Patti Smith, Trains of Creativity, and the Little Things We Notice

I’ve been reading Just Kids by Patti Smith and I don’t want it to end. I’m not sure what it is that I find so spellbinding about her writing, but it was the same with M Train when I read that last year. Like a pair of comfortable boots, I’d live in them I could.

M Train begins with the line: “It’s not so easy writing about nothing.” And you may be fooled into thinking it is a book about nothing. Patti talks in streams about coffee, cafes, wandering, memories, books, waiting, superstition and coincidence with little linearity or focus. But in showing us what her down time looks like, she shows us the profound. Poetic vision isn’t some gift radioed in from another world; it’s in the everyday, in the gaps between ego events. Our art is in the little things we notice when we think we’re doing nothing. And sometimes there is no point, no single focus of meaning. Sometimes the only thing we need to take away from an experience is our own natural response.

“Life is at the bottom of things and belief is at the top, while the creative impulse, dwelling in the center, informs all.”

For me, M Train was itself on a trajectory of synchronicity. It was exactly a year on from writing Mind in the Gap (which has a main character called M and a string of wacky experiences on trains) that I noticed it, and I was still at a bit of a loss as to what I would do next. I’d been playing about with some ideas, redrafting an old novel, but nothing seemed to gel. Then, somewhere between the lines of Patti Smith’s nothing, I started thinking about my own nothing. And, from a stream of consciousness style notebook I kept on a trip to London, I got a good start on the novella that is to become Endless Circles. Something comes from nothing.

When we read books, we tend to focus on the things we can match to our own life experiences and on things that awaken us to new perspectives. Things that might inspire us to change ourselves. In our minds we take cuttings of all that is relevant to us and paste them in a scrapbook. On the face of it, Just Kids is a picture drawn of New York City in the late 60s and early 70s. It’s a story of love, art, and connection. But just as with M Train, it was the little things that had the most impact on me. They gave me a space to dream.

I dream of Patti in her room in the Chelsea Hotel: a makeshift studio space with a space to sleep, as opposed to a bedroom with a space to create. I see huge sheets of paper stuck up all over, ready for paintings, drawings, words. I see handwritten and typed leaves of poetry in progress, scraps of discarded sketches; lyrics piling up on the floor and creeping up the walls like a continuous, living thing. The value here is clear: art must be allowed to penetrate every aspect of daily life.

“I’m giving projects the real estate in my home that I want them to have in my head.”

I compared this vision to a modern writer’s workspace. We may have a mood board or stock images for character inspiration, but the majority of our work in progress is in a file on a laptop. It’s great that we can carry many projects around with us to work on whenever we like, but I can’t help but feel some immediacy has ironically been lost by not having the work itself right in front of us. It’s not the first thing we see when we wake. It’s not even the first thing we do when we turn on our computers.

So now I’m printing things off and pinning things up. I’m leaving those scraps of handwritten prose around my workspace instead of packing them away at the end of a session. I’m making the tools of my craft more visually accessible; open notebooks, primed canvases, scribbles on the wall. I’m giving projects the real estate in my home that I want them to have in my head. I’m changing my presentation of what it means to be an artist from hidden away hobby to lifeblood and obsession.

When Patti Smith performed at her first poetry night, she was amazed to receive multiple offers of publishing and record deals. She turned them down, feeling it was too easy; that she hadn’t worked hard enough for it yet. I’ve heard this kind of thing referred to as a glorification of the starving artist stereotype, but I think there’s more to be taken from it than that.

We need time to come to terms with what our art is for ourselves. We must first understand it, refine it, embody it, before we let someone else run with it. That takes practice and experimentation, either alone or with feedback from a close group of peers. Just because we can hit ‘publish’ immediately on our first draft, it doesn’t mean we should. (Although, as I discovered in putting this blog post together, we absolutely shouldn’t shy away from that publish button when time is right either!)

Surrounding yourself with people who share your creative drive can be a massive boost. I love the idea of a welcoming community described at the Chelsea Hotel, where everyone created individually but supported one another by offering encouraging words and accidental inspiration. It gave me the dream of corridor after corridor, each room a home and studio for a unique twist of music, writing, painting, photography. I’m sure the reality was far more cliquey than that, but that’s the image I’m choosing.

