My exaggerated life, p.13
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       My Exaggerated Life, p.13

           Pat Conroy
 

  Julian says, “Well, Pat, I would be happy to do that for you. I would be happy to do anything for you. You know that, I hope, by now. But he hasn’t returned my phone calls in years.”

  I said, “Julian, why didn’t you tell me?”

  He said, “Well, there was no reason. He’s done a good job professionally for you and there’s no reason to interfere with that. But I’m embarrassed and deeply humiliated to tell you, he will not call me back, Pat.”

  I said, “I’m going to give you a way for him to call you back, Julian. Call him up and fire him for me.”

  Several days later, I get a phone call. Julian gets on the phone, says, “Pat, this is Julian Bach, your agent.”

  “I knew that, Julian.”

  He said, “I wanted to share this moment with you. Your film agent has been waiting in my office for over an hour to see me. I need your advice on something, Pat, if you do not mind giving it to me.”

  I said, “No, Julian, I’ll be happy to give you advice.”

  He said, “How much longer should I make him wait?”

  I said, “I think another hour would be appropriate.”

  “You know, I was thinking along those same lines, Pat. You and I have started thinking alike over the years. I don’t know if you have noticed this.”

  I said, “I pray that’s not true, Julian. But who knows? It may have snuck up on me without me knowing it.”

  On the night of his retirement there were eight people at his party, and I spoke. Walking out to get a cab, Julian said, “Now, Pat, you know that you will be delivering my eulogy.”

  I said, “And I’ll give you a good one, Julian. You don’t have to worry about that.”

  “I know you will.”

  And I said, “Julian, thanks for taking that telephone call all those years ago.”

  Julian says, bowing, “Pat, I’ve never told you this: Thanks for making it.”

  Actually, he told me that all the time. He’d say, “Pat, you remember when you told me you wanted to make me some money? You have made far more money for me than any client I’ve ever had.”

  But who would have thought that unexpected encounter with Daufuskie Island would assure me of being published the rest of my life? I had no idea then. I had just been fired; I didn’t have any work; I didn’t have any money; I had a house; I had three kids; I had three black kids living in it. Dad was in Vietnam. I had almost gotten drafted. It was not a good time for me basically, so then this just seemed like the universe evening things out a little bit with this book I didn’t even know what to title until finally I came up with The Water Is Wide. Which gave me my best lesson in how titling is one of the most important things to do. People have screwed that title up like you wouldn’t believe, and that’s exactly what you don’t want. I have the funniest letters from people who say they loved How Wide Was My River, or The Water Is Wine, and my own favorite: The Water Is Wet. But I don’t like that book and can’t look at it now. It feels so young and immature to me, and I’m thinking, I’m twenty-four years old when I’m writing that book: fuck you, kid. Who cares what a twenty-four-year-old thinks? And, you know, fuck you, you liberal ass know-it-all bastard; no wonder they fired you.

  James Dickey was the first big writer I knew, the first one I sought out. I learned about him from Tim Belk, who was teaching English at the University of South Carolina in Beaufort. Ann Head, who taught the writing class my senior year at the high school, had us over for dinner together. She was divine to me. Very cold, impervious, but great. She wrote me at the Citadel, loving, wonderful letters. I’d send her short stories and poems. She’d critique them and send them back. She introduced me to Tim Belk, and he became friends with Bernie, George Garbade, Mike Jones, and me. He was our first gay guy. He came from the piss-poor Belks, but he had style. He always had style.

  Tim Belk was a great influence in my life and Bernie’s. He taught us music, he taught us film, and he taught us about literature we’d never heard of. He first gave me Walker Percy; he first gave me Flannery O’Connor; he first gave me Dylan Thomas. He went to a poetry reading of James Dickey and said, “This guy’s got it.”

