Taking art to heart: words of wisdom from a rock goddess

Patti Smith

via NPR.org

A few months ago, John and I went to see Patti Smith perform live downtown. I was a new fan having just read her National Book Award winning memoir Just Kids, and John, though not incredibly familiar with her music, was curious about my new girl crush. That night, we both left the venue energized, inspired, and starstruck. That Patti Smith? She is a badass, and one hell of a performer. And if you’ve read her book, you undoubtedly know she is full of wisdom.

So when I saw this video the other day of even more inspiring words from Patti, I took them to heart:

Patti Smith: Advice to the young from Louisiana Channel on Vimeo.

A writer or any artist can’t expect to be embraced by the people… you just keep doing your work because you have to, because it’s your calling. But it’s beautiful to be embraced… Some people have said to me, well, don’t you think that kind of success spoils one as an artist… and I say, you know, fuck you! One does their work for the people, and the more people you can touch, the more wonderful it is. You don’t do your work and say, “I want only the cool people to read it.’

And you know? That was really refreshing to hear.

Of course I’m writing primarily for myself—that’s numero uno. Of course not everyone will like it—that’s a given. Of course most people will never even read it. Is this reason enough to quit writing and feign passion for investment banking? Hell fucking no. (No offense to all you investment bankers out there, but I just shivered, and it wasn’t the good kind.)

In fact, rather than serving as cause to give up and wimper in the corner, being a relative unknown is just the opposite: I am liberated by the fact that anyone and no one at all could be reading my work at any given moment. This, for me, is the ultimate freedom.

As a blogger…

I can write a post to make you laugh.

I can write a post to make you cry.

I can write a post that attempts and fails to do either of these things.

I can write a post to make you think. (I can also write a post to make you think, WTF?)

I can write in a boat or with a goat, and the world, overall, would not notice, nor give many shits one way or the other.

But it’s worth it to know that even the tiniest fraction of a percent of the world’s population does. And because writing nothing serves no purpose for personal growth—mine or anyone else’s—I will continue to write. Never in an attempt to alienate anyone. Never in an attempt to please everyone. (Certainly not just the cool people.) If anything, I’ll be writing just to please Patti Smith, who understands that even if the majority of the world is never savvy to your creation, it’s worth every ounce of sweat and worry if it comes from a place of sincerity and touches even just one person. If you’re consistent, persistent, passionate, and genuine, chances are you’ll reach way more than just one person. Which, when you think about it, is incredible.

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  1. Girl, I hear you! I think as soon as you starting sharing anything you created, the hope is that you’ll touch a lot of people, especially when blogging can reduce them to numbers. But when you think that even one or ten people who don’t personally know you read and appreciate what you have to say, it’s pretty amazing. It’s a worthy contribution. I love the freedom that comes from not having a lot of readers. There’s definitely an opportunity to be more transparent because you’re not trying to get 5 million people to like you (and there’s less chance of hateful comments!) Rock on, Patti Smith; I really liked what she had to say 🙂

    • Yep, there is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting success (and I most certainly do), but I can appreciate that with the relatively modest following I do have, I don’t feel extreme pressure to live up to some self-imposed standard. Hopefully if (when?!) I achieve great success, I have the capacity to keep my cool and continue to write for the reasons that got me started.

  2. “Be concerned with doing good work and make the right choices.”

    Well, this has just helped me answer a dilema I have plopped myself into today. I never knew Patti Smith was so cool. She is so motivating, while being utterly blunt, to the point and honest as possible.

    I’m completely agree with you; most of this world doesn’t know me, or care what I am writing, but to know just a small amount of people are reading, enjoying or connecting with it is marvellous.

  3. And ANOTHER book I have to add to my looooong list. Will you stop it already? =]

    I totally know what you mean with this. Often what stops me from writing is thoughts of, “What if no one reads this, or comments on it?” or “What if no one can relate/everyone hates it/I’m wrong/it’s stupid?”. But really, though, who the fuck cares? If I truly want to be a writer, which I do, then I need to just write like a motherfucker, consequences or reactions or other peoples’ opinions be damned. I can’t write for anyone except those that will love what I write, even, if I don’t know who they are. This was a great reminder of that, thanks Cassie (and Patti).

    • Haha you will LOVE it. And I forgot to note that you don’t have to be familiar with her music to love her book, but you will totally want to be when you’re done with it. Put this one at the top of your list.

      Also, I love the Cheryl Strayed reference in your comment. I’ve been meaning to do a girl crush post on her for some time. I think this topic will be a recurring theme here. 🙂

  4. Patti Smith is one amazing lady. Just Kids has been sitting on my nightstand for months, but for some reason I haven’t cracked it open. Until just recently I worked in the photography department of a museum that holds the entire collection of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs and there are so many beautiful images of Patti in her youth. I’m so familiar with those pictures, but I guess I never realized how wise and articulate she is. After watching this video, I definitely have a girl crush on her, too.

    • Ahh, that’s so cool you’ve worked in such close proximity to his photographs! Somehow, I’d never heard of him before reading Just Kids, but obviously it prompted me to check out his work. What a talented, tortured soul. Read that book on your nightstand – you’ll love it!

  5. This was super inspiring. Thank you.

    I think the hardest part for me as a writer (or anything I put in the public eye) is letting go of what my family (i.e. my mother) will think of it. I have no problem keeping some things to myself to avoid controversy but sometimes I feel like I stifle my voice for fear of judgment. It’s funny, but even at 28 I’m having a hard time seeking parental approval for my actions and words. I know I’m an adult and that I need to be myself, but I still find myself living like I’m 12 and have to report back to the parentals.

    This was very timely for me, it’s inspiring me to let it go. Just the reinforcement I needed.

    • So glad this resonated with you, Brandi, and I think a lot of us can relate to what you’re going through. Growing up, we think adulthood just kicks in at a certain age and we no longer have to worry about what our parents think, but that is often far from the case. If you feel like you’re stifling your voice just to please your parents, then there’s your signal that it’s time for a shift. I’m sure it’ll be freeing when you do let that go.

  6. Is it bad that I have never heard of her before? But, she sounds amazing and I’m going to check out more of her work NOW!!!

    • Nope, but it’s great that you have now! When my mom recommended her book, her name was only familiar, but I didn’t know why. When I checked out her music I realized I did know a couple of songs, but that was about it. Now I’m obsessed. With her writing, her music, all of it!

  7. Part of what’s nice about being young is that we have (comparatively) more freedom to follow our dreams. If there ever were a time to just write because you love it, now’s that time. We don’t have to care about what other people think; we don’t have any dependents relying on our salaries. We can be more open with our audiences, take risks, and it’s all wonderful. Being passionate, persistent, and genuine is enough. But I think this is something that gets harder as we age (and create families of our own). Now, if I say something and people disagree or dislike me because of it, I don’t really care. However, if someone were to treat my children differently because of something I said, I’d care. I don’t know that I’d necessarily change (I hope that I wouldn’t), but I would definitely take note.


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  2. […] month, I shared the wise words of musician/writer Patti Smith, whose advice to young artists was to keep a good name and do your work because you love it (but […]

  3. […] I can think of countless writers, musicians, and other creatives: Cheryl Strayed, John Green, Patti Smith, and, if we’re going the dead or alive route, Frank Zappa and Sylvia Plath—just to name a […]

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