In 2016 Patti Smith was invited to deliver the Windham-Campbell Lecture, delivered annually to commemorate the awarding of the Donald Windham-Sandy M. Campbell Literature Prizes at Yale University. It has now been published in an expanded form, Devotion, by Yale University Press with an essay on writing, an unsettling short story ( which in a way illustrates her musings of the opening essay) and finally, her lecture. Here is an extract:
Why is one compelled to write? To set oneself apart, cocooned, rapt in solitude, despite the wants of others. Virginia Woolf had her room. Proust his shuttered windows. Marguerite Duras 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.
Things are slow moving. There is a pencil stub in my pocket.
What is the task? To compose a work that communicates on several levels, as in a parable, devoid of the stain 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.
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.
Why do we write? A chorus erupts.
Because we cannot simply love.
Patti Smith Devotion: The 2016 Windham-Campbell Lecture Yale University Press, New Haven, 2017. Hb. pp.
28 April 2018