In my journey to write with clarity and passion, I often turn to what others have to say. I look for inspiration in works such as Yale’s Why I Write series.
Writing should be easy, you say. Just turn on the computer and start typing, right? Or go old school, pull out the legal pad, and put pen to paper. Easy peasy.
Getting a bad first draft can be fairly effortless for me. I did it with this short post, for instance. In a rush, I unfortunately called it a day and hit publish. Wrong decision.
Writing well, as opposed to simply writing, is hard.
Understanding why one is compelled to write can be an even more difficult journey. In many ways, each of us needs to answer that particular question, which differs individual to individual, before good writing truly begins to sing.
As I read what other writers have to say on the topic, not every choice is a winner; not every path should be followed. Thankfully, at 93 pages, Smith’s offering was short enough to digest in one setting without going down too many unproductive pathways. I generally refrain from posting reviews of books that do not move or inspire me. There are too many good works where I would prefer to direct your attention. But I’ll make an exception in this case. I can quickly move through what I found in Smith’s Devotion and then send you in the direction of works I believe will be more helpful.
Devotion is designed to give the reader a glimpse into Smith’s creative process. The first third — called “How the Mind Works” — reads more like “a week in the life of Patti Smith” while traveling around Europe visiting with her publisher and writing on trains. There is a great deal of what one reviewer described as “overblown language, artistic reverence, and pseudo-revelatory style.” She ends up in England at the grave of Simone Weil and writes a poem about it.
The section which follows — “Devotion” — is a short story about a young skater and her possessive suitor that comes across as dreamy, shallow, tedious, and somewhat creepy. I’ll just leave it at that.
The final section, “A Dream Is Not A Dream,” has Smith as a guest of honor in the Camus family villa. She takes in the beautiful landscape, is granted access to the handwritten manuscript of his unfinished novel The First Man, reads through it, and then ends the book with the question “Why do we write?” Her answer: “Because we cannot simply live.” True, and perhaps even inspiring. But you wouldn’t know it by the book that leads up to that final line.
In the end, Devotion could not fulfill, for me, the promise made in Why I Write. The Yale series asks the authors to explain the motivation that drives their work. Why write is an important question, and one worth exploring. For some, it may be for as simple a reason as that found in Paul Graham’s short essay Writing, Briefly:
“I think it’s far more important to write well than most people realize. Writing doesn’t just communicate ideas; it generates them. If you’re bad at writing and don’t like to do it, you’ll miss out on most of the ideas writing would have generated.”
Each person who commits to writing something for others to read has to answer these how and why questions. When considering how to write, I suggest you turn to John McPhee and his thoughtful work on the process of writing in Draft No. 4. For both process and motivation, seek out Annie Dillard’s eloquent The Writing Life or Cheryl Strayed’s direct and somewhat salty “Write Like a Motherf*#$er” response to a young aspiring writer for more abundant feasts for the mind and soul.
More to come…