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My Reading Life, by Pat Conroy

by davesandel on September 12th, 2011

My Reading Life, by Pat Conroy, 2010

337 pages

Pat Conroy has written 10 books; I’ve read seven of them.  I read portions of The Prince of Tides to several Family Life Skills and Anger Management groups that I facilitated over the years.  Conroy writes elegiac sentences about everyday matters of life as well as the great horrors and tragedies.  Rarely do his characters rise into states of being, pure love, joy or peace.  But they do wear with some comfort the simul-masks of tragedy and comedy.  One blends into another, I think that’s called tragicomedy, and it’s also called Life.

Why use any words but his own to describe Pat Conroy?  His third wife Cassandra King is a “much happier” writer than he is.  “I’ve never cackled with laughter at a single line I’ve ever written.  None of it has given me pleasure.  She writes with pleasure and joy, and I sit there in gloom and darkness.”

I’ve often shared the article he wrote after his first divorce.  In “Requiem for a Marriage” he writes: “When I went through my divorce I saw it as a country, and it was treeless, airless; there were no furloughs and no holidays.  I entered without passport, without directions and absolutely alone.  Insanity and hopelessness grew in that land like vast orchards of malignant fruit.  I do not know the precise day that I arrived in that country.  Nor am I certain that you can ever renounce your citizenship there. …

“There are no metaphors powerful enough to describe the moment when you tell the children about the divorce.  Divorces without children are minor-league divorces.  To look into the eyes of your children and to tell them you are mutilating their family and changing all their tomorrows is an act of desperate courage that I never want to repeat … It felt as though I had doused my entire family with gasoline and struck a match.” (to read the whole article, go to

I realize that as I compile quotes from book after book, I am following in some of Pat Conroy’s footsteps.  He stored words.  He kept lists of words and dragged out those lists desperately when he was stuck in his own writing.

Pat Conroy owned thousands of books.  Reading – and the parents, teachers, mentors, librarians, book-sellers and colleagues who guided that reading – those who tossed books at him or tossed him to the books, built his backbone and his skeleton bone by bone, word by word.

In this book, he gets to tell that story.

Quotations compiled from My Reading Life:

Chapter 1.  THE LILY

An intellectual life often forms in the strangest, most infertile of conditions … (Whatever I was interested in, my mother answered me with trips to the library … There was nothing my mother could not bring me from a library … She read so many books that she was famous among the librarians in every town she entered … Novels taught her everything she needed to know about the mysteries and uncertainties of being human … Peg Conroy used reading as a text of liberation, a way out of the sourceless labyrinth that devoured poor Southern girls like herself.  p. 3-6

During my high school and college career, she read every short story, poem, play and novel that I read.  I would bring notebooks home from The Citadel, and Mom would devour those of each literature course I took.  Only after her death did I realize that my mother entered The Citadel the same day I did. – p. 9

Great words, arranged with cunning and artistry, could change the perceived world for some readers … I trust the great novelists to teach me how to live, how to feel, how to love and hate.  I trust them to show me the dangers I will encounter on the road as I stagger on my own troubled passage through a complicated life of books that try to teach me how to die.  I take it as an article of faith that the novels I’ve loved will live inside me forever. –p. 10-11

My mother hungered for art, for illumination, for some path to lead her to a shining way to call her own.  She lit signal fires for her son to feel and follow.  I tremble with gratitude as I honor her name. – p. 15


Gone with the Wind has outlived a legion of critics … The novel works because it possesses the inexpressible magic where the art of pure storytelling rises above its ancient use and succeeds in explaining to a whole nation how it came to be this way. – p. 31

The book allows you to lose yourself in the glorious pleasures of reading itself, when all five senses ignite in the sheer happiness of narrative … This book demonstrates again and again that there is no passion more rewarding than reading itself, that it remains the best way to dream and to feel the sheer carnal joy of being fully and openly alive. – p. 32

Chapter 3. THE TEACHER

My father confused me about what it meant to become a man … If I’d become a wife or child beater, it would be only a matter of time before I would’ve severed my carotid artery that carried blood into the troubled countryside of my brain. – p. 33

Among his fellow marines, Donald Conroy’s horrible taste proved unerring, and he attracted a string of oddball friends who should’ve been eligible for any catch-and-release program.  For the most part they were third-rate men who spread rich marmalades of loathing over their own wives and children. – p. 33

I was on a lifelong search for a different kind of man.  I wanted to attach my own moon of solitude to the strong attraction of a good man’s gravitational pull. – p. 33

In 1994, my second marriage falling apart, in the middle of writing Beach Music I had collapsed from the inside out and was more suicidal than I’d ever been.  By killing myself, I could rescue my soul from an agony I could not even touch in my writing.  (My former high school English teacher) Gene Norris drove out to my house and ordered me to call my former shrink … who thought I was closer to suicide than any patient she had ever treated.  “Pat, you’ve got to promise me one thing,” she said the first day.  “You’ve got to promise me that you won’t kill yourself.  If the author of Prince of Tides kills himself while he is my patient, you’ll destroy my practice.”

