- Published: 18 October 2016 18 October 2016
October 24-28, 2016 is Pat Conroy Week
Donate $40 or more to the Pat Conroy Literary Center and be entered in a drawing to win a complete set of the 2016 Pat Conroy Southern Book Prize Winners and Finalists.
41 books for $41!
Pat Conroy's foreword to Writing South Carolina: Selections from the First Annual High School Writing Contest, edited by Steven Lynn with Aïda Rogers; © University of South Carolina Press, reprinted with publisher’s permission
In the summer of 1961, my family crossed over the Combahee River and entered into Beaufort County for the first time. I was fifteen years old and had never heard of Beaufort, South Carolina, in my life. It was my twenty-third move since my birth, and Beaufort High would be the eleventh school I’d attended and the third high school in my adolescence. I was in the middle of a very unhappy childhood.
But I was a military brat, and my mother had convinced her seven children that we were serving America whenever we moved because our father was a fighter pilot and our nation needed him. Little did we know that we were driving toward the life we were meant to live and toward the destiny we were all meant to share. I had entered the Lowcountry of South Carolina for the first time in my life, a place of such mysterious and uncommon beauty that it still strikes me as some lost archipelago of paradise. I had no clue that I would spend the next fifty-three years of my life writing about this sacred place and the amazing people I found there.
This much I know. I was a teenager, like all of you are, and like you, I entertained the improbable dream that I wanted to be a writer and that I had things to say. I also know this—all of you who contributed to this book write much better than I did in high school, and the stuff I published in The Breakers, our literary magazine, would not have made the cut in your wonderful book. I’m reading my dinky poems and quasi-essays as I write this, and I think objectively that I showed little promise during those awkward, melancholy years of my boyhood. You, ladies and gentlemen, write with a verve and a confidence I don’t believe I matched until my final years at the Citadel. As high school writers in South Carolina, I think you’re writing better sentences and thinking deeper thoughts and showing off a more refined talent than I could present to my teachers in high school. Someone has taught you well and you’ve been smart enough to listen, and you’re using the English language with both purpose and gracefulness.
I owe my writing life to the cowled nuns of my grade school who taught me to read and write and taught me about how the great interior engine of words could work together; if you learned the immense powers of verbs and good grammar, then you could align words in a sentence as pretty as a string of pearls. I learned to diagram sentences that looked like the blueprints of battleships. I never quite learned the mysteries of colons or semicolons. From an early age, I developed an intolerance for the exclamation point, and I’ve never gotten over that bizarre tic in my writing style. A teacher told me not to use the word poignant even when I found situations that struck me that way, “because we have endured enough ‘poignant moments’ in fiction, so we can retire that overused word.” I thought I had never used it again until a sharp-eyed reader found it blinking like a lantern in some tired sentence in The Prince of Tides. But learning to write is a safari into those far interiors of self that can seem reckless and unreachable until the voyage begins. Our English teachers become our guides through the perilous missteps we make when we begin to turn our most private thoughts into stories and poems we’d like other people to read. They light the campfires in our bloodstreams that combust into the bright firelight of dreaming in our consciousness. The teachers lead us to the books that are great, tell us what makes them so good, and tempt us to develop our own personal styles that force the language to do what we require from it.
There is no phrase I revere as much as “English teacher.” That profession still strikes me as a form of holy orders, but I revere all the teachers of the world, and it shames me to see them bullied, excoriated, and subject to the contempt that America displays toward them in the early years of this century. My teachers found me as a young boy who didn’t know the alphabet and helped lead me every step of the way to a manhood where I write books that are the joys of my life.
When I was a freshman in high school, Sister Ann of the Sacred Heart order introduced me to William Shakespeare and Twelfth Night, then told us we were now reading the greatest writer who had ever performed acts of pure magic with the language common to us all. The next year Joseph Monte taught me that teaching was an art form of the highest calling, and I read twenty books under his watchful eye, including David Copperfield, Crime and Punishment, and The Sound and the Fury. He made me write a letter to William Faulkner, a letter to the editor of the Washington Post, and the first short story I ever wrote. He presented his class with an ambitious list of the hundred best books ever written (according to the world of Joseph Monte), and I crossed off the name of the last book before I began my plebe year at the Citadel.
