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Posts Tagged ‘Pat Conroy’

Somewhere, somehow, somebody must have kicked you around some
Refugee, music and words by Tom Petty, Mike Campbell

“I hated my father long before I knew there was a word for hate…I remember hating him even when I was in diapers…I’ve been writing the story of my own life for over forty years. My own stormy autobiography has been my theme, my dilemma, my obsession, and the fly-by-night dread I bring to the art of fiction.”
Pat Conroy
The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son

While I could continue with my run of posts centered around rocker Tom Petty who died earlier this month, I found a way to turn the corner listening to the Scriptnotes podcast, Episode 321. And, actually, at the same time this post makes a connection to the roots of much of Tom Petty’s pain throughout his life.

Before we get to the concept of method writing, first let me set the stage by letting Petty recount a traumatic event he had as a youth that involved a slingshot, a Cadillac, and a belt.

“I had this crappy slingshot my father had given me, a plastic thing, the first one I ever had. I was in the yard shooting this slingshot. And cars are driving by. I’m just like, ‘I wonder if I can get a car’. And whack! This big Cadillac. It was going by pretty slowly, and I just nailed the fin on that thing.

“The car came to an immediate stop. The driver got out, and he was so f**king mad. … I felt kind of weird, not ­knowing what was coming next. But when my father got home later, he came in, took a belt and beat the living s**t out of me.

“He beat me so bad that I was covered in raised welts, from my head to my toes. I mean, you can’t imagine someone hitting a child like that. Five years old. I remember it so well.

“My mother and my grandmother laid me in my bed, stripped me, and they took cotton and alcohol, cleaning these big welts all over my body.”
Tom Petty
 Petty: The Biography by Warren Zanes

That may have been the first beating Petty got from his father, but it wasn’t the last one. And I don’t know if that first beating left a physical scar, but I do know it left an emotional scar. Petty knew that his childhood was far from the aspirational Ozzie and Harriet life that he saw on TV, but it would take decades for him to realize that being a successful rock star—or drugs and alcohol— could heal his childhood scars.

You don’t have to look far to see where Petty’s rebel spirit, angst, and bouts with depression came from. Though it would take Petty himself a few decades and some counseling to recognize his scars.

Everyone has scars and on Scriptnotes, Episode 321 screenwriter John August and Grant Faulkner, Executive Director of National Novel Writing Month, have this exchange about using your scars in your writing:

GRANT FAULKNER: I like the method acting approach to writing that you’re really applying your own personal emotional experience to the characters you’re creating. Actually there’s a Shelly Winters quote where she says, ‘Act with your scars.’ And so you can apply your scars to any character. But I do think that requires, like method acting, a lot of introspection.  

JOHN AUGUST: When I read writing the feels very real, when the characters seem like they have flesh and blood,  I do think that’s because the author has invested a bit of himself or herself into their experience. That author has a very clear sense of that character’s inner emotional life  because he or she is using things in their own life to sort of proxy for it. When I was doing the script for Big Fish there is a sequence at the end where Will is going through the story of his father’s death and I knew this was going to be incredibly emotional thing for the character, but also for the audience watching it. So I was incredibly method writing where I’d bring myself to tears and then start writing. It seems crazy and ‘why would you do it that way?’— but I’m pretty sure the only reason I got to those specific words and those specific images was because I was at that emotional state as I was writing it…I would encourage people to try those things, because what’s the harm of trying those things? …Write those feelings that you know. Use the things that are specific and unique to you to help create something specific and unique moments for your story.

GRANT FAULKNER: Yeah, that’s a great point. I think the stories that I connect with most—I agree with you—the writer or creator has done something that is just so personal, he or she has made themselves vulnerable— they’ve gone deeper. I really think vulnerability on the page is more important than any craft advice, or craft tips that you might write with. And that’s where with [the] Shelly Winters [quote] “Act with your scars” is really going deep. Be willing to reveal your scars on the page and go there. 

P.S. I don’t always find a direct Iowa connection to these posts, but couldn’t miss on that Scriptnotes podcast that there was a guy from small town Iowa talking to a guy who did went to college in Iowa. Grant Faulkner was born in Oskaloosa, Iowa (and went at Grinnell College in Iowa) and John August did his undergraduate work at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

Related post:
Emotion—Emotion—Emotion
Nostalgia: The Pain from an Old Wound
Screenwriting Quote #182 (Richard Krevolin) “All characters are wounded souls…”
Tom Petty and The Untold Story of Rock & Roll  (In a word; scars.)

