Monday, March 25, 2013

My reading life

My reading life
By Pat Conroy

Book review by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.

On page 88, Conroy conveys an insight about his own writing that not only corresponds to my own experiences, but also offers a suggestion to "would-be writers" who might want to begin a writing career:

"Whenever I sit to write, I never allow myself the benefit of a Sabbath or day off; nor do I give myself time off for good behavior. Good writing is one of the forms that hard labor takes. It is neither roadhouse nor weigh station, but much more like some unnamable station of the cross. It is taking the nothingness of air and turning it into a pleasure palace built on a foundation of words. 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 each day" (p. 88).

At another point in the book, Conroy writes, ". . . I am a man of ingrained habit, my life has fixed points of immovable behavior that can make my daily schedule seem neurotic to the point of inertia. To me, the writing life requires the tireless discipline of the ironclad routine. The writing of books does not permit much familiarity with chaos. . . " (p.108). So many people would love to be a writer; so many people do not have the self-discipline to be a writer.

I have read none of Conroy’s previous nine books, but I do not read fiction. As an active and involved author of college textbooks (see COMMUNICATING EFFECTIVELY (McGraw-Hill, 2012), I use my reading time for keeping up with current events, reading nonfiction, and devouring any material that might — in some way — contribute to my textbook writing or the writing of my essays (see the blog at andthensomeworks). Writing college textbooks is a highly competitive industry that requires 24/7 devotion to task, year-in and year-out. As another example, I have read On Writing (and loved it), but I have read none of Stephen King’s fiction.

I am always fascinated by writers who write about their craft. As it turns out, we all have our habits and eccentricities. What works for one writer does not necessarily work for another just as the ease with which words come to authors is not the same for all. Some
sit down at the computer keyboard (or typewriter) and words flow as if they are simply a channel or conduit for some mysterious, outside donor while others struggle with every word which only reveals itself through beads of sweat wrenched from some intense brawl with unknown interior antagonists. That is precisely why reading about a writer’s craft is so engaging.

Conroy’s book, however, is more than just his "reading life." Sure, he reveals the books that have meant most to him, and the teachers (and librarians) who have been inspirational, but, as the quotations above suggest, his book is about how he writes and the discipline necessary to pursue it. Also Conroy is a terrific story teller. Not everyone has that gift.

For 22 years I commuted from Perrysburg, Ohio, to Bowling Green State University, and that 20-25-minute drive allowed me time to prepare for my professional life as a professor (on the way there), and gave me ample time to unwind (de-stress) on the way home. It was a time, too, for thinking, and just as when I jog three miles in the morning now, I would discover new ideas, unique ways of saying things, and compelling solutions to outstanding problems. These are times I work with words.

There is something more, however, in the Conroy book. It is, indeed, the language: Conroy is a wordsmith.

"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. The poets force me back toward the writing life, where the trek takes you into the interior where the right word hides like an ivory-billed woodpecker in the branches of the highest pines" (p. 142).

Some might label it florid, flamboyant, even affected or artificial. No such thing! It is a delight to read someone not only with Conroy’s command of the English language but with his ability to conger-up all the analogies and metaphors. Reading this book is like immersing yourself — bathing gloriously — in an ocean of words and expressions, language and style. As Conroy says, you "drift into that bright cocoon where the writer loses himself in language" (p. 305). Ahh, sheer reverie!

"For reasons that have always been unclear to me, the books inside me seem to reach some unanimous agreement about which one of them will go to the head of the line as I open up the next artery that surges out in a tidal fury from the headwaters of my interior" (p. 170). That kind of writing cannot be taught. It is instinctual; however, it is instinct that gathers momentum from training, nurturing, passion, and desire. And that is what this book is all about. How and where does this pallet of background and experience originate?

Conroy answers the origination question: "Story and language brought me to the craft of writing; then passion and my childhood provided both the structure and the details" (p. 306).

"You feel everything in War and Peace except the strain of its creation. It’s like a book made from starlight and fire; the spirit of life itself lends it structure" (p. 271). The quotations, of course, could go on and on. After all, this is Pat Conroy steering the ship, navigating the narrative, piloting the plot, and guiding the verbiage. It is truly a verbal adventure.

Just as Conroy talks about his reading, reading this book (for me) is similar. Conroy writes, "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" (p. 311). I loved this book. Five stars out of five! Buy it for his ideas on reading, on writing, or for his delightful storytelling. Or, buy it to be totally enveloped by a wonderful world of words.

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