Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy is out now from UGA Press and one of our Fall/Winter Reads.
“Pat Conroy was a force for good in our world. With courage and grace, he brought the gifts of the devastating beauty of his writing and his transcendent vision of the human heart to the lives of the readers he touched and the writers he inspired,” writes Barbra Streisand in the forward to Our Prince of Scribes. Streisand directed and starred in the 1991 adaptation of Conroy’s best known novel The Prince of Tides. Most people who had an interaction with Conroy never forgot him, and this is especially true for aspiring writers. Fellow writers like Anne Rivers Siddons, Mark Childress, Rick Bragg, Mary Alice Monroe, Ron Rash, Bren McClain and Patti Callahan Henry share their own stories of Conroy in Our Prince of Scribes.
Below is an excerpt from the book written by Henry, author of the forthcoming Becoming Mrs. Lewis, who says she first knew Conroy as a reader and later in life as a friend. She shares the writing advice he gave to her and explains why we have to go past “beautiful” to describe him.
by Patti Callahan Henry
Sometimes we ask words to bear the burdens that only our hearts can carry.
And so we give up because we can’t find what we need inside our language.
But Pat Conroy never gave up. He dug and he excavated and he found both
the words and the stories to share with us. He might have done it at great
cost to his own soul, but always at great gain for ours.
Madeline L’Engle says that the author and the reader “know” each other
because they meet on a bridge of words. It was on that bridge where I found
Pat Conroy, long before we met each other in the world. Of course his real-
life friendship was richer and stronger than the bridge of words, but the
words came first.
I came to Pat first as a reader falling in love with his rich prose, then as a
writer with a desire to learn. In his writing he taught me to pay attention to
the details: the way the sunlight fell on the marsh or an emotion bubbled up
from the subconscious.
But what Pat taught me as a friend and as a writer far surpasses any writer
technique. What I learned from his life and friendship was a kind of theology:
Stories and Life are both marvelous and dreadful. I can’t, as a reader or a
writer or a human being, shy away from the broken world. I wanted everything
to be so “nice,” but Pat said, “Well tough, it isn’t all so nice.”
With Pat there can be no dualism, no either/or. No good/bad. No right/
wrong. It’s all there together—the noble, the cowardly, the awful, the shining.
As it must be in both our writing and our lives.
He knew how to write a line that reverberated like a tuning fork in our
souls. He once wrote an essay about how often he’d moved around as a child
of a Marine and that he’d never had a hometown until he chose Beaufort. But
instead of stating the facts he wrote, “I never spent a single day in a hometown.”
And because I have the same feeling of dislocation—having moved many
times—I thought, “Exactly!” I wanted to call the man who wrote those words,
but that was when I didn’t know him except as a photo on a book jacket.
To become friends with someone after being a fan is at first an odd thing,
a little bumpy. Can we be a friend and a fan? How is it to get past the image
and come to know the person as who they are beyond the words they write?
Because in many ways, aren’t we the words we write? I don’t know any other
profession that is as close to the cuff, as bone to marrow of who we are, as
And especially someone who writes about family and struggle as Pat did.
We can come to believe we know him. But it’s not true. We can’t be friends
with an image. But we can be friends with the complicated, empathetic, gregarious,
vulnerable, funny, and sharp-witted man. The man who would call
when he found out I was sick and say, “I hear you’re catching hell in Alabama.”
We can be friends with a man who loves his wife as a best friend.
But as special as he made me feel, I wasn’t the only one. Pat and I weren’t
lifelong friends, except on my end. We were newly minted friends just finding
our way. And like all of his friends, I’d get that call: “I’m the one who has
to keep this dying friendship alive.” I wish I’d kept every one of those voicemails
on my phone. I knew it was a line he used, just a little jab to make me
call him back, because there was no way I’d ever let that friendship die. If I’d
had it in my power, there’s no way I would have let him die.
He was that way with loads of writers, because he was more than a friend,
he was a mentor. He didn’t want to just bask in his own light, he wanted
our light to join his. He bought our books; he remembered our names; and
then he went and helped start a publishing imprint of his own—Story River
Books—to help us put more stories into the world.
Offhandedly we talk of Pat’s writing and we use the word “beautiful.” And
by God, it is. But if he taught me anything, he taught me the use of the just-
right word, and we’d have to go past “beautiful” to describe him and his
stories, we’d have to go all the way to the word “sublime.”
And here’s the difference.
“Sublime” means of “outstanding spiritual, intellectual, or moral worth;
something that is set or raised aloft, high up, something inspiring awe and
veneration.” The sublime is intensified by darkness and takes a certain pleasure
in that absence of light.
And honestly, I can’t think of a better word to describe his work.
So while we take the opportunity to memorialize and mourn Donald
Patrick Conroy, and we take his great love, friendship, stories, and mentorship
into the world, let’s not do so merely beautifully, let’s do it sublimely—
with outstanding spiritual, intellectual, and moral worth, taking a certain
pleasure in the absence of light, just like the man himself.
Portions of this essay were first delivered at a public memorial service on May 14, 2016, at
Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park, Beaufort, South Carolina.
Our Prince of Scribes is one of our 2018 Fall/Winter Reads. View the entire list here.