A novel is a great act of passion and intellect, carpentry and largess. From the beginning, I wrote to explain my own life to myself, and I invited readers who chose to make the journey with me to join me on the high wire. I would work without a net and without the noise of the crowd to disturb me. The view from on high is dizzying, instructive.
I do not record the world exactly as it comes to me but transform it by making it pass through a prism of fabulous stories I have collected on the way. I gather stories the way a sunburned entomologist admires his well-ordered bottles of Costa Rican beetles. Stories are the vessels I use to interpret the world to myself. I am often called a storyteller by flippant and unadmiring critics. I revel in the title.
Many modern writers abjure the power of stories in their work, banish them to the suburbs of literature, drive them out toward the lower pastures of the lesser moons, and they could not be more wrong in doing so. The most powerful words in English are “Tell me a story,” words that are intimately related to the complexity of history, the origins of language, the continuity of the species, the taproot of our humanity, our singularity and art itself.
Good writing is the hardest form 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.
When you come close to succeeding, when the words pour out of you just right, you understand that these sentences are all part of a river flowing out of your own distant, hidden ranges, and all words become the dissolving snow that feeds your mountain streams forever. The language locks itself in the icy slopes of our own high passes, and it is up to us, the writers, to melt the glaciers within us. When these glaciers break off, we get to call them novels, the changelings of our burning spirits, our life’s work.
I have always taken a child’s joy in the painterly loveliness of the English language. As a writer, I try to make that language pitch and roll, soar above the Eastern Flyway, reverse its field at will, howl and reel in the darkness, bellow when frightened, and pray when it approaches the eminence or divinity of nature itself. My well-used dictionaries and thesauri sing out to me when I write, and all English words are the plainsong of my many-tongued, long-winded ancestors who spoke before me.
I write because I once fell in love with the sound of words as spoken by my comely, Georgia-born mother. I use the words that sound pettiest or most right to me as I drift into that bright cocoon where the writer loses himself in language. When finished, I adore the way the words look back at me after I have written them down on long yellow sheets. They are written in my hand, and their imperfect shapes thrill me. I can feed on the nectar of each word I write. Some are salt-rimed with the storm-flung Atlantic on them, some mountain-born, writhing in laurel, but each with a dark taste of my own life fresh upon it.
What richer way to meet the sunlight than bathing each day of my life in my island-born language, the one that Shakespeare breathed on, Milton wrestled with, Jane Austen tamed, and Churchill rallied the squadrons of England with? I want to use the whole English language as the centerpiece of a grand alliance or concordance with my work. I see myself as its acolyte, its spy in the College of Cardinals, its army in the field.
I try to turn each sentence into a bright container made of precious metals and glittering glass. It is the carrier and aqueduct of the sweetest elixir of English words themselves. I build these sentences slowly. Like a glassblower, I use air and fire to shape the liquids as they form in my imagination. I long for that moment when I take off into the pure oxygen-rich sky of a sentence that streaks off into a night where I cannot follow, where I lose control, when the language seizes me and shakes me in such a way that I feel like both its victim and its co-pilot.
STORY AND LANGUAGE brought me to the craft of writing, then passion and my childhood provided both the structure and the details. When I was busy growing up on the Marine bases of my youth, my mother cast a spell on me that I found all but unbreakable. Peg Conroy was rough-born and Southern-shaped, and I heard the stories of her Depression childhood so often that I have never been able to throw off the belief that I’ve known poverty inside and out from a very early age. I still hear my mother’s voice, lovely beneath soft lamplight, whenever I sit down with a pen in my hand.
My father was Chicago-born, and he brought the sensibilities of Augie March and Studs Lonigan to the cockpits of the fighter planes he flew over target areas along the South. He was a man of action; he thought books made handsome furniture, but I never saw him read one. He raised me to be a fighter pilot like himself, and that is what I had planned to do before I was waylaid by literature.
Yet my books have the feel of some invisible though embattled country, where the field artillery is always exchanging rounds between chapters. Like all battlefields, my novels fill up with smoke and noise and the screams of the wounded and the answering calls of medics low-crawling through the blasted, cratered fields with their canteens and their morphine ready. My father taught me the way of the warrior at the same time my mother was turning me into a wordsmith.
My parents taught me everything I needed to know about the dangers and attractions of the extreme. Even today, the outrageous to me feels completely natural. My novels reflect absurdity and the exorbitance of a house in which the unexpected was our daily bread. My father once wiped out a dozen tanks working their way toward Marine lines in Korea, and my mother’s hobby was collecting poisonous snakes. It is not my fault I was raised by Zeus and Hera, but my books mirror the odd, hothouse environment of my astonished childhood.
All writers are both devotees and prisoners of their childhoods, and the images that accrued during those early days when each of us played out the mystery of Adam and Eve in our own way. My mother’s voice and my father’s fists are the two bookends of my childhood, and they form the basis of my art.
The women in my books all share an air of mystery, an unwinnable allure that I trace back to my inability to figure out what made my mother tick. When I try to pin down her soft, armor-covered spirit, when I fix it on a slide beneath a microscope, I can feel it all becoming immaterial before my steady gaze. The colors rearrange themselves and the cosmetology of her womanhood reverses itself. My hunt will always be for my mother. She could not give me herself, but she gave me literature as a replacement. I have no idea who she was, and I write my books as a way of finding out.
MY MOTHER TURNED me into an insatiable, fanatical reader. It was her gentle urging, her hurt, insistent voice, that led me to discover my identity by taking a working knowledge of the great books with me. I have tried to read 200 pages every day of my life since I was a freshman in high school, because I knew that I would come to the writing of books without the weight of culture and learning that a well-established, confidently placed family could offer its children. I collected those long, melancholy lists of the great books that high school English teachers passed out to college-bound students, and I relied on having consumed those serious litanies of books as a way to ease my way into the literary life.
