Music icon Patti Smith shares her creative process and ponders the compulsion to write

Taking the stage before a packed crowd in Sprague Memorial Hall, the legendary musical performer, writer, and visual artist Patti Smith began this year’s Windham-Campbell Lecture with a little joke.
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(Photo by Michael Marsland)

Taking the stage before a packed crowd in Sprague Memorial Hall, musical performer, writer, and visual artist Patti Smith began this year’s Windham-Campbell Lecture with a little joke.

“In the spirit of the presidential election, I’ll give you a free health report,” said Smith, to the laughter of her audience, adding that a mild bronchial irritation might occasionally cause her to cough during her address.

With just a couple of coughs, Smith spoke for about 45 minutes at the Sprague Hall prize ceremony honoring the 2016 winners of the Windham-Campbell Prize. The author of the memoirs “Just Kids” (winner of a National Book Award) and “M Train” among other works, Smith described in poetic terms her own creative process in a talk titled “Devotion.” She was introduced by Daphne Brooks, a professor of African American studies and theater studies, who is also one of her music fans and who praised Smith’s “haunting, melodic verse and prose.”

Noting that she was asked to address the topic “Why I Write,” Smith said she instead felt more able to discuss how her creations come to be. She described a meandering process that combined thought, note taking, and a myriad of experiences and inspirations, sometimes even her own dreams.

She started mining her own process by first reading a fragment of a current work-in-progress, a piece of prose called “Devotion.” The work describes a man’s obsessive interest in a 16-year-old girl who has dropped out of school. The female character spends time figure skating on a frozen pond, aware of the presence of the stranger who watches her spiraling against a backdrop of trees and sky. Overcome with an ongoing desire to follow and watch her, the male character wonders to himself: When does devotion “cease to be something beautiful” to become “off-centered”?

Smith wrote “Devotion” in fewer than six hours on a train from Paris, and has spent some six months trying to perfect the work, she said. While not conscious of some of her influences and inspirations while writing, she said she is able to see how all kinds of experiences, impressions, and minutiae from her Paris trip crept into “Devotion” by examining some of her writing notes and her recorded impressions in her travel diary.

She recounted, for example, that when leaving home for the airport, she almost forgot to bring a book and “hastily” grabbed one from the shelf: a monograph on the French philosopher, Christian mystic, and political activist Simone Weil by Francine du Plessix Gray.

“I marveled as I traced [Weil’s] path through the halls of higher learning, rumination, revelation, revolution, and higher sacrifice,” Smith recalled. “Unable to sleep, I read straight through.”

Later, at her hotel, she watched a skating competition on television. The triumphant skater was a 16-year-old Russian girl, the youngest in the competition, who stepped “onto the ice as if nothing else exists,” remembered Smith. “Her single-minded purpose, the combination of innocent arrogance and awkward grace, is breathtaking. Her triumph over the other skaters brings me to tears. Yes, I cry at skating competitions.”

Afterwards, she had a dream in which “Simone [Weil’s] heart-shaped face merges with the face of the Russian figure skater,” and thus began Smith’s own devotion to an image that later became the skating girl in her own story.

Using vivid and poetic language, Smith described her various travels in France and traced how other impressions and occurrences along her way inspired “Devotion.” The “perfectly round eggs served with a perfectly round slab of ham” in a French café influenced her description of the round pond in her tale; the landscape at Albert Camus’ family home is reflected in the scenery surrounding the pond; the French word “Dévouement,” which she sees in a cemetery in Sète while visiting the gravesite of French writer and philosopher Paul Valéry, became her title in English. Another book she had been reading, Nobel Prize-winning French author Patrick Modiano’s “Paris Nocturne,” also wove into her thoughts during her travels and influenced her writing, Smith told the audience.

“Most often, the alchemy that produces a poem or work of fiction is hidden in the work itself, if not embedded in the coil and reaches of the mind,” she said.

The musical artist and writer expressed her own awe at being able to peruse in France Camus’ manuscript for “The First Man” — an unfinished novel he was working on at the time of his death, and the way it nearly made her want to bolt out of the historic Camus home and into a space where she could answer her own “call to action” — to write. “And I, time and again, am overcome with the hubris to believe I can answer that call,” said Smith.

(Photo by Michael Marsland)

“Why write?” Smith asked near the end of her talk. “What is the dream to write something fine, that would be better than I am, and that would justify my trials and indiscretions, that would offer proof — through a scramble of words — that God exists? … Why do we write?’ Of course, the answer writes itself: ‘Because we cannot simply live.’”

After a standing ovation, Smith took a seat in the audience to watch the Windham-Campbell Prizes being awarded to Tessa Hadley, C.E. Morgan, and Jerry Pinto for their fiction; Hilton Als, Stanley Crouch, and Helen Garner for their nonfiction; and Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, Hannah Moscovitch, and Abbie Spallen for drama. President Peter Salovey read their citations, while Michael Kelleher, director of the Windham-Campbell Prizes, presented them with hand-drawn prints, created especially for them. Each of the winners will take part in a series of free, public events on campus and beyond through Sept. 21 as part of the Windham-Campbell literary festival.

Smith’s address will be published in full next year by Yale University Press, which released a book of her photographs in 2011. Kelleher announced at the ceremony that next year, the Windham Campbell Prize will also be awarded for poetry.

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Susan Gonzalez: susan.gonzalez@yale.edu,