SLOAN COLUMN: Writers recall ‘Prince of Scribes’
The best way for me to describe the writing of Pat Conroy is to say his words have a way of drawing you into his story.
Sometimes the words take you by the hand and gently guide you into captivating scenes of breathtaking beauty. Other times they grab you by the collar and drag you into conflicts filled with raw human emotion. Either way, it does not take long before Conroy’s story has become your story as well.
While not born in the Palmetto State, Pat Conroy was a true son of South Carolina and a consummate Southern storyteller. I had the privilege of sitting in on an “Our Prince of Scribes: Writers Remember Pat Conroy” gathering last week at the Doctors Bruce and Lee Foundation Library. A couple of dozen people listened intently as a panel of writers and friends of Conroy shared memories of the man and the writer.
It was pointed out by one of the panelists that you could not tell of the man while not speaking of the writer. The two were one in the same. Pat Conroy lived what he wrote and wrote what he lived.
Sponsored by the Pat Conroy Literacy Center, the program promoted a book of the same name that was published just over a year ago. “Our Prince of Scribes” is a compilation of essays from dozens of the writers who were mentored, inspired and encouraged by Beaufort’s adopted son and the writer of such classic novels as “The Prince of Tides,” “The Great Santini,” “The Water is Wide,” and “The Lords of Discipline.”
Included on the panel were Tim Conroy, Pat’s brother and author; Jonathan Haupt, executive director of the Pat Conroy Literary Center executive director and co-editor of the book along with Nicole Seitz; and Ellen Malphrus, a fellow lowcountry author and poet.
I found myself completely fascinated as one by one, each panelist shared stories and memories of Conroy, painting a portrait of a man who loved South Carolina, had an immense love for writing, and who tirelessly supported and encouraged young writers.
Haupt told of how a young Conroy was befriended by Archibald Rutledge, South Carolina’s first poet laureate. Haupt said Rutledge “taught Pat how to treat other writers, especially young and aspiring ones.”
“Pat never forgot that, and he did everything he could to encourage anyone who felt they had something to say to put it down on paper,” Haupt said.
Malphrus’ connection with Conroy was through her mentor, James Dickey. Dickey, the South Carolinian known best for his book, “Deliverance,” happened to be good friends with Conroy and it was he who first introduced the two of them. It was Conroy who pushed Malphrus to take her writing seriously when she was still young and trying to find her way.
She remembered Pat sharing with her a quote from literature professor Joseph Campbell: “Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors where there were only walls.”
“He saw something in me that I did not see in myself,” she said. “He encouraged me to find my bliss and to follow it.”
She went on to recount a story of running into Conroy years later in, of all places, Brooklyn, Maine, and how the two of them talked of life’s ups and downs. She said he was still inspiring her.
Tim Conroy provided a very personal glimpse into his brother’s life. He said that of all his brothers’ works, “The Great Santini” was the closest to his heart.
“Santini” was a fictional characterization of Pat and Tim’s life growing up in a military family ruled by the iron fist of a father who was a Marine Corps aviator. The character Lt. Col. Wilbur “Bull” Meechum was based on Pat and Tim’s father, Donald Conroy.
“We grew up in an abusive and violent home,” admitted Tim, explaining why the book hits so close to home.
He said that Pat’s depiction of the dysfunctional family life in “Santini” helped his father realize how horribly he had treated his wife, his sons and his daughters.
Tim said his father was not willing to admit it at first, but “eventually came around and understood the hell he had put us through.” He then became a better husband, father and grandfather, according to Tim.
Malphrus said the book closest to her heart was “The Prince of Tides.” Haupt chose one of his lesser know works, “My Reading Life.”
I was first introduced to Conroy through film adaptation of “The Great Santini.” I was a very green Marine private when I watched it in a movie theatre near Camp Lejeune in Jacksonville, N.C. The movie led to the book, which as everyone knows is almost always better than the big screen version.
“The Lords of Discipline” followed, and then “The Water is Wide.” I knew that in both books Conroy was calling on his own personal experiences. I found myself immersed in both, riveted by the scenes, the characters, and the real-life conflicts. I was a fan for life.
I can’t say I have read all of Conroy’s books, but he certainly owns a spot near the top of my list of favorite writers. My personal favorite, if I had to choose, would be “A Lowcountry Heart.” He inspired me just like those who were on the library panel, those who penned essays for the book, and an untold number of others.
Pat Conroy was and is truly a prince of scribes.