Scott W. Smith

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Author Pat Conroy’s funeral was today after announcing just a month ago that he had pancreatic cancer. Here’s a quote I pulled for a post back in 2012 that’s one of my favorite illustrations of what writers do.

“On my first night in Vienna, Jonathan [Carroll, author of Bones of the Moon] walked me down to the Danube, where we sat on a flight of steps leading down to the river. The dog walkers were out in force. Greetings were exchanged with small movements of the eyes, and the dogs sniffed one another fondly. Handsome and imperial, Jonathan looked every inch the American expatriate. He exuded a serenity and a seriousness that I lack. But he kept his eye on a woman at the next bridge. She was moving so slowly I though she might be leading a dogsled pulled by escargots. After an hour, the woman walked in front of us, and she bowed her head in acknowledgment of Jonathan. With great dignity, he returned the gesture. To my surprise, she was walking two enormous tortoises, displaced natives from an Ethiopian desert. The woman walked them every night, and Jonathan was always there to admire their passage. 

 “‘That’s what writers do, Conroy,’ he said. ‘We wait for the tortoises to come. We wait for that lady who walks them. That’s how art works. It’s never a jackrabbit, or a racehorse. It’s the tortoises that hold all the secrets. We’ve got to be patient enough to wait for them.'”
Pat Conroy
My Reading Life 

Related posts:
Pat Conroy & Rehearsing for Death
Screenwriting & Cancer
What’s Your Problem?
Ralph Clemente (1943-2015) A film professor of mine who died last year from pancreatic cancer.
Apple, Steve Jobs & Dying
Don’t Waste Your Life

Scott W. Smith

 

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“There should be no sorrow at this funeral because The Great Santini lived life at full throttle, moved always in the fast lanes, gunned every engine, teetered on every edge, seized every moment and shook it like a terrier shaking a rat.”
Pat Conroy
Colonel Don Conroy’s Eulogy
(The book & movie The Great Santini was based on Pat Conroy’s Marine jet fighter pilot dad)

Yesterday when I learned of the March 4th death of writer Pat Conroy my first thought was that he was at the center of one of my fondest moments with literature. For one month in the summer of ’99 I backpacked around Europe with Mr. Conroy at my side—in literary form of course.

I have a distinct memory of being on a train in the Swiss Alps reading Conroy’s Beach Music and thinking, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” It was one of those rare beautiful moments in life where you are fully aware that you are alive—and you at least have the illusion that all is right in the world.

Only later did I learn that it took Conroy a decade to write Beach Music. While some writers distance themselves from the autobiographical aspects of their writings, Conroy had no place to hide. He once said,“One of the greatest gifts you can get as a writer is to be born into an unhappy family” (I think Hemingway said basically the same thing), and Conroy’s own tortuous relationship with his father was the foundation for his life’s work. A tough price to pay.

His literary career started simply when he was a high school English teacher in Beaufort, South Carolina when he self-published his first book The Boo. He was paid $7,500 for his next book The Water is Wide, which was made into the movie Conrack.  His book The Prince of Tides sold 5 million copies, and he also worked on the screenplay version of that book and received an Oscar nomination. A movie was also made of his book The Lords of Discipline.

If you’ve never read Conroy’s work The Great Santini is the one I’d recommend you’d start. And the single best movie scene made from his writings (and was reflective of the relationship with his father) was the following scene from The Great Santini. 

Good drama, bad parenting.

A fitting end to this post is a quote by author and University of Iowa writing professor Ethan Canin (who Pat Conroy said of Canin’s new book A Doubter’s Almanac, “With this extraordinary novel, Ethan Canin now takes his place on the high wire with the best writers of his time.”):

“I was driving the other day and there’s this this traffic jam, it was this miserable traffic jam, and I thought what in the hell is this? I finally get to the curb and I look up and there’s wild flowers in bloom and all these cars had just slowed down a couple of miles an hour to see the wild flowers. And it was this incredible moment where everybody who was on the way to work—they’re pissed off— they were still slowing down for the wild flowers. Not to sound too California-ish about that, but that’s amazing to me that despite the inutility of all of this stuff we are wired to just love this. To love gossip—which is what literature is—to love hearing about someone else. To love to see how other people have done things wrong. And also to rehearse for your own death. I mean that’s what reading is about. Generally most novels are about life. Many novels are about life, [A Doubter’s Almanac] is about life—birth to death, and it gives you a chance to look at it. Do it once, do it twice, read another novel. Read Moby-Dick, read The Adventures of Augie March, read some novel about a life and you can live a life, and imagine how you will face the inevitable.”
Ethan Canin
The Moment podcast interview with producer/screenwriter Brian Koppelman (Billions)

Chances are good that you won’t be on a train going through the Swiss Alps this week, but you can slow down and take in some beauty. Be it in nature, a book, a movie, or just hanging out with friends and family.

