Patti Smith on Prayer, the Love of Books, and How Illness Expands the Field of Creative Awareness
By Maria Popova
Roald Dahl believed that physical illness powers creativity. It’s a perplexing proposition, but the diaries of celebrated artists, writers, scientists, and inventors are strewn with accounts of how fever-induced creative revelations — perhaps because fever shakes off the chronic constraints of the conscious mind, sparking a sort of openness that enlarges the locus of ideation and broadens the field of creative vision.
Artist and punk rock icon Patti Smith relays precisely this type of experience in Just Kids (public library) — her altogether magnificent memoir, which also gave us her lettuce soup recipe for starving artists.
Reflecting on her early childhood, Smith — who was raised in a deeply religious home — writes:
My mother taught me to pray; she taught me the prayer her mother taught her. Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. At nightfall, I knelt before my little bed as she stood, with her ever-present cigarette, listening as I recited after her. I wished nothing more than to say my prayers, yet these words troubled me and I plagued her with questions. What is the soul? What color is it? I suspected my soul, being mischievous, might slip away while I was dreaming and fail to return. I did my best not to fall asleep, to keep it inside of me where it belonged.
As time passed I came to experience a different kind of prayer, a silent one, requiring more listening than speaking.
My small torrent of words dissipated into an elaborate sense of expanding and receding. It was my entrance into the radiance of imagination. This process was especially magnified within the fevers of influenza, measles, chicken pox, and mumps. I had them all and with each I was privileged with a new level of awareness. Lying deep within myself, the symmetry of a snowflake spinning above me, intensifying through my lids, I seized a most worthy souvenir, a shard of heaven’s kaleidoscope.
Smith eventually came to find the electrifying exultation of this quiet prayerfulness not in religion but in reading:
My love of prayer was gradually rivaled by my love for the book. I would sit at my mother’s feet watching her drink coffee and smoke cigarettes with a book on her lap. Her absorption intrigued me. Though not yet in nursery school, I liked to look at her books, feel their paper, and lift the tissues from the frontispieces. I wanted to know what was in them, what captured her attention so deeply. When my mother discovered that I had hidden her crimson copy of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs beneath my pillow, with hopes of absorbing its meaning, she sat me down and began the laborious process of teaching me to read. With great effort we moved through Mother Goose to Dr. Seuss. When I advanced past the need for instruction, I was permitted to join her on our overstuffed sofa, she reading The Shoes of the Fisherman and I The Red Shoes. I was completely smitten by the book.
I longed to read them all, and the things I read of produced new yearnings.
Just Kids is the kind of book that leaves you completely smitten and full of innumerable yearnings. Complement it with Smith’s advice on life, her poetic tribute to her soul mate, and her beautiful homage to Virginia Woolf.
Published September 9, 2015