There’s something mesmerizing about Patti Smith’s narrative style in her memoir, Just Kids, which won the National Book Award this year. I’m caught, I think, by her silence.
The book covers her development into adulthood from the time she decides, in her twenties, to live with her lover and soulmate, Robert Mapplethorpe. They set out to be great artists one day, in the wild atmosphere of the era, surrounded by their heroes like Andy Warhol and Janis Joplin. But they go about it very differently.
Smith tends to be silent. Or she watches the world around her with a sort of wide-eyed expectancy and a reluctance to impose her own voice too soon. She respects what she sees and is also oddly unflappable, like a child who takes life in but feels little emotion. As she waits for her own artistic style to emerge, she’s willing to try whatever’s at hand—painting, collaborating with a theater when they ask her to—without a need to name herself “painter” or “writer.” For Smith has the sense that experience will probably, at some point, congeal. Her silence seems to represent a reluctance to speak-over the intelligent world that’s unfolding.
Mapplethorpe is a beautiful man and brilliant, and a bull in contrast. From his early teens, he names himself a visual artist who’s destined for fame. And while Smith subjects herself to daytime jobs at bookstores and to other activities that might waste her time but could inform her in unexpected ways, Mapplethorpe refuses to spend time on anything that does not explicitly relate to his visual art. He names his ambitions loudly.
The different ways in which those lovers moved to their fates make me think of two ways in which artists can be. I think of Smith as the artist of emersion. The artist of emersion is someone who’s unlikely to quickly analyze things around her; it takes her a while to identify herself as distinctly one thing or the other. In contrast, Mapplethorpe would be the artist of self-determination. He’s at home when he’s planning a life course from the inside, out. He feels some pressure to identify his talents early, and to compare himself to others. He orients himself in the world that way. An artist of self-determination like Mapplethorpe tries to peek into his future by making comparisons and so changes his tactics accordingly. The artist of emersion is, perhaps, more comfortable with chance, with spontaneity and with self-expression that comes out without being named “art” at all. The artist of self-determination is more likely than the artist of emersion to keep to one predetermined work schedule, to trust in his conscious will to kick his sometimes-reluctant body to the top.
I’m not sure what would determine why different people would work in these two different ways. It can’t be all about confidence: Lots of people who are shy to say, “I am a writer,” lack the confidence to do so, but lots of people who spend all day declaring “I am a writer!” are also doing it because they don’t feel secure or loved when they are not making those bold declarations. Maybe the difference has more to do with trust or lack of trust in your own conscious thinking. Some people (self-determiners) trust that the individual must consciously form his own experience; other people (emersion types) trust that the outside world has its own intelligent or powerful sway. They might be called the “imposer” versus the “absorber.”
For the outside, it might seem that emersion types are more flexible, more open to working in different media and listening to different voices. Maybe the self-determiner comes off as more arrogant or pretentious. Perhaps the emersion type looks like she has less need for public praise, as if her process is as important to her as her product is.
You can probably tell from this post—from my need to name two distinct types—that I’m a self-determiner who would love to get more in touch with her emersion side. Yes and yes. The emersion type seems to have a lightness in her. I love the image with which Patti Smith opens her book. She’s very young, walking with her mother past a beautiful bird she doesn’t know the name for. Patti’s mother says it’s a “swan,” and Patti doesn’t think a word captures the feeling that that creature gives her. “The sight of [the bird] generated an urge I had no words for,” she writes, “a desire to speak of the swan, to say something of its whiteness, the explosive nature of its movement, and the slow beat of its wings.” She has “a desire…to say something” but does not want to designate the thing as a “swan.” She has an experience without yet knowing the words that adults use; she feels something light, swift, and still, and wants to dwell there before words congeal the feeling into something more like life’s long planning. She enjoys an instinct not yet congealed into words. And, intermittently, we self-determiners have a desire to fly to that spot, too.
Have you read Just Kids? Does this dichotomy make sense to you?
Ilana Simons is a therapist, literature professor, and author of A Life of One's Own: A Guide to Better Living through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf. Visit her website here.