Why We Write About Ourselves: Excerpt by Pat Conroy

December 31, 2015
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WHY WE WRITE ABOUT OURSELVES, TWENTY MEMOIRISTS ON WHY THEY EXPOSE THEMSELVES (AND OTHERS) IN THE NAME OF LITERATURE is the latest collection edited by Meredith Maran. The book features twenty well-known authors candidly disclosing the origins of their memoirs. In response to Editor Maran’s probing questions, a chorus of diverse voices and varied motivations emerge from writers including Cheryl Strayed, Anne Lamott, Nick Flynn and James McBride. This book is Maran’s follow up to WHY WE WRITE, and will be released in early 2016 by Plume/Penguin Random House.

Below is an excerpt by Pat Conroy. 


Why We Write About Ourselves, twenty Memoirists on Why They Expose Themselves (and Others) in the Name of Literature
Edited by Meredith Maran
Buy this Book
at Amazon.com

CHAPTER FOUR

 Pat Conroy

I’ve been writing the story of my own life for over forty years. My own stormy autobiography has been my theme, my dilemma, my obsession, and the fly-by-night dread I bring to the art of fiction.

─Opening, The Death of Santini, 2013

Some novelists are dragged out from behind the fictional veil and into the spotlight of memoir, in various states of unwillingness, propelled by life-changing events that would otherwise gnaw holes in their minds. They write the memoir, tell the story, go back to novel writing.

Other memoirists commit to the form early and often, tackling a hot topic or two from one angle and then another.

And still others alternate between fiction and non-, depending on the material and the mood.

Not Pat Conroy. Nearly everything he writes, he says, is autobiographical; each book is an attempt to heal from the abusive childhood that shaped but has not defined him.

Thirty-five years before he finally wrote about his abusive father in explicit form, Pat Conroy fictionalized the same material in his 1976 novel, The Great Santini – a book that couldn’t have caused more discord in his family if it had been labeled “memoir.” His marriage ended. Relatives picketed his book events, telling fans not to buy the book. Eventually, in a plot twist worthy of the finest fiction, the novel helped reconcile Pat and his father. “I hope you enjoy my son’s latest work of fiction,” the elder Conroy would write when asked to sign copies of his son’s book.

 But writing a slew of autobiographical novels wasn’t enough to cure what ailed Pat Conroy. “This year I turned sixty-five,” he writes in The Death if Santini. “I’ve come to realize that I still carry the bruised freight of that childhood every day … It weighs me down and fills me with dread … I’ve got to try to make sense of it one last time, a final circling of the block, a reckoning.”

THE VITALS

Birthday: October 26, 1945

Born and raised: Atlanta, Georgia

Home now: Beaufort, South Carolina

Family: Married to Cassandra King; four children

Schooling: The Citadel

Day job: Nope

Notable notes:

  • Describing his origins, Pat says he was “the first of seven children of a career military officer and a Southern beauty.”
  • Pat was fired from his teaching job in a one-room schoolhouse in South Carolina because he refused to allow corporal punishment of his students. He wrote about this experience in his 1972 book The Water Is Wide.
  • Pat’s 1986 novel 7he Prince of Tides sold more than five million copies and was made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Barbra Streisand and Nick Nolte.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/PatConroyAuthor

Website: www.patconroy.com

THE COLLECTED WORKS

Memoirs 

The Prince of Tides, 1986

My Losing Season, 2002

My Reading Life, 2010

Beach Music, 1995

South of Broad, 2009

The Death of Santini, 2013 Cookbook

Novels

The Boo, 1969

The Water Is Wide, 1972

The Great Santini, 1976

The Lords of Discipline,1 980

Cookbook

The Pat Conroy Cookbook, 2004

Film Adaptations

Conrack, 1974

The Great Santini, 1979

The Prince ofTides, 1991

Pat Conroy

“When I was researching The Death of Santini, I found out some things that absolutely staggered me.”
—CONROY

Why I write about myself

In 2002 I published my first memoir, My Losing Season, about my year as captain of The Citadel basketball team. I wrote it because I wanted to tell the truth about the harsh culture of The Citadel and my relationship with the coach. That led to writing about the harsh reality of my family.