P.S. If you’ve never been to the South Carolina lowcountry where Conroy often wrote about, lived a chunk of his life, and where he died, do yourself a favor and visit the area. There’s much beauty and rich culture there, and Beaufort is one of my favorite towns in the United States.

P.P.S. Conroy does have a connection to Iowa, and it’s not the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, but his father (Don Conroy) attended college in Iowa at Saint Ambrose College, and as a youth  Pat and his family spent an uncomfortable summer in Davenport once while their military family was in transition.

Related posts:

Writing Quote #32 (Waiting for Tortoises)  A great observation from Conroy’s book My Reading Life. (Loved his reading on the audio book.)
Tell Me a Story—Pat Conroy
Writing Quote #20 (Pat Conroy)
Writing Quote #39 (Writing in Paris)
September 6, 1995

Scott W. Smith

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“A lot of people think I had such a rosy career, but I wanted to identify that one of the things that helps you have a long career is learning how to deal with adversity, how to get past it.”
19-time All-Star baseball player Cal Ripken, Jr.

“I hated my father long before I knew there was a word for hate…I remember hating him even when I was in diapers.”
Pat Conroy

My father died on this date 19 years ago. September 6, 1995. It was the same night that baseball great Cal Ripken, Jr. broke Lou Gehrig’s record of consecutive games played—an event that fans on a MLB.com poll voted as the league’s most memorable moment.

It was the following morning as I prepared to direct a three camera video shoot I learned that my father was dead. But September 6 will always be a landmark day in my life. In some ways my father (who divorced my mother and moved away when I was seven) was a bit player in my life, but his shadow is always nearby. He had an interesting life as a drummer, a steel worker before he graduated from Ohio State, an Air Force pilot, and as an advertising executive. There aren’t many photos of him in my family photo album, but he bought me my first camera that set me on the creative path I’ve been walking since I was 18 years old.

Cal Ripken Jr. probably isn’t a perfect father, but the Hall-of-Fame player who has been heavily involved in charity work since his retirement from playing seems the ideal kind of guy any son or daughter would want to have as a father.  The kind of guy who would teach you how to ride a bike, help you with your homework, and pass on pearls of wisdom at various times of adversity in your life. Complete with a family photo album full of pleasant memories.

Kind of the opposite of novelist Pat Conroy’s father. But Conroy’s own rosy literary career owes a debt to the adversity that his father brought into his life.

“I’ve been writing the story of my own life for over forty years. My own stormy autobiography has been my theme, my dilemma, my obsession, and the fly-by-night dread I bring to the art of fiction. Through the years, I’ve met many writers who tell me with great pride that they consider autobiographical fiction as occupying a lower house in the literary canon. They make sure I know their imagination soar into realms and fragments completely invented by them. No man or woman in their pantheon of family or acquaintances has ever taken a curtain call in their own well-wrought and shapely books. Only rarely have I drifted far from the bed I was conceived. It is both the wound and foundation of my work.”
Pat Conroy
The Death of Santini: The Story of a Father and His Son

Chances are your own father falls somewhere between they guy who once told me, “The memories of my father could be written on the back of a postage stamp,” and Ward Cleaver on the classic TV show “Leave it to Beaver.”

And the odds are good that you’ve had your share of adversity in your life. But I hope you’ve overcome them—or are in the process of overcoming them—and somehow can use those experiences for fuel in your writings.

Simple words can become clever phrases 
And chapters could turn into books
If I could just get in on paper
But it’s harder that it ever looks
If I Could Just Get It on Paper
Lyrics by Jimmy Buffett

P.S. Here’s a video of Cal Ripken Jr. in one of his philanthropic ventures as he helps rebuild communities via working with Habitat for Humanity.

Related posts:
Emotional Autobiography (2.0) When you’re going through a period of unhappiness, a broken love affair, the death of someone you love, or some other disorder in your life, then you have no refuge but writing.”—Tennessee Williams
Robert McKee vs. Richard Walter “Decades spent writing and teaching have taught me that writers’ own personal stories are the only story they should write.”—Richard Walter

Scott W. Smith

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This morning I was in Atlanta, Georgia and writer Pat Conroy was on my mind. On this road trip I’ve been listening to Conroy’s book on CD My Reading Life.  While he’s usually associated with South Carolina’s Lowcounty because many of his books (The Water is Wide, The Great Santini, South of Broad) are set in that region. And I believe he currently lives on Fripp Island near Beaufort, South Carolina, but Conroy was actually born in Atlanta and has spent much of his life living there.

