Pat Conroy, Transcendence, and My Reading Life

Early in his novel, The Prince of Tides, Pat Conroy brings the character of Lila Wingo to life with this brief paragraph.

“She saw the world through a dazzling prism of  authentic imagination. Lila Wingo would take the  raw material of a daughter and shape her into a poet and a psychotic.  With  her sons she was gentler, and  the results took longer to tally.”

What has always fascinated me about Conroy’s writing is that he can gentle weave a word like psychotic into such painterly prose without a hint of dishonesty or guile. It’s he legacy of his Southern roots, the unmistakable imprint of Thomas Wolfe the elder, and the sheer joy he takes in getting the words right.

In his latest book, My Reading Life, he revisits a life of reading from Gone With The Wind to the poetry of one of his mentors, James Dickey.

He writes, as expected, elegantly and profoundly on a variety of books and people that inspired him but his chapter on Why I Write is wonderful window into his own myriad motivations.

“Good writing is the hardest forms of thinking.  It involves the agony of turning profoundly difficult thoughts into lucid form, then forcing them into the tight-fitting uniform of language, making them visible and clear.  If the writing is good, then the result seems effortless and inevitable.  But when you want to say something life-changing or ineffable in a single sentence, you face both the limitations of the sentence itself and the extent of your own talent.”

A few sentences later he writes, “I’ve always taken a child’s joy in the painterly loveliness of the English language.”

Some writers write to make a living, but Conroy is a writer that needs writing to live. It is his alter and his alter ego. It is his way of turning his cascading thoughts and memories into something tangible and meaningful.

A few years ago, I wrote a short story while driving along a seemingly endless stretch of Texas highway.  One of the characters I created persisted in behaving in ways I did not imagine or anticipate.  The antagonist of the story surprisingly became the heroine.

In the briefest of moments, a conceit or a playful jumble of words evolves into a truth revealed. An emotion experienced.  Transcendence is the gift a writer receives by writing and hopefully one given in equal measure to the reader.

Pat Conroy isn’t always an easy read. But he’s nearly always transcendent.

Give yourself the gift of My Reading Life.