Patti Smith – ‘Devotion’ and the Technique of Free Writing

By Lydia Aldridge

‘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…’ Me, my student flat opposite a 4-story car park.


Patti Smith’s ‘Devotion’ is the jumping off point for this ‘think-piece’, I suppose we can call it. Published in September 2017, it is based on the ‘Windham-Campbell Lectures’, starting already with an intimidating presence of prestigious academia. It truly is a pleasant read, short, romantic and, much like Smith herself, attractively ‘artistic’. Rather like the infamous poem ‘This Is Just To Say’, by William Carlos Williams, Devotion is susceptible to parody, it almost reads like a parody in itself. Perhaps the abundance of Parisian cafes and writing freely over black coffee and croissants do not help this. However, the short story that comes after her initial essay, though perhaps rather weak in itself, is a brilliant example of how writers implement aspects of their own life into their work. The story concerns an orphan for whom ice-skating is ‘pure feeling’ and goes on to have an affair with an older man; we are drawn back to Smith’s mentions of these elements in the preceding essay, a memory of her father at an ice-skating event, a visit to a French cemetery. In my view, this is a perfect example of the value of free writing, the ways in which larger works stem from various musings and scattered points noted down at earlier intervals. We all know that Smith is an immensely talented woman, and though Devotion is perhaps not as remarkable as her other works, M-train and Just Kids, it’s certainly a testament to the value of writing unashamedly, of writing without a specific ‘purpose. This is where free-writing comes into it.


I first came across ‘free writing’ in a 3-hour seminar - perhaps not the most stimulating of environments, especially on a Friday afternoon and especially since the stimulus was ‘Brexit’. However, I certainly saw some promise in this technique, as someone who loves the idea of being creative – whatever that means – and creating one’s own work but finds it difficult with where to begin. Devotion reminds me of this technique, though perhaps one’s own ‘week in the life’ is not as aesthetically pleasing as Smith’s, it’s certainly a technique which could benefit the average person. There are many ‘courses’ you can pay for which will teach you all there is to know about this technique, but really all you have to do is set a timer [5, 10, 15 minutes] and write about something, or nothing. Writing about having nothing to write about is a common and surprisingly cathartic approach to take.

To me, free writing is the exercise of getting over yourself – you’re not above writing something bad, something contrived or pedestrian, in-fact, if you strive only to write ‘good’ things, then your work will never be ‘good’. Certainly, Smith’s Devotion is comically romantic; I, for one, can’t swan over to a Parisian café and write in my notebook for two hours, but I’m sure Café Nero isn’t a bad place to start. Perhaps, for many, the difficulty that comes with writing, or trying to write something, is the expectation that it must be worthwhile or substantial, or a fear of falling into the stereotype of someone who ‘writes’. I can empathise with this fear as only very few people can pull off this stereotype well, Smith being a perfect example, but it’s all very well having the desire to create but not following through because of a social ‘pressure’ (I can assure you that there is none. The worst that can happen is someone thinking your work is shit, which, unfortunately, no one is immune to.


Here’s an example of a piece of free-writing, with the stimulus of a quote from Devotion, I wrote in three minutes whilst putting off some reading, I think its cliché and poncy, but I’m still going to show you because, if I didn’t, I’d be a massive hypocrite:


Why is one compelled to write? Why indeed. People write diaries with the knowledge that their musings will never be read, yet perhaps there is an innate fantasy that someone will come across your 300 page lined notebook and be overcome with fascination over your entry on February 19th, perhaps they will lament that you didn’t write an entry again till the following March, because you forgot to? Or rather you were too caught up in the bohemian lifestyle that is your life… Probably the former. However, Smith’s Devotion is exactly this, diary entries of a typical week, except it comes with the foresight to see that it will be published – though one’s average routine cannot be as aesthetically pleasing as that of Smith’s, there is certainly merit in creating one’s own portfolio, to document one’s own life, even though no-one else may come across this. People are interesting, we all study people, so it can’t be a narcissistic endeavour to study oneself.


I suppose the purpose of this piece is to advertise the positives of free-writing, though I’m not sponsored, regrettably. It’s difficult to write when you feel you have nothing to write about, or nothing to write for, but that is simply not an excuse to express yourself, even if its privately. You will despise many pieces you create, but as shown by Smith, it’s the process and practice that will get you to somewhere you’re happy with, and proud of.

© Helicon Magazine 2019

University of Bristol