I have a need now to open up to other creators. To find a space, even if that’s online, to interact with others who write and who are as passionate about their own projects as I am about mine. I want to follow progress, to lift and be lifted, to find mutual support in open sharing of artistic journeys.

“Our subjective perception of every person – of every situation – blurs the boundaries of fiction and reality. We tell every story in a way only we can.”

Much of what Patti Smith writes is in tribute to people in her life. Every individual is entangled in a network of others. She captures their portraits in sketches made from words. She frames them in stories that are made in her mind but are nevertheless strong as non-fiction. She puts herself in their shoes but sees through her own poet’s eyes. Our subjective perception of every person – of every situation – blurs the boundaries of fiction and reality. We tell every story in a way only we can.

And so, from now on, I will write about books in a way only I can. I’m not interested in critiquing, I’ve realised, but in bringing striking works to the attention of anyone who may have missed them and in showing how the words have affected me between the lines. I want to write book responses, not book reviews. I guess this meandering, tangential tribute is my first attempt.

I read the rest of the book, and I cried.

It’s rare for a book to make me cry. I recently read a short essay by Elisa Gabbert in which she ponders books that make us cry. At the time, I couldn’t remember the last one that did that to me or why. And then, just like that, I find it.

The end of Just Kids is about death and loss. The ending of a complex relationship between two people spiritually entwined. The deliverance, in a way, of the artist from struggle to altogether new territory. I knew it would be like this, and that’s perhaps why I was previously reluctant to read on.

Over the last few days I’ve felt somewhat lost. Disconnected, unmotivated. It’s hardly surprising with all that’s going on in the world at the moment, but the burden of an unfinished book I’m particularly taken with will add to that. I’ll carry its mood with me as I go about my life, unwilling to surrender it. Books are little worlds we can hide in and explore, and sometimes it can be hard to emerge from them. It’s like the longing to stay in the realm of youth; that tugging we feel as we know we are passing out the other side of it.

I didn’t know I needed to cry. I didn’t know I needed an emotional purge, to admit to mental discomfort. I didn’t know I was lacking in connection, self-soothing and wellbeing. So I cried for this realisation, and I cried because the end of the book marked the end of a journey I’d been taken on. I cried because someone else’s truth had been my escape. I cried because I’m empathetic. I cried because I’d given myself a reason to.

“The artist seeks contact with his intuitive sense of the gods, but in order to create his work, he cannot stay in this seductive incorporeal realm. He must return to the material world in order to do his work. It’s the artists responsibility to balance mystical communication and the labor of creation.”

Crying helped me to break out of the comfortable nest of thoughts I’d made and reconnect with what I needed to do next. I said goodbye to procrastination and allowing the artist in me to be hidden away. And instead of mourning the end of Just Kids, or revising this essay for the sixtieth time, I’m going to go and make some art about it.

Founder of Orchid’s Lantern, C.R. Dudley is an artist, writer, and mind explorer. She is fascinated by the human condition and sees everything she creates as part of one continuous artwork. Her books Fragments of Perception and Mind in the Gap are available from our shop.

You can also follow her on Twitter.

2 thoughts on “Patti Smith, Trains of Creativity, and the Little Things We Notice

Add yours

  1. Well, it’s a big YES to ‘book responses’ from me!

    This is a fantastic, heartfelt piece of writing, Caroline! I’ve been in a creative lull the last while and reading this was genuinely inspiring.

    You hit the nail on the head with giving your art real estate. It’s very easy to hide the creative process away, especially with writing, but it’s so much better to have a space which is constantly primed and alive with your creative process. I have always wanted a space that is both the place I create in and a creation in itself that grows around me. Maybe I’ll figure something out now…

    Saying that the artist’s own view of themselves and their process can be that of a ‘hidden away’ hobbyist really struck a chord with me. I struggle with the concept of seeing myself as an artist even though I’ve been creating all my life. I often hide that part away from the outside world. I must try harder not to cover it up. As you said, ‘art must be allowed to penetrate every aspect of daily life’.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Pete, I’m so pleased to know this resonated.

      For me, the hardest part of having realisations like this is actually actioning them before the buzz fades. I’ve made some changes as I describe above, and now I have to make sure I run with that mentality.

      More book responses to come very soon!

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: