'Smells Like Teen Spirit' (or the 6 things Patti Smith taught me about creativity)
I've heard many different artists or creatives speak about mentors and how important they are for young people pursuing a life dedicated to making things. Austin Kleon, the author of NYT best-seller STEAL LIKE AN ARTIST, talks about adopting mentors through reading biographies and studying the lives of people you want to learn from. Lana Del Rey (my love) even offers advice to her fans saying "pick your role-models wisely, find out what they did and do it..."
In the spirit of "finding out what they did" I was inspired to read Patti Smith's memoire JUST KIDS, a prolific and inspired picture of two artists struggling to unlock their creative consciousness and to create. It's arguably one of the most powerful biographies I've ever experienced, and I say experience because Patti Smith refuses to write something you simply read. It permeates to your core... however unsettling or painful or romantic, you will be moved by her words, her madness, and her passion.
Patti Smith's relationship with the late artist Robert Mapplethorpe is a dynamic pairing of two incredible creative minds, exceedingly different, yet interwoven and very much the same. Patti's honest and raw expression of two kids fighting for creative freedom in a merciless New York City moved me so deeply that I could not escape the fact that something deep in my consciousness was moving, and whether I had initially intended it or not, Patti was teaching me. I had unwittingly adopted her as a mentor, and what she taught me is equally inspiring and haunting. Six things specifically stood out to me as I read her book. I've outlined them below...
1. CREATIVITY IS NOT A RACE...
One of the first things about Patti's early life that struck me was that she never seemed to be paranoid about when she'd achieve a certain level of status or notoriety in the art world. She lived with a certain conviction that she would do something that mattered, but didn't appear to be anxious about when that moment would come. I was reminded that in order to have the freedom to create work that is good, it has to be honest. And in order to be honest, we have to have the time for self-discovery-- a process that simply cannot be rushed. It has to come out life on it's own, it can't be forced out. Conviction to create is only half the battle, the other half is having patience with our own mind, trusting that it will catch up with our conviction in it's own time and that the perspective that comes out of that will be enough because it is distinct to our own identity--exclusively ours.
2. CONSTANTLY CREATE (even if it sucks)
Patti writes a lot about how in the early days of her poetic work she often could not complete a poem. She would write until she hit a wall she could not get over and stop. Start a new poem. Hit a wall. Repeat. We don't usually think about having to persevere through creativity, but finding the resolve to continue trying, even when it doesn't work, is so much easier said than done. She mentions having pages full of half-written works, poems that would never be finished. But all the "failed" work eventually fed into her collective vision and drove her to make something that mattered. She truly had an innate sense of "process" as opposed to a finished "product" and, as I said earlier, trusted in her conviction enough to press further into her ability, requiring her work to grow.
3. YOUR CREW IS EVERYTHING
About a third of the way through the book, Patti and Robert take up residence at the Hotel Chelsea and the work they create from that point on is distinctly elevated. At the time, The Hotel Chelsea was a gathering place for artists, musicians, and the like of all calibers and backgrounds. Patti refers to her interactions with those who frequented it's grounds, from Allen Ginsberg to Bob Dylan. The point isn't that they were surrounded by fame, as many of these people had not yet reached their platforms of success, but that they were surrounded by other like-minded people who were driven mad by the same desire to make something, to develop their perspective, to becomes something. I've come to find that creativity fuels creativity, and nowhere have I found that to be more valid than in JUST KIDS. The concept is even Biblical, referenced in 1 Corinthians 15:33. If "bad company corrupts good morals," then "bland company corrupts inspired creativity." Patti drives home the point that who you surround yourself with is directly linked to the work you create.
4. YOU'VE BARELY SCRATCHED THE SURFACE
The number 1 thing that just about knocks me out about PUNK/ROCK LEGEND Patti Smith is that she never even attempted to sing until her late 20's. Life as a musician never seemed to cross her radar until she had already lived very much as an artist, poet, and collaborator with Robert Mapplethorpe. The very thing that made her LEGENDARY evaded her until she first started collaborating with musicians around the age of 27. Culturally we are so addicted to the "prodigy" narrative-- the idea that if your body of work isn't ground-breaking by the time your 20, you're done before you've even begun. Patti is PROOF that good work is HARD work and HARD work takes TIME. Time requires investment and investment requires constant reevaluation of where you are and what you're doing all the while trusting conviction and process. We are never a finished product. The best thing we can dream for ourselves is that our best work is ahead of us, not behind us.
5. SHOW YOUR WORK (to whoever will listen)
When Patti made the first steps into the world that would become PUNK, she performed live readings of her poetry set to music. More performance artist than musician, her poetic identity was raw and unfiltered, pained, yet beautiful. She would sit on a stage and read her work, often in the midst of a jeering audience who let her know exactly what they were thinking. She talks about finding her voice and calling out the nay-sayers, developing what would become her infamous repartee with a crowd looking for trouble. She was willing to show her work to whoever would listen, without worrying about perfection she was willing to learn from the awkward and uncomfortable. These early live shows weren't about making other people like her work, nor were they about validation, these moments were about her continued pursuit to discover the power of her work in it's vast potential, and that an audience, however brutal, can teach you about trusting your voice and finding your fight.
6. PAIN YEILDS BEAUTY, LOSS BRINGS LIFE
Artists are notorious for being moody, unpredictable, volatile, and often victims of incredible loss. Patti knows a think or two about disappointment, heartache, and defeat. She gained a lot. She lost a lot. What I could not escape while reading her book is the fact that in the midst of her pain and loss and empathy for brokenness, is this exquisite beauty and poetry in the narrative of her life. To experience heartache is to have lost something loved, to have loved something is to have lived, and truly living is what we are all desperately trying to do. The vibrancy of living passionately and assuming the accompanying risks colors Patti's entire body of work. So much of her work expresses a raw and unmitigated rage, passion, and fire for what it is to live freely without subscribing to what is popular, what is easy, or what is safe. Patti knows rage as well, and it is this rage that seems to fuel her endless passion for realism. To know rage is to care about what is wrong and to fight for what is right. To be devoted to conviction without distraction. Complacency is death. Creativity--true art, cannot exist in the midst of complacency.
Thank You, Patti Smith
The creative life is a life of passion, empathy, and rage. It requires active participation in madness and uncertainty and demands disregard for safety and ease. Having conviction requires that we disregard our need for survival. This list is by no means comprehensive, but it is the lesson plan of how Patti taught me that art without madness cannot exist. If we want to create something that matters, we have to let go of certainty and dive into something greater. This is not my wisdom, it is Patti's. I can only be filled with gratitude for her willingness to share. We are never a finished product, we are always learning, growing, and changing. Patti makes me want to be committed to these ideals and trust in who we are becoming and that no matter what, it will be worth fighting for.