Devotion: Why I Write
Yale University Press 2017
A few pages into Devotion, Patti Smith’s recent meditation on writing (originally delivered as a lecture at Yale), I wondered, Is it really possible/desirable/commendable to live this sort of contemplative literary intellectual existence in America/the world in the 21st century? As I moved further into the book, however, I became enveloped in its calm and confident atmosphere, and such nagging prosaic questions disappeared.
In the past two decades Patti Smith has been highly prolific literarily; at 69, she is certainly aging well, and still inspiring generations of artists. An illuminating piece of Patti Smith trivia: after the phenomenal success of Horses, plus a few more albums, Smith retired more or less from public life with her husband Fred, had two kids, and stayed home to raise them–getting up early each day to write. In a recent interview with Alec Baldwin she says that she loved her life at that time, and the continual writing served to hone her craft. She said she couldn’t have written the books she’s writing now were it not for those years of practice.
Certainly her books show a high level of skill, while leaving space for her dream states and moments of transcendence. In Devotion she outdoes herself, performing a feat of magic that I’ve never seen from any other writer: in a scant 93 pages she shows us her mental process.
This is how: In Part One Smith writes a journal of the hours leading up to a trip to Europe and the first few days of business with her French publisher; here she includes the minutiae of daily life: what she ate for breakfast, the book she read on the plane, the images on her television at night. Part Two, the centerpiece of Devotion, is a work of fiction–a short story, novella, whatever one wishes to call it–in which the reader gets to stare directly into the writer’s brain! Talk about “Show Don’t Tell!” We get to see how characters and descriptions in a story reflect details written earlier, in Part One. We literally get to see life interwoven with art. And the story is so finely wrought that I completely forgot I was reading something by Patti Smith–something I, as a long-time admirer, am acutely aware of when reading her non-fiction. The final section of the book describes a visit to the home of Albert Camus’ daughter, where Smith reads his unfinished last manuscript, and eventually answers the question “Why Do I Write?”
The sum total of Devotion‘s parts is a glorious trip, an exploration of a writer’s mind. It should be assigned reading in every writing class from here on in.