Just Kids by Patti Smith
Suggested, optional soundtrack: Patti Smith, "Horses."
"I had no proof that I had the stuff to be an artist, though I hungered to be one."
Some believe certain books arrive in our lives for reasons we don't understand, like mysterious strangers knocking on our doors. With Patti Smith's soul-bending memoir Just Kids, this seemed to be the case: an old friend gifted me the book a few nights before I packed my car and once again obeyed Horace Greeley's famous advice: "Go West, young man."
Let me be more specific: I'd left my teaching job of seven years, given up my tiny-yet-coveted apartment in the Back Bay of Boston, and decided to move to Aspen, Colorado with my girlfriend. I had no plan of any kind, other than to write and play music, explore the vast mountains on foot and snowboard, and attempt to break a routine that was grinding my muse down to a fine dust. I rapidly folded, then ripped my old life apart, hoping the highways would provide new dotted lines to follow.
Fast-forward a few months, to when I opened the black cover adorned with a simple photo (1) of Smith and artist Robert Mapplethorpe. If you don't know the backstory, Patti Smith began as an aspiring poet in New York City in the late 1960s, but it wasn't long before she was performing her poems with a guitarist, and enduring poverty to dedicate her life to art in its many forms. Smith ultimately followed a crooked path to become one of the most influential performers and songwriters, not only within the New York City punk rock movement, but in the world. Robert Mapplethorpe, her best friend and partner in life and art, was a photographer who shattered conventionalism with his boldly sexual, controversial work. The book is both memoir of Smith's life-she is still touring and writing music-and beautiful tribute to her relationship with Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS in 1989.
The strength of the writing relies both on Smith's lyrical, philosophical prose, but also the subject at hand: a fumbling, disconnected period of mutual creative discovery, followed by the stuttering-then-scorching rise of both artists. Smith and Mapplethorpe meet as teenagers, and together they attempt to gain traction in the sprawling NYC art scene. They fail yet exult in their creations, they succeed and are wracked with doubt. The two are constantly working-painting, writing, promoting-and though they both realize their visions, it is in ways and forms that neither expected.
The story is not remarkable for the way it ends-we know Smith will create the now-classic album Horses, and we know Mapplethorpe will be eulogized by his own brilliant portfolio, among other things-but for its description of how willing each artist is to fail completely.
This was a reality I could relate to this past fall. I thought I was leaving the rigors of academia for a life filled with freedom and the clack of my keyboard. I envisioned rapid success; after all, I just needed time to create. But real-world concerns crept in, even in snowy, sunny Aspen, and finding inspiration for my novel proved difficult. Normally, when I can't write prose, songs and poems fill my notebook, but for a while, I couldn't create at all. Smith's words about her own periods of creative paralysis resonated: "I taped sheets of paper to the wall, but I didn't draw. I slid my guitar under the bed. At night, alone, I just sat and waited."
But pragmatic questions continued to assail me, yanking me from my work. Was I just avoiding the social and economic realities of adulthood? While many of my friends were enjoying promotions or starting families, I was working odd jobs, unable to even afford a sandwich from the coffee shop where I wrote. Smith, too, endured periods like this. She writes of herself and Mapplethorpe only being able to afford one visit to the art gallery among the both of them: "He waited for me, and as we headed towards the subway he said, "One day we'll go in together and the work will be ours."
My dilemma was existential, too. I wanted to believe I was driven by forces out of my control, some artistic impulse that set me apart from the masses. But maybe this was just an easy fantasy? Why was I writing; what was the point? As I examined my role as an artist, Smith, eerily in tune with my own ego, did the same:
In my low periods, I wondered what was the point of creating art. For whom?...Are we talking to ourselves? And what was the ultimate goal? To have one's work caged in art's great zoos - the Modern, the Met, the Louvre? I craved honesty, yet found dishonesty in myself. . . It seemed indulgent to add to the glut unless one offered illumination.
But as she self-analyzed, Smith also produced a stunning amount of work. As I finished her book, I realized this. And I stopped doubting myself, and pushed harder. My emboldened journal entries at the time reflect this:
Patti Smith told you things you should've figured out a long time ago: you are an artist. So allow yourself to create, lose, learn, screw up, and continue. Write every day, and stop worrying so much about the practicality of it.
So I continued to create, once again filling pages with words, once again pulling my guitar from underneath my bed. It didn't matter if no one was listening when I sang songs in crowded bars. It didn't matter that I didn't have an agent or publisher for my novel yet. I would get there. And even if I didn't, I would be doing this work anyway. I always had. I always would.
Once I realized this, the future regained its addicting shine. As Smith writes, "No one expected me. Everything awaited me."
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