By Grey Brendle
I ran across Pat Conroy’s “Prince of Tides” in the bookcase and it reminded of his passing in March of 2016. He was a writer’s writer. Helen Keller , a world-renowned writer and lecturer, once said, “What we have once enjoyed, we can never lose. All that we love deeply becomes part of us.” His body of work certainly provides us with joy forever.
My copy of “Prince of Tides” in Beaufort has moved three times. We usually pare down as a move becomes imminent, but this book always made the cut. Having over 500 pages, it is rather long by today’s standards. My love of reading, and writing, has had a fitful growth. So, it’s a wonder I even started a book of this size back then.
Taking it from the bookcase and scrolling through, I remembered some things, saw much as new. One thing caught my attention. On the first page of chapter one Mr. Conroy used eleven I’s and a smattering of I’m’s and I’ve’s. And, being the first page of a chapter, it was only a little over a half page of writing. By most standards that would be almost unreadable. But, read each line, absorb what it says, then on to the next. Wonderful! It is quoting the obvious, but Mr. Conroy’s talent is probably unmatched in this form.
Not remembering he wrote in “first person,” I did what became a pretty extensive search to find out about that. On June 27, 1995, in an interview with The Los Angles Times about his book “Beach Music,” he said this:
“Besides all that, Nan [editor-publisher Talese] was afraid if I wrote ‘Beach Music’ in the first person, it would read like a continuation of the Tom Wingo persona from ‘The Prince of Tides,’ so she insisted that I write ‘Beach Music’ in the third person. . . . For me, that was like exploring a foreign territory. When I did finally finish the manuscript, it became obvious to everybody that we should move back to the first-person narration by the hero, Jack McCall.”
Most authors don’t want to write in first person. Publishers are of a like mind, as evidenced by Mr. Conroy’s publisher. It is hard to do, no, strike that. It is easy to do; what is hard is to make it interesting. For me personally, it becomes a lot of: I this, I that, and I the other. In fact, I try to not use “I” much at all. (Visualize a smiley here.)
First-person narrative voices have to be special. They have to be unique. They have to dazzle. First-person narration is not just telling the story. It’s the main character telling the story. Everything has to be seen through the eyes of the protagonist. And, of course all of this comes out of the writer’s mind.
For me, writing in third person is easier. And, easier to read, unless it’s Pat Conroy. The author can hover over the story, building the plot and characters from many different angles. Third person narrative can get away with a much more basic voice.
I love reading Pat Conroy’s books. I wish I had met him. I know he is missed greatly. I know he loved the Lowcountry. I love the Lowcountry. I love writing.
That’s my quota of I’s for a while. Whew!
Grey Brendle is retired from a career in corporate banking and his own sales and marketing business. His avocation is writing, including regular columns in newspapers in the southeast for over 20 years.