Review of Patti Smith’s ‘Just Kids’ and thoughts on creativity

For the past two weeks I’ve been reading Just Kids by Patti Smith and this book has put me deep in thought.   Chronicling Patti Smith’s friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, this autobiography shows that creativity can be a driving force and they both made sacrifices for their eventual successes.

After briefly explaining her upbringing Patti Smith starts out with when she met Robert Mapplethorpe in 1967, when they were both twenty years old. They had a connection right away. Mapplethorpe was pursuing art while Smith pursued poetry. Slowly throughout the book it tells how with their art as a creative bond Smith eventually turned to music and Mapplethorpe turned to photography. To me it shows that creative people can change their medium of choice, but the process of creating things new is larger. For a good portion of the time period in the book from 1967 to 1978 Smith tried out acting, play writing, and poetry before being an innovator in punk rock with poetic lyrics. Mapplethorpe tried all sorts of art. He developed a technique of collages using images from homosexual pornography magazines. The printed image would be one part of it, but he’d find frames, and other objects for installations.  Years passed before he started the controversial photography that he became known for. After reading the book I looked up his work limiting a google search to his name and ‘images.’ The photographs are the art, as opposed to photographed images being part of an instillation or a larger project.  When he started out his art ambitions photography was not his pursuit.

Smith and Mapplethorpe were lovers, partners, and their whole existence was art. Perhaps because they were so close they both could change their direction and focus. Again I find it amazing that a poet could make it in music and an artist could switch to photography.  Reading this I thought that being creative is not limited to a specific form, but the process of creating itself. Just like practicing a sport learning one thing leads to the next progression. Creative people like to produce. The same thing goes for writing. Over the past two months I’ve been reading Buddenbrooks by Thomas Mann. I’m reading it slow, but it does not seem like the same author as Magic MountainBuddenbrooks was his first novel, and Magic Mountain came out twenty odd years later in the time of literary progression after World War I and the 1920’s.  Magic Mountain is by far the superior book. I think with all art forms the idea is progression, to continually surpass your own work. That is one thought that ran through my mind when I read Smith’s autobiography, is how creative they were.

Another thing I thought about while reading this is that they did sacrifice to be able to concentrate on their art. Smith describes that on their ‘anniversary’ they made the long subway journey to Coney Island. Most years they split a hotdog and a soda, because they could not afford to have a full meal per person. Smith was a bookseller to pay bills. Through book knowledge she could pick up rare books and objects and garage sales and sell them for profit to collectors or rare bookstores.  Smith had a work ethic, but did not get trained for a career or a trade to make life financially easier. Mapplethorpe worked less and at some points would prostitute himself to make ends meet. Both were focused on their art, making success the only choice.  I think the threat of a not having a regular paycheck is a deterrent for most people against the art life. Most success stories of art, music, and writing that I’ve read or heard about involve some lean years.

Maybe I’m self absorbed, but I questioned my own dedication to writing while reading Smith’s book.  I can truly say I have not sacrificed anything to be a writer. I enjoy my career as a librarian. I took the steps for a career as a librarian. It is not simply a way to pay my bills.  I like to write and can envision myself as a glorious author, but it is not really an obsession. I’ll write in my blog, and write some stories for a few months. But I think creative people that is their focus, making things or writing a ton. I have other goals, I want to be in better shape, skate better, be financially responsible, and at some point meet a woman. I would not say that my main life focus is writing by any means. Every successful writer or artist does have that focus. I also wonder if people that succeed treat it like a full time job, and with that the focus can’t be a career. I enjoyed reading this book by Patti Smith but I did question my own validity as a writer.  I chose the comfortable life instead of putting all of my focus on my writing ambitions.

Lastly, this book really shows that being in the right place and the right time is a big part of every success. In 1970 to 1972 Smith and Mapplethorpe lived at the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan, apparently that was the place to be. They meet other artists, poets, playwrights, and musicians of varying fame that were neighbors to them. They made connections at the center of the New York City creative scene. Now I imagine people of fame live in gated communities and communities like this probably don’t exist without a price.  So Patti Smith was twenty-three years old and sitting in a bar next to Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin. Lots of names are dropped in this. I’m sure if you googled the names in this book there would be information on them. Basically Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe were in the right place to channel their creativity by hanging around their contemporaries.  Later, once Patti Smith started creating music, a venue was perfect for rock n roll experimentation.  She learned her craft at the famous CBGB’s. I read Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and there are a few similarities to successful people.  One of them is a means to practice the craft, and really practice, and the other is the opportunity that time creates. Patti Smith was young in the late sixties, but old enough to learn from that great time in music. In her mid twenties she was at the heart of New York City, during another creativity in the development in music. She could capitalize and be a part of the progression of music in the 1970’s with all of her previous experience.

One more thing, this book was meant to pay tribute to Robert Mapplethorpe who died of AIDS in 1989. Her memory of their time together is vivid and poignant. She liked his energy and art.  Until later on she did not do drugs but did not judge him for his use, the first time they met he was on acid. I did not know anything about Robert Mapplethorpe before I read this, but now I feel that I do.  The last third of the book is poignant, because she tells of his last days, and also other people in their circle died as well.

I recommend this to anyone interested in creativity. For me I now want to read more about artists. This is something I don’t know much about, even though my sister is an artist. Time to learn more.

7 thoughts on “Review of Patti Smith’s ‘Just Kids’ and thoughts on creativity

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