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Excerpt: 'My Reading Life'

My Reading Life

Why I Write

A novel is a great act of passion and intellect, carpentry and largess. From the very 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.  But please, do not let me mince words in this chapter in which I offer an explanation and apologia for why I write. Fear is the major cargo that American writers must stow away when the writing life calls them into carefully chosen ranks. I have been mortally afraid of the judgment of other writers and critics since I first lifted my proud but insecure head above the South Carolina marsh grass all those years ago. Some American writers are meaner than serial killers, but far more articulate, and this is always the great surprise awaiting the young men and women who swarm to the universities, their heads buzzing with all the dazzle and freshness and humbuggery of the language itself.  My great fear of being attacked or trivialized by my contemporaries made me concentrate on what I was trying to do as a writer. It forced me to draw some conclusions that were my own.  Here is one: The writers who scoff at the idea of primacy of stories either are idiots or cannot write them.  Many of their novels could be used in emergency situations where barbiturates are at a premium and there has been a run on Unisom at the pharmacies. 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. I was born into the century in which novels lost their stories, poems their rhymes, paintings their form, and music its beauty, but that does not mean I had to like that trend or go along with it.  I fight against these movements with every book I write.

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 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.

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 by 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.  She told me she was raising me to be a "Southern writer," though I have never been sure that she knew what that meant. My sister Carol listened to that same voice, heard those same stories, and became a poet as a result. Part of my childhood that is most vivid was being the chief witness to the shaping of an American poet in the bedroom next to mine.

Excerpted from My Reading Life by Pat Conroy. Copyright 2010 by Pat Conroy. Excerpted by permission of Nan A. Talese.

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Pat Conroy