I waited more than a decade to start writing my second memoir. I’d always wanted to tell the full story of my family, but I had to wait until my parents died. I wanted my readers to know where all my fiction came from. I wanted my memoir to be based not only on what I’d experienced but also on what my brothers and sisters thought of it all. And I knew I wanted to wait to write it until we had time to age into it – to let it ripen somewhat and to look back on what had happened.

When I was researching The Death of Santini, I found out some things that absolutely staggered me. My brothers and sisters remembered almost nothing. Each of them remembered only certain things. Much of what they remembered were things I’d written about fictionally. So my “fiction” became part of the memoir.

The same thing happened when I was writing about The Citadel. I went back to get the memories of my classmates about the plebe system and our horrible first year. Most of the guys who survived had simply repressed what happened.

I began to think that some of us are the designated rememberers. Why do we remember? I don’t know. But I think that’s why memoir interests us – because we’re the ones who pass the stories.

 Fiction: stranger than truth

Fiction contains memoir; memoir contains fiction.

“Storytelling is so much more powerful than I’d ever realized. People will take whatever story you tell to be the literal truth.”
—CONROY

Funny things happen when you’re writing fiction. Because my father died at the end of my novel The Great Santini, when I introduced people to my father in real life, they’d say to him, “Wait! I read about your funeral.”

Storytelling is so much more powerful than I’d ever realized. People will take whatever story you tell to be the literal truth. I’ve had guys I’ve never seen before come up to me at book readings and say they were my college roommates. I used to think they were just crazies. Now I think it’s an imaginative jump they’ve made, a spark across the night. They somehow actually believe that.

I wrote about a basketball game that took place in 1967. I must have had five thousand people tell me they were there that night. The stadium holds only five thousand! Did I run into every one of them?

I taught in a high school for two years after I was at The Citadel. My brothers and sisters said they’ve met endless numbers of people who said they were in my classes during that time.

My fiction has become so interwoven with my nonfiction that it has confused everybody, including my brothers and sisters, even though I interviewed them about it before I wrote it. Except for my poet sister Carol, who has disappeared from my life, my siblings and I have been doing panels together about The Death of Santini. It’s been fascinating to hear their insights.

My brother Jim surprised me during the latest panel we were on. He said, “I can tell the difference between fiction and nonfiction. My father was a total asshole and Pat has always painted him as much too nice. That’s fiction!”

All’s fair in love and memoir

My teammates at The Citadel were all concerned when they heard I was working on My Losing Season. Most of them had never had a book in their homes. They’d never read another book in their lives. They said, “We don’t want you to do a book. You don’t make an honest living. All you do is you make shit up about us.” Their wives were terrified. Their children were terrified. Everyone was scared to death I’d be making up stuff about them.

I said, “Guys, relax. Here’s what you don’t know. I’ll go over every little thing with y’all. We’re going to talk about conversations we had thirty years ago. None of them will be true word for word. What we’ll aim for is the spirit of those conversations, the flavor of those conversations.”

I ended up calling all these guys a million times. I’d call Zipper and I’d tell him, “Rube said this; Zipper, do you remember that conversation?” Then Zipper would say, “Rube’s fulla shit.” I kept going from one guy to the next. Some guys remembered almost nothing. Some trusted my version of the entire experience. Some guys had amazing memories. I wanted all of them. I told the guys I interviewed, “When the book comes out, and you read it, you need to remember that it’s some version of the truth, even though I’m telling you right now it’s probably not going to be yours.”

The guy I worried about most was the one who suffered the most the year I wrote about in the book. He said, “Conroy, I don’t trust you. I read your other books. Look what you did to your old man! To your son! If that’s what you did to your family in your other books, I can tell you I’m going to hate this one.”

After the book came out, that guy stood up and said, “No one is more knowledgeable than I am, and every word in that book was true.” As a professional writer I know that that’s an impossibility. But it was good to hear.

Truth and loss

My sister Carol isn’t speaking to me. She wouldn’t speak to me at our mother’s funeral. She said we had a toxic family. I said, “No shit. I’ve been making a living off that toxic family my whole life.”

Since The Death qf Santini came out, none of us has heard a word from her. I’m sure she’s furious about her portrait in the book.

Of course I’ve wondered why Carol isn’t speaking to me. She might be mad at me for talking about her coming out as a lesbian. She could be mad that I mentioned her first girlfriend’s name. She’s a poet, and she’s very private. Her privacy means everything to her. She’s fiercely guarded. You will not find her giving interviews to anybody about anything.

