I’ve just started reading “Just Kids”, Patti Smith’s memories of her days with artist Robert Mapplethorpe. Patti is an illuminating writer, recounting events, sights, sounds and emotions in a detailed and often melancholy way. The detail is what throws me off a bit. Some people have an ability to pull up intricate memories from the depths of their consciousness and describe the minutia of earlier experiences. I remember John Dean, during the Watergate hearings, replaying word-for-word conversations he had had with President Nixon and thinking at the time, “Wow, what a memory. Or, what a great creator of those conversations.”
When I was doing the research for my doctoral dissertation, I interviewed thirty people about their experiences living in historic parts of their communities. I used two tape recorders and took notes during those interviews and I still think that I missed a great deal of the conversations. Not everything stuck in my mind as it would have John’s.
So Patti Smith’s ability to remember exactly what she said and felt and did when she was six and fifteen and twenty-two impresses and perplexes me. I read her words with not a little skepticism, but I have developed a strategy for approaching this book that I think will help me through it: I’ve decided to read it as if it were a novel rather than a remembrance. I can read the conversations she recounts and think of the events she describes the same way I read Proust or Hemingway or Doctorow. What she tells me doesn’t have to be the literal truth; just truth on the different scale.