I laughed as she knew I would; then Marion commanded me to drive from there to Gene Norris’ office.  “Sit and talk with Gene for half an hour,” she said.  “Then drive yourself home.  Gene’s going to call me after you leave him.  You call me when you arrive home.”

Each day I stopped by Gene’s office at Robert Smalls Junior High, where Gene taught the last fifteen years of his career.  I would sit in his office and sometimes weep during our entire time together.  He was solicitous and kind.  The therapy began to kick in and I started to fight my way back into myself. – p. 57-59

Gene and I had talked every day for the past ten years, no matter where we found ourselves.  If I could’ve been a better friend to Gene Norris I would have done it; and if I failed to, it was a flaw in my character.  I don’t think I’ll ever get over his death and I don’t see much reason to try. – p. 69

(We developed) a secret language  between us which provided a passageway to intimacy that made no mention of his health (he had – and died of – leukemia).  It was sublimation and surrender to the efficacy of denial, but was all very human to me.  As I saw it, my job was to follow Gene’s wishes and to allow for him to die in his own manner, with strict adherence to the blueprint of his design.  In his dictionary of last days, there were notable blanks in the space that defined the properties of either “cancer” or “leukemia,” and those words never passed between us. – p.  72

“Tell me a story,” Gene commanded, and I did.

Those were the last words he ever spoke to me, and they formed an exquisite, unimprovable epitaph for a man whose life was rich in the guidance of children not his own.  He taught them a language that was fragrant with beauty, treacherous with loss, comfortable with madness and despair, and a catchword for love itself. – p. 76


(Conroy’s experience teaching here in 1969 was grist for his second book, The Water is Wide, and the film Conrack in 1974, starring Jon Voight)

When I discovered they had never heard of Halloween, I took them trick-or-treating in my town of Beaufort.  After they told me they never heard of Washington, D.C., I organized a trip to the nation’s capital over the Easter holidays.  Slowly, my students started displaying the confidence that comes from being smart. – p. 79

They asked me to help them put on a community play for the Christmas season.  They had chosen an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol.  One rainy day, I read the entire play to the kids.  I’ve always been a melodramatic, over-the-top reader, and Dickens can be counted on to bring out my worst rendering.  When the ghosts made their mordant appearance in that rain-haunted classroom, they scared the daylights out of my eighteen students.  Though Dickens was new to those island kids, ghosts were as common as sea oats or beggar’s lice, a part of their cultural vernacular. – p. 80-81

(Turned out that the person chosen to play Scrooge couldn’t read.  So I was asked to take the part.)  Though the production was unimaginably bad, I could feel the moment when the power of literature took hold, when the city of London came alive on a Carolina sea island and a man in the middle of living a miserly life reaches out and grabs the only chance for redemption he has. – p. 82

My children, my students, were well-prepared and beautiful to behold.  I strutted ham-fisted and bombastic from one side of the stage to the other.  I scared the little children, caused the fathers to howl with laughter and the mothers to tell me I should get a job acting on the soaps. – p. 82

The black parents admitted that they had worried about the kind of white man a mean-spirited South would send to their island.  Because I had crossed a wild river on a forbidding day for the sake of my students, they allowed me into the mainstream of their lives. – p 82

Each Christmas since then … I see myself returning to the only stage role I ever performed, and to the last children I would ever teach.  Those children left me with an inviolate gift, a ghost of Christmas past that burns like the North Star in remembrance. – p. 83


I grew up a word-haunted boy. I felt words inside me and stored them wondrous as pearls.  I mouthed them and fingered them and rolled them around on my tongue … They clung to me and blistered my skin and made me happy to be alive in the land of crape myrtle, spot-tailed bass, and eastern diamondbacks.  The precise naming of things served as my entryway into art. – p. 84

The Roman Catholic Church offered me a language whose comfort zone included both sweetness and majesty.  The Mass lined my Sundays with the underground rhythms of the early Christians who had chosen to adore the flogged, broken Christ.  I studied to become an altar boy because I wanted a speaking part in that drama when the murder of Christ transformed itself into the deathlessness of God carried aloft by immensity of faith. – p. 85

Over the years, my church gave me passage into a menagerie of exotic words unknown in the South: “introit,” “offertory,” “liturgy,” “movable feast,” “the minor elevation,” “the lavabo,” “the apparition of Lourdes,” and hundreds more.  Latin deposited the dark minerals of its rhythms on the shelves of my spoken language. – p. 85-86