Even today, I hunt for the fabulous books that will change me utterly. I find myself happiest in the middle of a book in which I forget that I am reading, but am instead immersed in a made-up life lived at the highest pitch. Reading is the most rewarding form of exile and the necessary discipline for a novelist who burns with the ambition to get better.
Here is what I want from a book, what I demand, what I pray for when I take up a novel and begin to read the first sentence: I want everything and nothing less, the full measure of a writer’s heart. I want a novel so poetic that I do not have to turn to the standby anthologies of poetry to satisfy that itch for music, for perfection and economy of phrasing, for exactness of tone. Then, too, I want a book so filled with story and character that I read page after page without thinking of food and drink because a writer has possessed me, crazed me with an unappeasable thirst to know what happens next.
When an author sets the table right, there will be no need to pass the foie gras or the barbecue because the characters will grab me by the collar. They will spring to life so fully developed, so richly contained in the oneness of their own universe, that they will populate the cafés and verandahs and alleyways of a city I will never want to leave. Few things linger longer or become more indwelling than that feeling of both completion and emptiness when a great book ends.
All through my life I have told myself —no, ordered myself—to read more deeply, read everything of consequence, let the words of some new writer settle like the dust of silica into the ledges and sills of my consciousness.
When I find myself engaged in the reading of some magical, surprising book, I ask myself these questions: Can I match this depth? Can I incorporate this splendid work, ingest it whole into my bloodstream, where it can become part of my thinking and dreaming life? What can this writer do that I can’t? Can I steal the genius of this writer and learn all of the unappropriated lessons, then turn them into something astonishing that flows out of me, because I was moved by the originality and courage and eloquence of another writer?
WHEN I FIRST SAT down to write, I had to teach myself how to go about it. I called upon that regiment of beloved writers, living and dead, who had written the books that had changed the way I looked at myself and the world. I wanted the atmosphere of my novels to feel like the one I had breathed in as a boy. I demanded living trees with actual names, flowers growing in their proper seasons, characters who spoke their minds, who lived as free men and women outside of my jurisdiction. My city of made-up people would live their own complex lives without my permission or my intrusion into their sovereignty.
I wanted my fictional world to feel like the one I had grown up in, with no whitewashing of the horror that stood in the doorway of any given human moment. All my rivers had to be clean enough for the cobia, the herring and the shad to swim upstream to spawn, because I was going back to my own sources to find the secrets of the world. I desired to be one of those writers who always followed the creek bed to that source, that clear pool where the mother’s roe floated in still water above the glittering pebbles.
I promised myself nothing lazy would ever enter my books. Writing is both hard labor and one of the most pleasant forms that fanaticism can take. I take infinite care in how a sentence sounds to me. I rise out of the oral tradition of the American South, and words have to sound a certain way if they’re to come out right.
In my first years, my identity as a writer was drawn toward amplitude, fullness and extravagance. I worshiped writers who made me feel sated, coddled, spoiled with all the excess that too much attention and love can provide. But since I have tried to read everything, I have also found that exactness is a virtue in even the most word-possessed writer. There is enormous power in stating something simply and well.
Action sequences always require the straight line in the presentation, the most solid, sequential phrases, and the punchiest, most telling Anglo-Saxon sentences. Action brims and stirs. There is delicacy, craft and restraint in all this, as in the making of a dry martini.
But sometimes a lot more is required. Then you must go inside yourself to find the liftoff into the dark side of language’s many rooms. When you have made a new sentence, or even an image that works well, it is a palace where language itself has lit a new lamp. It is why a writer sits alone, fingering memory and shaping imagination during the lost, solitary days.
As a writer, I have tried to make and remake myself over and over again. I try to notice everything, and if I take the time to write it, I would simply like to write it better than anyone else possibly could. If I am describing the Atlantic Ocean, I want to make that portion of the high seas mine forevermore, and I do not want the reader daydreaming about Herman Melville’s ocean.
I try to be athletic and supple with my talent. I train it, urge it on, drive it to exceed itself, knowing in my bones that I need to be watchful about slippage, weariness and running on empty. The safe writers have never interested me, do not excite a single shiver of curiosity within me. I can read five pages and know I am in the hands of a writer whose feet are yawning and cunningly placed on safe ground. Safety is a crime writers should never commit. A novelist must wrestle with all the mysteries and strangeness of life itself. The idea of a novel should stir your blood, and you should rise to it like a lion lifting up at the smell of impala. It should be instinctual, incurable, unanswerable, and a calling, not a choice.
I came to the writing life because my father’s warplanes took off against me, and my mother’s hurt South longed for her special voice. I have drawn long and often from the memory book of my youth, the local and secret depository where my central agony cowers in the limestone cave, licking its wounds, awaiting my discovery of it. Art is one of the few places where talent and madness can go to squirrel away inside each other.
I want always to be writing the book I was born to write. A novel is my fingerprint, my identity card, and the writing of novels is one of the few ways I have found to approach the altar of God and creation itself. You try to worship God by performing the singularly courageous and impossible favor of knowing yourself. You watch for the black wings of fighters writing messages in the skies over the South. Your mother plays with snakes and poison and raises you to tell the stories that will make all our lives clear. It all congeals and moves and hurts in the remembering.
I can ask for nothing more.
Pat Conroy is the bestselling author of books including The Prince of Tides, Beach Music, South of Broad, My Losing Season and My Reading Life.
From My Reading Life by Pat Conroy, drawings by Wendell Minor, © 2010 by Pat Conroy. Used by permission of Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.
**This essay originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of The Writer.