My fate as a writer continued in its exalted fashion when I walked into the Beaufort classroom of Gene Norris in September 1961. He was the first person who ever taught me who did not wear either a priest’s collar or a nun’s habit. On one of the first days of school, he put on a recording of Ravel’s Boléro and asked us to write him an essay on whatever feelings the music brought out in us. I described a camp of gypsies about to be slaughtered by a group of Franco’s troops during the final stages of the Spanish Civil War. The last book on Mr. Monte’s Hundred Best Books list had been For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. My Boléro paper caught Mr. Norris’s eye, and the next day he told me he knew I was going to become a writer whether I knew it or not. I’ve written about my complete admiration of Gene Norris in five of my books, and his spirit is present in every word I write. During his final years, we called each other on an almost daily basis; when Gene died I delivered a eulogy at his memorial service, and I served as one of the executors of his will. Though I didn’t know this in high school, you can grow up and be best friends with the men and women who taught you. After I walked out of his class, I never let loose my grip on Gene Norris or his buoyant, self-actualized life. I turned him into part of my life, part of my story. The truth is I never left Gene’s class, and I was still seated on the front row until the moment of his death.
In my senior year at Beaufort High School, I came under the spell of the delightful, pixilated wordsmith from Due West, South Carolina, Millen Ellis. He was a fanciful, Tolkien-like presence in the classroom, demanding and softhearted at the same time. He turned his classroom into a crossroads of the world; his bulletin boards changed constantly—from art exhibitions at the Met to some obscure movie coming to the Breeze Theater downtown. Millen wrote down the answers of quizzes and would crumple them up and hurl them into the shelves meant for books under our student desks. If we were alert, we’d find these answers, but his lesson was not lost on us: pay attention to everything; do not let anything escape or fool you; awareness is the keystone to all knowledge. And there was an art to life that he was helping us to enter, but first he had to prove to us that it was there in the first place. I listened in Millen Ellis’s class to the first opera I ever heard, Boris Godunov, and he taught the play Macbeth with such passion that its lines and speeches remain with me to this day. He made us memorize one hundred lines of English poetry, and I now wish he’d made us extend it to a thousand lines.
So, young writers of South Carolina, we’ve come to this central pivot in our lives. I’ve been a South Carolina writer for fifty years, and this is your first song ever played at the big dance of our maddening, complicated, but splendid state. I think South Carolina produces more stories per square inch than any place on earth. That is where we have a part, you guys and me. It is our job to become the poets and songwriters and the cunning, spinning craftsmen and web-spinners who will write the novels and short stories that’ll explain our time here to those lucky enough to follow in our footsteps. Here is my advice to you, writer to writer. Keep a journal. Write in it whenever you can. Learn how to notice strange and wondrous details. Copy down dialogue from memory. Learn how people sound when they are sitting around talking versus how they sound when giving a speech or running for office. Details are the gold coinage in the realm of fiction and poetry. Gather them up like the eggs of racing pigeons and hoard them well and don’t listen to their cries of release until you find the perfect moment to release them from their bondage.
Read everything. But make sure you read all the books and poetry that seem to be defining the times in which you live. Become discriminating critics of your own writing as well as that of others. Try to be kind and constructive to any other writer who approaches you for help. To write is a form of nakedness that all of you are going to learn about when this book is published. It is an act of courage to write anything, but it is an act approaching madness to want to do this for a living.
Go deeper. That is my advice to all writers. Then go deeper again. When I look at myself in the mirror, I’ve no clear idea of who that guy is looking back. For fifty years I’ve been trying to learn the essential truth of that one man. I’m not sure I’ve scratched the surface of that unending mystery. There are enigmas buried inside you in the deepest waters. Whether they be angels or moray eels, whether they be godlike or demonic, it is your job to discover them for yourself and no one else. You write for yourself. You write for no one else. It is your art that you are seeking, and if you are very lucky, it is your art that is desperately trying to make its own voice heard to you. Listen.
Pray it is calling your name.
With your publication in this book, it has already called your name one time.