Because I was raised Roman Catholic, I never feared taking any unchaperoned walks through the fields of language … I’ve never met a word I was afraid of, just ones that left me indifferent … Whenever I read I’ll encounter forgotten words that come back to me like old friends who’ve returned from long voyages to bring me news of the world. – p. 86

I could build a castle from the words I steal from books I cherish.  Here’s a list I culled from a book I read long ago: “sanction,” “outlaw,” “suburbia,” “lamentations,” “corolla,” “debris,” and “periodic table.”  I can shake that fistful of words and jump-start a sentence that could send me on my way toward a new book. – p. 87

I hunt down words that have my initials branded on their flanks. – p. 87

Humanity is a mess and it takes the immensity of a coiled and supple language to do it justice.  Writing is the only way I have to explain my own life to myself. – p. 87-88

Good writing is one of the forms that hard labor takes.  It is neither roadhouse nor weigh station, but much more like some unnameable station of the cross. – p. 88

From the time I could talk I took an immense pleasure in running down words, shagging them like fly balls in some spacious field.  Though I failed to notice it at the time, my childhood was a long, patient apprenticeship of finding my comfort zone in the ocean of words that rushed through me every day. – p. 88

When I enrolled at Beaufort High School … my great problem was an incurable loneliness that had come to seem like a given.  I didn’t know a single soul … at Catholic school I could always wander into the church and pray … On that first day, not one kid said hello to me.  By chance, I stumbled onto the library and I felt the deep pull of a homecoming as I walked into its silences.  I now had a place to hide during lunchtime. – p. 92-93

(He was reading Les Misérables.  The librarian, Miss Hunter, a home economics teacher recruited to be an emergency librarian twenty years ago, finally met him in the library during lunch.)

When she spotted me reading Hugo she reacted as though I’d taken a box of Crayolas to the Book of Kells.

“What on earth are you doing here?” she said.

“I’m reading a book, ma’am.” In my high school years I was polite to the point of being oleaginous.

“It’s against the rules for a student to use the library during lunchtime.”

“Sorry, ma’am.  I didn’t know that,” I replied.

“What’s that book you’re reading?  She grabbed it out of my hand … “This book’s never even been checked out.  Are you reading it for the dirty parts?” she asked, as though she had cracked the mystery of this strange encounter.

“I didn’t know it had dirty parts,” I answered.

“If it does, I’ll toss it with the morning trash.  If you find anything dirty report it directly to me.  Hugo’s a Frenchman.  I don’t like his books … We’ve got another of his books.  You ought to try that.  It’s about a football team.  Do you like football?

“Yes, ma’am.”

She handed me a copy of The Hunchback of Notre Dame for my reading pleasure.  Though she never demonstrated a shred of affection for me, I heard from other teachers that Miss Hunter thought highly of me and always admired my passion for French literature. – p. 94-96

(When I became a teacher at Beaufort High School), she and I would clash often over her treatment of my black students.  “I’d like you to be fair to them, Miss Hunter,” I said during one encounter.

“They’ve no right to be in my school,” she said.  “They’ll get no special treatment from me.”

“I only ask you to treat them as badly as you do the white students.  That’s not too much to ask.” – p. 101

I sent flowers to her funeral at the Beaufort First Baptist Church and had a Mass said for the repose of her soul.  She had found me in her library, reading Victor Hugo in 1961.  I was born to be in a library and there wasn’t a thing she could do to intimidate me or run me out.  I think I was as fond of Eileen Hunter as anyone she ever met, and I believe she know that.  Despite her denials, I’ll always believe she knew what was in my heart. – p. 104


I could read a million books and still consider myself a half-baked, mediocre thinker.  But, by accident, I discovered the nerve center of my deliverance in a nondescript bookstore in Atlanta.  I had stumbled upon the secret watchman of the most profound and illustrious intellectual life I would ever experience.  Thousands of books roared out my name in joyous welcome when I entered that shop for the first time. – p. 110

The two books I’d written seemed anemic to me, boilerplate at best, and I lacked the understanding, the sheer depth of culture I’d need if I were to touch the sourceless, incandescent seas that roared inside me.  I could feel them but not set them loose; I could imagine but not articulate. – p. 110

Whenever I wrote the word “Santini” it felt like a razor cutting across a vein in my wrist. – p. 110-111

Books are living things and their task lies in their vows of silence.  You touch them as they quiver with a divine pleasure.  You read them and they fall asleep to happy dreams for the next ten years.  If you do them the favor of understanding them, of taking in their own portions of grief and wisdom, then they settle down in contented residence in your heart. – p. 111

I had become aware ever so gradually that I was one of those rare readers – I could change the direction of my life if the right book came my way to offer its subliminal powers for my inspection. – p. 112

“For so long Dad had played the insufferable jerk and disgraceful father that he had to learn new steps after he retired on the parade ground of Parris Island. – p. 130 (As a military brat, Conroy moved 23 times in his first 18 years.)

