Brain Pickings

Patti Smith’s Advice to the Young, by Way of William S. Burroughs

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“To be an artist — actually, to be a human being in these times — it’s all difficult. … What matters is to know what you want and pursue it.”

In this short video from the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, legendary performer, poet, lettuce-soup maker, and beloved reconstructionist Patti Smith offers her life’s wisdom to the young. Highlights below.

On finding your purpose and doing what you love:

A writer, or any artist, can’t expect to be embraced by the people [but] you just keep doing your work — because you have to, because it’s your calling.

On maintaining creative integrity and not compromising — the best advice she ever got, from none other than William S. Burroughs (who typically offered the young advice of a more politically incorrect nature), which stayed with her all along:

Build a good name. Keep your name clean. Don’t make compromises, don’t worry about making a bunch of money or being successful — be concerned with doing good work and make the right choices and protect your work. And if you build a good name, eventually, that name will be its own currency.

On relinquishing the false god of perfection and instead learning to ride with life’s ebb and flow:

To be an artist — actually, to be a human being in these times — it’s all difficult. … What matters is to know what you want and pursue it.

[…]

[Life] is like a roller coaster. It’s never going to be perfect — it is going to have perfect moments, and then rough spots, but it’s all worth it.

In her superb 2010 memoir, Just Kids (public library), Smith traces her own journey to that first spark of creative calling after a trip to the Philadelphia Museum of Art as a “moping twelve-year-old, all arms and legs.” The visit left her profoundly mesmerized by the world of art and its alluring promise:

Secretly I knew I had been transformed, moved by the revelation that human beings create art, that to be an artist was to see what others could not.

In the book, she also paints a colorful portrait of the notoriously eccentric Burroughs:

William Burroughs was simultaneously old and young. Part sheriff, part gumshoe. All writer. He had a medicine chest he kept locked, but if you were in pain he would open it. He did not like to see his loved ones suffer. If you were infirm he would feed you. He’d appear at your door with a fish wrapped in newsprint and fry it up. He was inaccessible to a girl but I loved him anyway.

He camped in the Bunker with his typewriter, his shotgun, and his overcoat. From time to time he’d slip on his coat, saunter our way, and take his place at the table we reserved for him in front of the stage.

Just Kids remains a must-read. Pair Smith’s advice with more words of wisdom to the young (at heart) by Neil Gaiman, Andrei Tarkovsky, Charles Bukowski, and E. O. Wilson.

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