  So in 1971, I commuted up to Columbia to take two courses with James Dickey at the University of South Carolina. I loved his poetry more than anyone else’s, and I still wanted to see if I could be a poet. Dickey told me I was not a poet in that class. He broke the news by saying: “You’re not a poet.” He said, “Mr. Conroy, I do not think poetry is your realm.” His sister-in-law, Patsy Dickey, always told me later that Jim was jealous and did not want me writing poetry because that’s where he was in the world and he liked to discourage everybody else. But I couldn’t imagine Dickey being jealous, not the way he wrote. And poetry has not lost one single thing by me heading in other directions.

  At that time I thought that poetry was the greatest thing a writer could do, and I still do. Poetry is the highest form language can take. I always start off my day with poetry. Before I get going every morning, I try to read an hour of poetry. I like starting out the day with poetry; I like what it does, how it constructs your language. Poetry seems to say the most in the fewest possible words. With poetry, you take the stock and boil it down to where it’s a glaze. It is the elixir of language.

  But in that class I realized I wasn’t a very good poet. I remember we were supposed to do something just based on observation, and I did something so stupid I can’t even remember what it was now. It was mediocre; I remember that. But I’ll never forget what this other kid said in his first sentence about watching a great blue heron. He wrote, “His task is stillness,” and I thought, now that is a great fucking line. That is powerfully observed. That’s what Dickey means by observation.

  It was terrifying when I got there, because Dickey was one of these awe-inspiring guys, and I met him right when his career was at its apex. He was a giant; he carried himself like a colossus. He acted like I thought a great writer was going to act, and was fully in the game from the first day I met him to the last. There is no oxygen or even hydrogen left in the room once they pass out of it or come into it. And they sweep into it. They always sweep in, and there’s always an entourage following wherever they go. And he never broke character.

  I was completely intimidated; I would not say a word in his class. I did not have this enormous insight I have as a 120-year-old man today. I had just written The Water Is Wide, and was glad it was going to be published. I didn’t know what that meant or was going to mean in my life, so I was still overwhelmed by Dickey’s talent. I couldn’t say a word in his class, and I don’t think he remembered my being in there.

  What he did not know was that The Water Is Wide had been accepted by Houghton Mifflin, which also published his novel Deliverance. I never told him, and he did not find out until my book was published in 1972. Then, of course, Jim being Jim, he claimed that he and I sat down beside each other. I came to him and said, “Jim, I’m having a tough time writing this book,” and he said, “Come here, Pat. Let’s sit down and whip that motherfucker together.”

  But I loved him as a teacher. He was a great, great teacher. Every day I used to drive back home excited about his class, excited about the poems he read. He could make you fall in love with a poem and see the absolute essentialness of poetry. And he was a flamboyant reader. I learned a lot about just the simple passion for the beauty of language. He had that like few people I’ve ever known. He had this generous gift of reading other poets as though he loved them, and he gave their poems his best shot. And Jim, like almost all writers, had trouble with the success of other writers. He was one of those guys who could not get enough of fame, believed there was not enough to go around, not enough of a world to absorb any other writers besides himself. But reading them aloud, he gave them his full measure. He had great respect for that poem when he was reading it aloud, like he was entering into holy territory because of the poem.

  He taught me this level of perfectionism that you should always strive for. He told
us: “I judge your poetry against the greatest poetry ever written in the language.” He gave me one line I’ve never forgotten. He said, “The two most dangerous words in the English language are ‘like’ and ‘as.’ If you do not have something interesting to say after you write down those two words, cross them out, because you’ve entered into the country of cliché. Make sure you have something to say that is new or fresh or in a different way; otherwise, leave them alone.”

  And he taught us to make language precise. To have it be read like you want it to read and have it spoken like you want it to be spoken is the hardest thing, and he made the effort sound like a spiritual quest. He was remarkable for making me want to write better than I ever could write, and for making me want to read everything. He seemed to be one of those men who had read everything, especially in the field of poetry. There was nothing he had not considered, nothing he was not familiar with. That complete devouring of his world gave him an authenticity I wanted to have.

