Because one has to follow what has resonance in life, I wound up on a plane, crossing the country from Los Angeles to Beaufort, South Carolina. I did this because the author Pat Conroy has always been my idea of the personification of what it means to be a writer. In life, he was the embodiment of language in its highest form. Pat Conroy took this business of being human, with all its frailties, heartbreaks, and nuances, and wrestled it into art. He was strong enough, brave enough, trusting enough to share his stories, and in so doing, he gave us all the gift of options by using writing as saving grace along life’s riddled path. That he wrote in the first person spoke to me, for I knew exactly to whom I was listening. I understood Pat Conroy, cared about him, identified with his human predicament, and applauded his uncanny ability to lift himself out of his own confusion by putting his tumultuous life into words.
And so I flew to South Carolina this past weekend to attend the inaugural Pat Conroy Literary Festival, in Conroy’s beautiful, lowcountry hometown. Just last year, I’d done the same to attend the celebration around his 70th birthday, which turned out to be the smartest move I made in 2015. Meeting Pat Conroy in person and watching him navigate the throngs of peers and readers humanized the diaphanous mystery of those lofty souls set upon this earth to interpret it for the rest of us. He walked among us, humble and smiling, posing for photographs and shaking hands like an overwhelmed child, grateful and surprised that so many had turned out for his party. His sincere, wide-eyed comportment shook me to my core and stayed with me long thereafter. I was well aware at the time that I was witnessing exactly what it means to be a celebrated writer and not have it go to your head.
I will digress here to say that In March of 2016, in a crisis that blindsided the literary world, Pat Conroy died of pancreatic cancer. It was such a profound loss, with baffled legions asking how this could possibly be that the outpouring of love continues to this day. My belief is it will go on forever, for Pat was so beloved that people will always be uneasy with the metal glare of letting him go.
And so the town of Beaufort rebounded after Pat Conroy’s death. The fact that Hurricane Matthew blew through the region the week before deterred them not one iota. They assembled en masse to rise up and fuel the fire that Pat Conroy set. The inaugural Pat Conroy Literary Festival had the same tone and tenor of Pat Conroy’s 70th birthday; it carried on for him, because of him, in honor of his name. I had a feeling this would be the case, when the festival was announced, and did not hesitate to make arrangements to attend. To not have done so after being there last year seemed unthinkable; it would have flown in the face of all things Pat, and I wanted to uphold my end.
I’m going to go on and say it: It’s liberating to be a writer without personal agenda. Six years of promoting my books, myself, and everything all about me is exhausting, and frankly goes against my nature. This is why I took a big exhale when I got to The Pat Conroy Literary Festival in Beaufort. For four days, I was in witness of writers and readers assembled for all the right reasons: love of story. We all knew that Pat Conroy was the pivotal point, yet his absence did not overshadow the celebratory spirit of the weekend. The reason why is because Pat Conroy had shown us, the year before, how to dive right in and revel in the company of those who contribute to our chosen field. There seemed no hierarchy of value in those gathered for the weekend, just the impression that we are all on the same path; some ahead, others a few paces behind. For me, it was like visiting a foreign country and discovering that everybody spoke my first language. I sat in the audience of one panel discussion after another and was invigorated and informed by what the participating authors had to share. The thing about being a writer is there is no there to get to; there is only the process of personal growth, and what is invaluable to the momentum is allowing yourself to remain a student. This is what Pat Conroy did last year, and I say this because I could feel it. I’m pretty sure he was in the audience of every event of the Pat Conroy at 70 Festival, with his pen and paper in hand, for every time I turned around, I saw him, eyes focused on the stage with glee and rapt attention. I cannot adequately articulate what watching this world-renowned author taught me, except to say that it taught me everything. It has much to do with decency and camaraderie, and the willingness to celebrate those who create through the written word.
The Pat Conroy Literary Festival was like being in a bee-hive of literary heroes. It was a four day celebration orchestrated “for the love of words and story,” which is a phrase Pat Conroy used, whenever he signed his books. There was something so heartwarming and ceremonious about the entire weekend. It was a literary festival put on by those who loved Pat Conroy for those who loved Pat Conroy, and the overall feeling was that the celebration will never end.