Articulating the Infinite: Patti Smith on Why She Writes

Patti is back, albeit in brief.

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Devotion (2017) is the second volume in Yale Press’s new “Why I Write,” series, which launched in 2015 to publish the keynote addresses from Yale’s annual literary festival.

Smith’s slim treatise is tripartite. It opens with “How the Mind Works,” an account of a recent journey to Paris on a leg of her book tour. Next comes “Devotion,” a short-story about an ice-skating prodigy in WWII-era Switzerland, which Smith composes during the trip while riding the train from Paris to London. She closes with “A Dream Is Not a Dream,” a reflection on the story she’d written and a wrap of the trip.

Notably, Devotion contains Smith’s first published work of short fiction. Her recent, bestselling memoirs Just Kids (2010) and M Train (2014) are rendered lyrically and contain excerpts of poetry – but they are first and foremost glimpses of Smith’s life as an artist. In Just Kids, Smith writes of young, broke, wishful years in New York City with her dear friend, renowned photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. In M Train, she walks us through a day in the life of her present-day 70-year-old self, who wanders around New York City drinking giant cups of gas station coffee and finding inspiration in relics of artists past. But there’s little to suggest in these memoirs that Smith herself has any history of or interest in writing fiction. Thus Devotion presents something new and even unexpected: a parable about creativity and talent in which neither writing nor Smith herself are the focus.

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As an addition to the “writers on writing” sub-genre, Devotion is a unique offering because it explores the question of why we write, rather how to write. Instead of breaking down her daily routine, sharing tales of early failure, and offering neatly packaged advice (“write shitty first drafts,” “kill your darlings”), Smith explores the origins of creative passion – where it comes from, how it feels, why it captures us.

Through a young figure-skating savant named Eugenia, Smith describes what it feels like to first discover one’s creative calling:

On my fifth birthday [my uncle] took us to an ice pageant. I remember this most of all. 

After I saw the skaters I cried for three days and three nights. . . Perhaps I recognized my destiny but was too young to fully comprehend what that meant . . . When I first stepped onto the ice I faltered, not out of fear, but excitement, for something wonderful happened. Everything I needed was revealed to me in a split second, like suddenly knowing all the answers to a difficult test, or the exact route to an impossible destination . . . 

Smith’s vision may seem a bit grandiose here – perhaps even unrealistic. For me, it calls to mind the myth of another young prodigy by the name of Will Hunting…

Will: Beethoven, okay. He looked at a piano, and it just made sense to him. He could just play.
Skylar: So what are you saying? You play the piano?
Will: No, not a lick. I mean, I look at a piano, I see a bunch of keys, three pedals, and a box of wood. But Beethoven, Mozart, they saw it, they could just play. I couldn’t paint you a picture, I probably can’t hit the ball out of Fenway, and I can’t play the piano.
Skylar: But you can do my o-chem paper in under an hour.
Will: Right. Well, I mean when it came to stuff like that… I could always just play.

As in any proper parable, these storytellers exaggerate certain details to highlight the point. And the point is not, as one might think, how convenient it would be if things like organic chemistry or pianos immediately made sense.

The key lies in a minor admission Will makes earlier in this exchange. He concedes that he has studied organic chemistry before. “For kicks,” he says. Skylar responds, “Are you mad?”

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That’s the point. See alternate title for Smith’s book: Devotion (Am I Mad?)

So, why does Eugenia skate? Why does Will study organic chemistry in his free time? Why does Patti write?

Smith shows us that the mystery is the reason. In the pursuit of our particular, randomly-given talents and/or passions – whether for ice skating, mathematics, or writing – we encounter Truth. For Eugenia, the ice is a point of divine contact:

I saw it all before me, in an instant that instantly disappeared, yet made it’s mark. I intuited that when I was ready I held the key.

Importantly, the sublime glimpse is no more than that – a glimpse. Finding one’s passion is not a gateway to total, unimpeded understanding. It does, however, contain the promise of understanding, which is enough to sustain a life. Whether one responds as Eugenia, heeding the call and building a daily practice (yet forestalled by the evil forces of the world) — or as Will Hunting, denying the call’s centrality (impeded by shame and unworthiness) — the Truth can’t be unseen.

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Indeed, Smith affirms this answer in the nonfiction, third part of her book, “A Dream is Not a Dream:”

What is the dream? To write something fine, that would be better than I am, and that would justify my trials and indiscretions. To offer proof, through a scramble of words, that God exits.

The dream gives meaning, purpose, and a shape to one’s life.  It imparts confidence in one’s unique beauty — in being wanted and loved by the universe. It’s attainment is nothing less than communion with the world (however brief) – which is the ultimate joy.

Smith’s final line: “Why do we write? . . . Because we cannot simply live,” affirms our fundamental condition as seekers. As someone who seeks through writing, the story resonated deeply. As someone who has never committed a creative act on ice, I can’t speak to whether this parable rings true beyond the writing few.

If you want to find out, I’ll mail you my copy.

 

2 thoughts on “Articulating the Infinite: Patti Smith on Why She Writes

  1. Loved this! Thanks for posting. Normally not a Patti Smith guy, but this made me curious to read more. I liked her piece (in The New Yorker maybe, i can’t remember) about Sam Shepherd. I also liked the book in which she described getting her signature haircut for first time and feeling like it weirdly helped snap things into focus and push her forward.

    Looking forward to next post!

    Liked by 1 person

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