Pat Conroy Memorial Speech

May 21, 2016

Pat Conroy Memorial

Patti Callahan Henry

Sometimes we ask words to bear the burdens that only our hearts can carry. And so we give up because we can’t find what we need inside our language. But Pat Conroy never gave up. He dug and he excavated and he found both the words and the stories to share with us. He might have done it at great cost to his own soul, but always at great gain for ours.

Madeline L’Engle says that the author and the reader “know” each other because they meet on a bridge of words. It was on that bridge where I found Pat Conroy, long before we met each other in the world. Of course his real-­‐life friendship was richer and stronger than the bridge of words, but the words came first.

I came to Pat first as a reader falling in love with his rich prose, then as a writer with a desire to learn. In his writing, he taught me to pay attention to the details: the way the sunlight fell on the marsh or an emotion bubbling from the subconscious.

But what Pat taught me as a friend and as a writer far surpasses any writer-­‐technique. What I learned from his life and friendship was a kind of theology: Stories and Life are both marvelous and dreadful. I couldn’t as a reader or a writer or a human being shy away from the broken world. I wanted everything to be so “nice”, but Pat said, “well tough, it isn’t all so nice.”

With Pat there can be no dualism, no either/or. No good/bad. No right/wrong. It’s all there together—the noble, the coward, the awful, the shining. As it must be in both our writing and our life.

He knew how to write a line that reverberated like a tuning fork in our souls. He once wrote an essay about how often he’d moved around as a child of a Marine, and the fact that he’d never had a hometown until he chose Beaufort. But instead of stating the facts he’d written “I never spent a single day in a hometown.” And because I have the same feeling of dislocation—having moved many times—I thought, “Exactly!” I wanted to call the man who wrote those words, but that was when I didn’t know him except as a photo on a book jacket.

To become friends with someone after being a fan is at first at odd thing, a little bumpy. Can we be a friend and a fan? How is it to get past the image and come to know the person as who they are beyond the words they write? Because in many ways, aren’t we the words we write? I don’t know any other profession that is as close to the cuff, as bone to marrow of who we are as writing is.

And especially someone who writes about family and struggle as Pat did. We can come to believe we know him. But it’s not true. We can’t be friends with an image. But we can be friends with the complicated, empathetic, gregarious, vulnerable funny and sharp-­‐witted man. The man who would call when he found out I was sick and say, “I hear you’re catching hell in Alabama.” We can be friends with a man who loves his wife as a best friend.

But as special as he made me feel, I wasn’t the only one. Pat and I weren’t life-­‐long friends, except on my end. We were newly-­‐minted friends, just finding our way. And as any of his friends know, I’d get that call. “I’m the one who has to keep this dying friendship alive.” I wish I’d kept every one of those voice mails on my phone. I knew it was a line he used, just a little jab to make me call him back, because there was no way I’d ever let that friendship die. If I’d had it in my power, there’s no way I would have let him die.

He was that way with loads of writers, because he was more than a friend, he was a mentor. He didn’t want to just bask in his own light, he wanted us to have our light join his. He bought our books; he remembered our names; and then he went and helped start a publishing line – Story River Books—to help us put more stories into the world.

Off handedly, we talk of Pat’s writing and we use the word beautiful. And by God, it is. But if he taught me anything he taught me the use of the just-­‐right word, and we’d have to go past the word beautiful to describe him and his stories, we’d have to go all the way to the word sublime.

And here’s the difference. Sublime means of “outstanding spiritual, intellectual, or moral worth.” “Something that is set or raised aloft, high up, something inspiring awe and veneration.” The sublime is intensified by darkness and takes a certain pleasure in that absence of light. And honestly, I can’t think of a better word to describe his work.

So while we dedicate this memorial to Donald Patrick Conroy, and we take his love, friendship, stories and mentorship into the world, let’s not do it merely beautifully, but also sublimely –with outstanding spiritual, intellectual and moral worth,  taking a certain pleasure in the absence of light, just like the man himself.