Each day I was writing deeper and deeper into the life of my family with The Great Santini, and the nature of my betrayal of my own wounded tribe was becoming clearer to me … When it was published in 1976, my entire family flipped out and went into a full fruitcake mode that lasted for many years … My father disappeared for three days … and made his reappearance at the Old New York Book Shop.  Cliff (the owner) knew about my family’s anxiety about Dad’s withdrawal, so he followed Don into the sitting room for a cup of coffee. From a hook, Dad retrieved his cup that was embossed with the single word, “Santini.”

“You see what that son of a bitch wrote about me?”

“Yeah, Don, I did,” Cliff said.

… “Who could write something like that about his own father?”

“You didn’t finish the book, did you, Don?” Cliff asked.  “You poor dope.”

“Why’d I finish a book like that? It’s the worst book I’ve ever read.”

“Hey, Don – it’s the only book you’ve ever read,” Cliff said, “But you’ve got to read the whole thing – then you’ll know what Pat’s really up to.”

“He hates my guts, that’s what he’s up to.”

“Listen to me, Colonel Dope.  Pat wrote you a love letter.  That’s what the whole book’s really about.  He had to write it to find out how much he loves you.”

… My father’s sensibilities remained hurt and raw for severals years, but Cliff had provided Dad with a line of reassurance that provided him with both a plausible explanation and a line of escape … Two months after the book’s publication, Dad pulled up to Cliff’s store and honked his horn until we emerged into the sunlight.  Bobby Joe Harvey, my brother-in-law in Beaufort, had mailed Dad a bright red license plate that said THE GREAT SANTINI.  Bobby Joe had fixed it onto the front of Dad’s car and there it stayed for the rest of his life. – p. 130-134

When Cliff gave me a book party to celebrate the publication of The Great Santini, he interrupted me as I was signing copies of my book, then walked me back toward the couch in the coffee room.  Dad was drinking a cup of coffee from the Santini cup and signing my books with goodwill and humor: I hope you enjoy my son’s latest work of fiction.  He would underline the word “fiction” five or six times.  That boy of mine sure has a vivid imagination.  Ol’ lovable, likable Col. Don Conroy, USMC (Ret.), the Great Santini. – p. 134

The store is empty now, unfurnished and inconsolable.  One day it will be torn down and a thirty-story skyscraper will take its place.  It was once the home of thirty thousand books, a village of lost souls where the bright glimmer of the English language formed a great wall before the assembled forces of chaos. – p. 140

Over the years, I took home thousands of books to refresh, replete, and sustain me, and sometimes, if I were lucky and alert, to knock my damn socks off. – p. 140

(On poetry) … Gerard Manley Hopkins, who write symphonic, infinitely complex poems that were hymns to the earth.  I fell in love with and tried to memorize Dylan Thomas’ “Fern Hill,” which I found to be the most elegant prayer ever written, a hymn of God coughed up into his soft Welsh hand (  I bought five hundred books of poetry from the Old New York Book Shop … – p. 141

I stumbled around in complete surprise that poets wrote for the sheer, unapologetic joy they took in creation … I envied the way they could make language smoke and burn and give off a bright light of sanctuary. – p. 141

They never shout at you when you pass them by.  Theirs is a seductive, meditative art.  They hand you a file to cut your way out from any prison or misrule.  On my writing desk, I always keep the poets close by, and I reach for them when those silver, mountain-born creeks go dry or when exhaustion rearranges the furniture of my fear-chambered heart. – p. 141-142

Chapter 7.  THE BOOK REP

It was Norman S. Berg’s deepest wish that I take a thousand pages of my over-caffeinated prose and cut it down to a hundred pages of glittering, hard-boiled writing that would shine in its elegant completeness … My attraction to the colossal and elephantine offended him … (but) ever since the English language in all its vertiginous, high-hurdling glory had been passed down to me by a word-stung mother, I had enjoyed getting my hands dirty anywhere the language would grant me a letter of transit. – p. 147-148

He was an easy man to dismiss and a hard one to love.  In the end, his great solitude tamed me. – p. 150

“You claim to be writing your first novel.” Norm said it in a voice that let me know he didn’t believe me.

“I have,” I said, having written the first pages to the book that would become The Great Santini.

“Does it tell me everything I need to know about leading a good life?” he asked.  “And I mean everything.”


“Then throw it away.  It’s not worth writing.”

“I’m twenty-six years old, Norman.  I don’t know everything in the world yet.”

“That is good,” he said, softening.  At least you know that much.  Keep writing.  If you’re lucky you’ll have one or two important things to say before you die.”

