Behind the Curtain

conroypatI’m a Pat Conroy fan.  Though I’m not madly in love with all of his books, I’ve always been drawn to his subject-matter (Southern Families) and his writing style.

The first time I read THE PRINCE OF TIDES, I was certain it was a perfect novel, both an incredible display of storytelling and poetry on the page.  From the first paragraph:  My wound is geography.  It is also my anchorage, my port of call.  And the last few lines of the prologue:  The truth is: Things happened to my family, extraordinary things.  I know families who live out their entire destinies without a single thing of interest happening to them.  I have always envied those families.  The Wingos were a family that fate tested a thousand times and left defenseless, humiliated, and dishonored.  But my family also carried some strengths into the fray, and those strengths let most of all of us survive the descent of the Furies.  Unless you believe Savannah; it is her claim that no Wingo survived.

And while the story was certainly fiction, I knew the characters were based on his family.

When he wrote THE GREAT SANTINI, there was this:  Responding to an editor’s request to soften his portrait of this hard-edged, take-no-prisoners [father] character, Conroy complied. “To make my father human,” he acknowledges here, “I had to lie.”  Despite this softening, the novel touched off the first of numerous firestorms within the Conroy clan. Many relatives resented what they saw as a betrayal of family secrets.

978-0-385-53090-3I just finished his memoir, which I downloaded the day it came out.

I couldn’t stop reading, but not because of the storytelling or the poetry this time.  I couldn’t stop reading because, selfishly, I was dying to peek behind the curtain and see what happened.  I wanted to see  (1) how Pat survived writing about his family and their secrets in novel after novel, and (2) how the Conroys survived Pat’s writing career.

Whenever I’m in a room with other writers, with people writing — or even just trying to get up the courage to write — about their families, this question inevitably comes up:  What will happen if I write about my family?

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25 thoughts on “Behind the Curtain

      1. independentclause

        Irritating. Kind of like the way my sisters are both irritating and supportive. And slightly scary. It’s not the family stuff but some of the other personal stuff that makes me feel stilted in writing about certain things.

      2. Teri Post author

        I think I’ve become at least a little deaf to the fear and more worried about the writing and the “story” of it. Which may all change, certainly, if Book meets World one day.

  1. Averil Dean

    I can’t. I don’t have the courage or the poetry. I find it difficult even to read memoir—it’s like watching someone performing a high-wire act. The intensity is too much for me.

  2. joplingirl

    Even fictionalized my Mama couldn’t make it past most agent reads. And truth be told I am on year ten of revisions and finally feel the manuscript I just sent off to my current agent holds my vision for the story best. The generations alive in one fleeing girl. But we shall see. It is all about sales. The world wants soft cushions and candy and hands holding out flowers. Some difficulty but Not hard truth.

    And what will my family say or do if it ever gets published? I have sent chapters to several sisters asking if I should use their actual names even through it is fiction and one sweet baby–always a baby to me–said–yes, please count me in–I think I deserve to be recognized.

    1. Teri Post author

      You are so right in this. They want a gripping story, but they also want loads of forgiveness and pink bows in tidy knots and a soft place to fall … though this is much denied.

      Like you, I’ve been at this almost a decade now in one way or another, and at this point I can’t worry about too much unless/until it finds its way into the fresh air.

  3. Josey

    here is what happened when i wrote a blog post about my family that was under 500 words and read by less than 200 people:

    my sister sent me an email calling me selfish and insensitive and asked me to take it down.
    when i refused, she talked with her father (my stepfather) about how upsetting it was to have what little i wrote out there for all to see. my stepfather would ask if we could meet for coffee where he would tell me how proud he was of me, but that his kids were hurting over what i had posted. he didn’t want any of his kids hurting, including me. he said it was hard for them–what I wrote. i struggled with what to do and finally deleted the post. within weeks of deleting the post, i deleted my entire blog, as well as ending a weekly column i had been writing for three years that was syndicated in a number of states. the freelance writing business i had quit my full-time job to start just two months prior to my sister’s email ended up being a flop. i spent the following year staying on with my previous company as a contract employee without doing much to build my writing business.

    it was a systematic shut down. i eventually stopped writing altogether and suffered one of the darkest cycles of depression i’ve ever lived through. none of my family has ever asked me what happened to my blog or why i stopped writing my column. we want our family to love us unconditionally, but there is only so much truth certain families can withhold.

