Tuesday, October 17 was a beautiful day in Cleveland. I worked all day downtown, but I managed to slip out for an afternoon walk. I headed north, strolling around the green space of the mall, where I could take in the lake, City Hall, the windmill by the Science Center. Little did I know it was possible that only several blocks southeast, on Euclid Avenue, Patti Smith was sitting on a green bench, writing.
I heard Patti Smith relay this moment later that night at her appearance at the William N. Skirball Writers Center Stage series. She talked about writing on Euclid Avenue, yes (“It was a beautiful day. I wrote in my notebook for twenty minutes, and no one bothered me”), but she also talked about Robert Mapplethorpe, Sylvia Plath, libraries, and, most of all, moments of shame and moments of beauty.
And she sang “My Blakean Year.” And she was unflinchingly honest and real. And at the end of the evening, she sang an a cappella version of “Because the Night” and asked the audience to sing along during the chorus. All of this made the ticket price more than worth it, but what struck me is how she kept coming back to that moment earlier in the day, when she found herself alone with twenty minutes to just be herself: a writer at work.
Here’s a taste of some of what Patti Smith had to say:
On how she works on multiple projects at once: It’s like a horse race. I see which one crosses the finish line first. I am working on the sister of Just Kids. Just Kids was the Robert book; this one will be about the other one—the girl. Me.
On the love of writing: I loved writing M Train. When I was done, I cried. But I realized just because the book comes out, I don’t have to stop writing. I’ll be 71 in December, and I want to focus on writing. I’ll still perform now and again, but I want the lion’s share of my time to go to writing and my kids.
On what really matters: What I admire in the end is work. Some people think I love people with messed-up lifestyles. I’m 70, I want to live till I’m 100, 102. I don’t have any romance about throwing life away or being fragile. What I find the romance in is the work.
On being in the moment: When I was visiting Plath [Sylvia Plath’s grave], I was taking photos, trying to freeze time. I was not thinking of her, not celebrating her, and I was punished later when I lost those photos. Sometimes the compulsion to work is strong. What I wanted to do was be on Euclid Avenue writing my own book.
On her performance at the Nobel ceremony: When I see it, it’s so painful. I put my hands in front of my face because it was worse than being ashamed. I thought, what could I do? I had to tell the truth. I got through it . . . The next day, I learned a huge lesson. All the laureates came up to me, hugging me, taking selfies, and everyone told me my difficulty, my stumble, represented their stumbles. It validated their stumbles. The night wasn’t supposed to be about me, and in the end, my stumble wasn’t about me. It was about them.
On libraries: I love libraries. As a young girl, the library was four and a half miles away and I walked. Sometimes it would start raining or snowing and I had my books under my coat . . . I just can’t imagine what my life would be like [without libraries].
On other writers: In some ways, I’ll reference writers so people will find out about them. In other ways, I write about them because they’re my friends—my imaginary friends.
On Sylvia Plath: I loved Ariel. Robert Mapplethorpe bought me a copy. It cost $2.98 and that was the last $3 we had . . . Ariel most touches my heart because it was the first one I read. I’ve loved [Plath] since I was a young girl. One thing I love about her is she is so strong. You can feel her fragility—and she took her own life, so you could see the breaks in her, but she even had the strength to do that. And she defies gender. She’s beyond gender.
On poetry and prose: Pure poetry is the most complex, the most difficult, sometimes the hardest thing to comprehend fully. I do write prose every day. It’s probably where I feel most comfortable.
On whether some things are too personal to share: Yes. The personal things I wouldn’t share would compromise another person. I don’t think of that as censoring myself, but being considerate. There are a million things to write about, so why hurt someone?
When asked about the “beautiful moments” she might experience: I had a beautiful moment sitting on that bench writing. I didn’t know where I was—on an avenue called Euclid, which is [perfect for] a person who loves mathematics. But I experience beautiful moments all the time. Beautiful moments are all around us.