“Here is one of them,” I said.  “Fuck you, Norman.”

His laughter took us all … – p. 155

“Always know which phase the moon is in,” he would say.  “Keep up with the transit of planets.  Know everything.  Feel everything.  That’s your job as a writer.”

“What’s your job, Norman?”

“To suffer.  To feel everything in the world.  But it dies inside me.  I have no gift.  I can’t write.  That’s why I’m driving you crazy.” – p. 156

For the next month I joined the fellowship of souls who followed the hobbit Frodo on his perilous journey into the dark lands of Mordor.  I mark the time I spent reading those splendid books among the richest day of my life.

The great books are like the elevation of the host to me, their presence transformed, their effect indelible and everlasting.

What is the loss of a job, the death of a friend, or a bad review when you’ve followed Gandalf the Grey through the mines of Moria and the march of the Tree-folk on Isengard? – p. 161

He walked me to the original farmhouse on his property, a simple two-bedroom house with books and paintings and a working kitchen.  It had a fireplace and a cord of wood for burning.  There was a writing desk with pens and ink and the yellow legal pads I liked to write on stacked in a neat pile.

“Julie and I would like to offer this as an office to complete your novel.  We won’t get in your way” …

In the first month I gained control over the themes that would carry The Great Santini to its conclusion.  Writing would always seem like a form of coal mining, with its descent into the black hearts of mountains and the long journey back to the light where fires could flourish in honor of your patient, hardscrabble labors.  I wrote myself into a fever pitch as I approached mania, then meltdown.

As I came toward the end of the book I stayed at the farmhouse for weeks at a time … I came to the last chapter of The Great Santini and I wrote it in one marathon sitting that took a full twenty-four hours of rough labor …Norman would tap on the back door with great discretion and I would find a hot meal and a book on the doorstep.  He left me The Pisan Cantos by Ezra Pound, Deliverance by James Dickey, and Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana.  When I finished killing my fictional father, I staggered down to the main house at Sellanraa for a celebratory meal.  Norm took me to the forest on his land and loaded a shotgun for me to hunt squirrels for dinner.

After we ate that night, Norman took a picture of me sitting in a chair in the kitchen of Sellanraa.  It became the author photograph on the back of the book jacket of The Great Santini.  Norman refused to take credit for the photo, but I treasure it for what it has come to represent to me. – p. 164-168


Though in my family I had earned an unmerited reputation for loyalty, with publication of The Great Santini, my family and many of my friends were about to encounter false effigies of themselves crafted from my sulky, hotheaded imagination.  I about to piss off nearly all of my closest relations and a goodly portion of the best friends I had ever made.  I felt like I had put a gun to my family’s head and pulled the trigger. I need the companionship of other writers and the comfort of other books. – p. 170

Though I had published two books, I could not yet get myself fitted with the green jacket that would identify me evermore as a Georgia writer.  Since I had not published a work of fiction, I could not yet call myself a writer. – p. 171-172

In the first session, I was in a short-story workshop with William Gass.  He had great bravura and showmanship, but he carried an intellectual freight that seemed to interfere with both his writing and his teaching.  He intimidated his class with the brutish authority of his intellect.  Ideas seemed to excite him more than his own writing, and certainly the writing samples the class had given him … He was neither wishy-washy nor mealy-mouthed, and you could feel the grand deflation in the room as wounded egos began to die.  In a final tally, I thought Gass had a grand intellect, but a shoddy heart. – p. 175

In summing up my first writers’ conference, I got insulted by Alice Walker, thrown out of poetry workshop by Adrienne Rich, and had a poetry reading dedicated to me by Miller Williams.  All in all, I thought I was leading a grand and possibly even a fascinating life. – p. 184


Military brats are an undiscovered nation living invisibly in the body politic of this country … Several years ago I discovered an extraordinary book called Military Brats, by Mary Edwards Wertsch … I was drafted into the Marine Corps on October 26, 1945, and I served the corps faithfully and proudly for twenty-one years.  I moved more than twenty times and I attended eleven schools in twelve years … By necessity, I made my own private treaty with rootlessness and spent my whole life trying to fake or invent a sense of place. – p. 186-187

My mother explained that my loneliness was an act of patriotism. – p. 188

Mom would not let us tell anyone that Dad was knocking us around.  My silence was simply another facet of my patriotism.  My youth filled up with the ancient shame of a son who cannot protect his mother … She would tell us that we had not seen what we had just seen.  She turned us into unwitnesses of our own history … I did it because I had no choice and because I was a military brat conscripted at birth who had a strong and unshakable sense of mission. – p. 189-190