    1. Teri Post author

      I read this, Josey, and one word comes to mind: bullies.

      Forgive me for quoting a Tom Cruise movie here, but do you remember the line in A Few Good Men where Kevin Bacon says to Tom: “You were bullied into that courtroom by a dead lawyer.” That’s how I feel when I read your paragraphs above. It’s incredible, the (misuse of) power and how it works on us.

    2. Downith

      “none of my family has ever asked me what happened to my blog or why i stopped writing my column”

      Josey, that speaks volumes right there.

      1. Josey

        oh no–don’t be heartbroken–think of all the great content i got during those two years. i agree, that there is a bullying going on here, but i don’t believe they understand their actions as bullying. they are protecting their own shit. they are scared. and still hurting in areas where i’ve been able to move forward. so really, i got off easy simply by walking through it. i think. maybe the verdict is still out.

  4. Josey

    also, i got to go to a pat conroy event last week and he was soooooooo freakin’ great. so great. it’s peculiar how his family, while remaining angry at him for his autobiographical work, also ate up the fame that came with it. especially his father. he said he dad would show up at book signings and sign copies of The Great Santini–and now, those books with his dad’s signature are worth more than the ones he signed.

    1. Teri Post author

      While I realize that forgiveness is for the forgiver and not really the one being forgiven, I had such a hard time with this memoir. His father certainly becomes “softer” in his older age, but in the way that an alligator gone mad loses energy over time. I applaud Pat for his capacity for forgiveness — and maybe writing it all and publishing it has helped? — but what troubles me most is that his father still never, in all of the “good years,” admitted that any of his violent episodes occurred. A nice, selective amnesia.

  5. Bruce Horton

    Yes he is a great author Teri……The Great Santini is the story of Bruce’s father……he as read all his books but he cannot read this latest…….he cannot even watch the movie all the way through as it is too upsetting……..his dad has mellowed with age, and after leaving the service, but oh……so true to life for Bruce he cannot revisit it……You are courageous to write…..it helps others grow and also helps them they are not alone as they read your story if they might have a similar experience….each family member will see it in a different way and that is for them to deal with and process. You keep doing what you are doing!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    1. Teri Post author

      I had a friend who lived with a violent and unpredictable father, and even as a child I knew I was lucky not to live in that house. Her house made mine look like the Cleavers’ … though my June was poor and divorced and, according the town gossips, “fast.”

      That said, even I can’t watch The Great Santini movie. I tried. I couldn’t finish it. And it remains incredible to me that the real dad Conroy was so proud of being made famous that he did book signings with Pat and was a star of said signing sessions. Who would’ve thought?

  6. chillcat

    I’ve written quite close to the bone in some of my stories, and sometimes wonder whether it was therapy or creation! I think it’s natural to drove into this ground sometimes – though just as natural to bound away from it.

  7. LauraMaylene

    Oh, this question. I’m afraid I might find out. Nothing is official yet, but there’s a chance one of my nonfiction pieces will find a larger audience. There’s nothing scandalous or overtly shocking/offensive, but multiple family members are mentioned. One is still a child. And so I wonder: is this fair? Is this acceptable? Did I do right by them? Oh god, who will see this?

    When I’m just writing nonfiction, and sharing it with writing groups, I have no shame and no worry. I go for it. But now, just the possibility of publishing is making me doubt everything. Man. I don’t envy memoir writers! You guys have it tough.

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