Patti Smith’s Newest Memoir Puts Writing in the Spotlight
Writing is a meditative act; writing is an act of devotion. Why else do writers tremble before a blank page? Why do writers retreat to silence and reverence as they sit before a manuscript of one of their favorite writers in a special collections section of a library? Of course, writing serves a utilitarian purpose, and not all writers shake before a blank page. (Think of songwriters who go into an office from 9-5 to write for a living, or medical writers who write pediatric manuals, or those engineers who write manuals that explain the assembly and operation of a refrigerator.) Yet, even so, there is a moment when a writer occupies a space between the Muse and the blankness of that white paper. She’s filled with awe as she sits in front of it, knowing in some inchoate way that she’ll be channeling words that anger, that confront, that love, that divide, that instruct, that please, that heal whoever reads them. The awe-ful character of writing — occupying that solitary space and being a scribe — is the moral burden it lays on the writer, but it’s also the desire to please aesthetically, and seldom can those two elements of writing be separated.
In her evocative new book, Devotion (Yale), Patti Smith explores the act and art of writing so elegantly and eloquently that it’s almost worth reading this entire book out loud instead of writing about it. Like Susan Sontag, like Rimbaud, Smith illustrates that writing is breathing: “Why do I write? My finger, as a stylus, traces the question in the blank air. A familiar riddle posed since youth, withdrawing from play, comrades and the valley of love, girded with words, a beat outside.” A finger as a stylus: the physical act imbued with the spiritual craving of the I-can’t-get-away-from-my-need-to-write.
Devotion traces the narrative arc that Smith first drew in Just Kids and M Train; in each of those memoirs, she explores various aspects of her life, probing the mystery of writing to express her emotions, to capture the spectral shadows of relationships now departed. In M Train, as she reflects on her travels through her mind and life, she concludes: “As a child, I thought I would never grow up, that I could will it so … Now I am older than my love, my departed friends. Perhaps I will live so long that the New York Public Library will be obliged to hand over the walking stick of Virginia Woolf. I would cherish it for her, and the stones in her pocket. But I would also keep on living, refusing to surrender my pen.”
In Devotion Smith not only explores the facets of her creativity, she also illustrates the power of the creative act in a beautiful, haunting little story, “Devotion.” The story involves a young skater who lives for her art and a collector mercilessly searching for a piece to add to his collection and the relationship that develops between them. In a first section, “How the Mind Works,” Smith reveals the sources of her story: a journey through France to Camus’ house, a pause at the great mystic Simone Weil’s grave, after a tortured search for it. In the book’s final section, “A Dream is Not a Dream,” Smith shares her own insights into the act of writing — and we feel almost as if we are sitting in a café with her.
She opens this final section with a question: “Why is one compelled to write?” With an uncanny beauty, Smith probes the answers to her question and provides examples of writers who exemplify for her these answers: “To set oneself apart, cocooned, rapt in solitude, despite the wants of others. Virginia Woolf had her room. Proust his shuttered windows. Marguerite Dumas her muted house. Dylan Thomas his modest shed. All seeking an emptiness to imbue with words. The words that will penetrate virgin territory, crack unclaimed combinations, articulate the infinite. The words that formed Lolita, The Lover, Our Lady of the Flowers. There are stacks of notebooks that speak of years of aborted efforts, deflated euphoria, a relentless pacing of the boards. We must write, engaging in a myriad of struggles, as if breaking in a willful foal. We must write, but not without consistent effort and a measure of sacrifice: to channel the future, to revisit childhood, and to rein in the follies and horrors of the imagination for a pulsating race of readers.”
After an afternoon she spends at Camus’ house, sitting in awe and reverence in front of the manuscript of his final novel, The First Man, she feels the shift in her psyche that prevents her from surrendering completely to a work of art. The work of art compels her to contemplate creation: “That is the decisive power of a singular work: a call to action. And I, time and again, am overcome with the hubris to believe I can answer the call.”
In the end, she repeats a litany of questions, almost hypnotically, about the devotional act of writing: “What is the task? To compose a work that communicates on several levels, as in a parable, devoid of the strain of cleverness … 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 exists.” The aesthetic and moral woven together inextricably.
Yet Smith acknowledges that, as lonely as the act of writing can be, there is a community of writers who feel the same way and whose lives are shaped by the demands of drawing in the air with the finger as stylus. Thus, her final question moves from the singular to the plural: “Why do we write?” “A chorus erupts. Because we cannot simply live.”
There’s an ethereal beauty to Patti Smith’s writing that reveals the emotional struggles she has with the act of writing. In Devotion, she starkly shares and uncovers, through a spare, haunting prose, the reasons she is compelled to write; so evocative is Smith’s writing that we’re compelled to read it as her voices transfixes us with its bell-like clarity and ringing passion.