novel ringing in my ears.
I would go on to graduate with a degree in writing from Ithaca College. I would be mentored by my own tribe, under the tutelage of writers and scholars and voracious readers. I had come home.
Thanks, Pat, for the words that burned themselves indelibly into my writing soul. They came back to me when I needed to be shoved off the wrong path and onto the one I was meant to travel. Thanks for teaching me that language can be joyful, and complex, and beautiful, not just useful. Wanting to follow in your footsteps is what sustains my writing life today. Thank you for calling me home.
You should also know that my most recent re-reading of The Prince of Tides occurred last spring. I’d downloaded a copy onto my Kindle (I’m on my third hard copy, by the way) to travel with. I thought maybe the mental stimulation from re-reading an old favorite would help me deal with the tediousness of the modern airport experience.
It did, but it did more.
Working its old magic, The Prince of Tides kept me reading through check-in, through boarding, through takeoff, during turbulence, through that ominous calm of smooth air travel where I usually contemplate the existence of God and whether He would deign to hold my plane in the air should the deep humming of the turbines suddenly and inexplicably cease, and through the sudden drops in altitude as our puddle-jumping plane started its final descent into O’Hare.
Pat. You enthralled me with your beautiful writing on what may be the 33rd or 34th re-reading of your novel, and somehow, you simultaneously freed me from my obdurate fear of flying. There truly is no limit to the power of a good book, is there?
Thanks for many, many years of beautiful words, from The Water Is Wide to South of Broad to your last and best memoir, The Death of Santini, and everything in between. I look forward to introducing your words to my children. After all, that’s the kind of immortality that writers dream of, isn’t it?
Thank you for lighting the fire in a new generation of writers, Pat. The English language is in your debt.
Man wonders, but God decides
When to kill the Prince of Tides.
Where I’ve been:
I know I haven’t been updating the blog regularly since the start of 2016. Truth is, I’ve been dealt some beautiful and terrible news that has set me back on my heels, further than I’ve ever been before. I’ve granted my mind’s desperate cry to rest, to replenish and go silent while some healing and regrouping takes place. When I’m on my feet, I’ve got some news to share with you all.
Until then, be sure to peruse the other fantastic writing blogs out there. I’ll be back in due time.