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Just a “Moment” With Patti Smith

Friday, August 19th, 2011

By Larry Smith

One of the reasons I started a project devoted to personal storytelling is my love of and devotion to reading memoirs of people both famous and obscure. (Most people who’ve found their way here share this passion, and the true memoir obsessive might enjoy my interview with Ben Yagoda, who wrote a book about the history of the memoir.)

I just finished Patti Smith’s Just Kids, a memoir about her first few years in New York that’s part portrait of the artist becoming an artist and part love letter to her best friend and muse, the artist Robert Mapplethorpe. I’m sure in years to come, and in updates to Yagoda’s book, it will become part of the great memoir canon; an example of a book that takes you inside a very specific time in someone’s life with depth and color and what feel like every drop of trueness the author had to give. Others have written much on Just Kids.

At the same time I was reading Patti’s Smith’s memoir of this important moment in her life, I was finishing up a draft of SMITH Magazine’s forthcoming book, The Moment, 125 stories from writers famous and obscure about a watershed moment in each one’s life. Memoirs, by virtue of the form, are full of moments. And given that I’ve been so immersed in moments lately, it’s not surprising that I’m pretty calibrated these days to spot them. So I wanted to share a lovely passage from Just Kids. Here, Patti’s a teenage girl living in South Jersey when her father decided to take her and her three siblings to the Museum of Art in Philadelphia.

My parents worked very hard, and taking four children on a bus to Philadelphia was exhausting and expensive. It was the only such outing we made as a family, marking the first time I came face-to-face with art. I felt a sense of physical identification with the long, languorous Modiglianis; was moved by the elegantly still subjects of Sargent and Thomas Eakins; dazzled by the light that emanated from the Impressionists. But it was the work in a hall devoted to Picasso, from his harlequins to Cubism, that pierced me the most.

A few sentences later Smith writes:

I’m certain, as we filed down the great staircase, that I appeared the same as ever, a moping twelve-year-old, all arms and legs. But I secretly knew I had been transformed, moved by the revelation that human beings create art, that to be an artist was to see what others could not.

Working on The Moment book, culling through the thousands of submissions to SMITH and actively seeking stories from people we admire, it became clear what, ultimately, makes a true “moment.” And what I learned in what’s now been almost a yearlong process of seeking and sorting through moments is this: What happens in one’s “moment” matters a lot. How that moment changes the life going forward matters even more. Patti Smith’s astounding Just Kids is the very beginning of the story of how her moment in that museum was the beginning of a life of art.

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