  James Dickey also taught me everything I did not want to do as a human being. This writer whose work I simply adored was just a cocksucker. Deliverance had come out in 1970, and they were making the movie when I was in his class. I think I was an eyewitness to one of the first victims of our celebrity culture. I witnessed the change that was taking place in him as the movie was being made. The bragging. When he came into class he would spend the first part of the hour talking about what he’d said to Jon Voight and Burt Reynolds. You know: “I was up with Jon and Burt this weekend, up in the mountains, teaching them how to get out of the rapids, and I can teach better than the experts they have up there. I showed them some things, showed Burt some things about the bow and arrow that he couldn’t learn in twenty years if he didn’t have someone like me to show him.” I was thinking, okay, Jim, none of us need to know this. But it just got worse and worse. His reports horrified me, of him grabbing Burt Reynolds by the collar and saying, “Are you man enough to play my character? Are you man enough, Burt?” Of course, Dickey’s drunk, Burt’s furious, and they hate him.

  He gave me much to fear about fame during the year he was becoming famous. Fame did something to him, and it was disturbing to me because I just adored his poetry and did not like seeing this happen to him. I don’t think it did his work any good, and I know it didn’t do his life any good. I think fame is the one thing in life you can be absolutely sure will fuck you up, that if you get some, it becomes something you want more of. You need more important people; you’re put in a limelight that when you’re not there you miss it. You get attention you would normally not get. Everything about it is dangerous. Everything about it seems soul damaging to me. There’s nothing I have found that’s particularly good about it. “Oh hi, yes, I’m famous because you’re not. Oh yes, my, my, my, of course you’re making a fuss over me, because I am a great big man and you are a small, small insignificant person.” You start being dissatisfied with hanging around normal people. You must hang around somebody more and more famous. The main thing fame seems to do is inflate your ego to Hindenburg-like proportions.

  Dickey was probably one of the great monster narcissists of his time. He reminded me so much of my dad I cannot even tell you. My father could take a jet up and annihilate New York City, and that’s an amazing power to have. He did not wear it well. So I was raised by the most egotistical man, a fighter pilot who had that fighter pilot’s ego, which is not just a fighter pilot’s ego. You see it in neurosurgeons; you see it in lawyers. You meet it in men all the time. The Citadel was full of it, I mean full of it. There is a certain look they have to them; there is a strut to their walk, a jut of the jaw, a pulling back of the shoulders, and a way of entering the room.

  I don’t think fame is good for anybody; it changes everybody. There are so many ways fame goes askew and doesn’t do you any good at all. Dickey already had enough cockiness in him because he was a very, very good high school athlete. But the poet had never been treated the way Jim was treated after that movie came out. And no one ever played into it the way Jim did.

  Later, when Jon Voight was cast as Conrack in the movie of my book, he would not talk to me on the set. I did not know why until Dickey’s son came out with the book Summer of Deliverance. His father enraged all the Hollywood actors with his Southern writer routine, and John Voight was expecting the same thing from me. Voight hated Dickey; he’d had all he was ever going to have of Southern writers and wanted nothing to do with me.

  One day when I was signing The Great Santini in Columbia, new in my career, I think my brothers were the only people there in the store. This attractive woman comes in and said, “I’m James Dickey’s wife, Pat. I knew you were in his class. I’d like you to sign a book for me.” I was so grateful to her. Conroy is always pathetically grateful and ass kissing when people treat him like a human being. She said, “Pat, my husband is so proud of you, but you’ll never know it. He’ll never tell you, and he’ll always be jealous of you no matter what. He can’t help that. He would never ever come to your signing, but he’s well aware you come to his.”

  As I watched Dickey’s fame growing exponentially, it taught me to be careful of the perils of fame, to not let it in as much as he seemed to be letting it affect him. I watched the other students following Dickey around like a small colony of little turtles trailing the loggerhead around campus. The girls sort of lined up according to their status. There was the girl he was having an affair with, then the one he had just broken up with. It didn’t seem to do him much good. The sycophantic student or the worshipful student who adores you brings nothing good to you. In Jim’s case, it solidified all his worst tendencies. He could not open his mouth without people swooning with the utter pleasure of wisdom flowing over them like honey.

