It was 1996. I was living in Sarasota, working my first real job and still feeling like I was playing grown-up every day. I knew in my heart that writing tax software online help wasn’t my superpower, but didn’t know what to do about it. Then one sunny late winter day, Pat Conroy came to sign his new book Beach Music.
I had discovered Pat Conroy’s books in college during a trip to Charleston and spent the next few years reading and rereading everything I could find with his name on the cover. Yes, I have read Beach Music over five times and I would need three hands to count the number of times I’ve finished Lords of Discipline. But more than the stories, I quickly in love how his words made me feel, images his descriptions created in my head and his understanding of how our life experiences shape how we approach the world. And I learned so much more about writing from my afternoons spent in his books than I ever did from any writing class.
I realized as I gathered up all of my Pat Conroy books to take to the book signing, that he might give me the world’s worst fan award when he saw my books. I am not one of those people who treats books like a precious objects. I fold down the pages. I take them with me everywhere. I write in them. I love them, literally, sometimes to pieces. So when I loaded up the books into a ratty Publix bag, they looked like they had been through a war. They were tattered, worn, two had no covers and one had fallen in the pool.
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After laughing and crying my way through his hour-long talk, I stood in a long line to get him to sign my books. Everyone else was at least 40 years older than me and seemed to have a brand new book in their hand. I kept trying to hide my shopping bag, which kept ripping and was now knotted in three places. I was nervous. I almost left. But then I remembered that I had paid $25 for the ticket, which was my entire week’s entertainment budget.
When I placed my books on the table for him to sign, I apologized for the terrible condition of his books. He put his pen down, looked me in the eyes and said “You have just given me the greatest compliment that an author can get. I cannot thank you enough. All of these ladies who ran downstairs and bought a copy of the book five minutes ago, probably never read it. I know that you love my books.” When he got to my copy of Lords of Discipline (which was brand new looking), he said “What, you didn’t like this one?” I sheepishly said “That is actually my third copy, the first two literally fell apart because I read it so much.” He laughed a big belly laugh as he signed it.
He held up the line and spent 10 minutes talking to me about writing and life. Without Pat Conroy’s influence, I am not sure that I would be where I am today in my writing career. I took the message during his talk about his persistence in getting published to heart on the days that I felt (and still do) like a fraud. And during the few minutes he spent with me he encouraged me to keep writing and write about things that I cared about. He told me he could tell I had stories to share that went far beyond tax software. The kindness he showed to some young random kid that day gave me the courage to find my voice and share my stories.
Thank you Pat Conroy for every word that you wrote that made us smell the low country salt air, feel like your characters were our friends and carry your stories in our heart. The world was so much better because you were in it and shared your beautiful words with us. My life is richer from reading your books and especially spending those ten minutes with you. You will be missed.
Jennifer Goforth Gregory is a freelance writer who has written for the Raleigh News & Observer as well as Entrepreneur.com, Atlantic.com and Success magazine.