If you have this calling, I have no advice for you. Work hard.
I saw Patti Smith at USC last week, and those were the words of advice she gave to the last questioner, a young woman who asked what advice she’d give to young female artists. After responding that the questioner should get past labeling herself (“No one calls Picasso a male artist”) she said there was really nothing to say. I’m sure people don’t love to hear that, but it’s just as honest as everything else she said that night. Make work, work hard. There is no other way. Her career is a testament to that. She told everyone that if they could only buy one album this year, to buy the new My Bloody Valentine album and not hers. She is all about creation and art. Well, read her book, and that’s pretty clear.
I don’t work hard at it, if I'm honest with myself. It's scary. It's exhilarating as well to see someone as open as she is. What resonated for me in what she spoke about that evening, and what I heard at the LA Library talk the following evening, was influences and the desire/urge/need to do something when you’re experiencing others’ art.
The interviewer asked Patti Smith about all her influences, it was his first question. I’d just been writing about feeling overstuffed with things on this blog that day – too much material to see, things to read, feeling overstuffed. The first question hit me between the eyes. She spoke of feeling agitated when seeing a work that she responded to. She first called it excited, then changed to agitated, which felt apt – that feeling of discomfort in which you’re excited, propelled, uncomfortable, to make something yourself in response to what you’re seeing. I’d never heard it described that way, but that’s the feeling – a restless, get out of your chair kind of feeling.
The following night, I was lucky enough to see Bernard Cooper and George Saunders talk about writing at the LA Library and reading from their work. The theme was not knowing while writing, how to write when you’re not sure where you’re going. The discussion was fascinating, but what struck me was that both writers, and the moderator, spoke often of work they liked and quotes from writers they admired. These ideas guide them, hearten them, and inspire them.
We’re not alone when we think we are. All four of these people spoke of their influences, how they are buoyed, inspired, cowed by them, as well as how much they love and admire the works of their heroes. I have a tendency to think that there’s so much in the world and too much information to process at times. I know I won’t process it all. But that slight shift, into realizing that we all are influenced by others, and we can use those influences to inspire and challenge us, was welcome.
I love to read. I love to watch performance. I take notes when I go to museums. I get restless and agitated – watching the Rite of Spring I was composing prose in my head to describe what it was doing. Listening to Patti Smith sing Because the Night makes me want to sing as nakedly and giving as she does (I could go on about her fearlessness, openness, honesty, humor, but that’s for another thought; for that matter I could go on about how great George Saunders and Bernard Cooper were, too). When describing how she still feels so much love for her late husband when she sings it was palpable, light-giving. It’s heartening that we all have these influences, that they make us want to do better, to create, to delve deeper. I admit it’s probably shallow to feel like I need permission from others to feel this, but it’s not really permission – it’s acknowledgement of a shared impulse. That sharing is exciting. There was a theme at the library reading of favorite quotes, and even some of the audience members shared theirs before asking their questions.
We are living in a crowded time. We can’t get to it all, but when I get away from consumption to inspiration, it all turns around.