  Then I heard the story of Dickey coming in the year before and announcing: “As of last night, I have slept with every female student in this class.” I’m sure Jim must have been drunk when he did it, but he did it. This struck me as ego in a runaway train. I thought: fame is bad for the soul. It is destructive to human nature. I did not see why he had to wear a cowboy hat and carry a guitar around. I did not like that he needed acolytes and ducklings and goslings following him around. The greatest threat I saw to writing was this gathering of camp followers.

  I also found it a danger when famous poets would come on campus and Dickey was with them. It seemed like the warring of screaming egos flashing thunderbolts across the sky at each other. Also, fame seems to take up more time than it gives inspiration, or gives time for writing. But Dickey was not seeing the signs of what was happening to him. He was not treating fame as something to beware of, something that could harm his art.

  I found the whole thing not for me. I did not wish to be like that. I promised myself at the time I would not have this if I ever became successful. I would not be walking along on a college campus with a trail of duckling undergraduates behind me. Also, I noticed that a lot of older professors were married to women my age, and I was in my twenties. I decided that I did not want to be sixty-five chasing rug rats if I could possibly avoid it in my life.

  Dickey got caught up not only in the maze and jungle of fame with Deliverance; he got caught up with becoming poet of the nation. Also, alcohol made him do things that I’m sure he must have regretted horribly later. When his wife died he said on television “I saw her lifeless, soulless body lying in state and I thought no more about her when I stared upon her body than I do when I stare at a dead dog killed on the Carolina highway.” I said, Okay, Pat, you need to learn from this. Never compare your dead wife to a dead dog on a Carolina highway.

  When Deliverance came out, I went to see it with one of my brothers in Columbia. I didn’t know Dickey was in the movie theater until he appeared on-screen as the sheriff. Suddenly a man gets up in the back of the theater and applauds the whole time the sheriff is on-screen. I look back; Dickey is giving himself a standing ovation the whole time he’s on-screen. I said, “Okay, Pat. Try not to do that.”

  I
thought, well, greatness has its requirements. And great individuals sometimes are not understandable to the normal human mind. Genius comes in strange packages. Genius shows itself in some utterly undivine ways. I think you can be a cocksucker and write like a prince or a princess. But, I know writers who are not famous who are also jerks. There’s something about the gift that is given equally to bastards, probably more to bastards. With great writers, often it’s best just to enjoy their work and not meet them.

  When his complete works came out, I was slowly reading it all, and for the first time I could see flaws in Dickey’s poetry which I could not see before. They were almost all in poems that came out after Deliverance. His Poems ’57 to ’67 is as great as anything I know in the language, and it still holds up. I reread that almost every year. The power, the perfection gets to me every time; the movement of it, the magnetism still excites. Those poems rank with anything in literature, including T. S. Eliot. But I started seeing the weakening in his later poetry, and whether it was age, drinking, or too much going on, I don’t know. His mind got too scattered. I worried that he fell in love with the lights too much, which is a deadly disease in this country. I think his poetry got weaker in his later years because he was trying more and more desperately to be accepted by the masses. He tried to become more modern in a way that did not fit his talent. And it is death when a writer tries to be hip.

  Every once in a while I would see James Dickey over the years. People told me he used to talk about me a lot, but to me personally he never said much. One night at my friends Alex and Zoe Sanders’s house, they had me to dinner and invited Dickey and his very young wife. Dickey got me in a corner of the hallway and grabbed me by the lapels. He’s a huge man, much taller than I am. He grabs me, says, “Conroy, you and I are going to write a screenplay together.” He had both my shoulders. “We’re going to write it together. James Dickey and Pat Conroy. We’re going to tear Hollywood apart. They won’t believe what we can do.” I was going “Yeah-yeah-yeah,” but you know, he’d been drinking. He did not remember the next day. I did not remind him of it. After I was in his class, one of my decisions was to stay away from Jim. Hanging around him did not seem like a good idea to me.

 
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