The only time she’s broken that rule was for an odd CNN Conroy Thanksgiving special when Dad was still alive. He had cancer. It was his last year alive. We all got together, and Carol finally accepted me and Dad and the family for what we were.

The reunion was phony. Everyone knew it. It was the most uncomfortable scene since the Pilgrims sat down with the Native Americans after Plymouth Rock. I watched the show and I thought, My God in heaven, what a travesty of a festive moment. It was so painful.

 When you write memoir, who are you hurting? It’s always been the great taboo: hurting your parents, hurting your family, hurting your children – although I tell my children I can’t wait to write about their hellion teenage years, when they dated the most hideous boys in America just to torture me.

If I’m writing a portrait of my family and I don’t talk about the effect of that family on Carol, my beloved sister, if I don’t talk about how her childhood ruined her life, I’d be a liar and an unfit witness for the family I’ve been writing about. I decided that if I’m going to write about this, I want to write the truth as I know it, as I lived it.

When it comes to memoir, I’ll always choose the writer over the person who suffers because of what’s written.

Truth: relative

“When you write a memoir, you want it to be as true as you can make it.”
—CONROY

People who read my memoirs ask me how I know what’s true and what’s not true. I don’t worry about it too much. I understand memoir and fiction, and I understand that there’s making up going on with both.

I’ve seen memoirists who go nuts for absolute scrupulous word-for-word truth telling. It’s an impossible standard. If you have to write it perfectly, the story won’t be told. Here’s what I know: If a story is not told, it’s the silence around that untold story that ends up killing people. The story can open up a secret to the light.

When you write a memoir, you want it to be as true as you can make it. With fiction you have a much larger body of water to play in. But I have to admit this right away: I’m swimming in dangerous water when I talk about the difference between memoir and fiction. I’ve often intermingled the two.

Trying to figure out where the truth lies is one of the perils of writing memoir.

Truth: hard to believe

I had trouble with The Great Santini because my very proper editor said, in her British accent, “Pat, it’s simply not believable that a father would treat a son in this extraordinary way.” I had to clean up the book to make it believable to people who went to Harvard.

I was easy on my father in that book. I wasn’t yet prepared to say he beat us half to death and left us in the driveway. I had trouble getting people to believe me. There was an article in The Atlantic magazine saying that I’d made the whole thing up. My father told them, “If anything, I was too good a father. My son has a vivid imagination.”

I wrote a letter to the editor, saying, Yeah, I made the whole thing up. My father was a Carmelite nun. I used my imagination to make everything up.

“Memoir has been necessary for my life. I’ve found writers whose voices I can trust. “
—CONROY

 Memoir matters

Memoir has been necessary for my life. I’ve found writers whose voices I can trust. In their memoirs they came out and told me things I needed to know about how to live a life. If not for those writers telling me how to look for truth in life, how to know it’s there when you find it, I don’t know who I’d be.

Memoir is a deal with the devil

I’m glad I made it out of that last memoir alive, except for Carol. I can’t tell you how much I regret losing my sister, and I can’t say she’s wrong to have those feelings. I suffered over that. I suffer still. When you write memoir, that’s part of the bargain you make with God and the devil.

 

Pat Conroy’s Wisdom for Memoir Writers

  • A memoir is not a newspaper article. It’s not expected to be word-for-word true. If you have to write it perfectly, the story won’t be told, and the most important thing is that you tell your story.
  • Don’t hang around with writers. We’re all crazy and we won’t do your writing any good.
  • Memoirs hurt people. Secrets hurt people. The question to ask yourself is, if you tell your story, will it do enough good to make it worth hurting people?

About Meredith Maran:

in_maran-meredith-why-we-write

Meredith Maran, editor, journalist, book critic

The author of eleven nonfiction books and a novel, and a member of the National Book Critics Circle, Meredith writes features, essays, and book reviews for People, Salon, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune, Self, Real Simple, Ladies Home Journal, Mother Jones, Family Circle, and More. She’s been Writer in Residence at UCLA and at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos, and a fellow at MacDowell, YaddoVirginia Center for the Creative ArtsMesa Refuge, and Ragdale.

She lives in Los Angeles, where it’s sunny almost every day.

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