By Matt Liebowitz
Keri Smith has made a career out of her untamed imagination. Her bestselling books—Wreck this Journal, Everything Is Connected, and The Guerilla Art Kit—inspire readers to draw, to write, to share, to explore, to explode, to tear down and shake up and start over and, in the end, ultimately, to explore and create.
But as she told the Williston Writer’s Workshop on Monday, October 3, Smith’s life, and her life’s mission, got off to a rocky start.
As a student growing up near Toronto, Smith said the system “failed her.” She missed school—72 absences one year, she said. When she wasn’t dreaming up creative ways to stay home, she went to class and recognized was that school wasn’t for her. It tamped her down, made her feel small and insignificant.
“I had an unlimited potential for creation at home,” Smith said, but school, she said, was repetitive. “I did what teachers expected.”
Doing the same thing every day, Smith said, “my imagination was crushed.” As she moved into high school, Smith became removed from her peers, and eventually tried suicide.
“I believed my failure in high school was due to a deficiency of some kind,” Smith said. “It was devastating. There was no one there to listen.”
Those whose role it was to help her along failed her as well. Her high school guidance counselor, Smith said, told her “there’d be a lot of openings for dental hygienists.” The audience laughed. “Can you imagine me? A dental hygienist?”
Smith’s life, and her path towards inspiring others as not only an author but an illustrator, guerilla artist, lecturer, and self-proclaimed “inventor,” took a positive turn when she began devouring the books on a friend’s college course list.
“I was a quest to find meaning, [to find] and explanation of what it means to be human.” To that end, she “became insatiable,” and read Tolstoy, Vonnegut, Dostoyevsky, L’Engle, Salinger, the Brontes, and a host of others. “Nothing was out of my reach.”
Her own exploration was set in motion by reading. She moved to the U.S. She got married. She ended up in Troy, New York, where she began carrying a journal. Following the thought experiments posed by Albert Einstein and experimental modernist composer John Cage, Smith’s journal projects began to take evolve.
“I thought, ‘What if the journal itself became the experiment,’” she said. “What if we moved into a place of not knowing?”
“That,” Smith added, “is the goal.”
In her series of journals, which also include This is Not a Book, Finish this Book, Tear up this Book, and Pocket Scavenger, Smith provides place for what she called “happy accidents, mistakes, chance, surprise, or trying something you’ve never done before.”
The final slide in Smith’s wonderfully-illustrated presentation displayed her list of rules for a creative and inventive life. (The subtitle read: “AKA My Secret Powers.”)
The inspirational list read like an encapsulation of not just what Smith does, but who she is: Use your curiosity as a guide; Use the senses in every endeavor; Feature your weirdness; Question reality; Question everything; and the final one: Remember that you are at the helm of your own education. You can create it and tailor it to your needs.
As expected, Smith’s presentation ended with a simple, outrageous call to action. She instructed everyone in the audience to wear the stacks of tissue paper that had been hidden under their chairs. Some made tall, cylindrical chefs hats; others tied bandanas; other made capes. Smith, taking pictures of the crowd, looked delighted.