Because of the military life, I’m a stranger everywhere and a stranger nowhere.  I can engage anyone in a conversation, become well liked in a matter of seconds, yet there is a distance I can never recover … I’m pathetic in my attempts to make friends with everyone I meet, from cabdrivers to bellhops to store clerks. – p. 191

The American soldier is not taught to love his enemy or anyone else.  Love did not come easily to my father, but he started trying to learn the steps after my mother left him.  It was way too late for her, but his kids were ready for it.  We’d been waiting all our lives for our dad to love us. –p. 194


All writers are hostages of their own divine, unchangeable rituals.  I am a prisoner of yellow legal pads and fountain pens.  In habit lies safety.  I like classical music playing softly in the background, and I carried a small transistor radio across the Atlantic to satisfy this harmless though fundamental need.  – p 206-207

I wrote, beginning at nine in the morning.  I would break for lunch, walk down to the market street on the rue de Seine, buy food at the charcuterie, stop for a baguette, and bring the food back to my room.  After lunch I would nap for an hour, rise, wash my face with cold wagter, then resume writing until five o’clock.  I tried to fill up five legal pages a day, a quota that translated directly into seven typewritten, double-spaced pages.  I worked seven days a week during the four months I lived in Paris, and before I left the Grand Hôtel des Balcons I would produce six hundred handwritten pages.  It would be the most productive time of my life. – p. 210

In my walks through Paris I felt the first fledgling impulse to write about Paris, when the gathering images would one day burst foeth as cries of the heat, psalms of the long season, poems of the exhausted flesh, and gargoyles.  There is no writing, no art, without gargoyles. – p. 215

Once I thought writing was a simple act, a matter of cataloguing the most sacred items of God, the naming of things of darkness.  But that definition was never good enough …

As a writer, I would have to walk may strange avenues, staying loose and keeping my eyes open … It was all in the moving seeing, in the patience of voyaging, in a spiritual opening up to every experience, to every moment that touches the most sensitive cells of the soul’s most private self. …

The writer must reach back deeply into memory, into those frightening, unmarked streets, must walk until exhausted, eyes open, bearing gifts, mind blazing with the dignity of language, blood burning, images beginning to form, like jade in the bloodstream …

Until he turns that corner, reaches that street, arrives at that moment of pure divine inspiration, of ineffable chance, when there is an explosion – and he sees the burning man (he must save) – then he begin to write. – p. 237-238


In high school I read Look Homeward, Angel from cover to cover three straight times, transfigured by the mesmerizing hold of the narrator’s voice as I took in and fed on the power of the long line.  It was the first time I realized that breathing and the written word were intimately connected to each other. – p. 240

I absorbed every bit of Wolfe’s windiness and none of his specialness, his ecstatic singularity.  I threw words all over the place and none of them landed right.  For a full ten years, the estate of Thomas Wolfe could have sued me for plagiarism with perfect justification.  My winds all howled and my rivers all roared. – p. 241

I read for fire.  I have done so since the first day I read Look Homeward, Angel.  Now, at last, I know what I was looking for then.  I wanted to be lit up, all the cities and all the hill towns within me sacked and torn to the ground and the crops destroyed and the earth salted.  Now, when I pick up a book, the prayer that rises out of me is that it changes me utterly. – p. 243

If you love the couplet and the haiku, you might not be ready for the flood tides of Wolfe’s oceanic magnitude.  He demands that you must accede to richness and fullness and amplitude taken to their absolute extremes.  Wolfe can do almost anything to the English language except hold back. – p. 248

Though he gropes for exactitude, there are times when Wolfe is caught with his pants down, wallowing in a sinkhole of language.  This exhausts some, offends others, nauseates many, and thrills me.  Wolfe’s courage lay in the fact that he did not renounce that part of his work. He kept the howlings (that most of us deny and push away)… that rise up in nightmare … then disappear when the full light of day is upon us and we blush at the ravings and lunacies of our deepest selves. – p. 249

When I found out that Thomas Wolfe had died in 1938, I was almost inconsolable,  for I had planned to find him and apprentice myself to him and clean his house and type his manuscripts and live my life to serve him.  What the critics loathed most, I loved with all the clumsiness I brought to the task of being a boy.  “He’s not writing, idiots,” I wanted to scream at them all.  “Thomas Wolfe’s not writing.  Don’t you see?  Don’t you understand?  He’s praying, you dumb sons of bitches.  He’s praying.” – p. 254-255

Because I could feel the overwhelming love that Wolfe experienced when he wrote about his maddening and outrageous father, he handed me the means to begin the long, excruciating process of learning how not to hate my own.  Literature can do many things; sometimes it can even do the most important things. – p. 255

My teacher Gene Norris gave me Wolfe’s book, and he took me to Asheville to see his home.  He led me to the bedroom in the far-right corner of the house, the most spacious of them all.  “This is the room where Tom’s brother Ben died … Tom watched his brother die from the foot of the bed.”

