This is from our friend Ron Wells, our LA “correspondent”…. a very thoughtful piece on the trans-formative power of art.
We know spring is here when the LA Times Book Festival, now in its 16th year, arrives at the end of April. With over 300 authors and 150,000 attendees over a two day day period, it is a wonderful time to get outside and stretch the legs and the mind, while sitting in on panels and readings that can ignite and/or soothe the soul.
The highlight of this year’s festival for me was seeing Patti Smith and Dave Eggers on a panel discussion moderated by Dave Ulin, the LA Times book critic.
A packed Bovard Hall on the University of Southern California campus waited in anxious anticipation for the appearance of two modern day artists who, for some at least, are also heroes.
Dave Ulin introduced them as “role models,” and after a very short introduction, began asking questions that gave both writers the freedom to roam with their answers.
Patti began by talking about how she began to concentrate on prose after “leaving public life in 1979.” She said “Coral Sea” was her personal letter to Robert Mapplethorpe which encapsulated her grief, but that Just Kids was fulfilling her promise to Robert to write their story.
Dave Eggers, extremely humble throughout, began by saying it was “surreal” to be on the same stage as Patti, and then said that A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius was written 10 years after his parents death. He looks at it now and it’s difficult for him to read. “It could have been Improved” greatly. He called it “sloppy” and “painful,” while referring to Patti’s book as “ideal.”
Patti said she began her book after the deaths of her husband and brother, an extremely painful time for her. She kept the book “simple” because “Robert wasn’t much of a reader,” and she wanted him to be able to read her account of their time together.
Dave, speaking of his book, said, “no offense, but I didn’t think anyone would read it.” Thus, not understanding the power within the book, nor how long a work of literature would live on, he put in the real phone numbers of friends and others he knew. This brought laughter from the crowd, as he explained that “we took these out with the second printing.”
One thing that Patti tried to stress was that when she writes, she “treats others as I would like to be treated.” She does not use books as vengeance, and then pointed out the National Enquirer as being the opposite. “Does saying the National Enquirer, date me,” she said laughing. One way or another, her point had been made.
When asked about how she is able to work in so many different artistic forms, as well as about which artists inspired her, she answered, “Oh, there’s so many. William Blake, Michelangelo, Da Vinci,” and her voice trailed off. Then she picked up the thread and said, “ I don’t think anyone asked Michelangelo, ‘Are you a sculptor?”
Eggers than answered a similar question by saying he grew up thinking he’d be a painter. He thought Patti’s book was a victory for people who bounce around between various media. He then went back and commented on Zeitoun and said it was “not fun to write.” He found it extremely emotionally draining, and so he would find himself late at night reverting to his artistic days and drawing farm animals to release the tension.
Patti then told Ulin that she is a “happy person, basically. This came from my childhood and having books and art to relate to.” Thus, “I have the best job in the world–transforming everything into art.”
To which Eggers responded, “I have guilt. It’s hard work, but I feel incredibly lucky. Sometimes, I’ll work late into the early morning hours because I feel guilty having such a great job. It’s surreal just to be sitting here with my hands poised over the keyboards and realize that this is my job.”
Patti picked up on that and said, “being an artist, you have to work doggedly, but you’re blessed too. I believe it’s a calling.”
Eggers who had been humble and self-effacing throughout, said he is proud of his 826 Organization that is teaching kids all over the country how to write. He mentioned that Patti’s daughter is one of the tutors at one of these centers. And then he emphasized that they teach the students that it can take 30 drafts, or more, to get a work the way they want it. Ultimately, he found great joy in knowing that young people are responding to learning how to write and put their thoughts down in writing.
Ulin then asked Patti to read from Just Kids. She chose the section on meeting Allen Ginsberg because she felt it was humorous. The audience laughed throughtout and then, as she neared the end of the passage where she tells Ginsberg years after their first meeting that “you fed me when I was hungry,” she began to choke up as she recalled the importance of Ginsberg in her life. It was a heartfelt moment that hovered over the quiet audience like a silent prayer.
She changed gears and said everything she’s read or seen has influenced her. “Genet, mysteries, fairy tales. They’ve all been important.”
Finally, after Eggers had criticized “A Staggering Work… “ once again, someone from the audience said, “I loved that book. Am I an idiot?!” The audience roared and Eggers laughed too, then replied, “ No, no. I’m glad you got so much from it. Thank you! It’s just, I want to change so much of that book.” In essence he was saying he’d become a better writer, but he can’t go back and write it over again.”
With that, the hour was up. It went by much too fast.
It is difficult to capture the feeling in that room. As Patti write on her home page, “The miracle is love.” There was so much affection for the writers, and it was returned to the audience, in a back and forth that contained little or no pretentiousness. One left feeling blessed that in a day and age when corporate greed, news media cynicism, and vulgarity of every shape and form dominate our lives, seeing Dave Eggers and Patti Smith was a blessing. For it reminds one, that sometimes our artists break through the muck and mud of everyday life to find reasons to believe. To find hope and joy, even after tragedy has tried to wrestle those away forever.
Walking outside, I realized it was spring again. A time of rebirth. And Patti Smith and Dave Eggers wanted to make sure that their readers never forget the fact that sometimes we need to step back and count our blessings, renew our aspirations, embrace that which is good. Even amidst the pain, to love life and start anew.