Inspiration through honesty, humility and humour

Patti Smith in Paris

Sometimes birthday gifts truly hit the spot. This one was given to me by a friend of mine whom I do not even speak to that regularly nor see that much, but on a spontaneous visit of his to London, right after my birthday, he gave me a book that has made a startlingly powerful impression on me.

Just Kids is Patti Smith’s autobiography, written by her in memory of her great lover and friend Robert Mapplethorpe. I had never read a biography, let alone an autobiography, so I was somewhat skeptical on my first encounter with it: I couldn’t really imagine a story told by someone about their own life to be truly enjoyable to read without it being a slightly (or even remarkably) smug story by a vain writer. Because, let’s face it, there’s a high level of ‘me, me, me’ involved in writing and publishing such a story. At least, that was my prejudice, stupidly.What awaited me turned out to be quite the opposite.

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe

Firstly, let me tell you what Just Kids is about. In essence, it is about Patti Smith’s life since her childhood up to the death of Robert, which took place when she was in her forties. It mainly revolves around their time together in NYC in the late 60s and 70s. The story describes her life as an artist slowly developing and increasingly becoming her own person through all the experiences she lives during that time, which are absolutely incredible. From meeting Dylan to staying at the Chelsea Hotel and performing in the strangest places, interacting with the most amazing, unconventional and inspiring people of her time, daring to be different where others didn’t have the courage to.

In all this, however, she does not portray herself or her life as some extraordinary phenomenon: you can hear a person like any other telling their life’s story. It’s as if you were listening to your grandmother reminiscing about her youth, subsequently recounting how she’s changed throughout her life because of all the determining, crucial moments she’s lived during the years gone by. This sense of the personal, of the humble, is surely generated by Smith’s writing style.

She writes in such an easy way, as if she were truly telling all of these intimate, sometimes shocking thoughts and events to you over a coffee, or a late night hot chocolate, or simply a glass of rich, warming red wine. It is light but intense at the same time. It is extremely honest and rather humble. Sometimes she is cynical but not in a biting way. She simply tells her truth, her experiences, her views. She isn’t pretentious, doesn’t pretend to tell some kind of mind blowing story. She is authentically humorous without trying too hard. I respect her so much for what she has done by writing that book. I am sure not many people can do quite the same. Obviously, being a poet her writing skills are meant to be of a respectable, impressive degree. Nonetheless, I did not expect the book to be so gripping, nor that it would make such a lasting impact upon me.

Patti and Robert, once more

Patti Smith is special and her story is absolutely worth reading. In the unlikely event of me ever meeting her, I would express my utter gratitude for that little gem she has created. It has not only changed my views on (auto)biographies, therewith extending by thousands the books I am inclined to read (such as Jon Lee Anderson’s biography of Che Guevara I’m currently reading — completely different in style and scope, but nonetheless extremely interesting and inspirational); it has also introduced me to a period in NYC that I did not know enough about before and that seen from her viewpoint seems even more compelling: she offers her insights, her private observations and feelings. She does it in such an honest way that you cannot but embrace her words and actually undergo them while being transported to that exact moment, as if you were walking next to her through the Big Apple’s grimy 70s streets, living all those experiences yourself.

Ultimately, inspiration kindles in me a desire to do something, which in this case is not only to read more of this genre, but also to actually produce it. Not necessarily by writing about my own life, but by going out there and collecting moments and experiences that are worth telling, with the idea in mind that life has so incredibly much to offer. This sentiment that is invoked within me on the occasions I feel inspired is exactly what I search for and what makes me truly thrive and feel alive: it’s the ultimate push without actually being pushy: the best kind of drive.

Just Kids: that’s how Patti conceives of herself and her best buddy. I take this conception — that of being ‘just kids’ — as a wise lesson from an admiring individual, interpreting it as a warning not to take ourselves too seriously and simultaneously urging us to feel unrestricted to take the leap whenever the opportunity presents itself. Just go for it, just do it, just live life and fully savour it, always cherishing that sense of wonder at the world.

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