I read Just Kids by Patti Smith.
I enjoyed it, and recommend it.
It’s the story of Patti Smith arriving in New York aged 21 and meeting Robert Mapplethorpe. It’s the story of their friendship and parallel creative journeys.
These are my key takeaways.
She Wasn’t Afraid To Try Stuff
When you try new things, you learn new things.
Being in “Island” gave me the notion that I had a knack for performing. I had no stage fright and I liked to elicit a response from the audience. But I made a mental note that I wasn’t acting material. It seemed being an actor was like being a soldier: you had to sacrifice yourself to the greater good. You have to believe in the cause. I just couldn’t surrender enough of myself to be an actor.
This resonated with me because I used to think I wanted to compose music for film. Then I worked on a few indie projects and realized it wasn’t as much fun as I thought.
A reminder that trying stuff teaches us much more than fantasizing about them.
She Surrounded Herself With Good People
Note that there’s never a hint of that creepy “I need to build a network” kind of thinking in the book. It just seemed to happen naturally for her. Give and take. No hidden agenda.
On September 17 Andy Brown hosted a party to celebrate the release of my book, as well as the first exhibition of my drawings. Robert had gone through my drawings, selecting the ones to be shown. Sam paid to frame them, and Jane Friedman’s friend Dennis Florio framed them in his gallery. Everyone pitched in to help make it a good show.
Having someone you trust to listen to your work + Studying the people you admire = Perfect recipe to make progress
Robert was always my first listener and I developed a lot of confidence simply by reading to him. I listened to recordings of the beat poets and Oscar Brown Jr., and studied lyric poets like Vachel Lindsay and Art Carney.
A reminder that “no man is an island“. Influences and kindred spirits are there to help us make our creative work better.
She Was Patient
Patti Smith took her sweet time before she had her first reading.
When she felt ready, she jumped in.
Then this happened.
I was bombarded with offers stemming from my poetry reading. Creem magazine agreed to publish a suite of my poems; there were proposed readings in London and Philadelphia; a chapbook of poems for Middle Earth Books; and a possible record contract with Steve Paul’s Blue Sky Records. At first this was flattering, and then seemed embarrassing. […]
It came, I felt, too easy. Nothing had come to Robert so easily. Or for the poets I had embraced. I decided to back off. I turned down the record contract. […]
I thought of something I learned from reading Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas by Mary Sandoz. Crazy Horse believes that he will be victorious in battle, but if he stops to take spoils from the battlefield, he will be defeated. […] I tried to apply this lesson to the things at hand, careful not to take spoils that were not rightfully mine.
A reminder that we don’t have to jump at every opportunity. If it doesn’t feel quite right, it’s probably not.
She Had A Lot Of Faith In The Creative Process
Alongside patience, the trust in the creative process is a recurring theme throughout the book.
It’s hard to fully translate in a quote but perhaps this one will (emphasis mine).
Our set ended with a version of “Gloria” that had taken shape over the past several months, merging my poem “Oath” with the great Van Morrison classic. It had begun with Richard Hell’s copper-toned Danelectro bass. […] As I struck the note, I spoke the line: “Jesus died for somebody else’s sins but not mine.” I had written the line some years before as a declaration of existence.
A reminder that things of beauty take time to mature. We can’t be in a rush.
She Scratched Her Own Itch
Focused on doing what she believed in doing, without worrying too much about how people would receive her work.
“I don’t even know what I’m doing,” I shrugged, “but I can’t stop doing it. I’m like a blind sculptor hacking away.”
What we were doing was so undefined and there seemed to be no suitable venues. But the people were there, and I believed we had something to give them.
Through broken strings and a sometimes hostile crowd, we prevailed with the support of a colorful cast of friends.
A reminder that writing for yourself and a handful of people is enough.
She Wasn’t Immune To Self-Doubt And Procrastination
No one is.
I bought stacks of books, but I didn’t read them. 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. Once again I found myself what I should be doing to do something of worth. Everything I came up with seemed irreverent or irrelevant.
A reminder that it’s ok to procrastinate and doubt yourself.
You Can’t Make A Mistake If You Improvise
At one point in the book, Patti Smith describes how she got cold feet in the middle of the creative process.
“I can’t do this,” I said. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Say anything,” he said. “You can’t make a mistake when you improvise.”
“What if I mess up? What if I screw up the rhythm?”
“You can’t,” he said. “It’s like drumming. If you miss a beat, you create another.”
I absolutely LOVE this!
A reminder that we can never really screw up when we’re creating something, because any perceived screw up is just a chance to create something new.
One Last Thing Before You Go
After Patti Smith recorded a cover of a Jimi Hendrix song, as a tribute after his death….
We were surprised to discover that our B-side, “Piss Factory”, was more popular than “Hey Joe”, inspiring us to focus more on our own work.
A reminder that the audience can surprise us too 😉