My teacher knew that the death of Ben Gant in Look Homeward, Angel had torn me apart, tamed something in me with its chilling finality, and taught me something permanent and fine about an artist turning the worst moment of his life into something sweetly beautiful. – p. 257-258

Thomas Wolfe taught me that if I looked hard enough at the life I was living, the history of the world would play itself out before me within earshot of my mother’s stove. – p. 259

Wolfe hovers over a blank page like God dreaming of paradise … He stammers, he murmurs, he hunts for the right words, and words spill out of his pockets and cuffs and shirtsleeves as he tries to awaken us from the dream of our own barely lived-in lives. – p. 264

Thomas Wolfe tries to tell you things that none of us are supposed to know … Wolfe writes like a man on fire who does not have a clue how not to be on fire. – p. 264

Chapter 12. THE COUNT

My vote? War and Peace is the finest novel ever written.  I can think of no other novelist but Count Leo Tolstoy who could take the entire known world as his subject matter and not be overwhelmed by the task at hand, like a master surveying a chessboard with a hundred thousand pieces. – p. 268

Tolstoy is the kind of writer who wants and needs readers to fall in love with his characters, and this novel will make you dizzy with a joyous affection for the people on these pages.  I feel in love with Natash Rostova when I was a teenage boy and let it happen again after my third reading of this inexhaustible novel at the age of sixty-one.  – p. 274

Three times in my life I have read about the death of Prince Andrei, and three times I have wept uncontrollably.  “Uncontrollably” is not a word that Leo Tolstoy would use.  But I am not Leo Tolstoy, and I want it known that I wept. – p. 276

There is not a single hurried line in the book.  When he describes a new character, he does it with economy and concision, but absolutely no haste. – p. 277

I envy the young man or woman picking up this book for the first time more than any reader in the world … Once you have read War and Peace, you will never be the same.  That is my promise to you. – p. 281-282


Let me now praise the American writer James Dickey.  He is dead, and I don’t have to worry about him beating me up. – p. 283

An admission of an inability to write has never slowed down a certain American class of writer like me.  To my surprise, I found out I couldn’t live with my own mediocrity as a poet, so I turned to prose as an act of both surrender and self-knowledge.  James Dickey had issued my marching orders and drummed me out of the poetry-writing world. – p. 285

I turn to Dickey’s poems to know what the English language is capable of when shaped and pulled and handled by a man born to set the world on fire. – p. 285

In class, I noticed that the other students were as gaga and reckless in their devotion to Dickey as I was.  I could not figure out how this would be desirable for the soul of a poet. – p. 295

Dickey judged his students’ work against the best poetry ever written.  You either got better or got your feelings hurt rather badly. – p. 296

Will his work survive?  Alas, I worry that it will not … Political correctness has a stranglehold on academia, on feminism, and on the media.  It is a form of both madness and maggotry, and has already silenced the voies of writers like James Dickey across the land. – p. 298-299

When Dickey is writing at his best, it is like listening to God singing in cantos and fragments about the hard dreaming required for the creation of the world. – p. 299

Chapter 14. WHY I WRITE

A novel is a great act of passion and intellect, carpentry and largesse. – p. 301

I am often called a “storyteller” by flippant and unadmiring critics.  I revel in the title … 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. – p. 301-302

I was born into the century in which novels lost their stories, poems lost their rhymes, paintings their form and music its beauty, but that does not mean that I had to like the trend or go along with it.  I fight against these movements with every book I write. – p. 302

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. – p. 304

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 … 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? – p. 305-306

I build sentences slowly … I long for that special 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 copilot. – p. 306

My parents taught me everything I needed to know about the dangers and attractions of the extreme.  Even today, the purely outrageous to me feels completely natural.  My novels reflect absurdity and the exorbitance of a house in which the fully unexpected was our daily bread. – p. 308

All writers are both devotees and prisoners of their childhoods, and the images 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. – p. 308

My mother wanted me to out-read my entire generation, as she had done hers.  I have tried to read two hundred pages every day of my life since I was a freshman in high school … – p. 309-310

Few things linger longer or become more indwelling than that feeling of both completion and emptiness when a great book ends.  That the book accompanies the reader forever, from that day forward, is part of literature’s profligate generosity. – p. 311

I promised myself nothing lazy would ever enter my books.  Writing is both hard labor and one of the most pleasant forms fanaticism can take.  I take infinite care in how a sentence sounds to me … There is enormous power in stating something simply and well … 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 … – p. 313-314

I can read five pages and know that I am in the hands of a writer whose feet are cunningly placed on safe ground.  Safety is a crime writers should never commit unless they are after tenure or praise.  A novelist must wrestle with all mysteries and strangeness of life itself, and anyone who does not wish to accept that grand, bone-chilling commission should write book reviews, editorials, or health-insurance policies instead. – p. 315

