Pat, The Prince

My prince finally showed up.

Well, The Prince of Tides, to be completely honest.  Ever since his newest book, My Reading Life, came out last fall, I’ve been yammering about Pat Conroy.  Over the years, I’ve tried unsuccessfully to get his autograph.  And last fall, I missed his book tour events in both Atlanta and Jacksonville.  I’d resigned myself to the fact I’d have to wait for his next book, The Death of Santini, to be released before I could meet the man.

But somehow, the heavens opened and God smiled on me.  Pat Conroy came to St. Augustine, Florida, to speak at little Flagler College.  My mother saw the announcement in the local paper.  Doors for the 7 p.m. event opened at 6:00, so Mom and I made plans to have an early dinner in the Old City’s historic Casa Monica Hotel lounge and then walk across the street to get a good seat.

Chances are pretty high that in a small town like Saint Augustine visiting literary royalty will stay in the nicest hotel.  We hadn’t been seated for more than ten minutes when he was escorted through the lobby.  Mom and I got a warm smile from him as he passed within a couple feet of our table.

And yes, we miraculously secured front row seats when the ones reserved for Flagler College trustees opened up three minutes before seven.

And yes, he’s as good a storyteller in person as he is in The Water is Wide, The Great Santini, The Prince of Tides, and his other six books.

And yes, I got my autograph.

The man is truly a prince.  He was generous with his time, spending nearly two hours after he finished speaking signing every last book placed before him.  He was warm and kind to every single person; I couldn’t help but feeling he was genuinely thrilled to talk to the people who’d shown up to see him.

When my husband was in rehab several years ago, he pulled me aside one afternoon and said to me, “Look, the people out here think humor is a way of masking your emotions.  When you make jokes and laugh, they think you’re hiding your true feelings. So you might want to can the humor.”

For years after that, I felt a jab of something akin to guilt when I joked about serious matters.  I began to believe that people find my humor hard to take.  But then I read this passage in The Prince of Tides, a passage in which a couple is debating the breakup of their marriage due to infidelity:

“It surprised me when Sallie laughed.  There was something pure in her sense of humor that she could not control even in the most serious moments of her life.  Her laughter was intimately related to her generosity and could not be suppressed.”

Generosity, Pat Conroy calls it, the ability to find the funny in life’s harder situations.  His art irrevocably changed mine when I read those words.

So when I came across the story of the burning man in his newest book, My Reading Life, I wasn’t surprised that Pat Conroy once again had written words with the power to profoundly affect me.  Buy the book and read the story of how the burning man became his metaphor of art.  His magic words, though:  “I am always trying to interpret the relationship between writing and life, between experience and art. . . .”

Author Scott Morris says that anyone can write a confessional and blab about the traumas in his life.  Anyone can air dirty laundry on the Jerry Springer show. But a writer turns it into art.  That’s what building a life means, I think — dabbing your brush into the oils of your experience, then painting confident strokes that make your story a masterpiece.

And I’m hoping a little bit of the greatness and goodness and genius and generosity rubbed off on me when I shook Pat Conroy’s hand.

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