But it was neither Atlanta or South Carolina, but Paris where Conroy wrote one of his most successful books, The Lords of Discipline.

“I would work on the novel during the day, beginning at nine in the morning. I would break for lunch, walk down to the market street on the rue de Seine, buy food at the charcuterie, stop for a baguette, and bring the food back to my room. After lunch I would nap for an hour, rise, wash my face with cold water, then resume writing until five o’clock. There was an exceptional sameness to these days, a habitualness that pleased me immensely. I tried to fill up five legal pages a day, a quota that translated directly into seven typewritten, double pages. At the end of the first week I had twenty-eight pages. I worked seven days a week during that four month period I lived in Paris, and before I left Grand Hotel des Balcons I would produce six hundred written pages. It would be the most productive time of my life.”
Pat Conroy on writing The Lords of Discipline
My Reading Life,
page 210

The book was published in 1980 and the movie version written by Thomas Pope and Loyd Fonvielle was released in 1983.

Related Posts:

Writing Quote #32 (Waiting for Tortoises)
Writing Quote #20 (Pat Conroy)

Scott W. Smith

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“On my first night in Vienna, Jonathan [Carroll, author of Bones of the Moon] walked me down to the Danube, where we sat on a flight of steps leading down to the river. The dog walkers were out in force. Greetings were exchanged with small movements of the eyes, and the dogs sniffed one another fondly. Handsome and imperial, Jonathan looked every inch the American expatriate. He exuded a serenity and a seriousness that I lack. But he kept his eye on a woman at the next bridge. She was moving so slowly I though she might be leading a dogsled pulled by escargots. After an hour, the woman walked in front of us, and she bowed her head in acknowledgment of Jonathan. With great dignity, he returned the gesture. To my surprise, she was walking two enormous tortoises, displaced natives from an Ethiopian desert. The woman walked them every night, and Jonathan was always there to admire their passage. 

     ‘That’s what writers do, Conroy,’ he said. ‘We wait for the tortoises to come. We wait for that lady who walks them. That’s how art works. It’s never a jackrabbit, or a racehorse. It’s the tortoises that hold all the secrets. We’ve got to be patient enough to wait for them.'”
Pat Conroy
My Reading Life 

P.S. Not much I can add to that, except to say one of the most memorable moments of my life was when I was a youth and my cousins took me to Melbourne Beach, Florida one night. We waited as large Loggerhead sea turtles came out of the darkness onto the beach. They dug holes and laid eggs. unbelievably memorable. One of the benefits of growing up before cable TV. If you’re ever in Brevard Country between June and June check out the Sea Turtle Preservation Society to learn about turtle walks to observe the nesting. Until then, keep an eye out for those metaphorical tortoises.

Scott W. Smith

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Tell me a story, to me, are still four of the most beautiful words in our language. I remember my grandfather, I would ask him those words—’Tell me a story grandaddy.’ And he would tell me one. In the south, especially the rural south, the telling of stories on porches—that passing down of oral history by telling stories is still the reason the South retains its love of story. Retains the mystery of story.  And I don’t know any Southerner who does not love to exchange tales, tall tales. And I think the words ‘tell me a story’ has formed the entire basis of my art.”
Pat Conroy (The Great Santini, The Prince of Tides)
My Reading Life/ CD interview

Below is a prime example of a tall tale. It was based on the book Big Fish:A Novel of Mythic Proportions by Southerer Daniel Wallace. Wallace had five novels rejected before Big Fish got published in 1998. The movie version Big Fish was written by John August and directed by Tim Burton. August is the one who was captivated by the book and set things in motion for it to become a movie.

“The writing was simple, and weird, and imaginative. It clearly offered a lot of cinematic moments. But what attracted me most were the things that weren’t even on the page. I knew that the son, Will, was a reporter in Paris, married to a pregnant French woman. That’s nowhere in the story, but I was absolutely certain it was true. There wasn’t a circus anywhere in the book, yet I immediately sensed where it would fit. In short, I knew so much about the story I wanted to tell that I had to write the script immediately.”
John August

P.S. I always like to point out that John August, like Diablo Cody, went to college in Iowa. (He did his undergrauate work at Drake University in Des Moines.)

Scott W. Smith

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