Art is one of the few places where talent and madness can actually go to squirrel away inside each other. – p. 316

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. – p. 316

Chapter 15.  THE CITY

I have built a city from the books I’ve read.  There are thousands of books that go with me everywhere I go … With each book, I built a city out of what my heart loved, my soul yearned for, and my eyes desired. – p. 318, 320

For several months (while writing this book) I’ve done little but think about the books I’ve read and collected over the years … Ever since I was a child, I have read books to make me savvy and uncommon, and to provide me some moments of sheer divinity where I can approach the interior borderlines of ecstasy itself.  Reading and prayer are both acts of worship for me. – p. 319-320

My mother distributed books to me as though they were communion wafers or the tongues of fire that lit up the souls of the disciples with Pentecostal clairvoyance.  Mom would point her finger to a wall of books and tell me she was showing me the way out of a shame that was unutterable. – p. 320

The subject of all writers is the terrible brightness that wards off the ineffable approach of death. – p. 320

Reading great books gave me unlimited access … Before I’d ever asked a girl out, I had fallen in love with Anna Karenina, taken Isabel Archer to high tea at the Grand Hotel in Rome, delivered passionate speeches to Juliet beneath her balcony, abandoned Dido in Carthage, made love to Lara in Zhivago’s Russia, walked beside Lady Brett Ashley in Paris, danced with Madame Bovary. – p. 321

I’ve always wanted to write a letter to the boy I once was, lost and dismayed in the plainsong of a childhood he found all but unbearable … somewhere along the line – in the midst of breakdowns, disorder, and a malignant attraction to mayhem that’s a home place for the beaten child – I fell in love with that kid.  I saw the many disguises that boy used to ward off solitude, hallucination, madness itself.  I believe that the reading of great books saved his life. – p. 322

In a reading life, one thing leads to another in a circle of accident and chance.  When I found a copy of Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees on a bench in Central Park, I remembered meeting him in a coffee bar in Rome, but the encounter was so low-key that I didn’t rush out to find his work. Once I did, he became one of my favorite writers. – p. 326

A book of poetry is made up of threads that coil around the soft bodies of sound.  Stealing the linens of the spoken word, poets are not shy about displaying the rose windows and altar cloths of their prodigious art. – p. 327

Each day before I begin to write, I choose a poet to keep on my desk.  Poets candle the pilot light where language hides from itself. – p. 327

Some poets know how to trim the fat with blades turned deadly with whetstone.  These are the poets who use language so sparingly they can nail your hand to a doorway.  Each word comes to you hard-earned and deboned, flayed and boiled down to its essence. – p. 327-328

I cheer when a writer stops me in my tracks, forces me to go back and read a sentence again and again, and I find myself thunderstruck, grateful the way readers always are when a writer takes the time to put them on the floor. – p. 329

An elegy by Thomas Meyer mourning the death of the poet Jonathan Williams … the title is taken from an obscure yet enchanted Japanese word, kintsugi: “the Japanese practice of repairing ceramics with gold-laced lacquer to illuminate the breakage.”  Ah, I thought, there is no attempt to hide the breakage – that golden, beautiful lacquer emphasizes the harm … Though I have always known that pain was a ham-fisted player in my novels, I didn’t understand that I had used the radiant lacquers of the language to mark the wounds and fissure I had forced upon my characters.  Though I was aware I hurt and damaged many of the characters I’d grown to love in my books, I never knew I practiced the subtle art of kintsugi until Thomas Meyer let me in on the secret. – p. 330-331

I’ve read no other writer like Jonathan Carroll, because there is no other even remotely similar.  Anything goes in his books.  In America, I once called him a cult waiting to be born.  In Poland, thousands line up for his autograph.  He’s the kind of guy who wins the Nobel Prize at the end of his life when no one in his native land even knows his name. – p. 332

Jonathan walked me down to the Danube, where we sat on a flight of steps leading down to the river.  The dog walkers were out in force … But Jonathan kept his eye on a woman at the next bridge.  After an hour of moving very slowly, the woman walked in front of us, and she bowed her head in acknowledgement of Jonathan.  With great dignity, he returned the gesture.

To my surprise, she was walking two enormous tortoises, displaced natives from the Ethiopian desert.  The woman walked them every night, and Jonathan was always there to admire their passage.

“That’s what writers do, Conroy,” he said.  “We wait for the tortoises to come.  We wait for that lady who walks them.  That’s how art works.  It’s never a jackrabbit, or a racehorse.  It’s the tortoises that hold all the secrets.  We’ve got to be patient enough to wait for them.” – p. 333


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