5 Things Every Artist Should Learn From Patti Smith

… According to her memoir Just Kids


„You know you don’t have to be evil to be different,” I said. “You are different. Artists are their own breed.” (188)


Did you know that Patti Smith, one of the most original artists of our time, started out homeless on the streets of New York City?

Looking back on Just Kids, there seem to be five major factors that contributed to her success as an artist. – That is, apart from her Impossible Lovestory about which I wrote this other essay.

At the end, as always, I will add a very personal twist. This time, I am going to talk about what happened when I sent this book to a fellow artist along with a personal letter. But before we get to that, let’s explore those 5 contributory factors in Patti Smith’s success as an artist. Full disclosure: as an artist, I am not even close to anything I would call successful, but just as you are, I am getting there.

5 Factors Leading to Patti Smith’s Success as an Artist

1. Embrace the urge

I had no proof that I had the stuff to be an artist, though I hungered to be one. I imagined that I felt the calling and prayed that it be so. (11)

Have you ever felt so overwhelmed by something that you had to find an outlet for it? If you haven’t, then bless you, because it might be a lot easier for you to find your inner peace. If you have, though, you might have felt the need to numb whatever it was you were feeling, maybe with alcohol, drugs, sleep, food, sex… anything that could make you forget. Now that is perfectly normal (and basically how society works in general, but let’s discuss that another time), so you’ll probably be fine.

“What were you thinking?” I asked him.

“I don’t think,” he insisted. “I feel.” (71)

I believe an artist, however, feels not only deeply but also consciously and embraces their emotions to the fullest to create something extraordinary. Fear, Love, Anger, Grief. Helplessness. You name it. Being in need of an outlet, an artist takes the whole intensity of their emotions and transforms it into something meaningful.

It is said that children do not distinguish between living and inanimate objects; I believe they do. A child imparts a doll or tin soldier with magical life-breath. The artist animates his work as the child his toys. (136)

But don’t be mistaken, it is not like they have a choice. The urge to create is just there and it does not go away – although it may fade from time to time. If you find that urge within you, do yourself a favour and do no try to silence it. Listen. And do not be discouraged if your urge does not speak to you clearly. You might know that you have to create but not just yet what. You’ll figure it out, though.

At night, alone, I just sat and waited. Once again I found myself contemplating what I should be doing to do something of worth. Everything I came up with seemed irreverent or irrelevant. (214)

Just remember: You are not doing this for someone else, you are doing this mostly for yourself. Like… What would you do if you could do anything? If you had enough money to live a good life, what would you do with your time? If the answer has something to do with creating art in any form, there you go: You are already an artist.

And you don’t even need to be successful in it. The only reason to become successful as an artist is that you have no other choice, because there is nothing else you want to do.   

„I don’t even know what I’m doing,” I shrugged, “but I can’t stop doing it. I’m like a blind sculptor hacking away.” (177)


2. See as you do

“Patti, nobody sees as we do,” he told me. (80)

 One big part of being an artist, is opening your eyes and your heart to a certain way of perceiving the world around you. Your way. I know, it is so very difficult to silence all those voices that tell you what to see. Have an open heart and take a closer look. Why are people behaving the way they do? What does that mean for your art? Have the courage to create your own picture of how you see the world and how you want it to be. Remember you are doing this because you need to, and not to impress someone.

I preferred an artist who transformed his time, not mirrored it. (69)

You are unique and so is your art. Do not strive to become as good as one of your great idols you may be looking up to. Sure, you can – and should – let yourself be inspired by others, but in the end, you can only be your own kind of genuine artist. Follow your own style, your own voice, your own urge. In the end, you are the only person who can.

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. (11)

Dig deep. Never be afraid that you or your art could be too intense.Intensity is a good thing, although it scares people. And yes, it scares people away as well. 

They knew he was great, but they feared the intensity of his gift, and also what his subject matter might reveal about themselves. (199)

3. Trust in fate

I had no idea what I’d find or where I’d stay, but I trusted in fate. (227)

 As you know, Patti Smith started out as a homeless girl in New York City. And by starting out I mean leaving her home to follow her inner calling (the urge, as I call it) of becoming and artist – with only enough money in her pockets for a one-way ticket to Manhattan. Actually, not even that: at first she miscalculated and only found the money she needed for the ticket by accident in a phone booth. No, not by accident. By a whim of fate.   

I know what you are thinking. And yes, I am really going there. Spirituality and trust in fate were responsible for a huge part of Patti Smith’s actions. Believing in signs, having visions, following certain vibes… Patti often ended up in the right places at the right moments because she let herself be guided by seemingly arbitrary notions.

The goodwill that surrounded us was proof that the Fates were conspiring to help their enthusiastic children. (99)

All this time when Patti lived as a homeless bohemian, she felt free rather than desperate, knowing that she was on the right track, feeling the city and the stars guiding and protecting her. Sounds cheesy, I know, but if you read Just Kids, you will realize that trusting in fate is going to do the trick for whatever achievement you are working towards. Be aware though: Trusting in fate is not the same as waiting for something great to happen. It simply means listening closely to your intuition and following it. The following part is essential.

My point is: Identifying your urge is one thing, but having trust in fate to guide you is another. It means gathering up the courage to actually take a risk and do what you think you were meant to do. And sometimes it means doing something that might seem completely off-track and irrelevant. Because maybe that will turn out to having been necessary for something great to happen. Just like Patti cutting her hair in a specific way out of procrastination led to her being recognized by some people who had the right connections to put her on stage.

If it makes you feel better: Instead of calling it fate just call it trusting your gut. Or, even better, call it trusting yourself.

He did not have to ask for greatness, for the ability to be an artist, because he believed he already had that. (63)

4. Maintain artistic friendships

I longed to enter the fraternity of the artist: the hunger, their manner of dress, their process and prayers. (12)

Patti Smith felt that she had to be an artist (behold the urge) and not being able to afford art school, she thought going to New York to surround her with other artists was her best shot. As it turned out, she was right, although it was anything but easy for her. The friends she wanted to stay with were not there and she had no other option than to live out in the streets – until she finally got a small job at a bookstore, met Robert the artist of her life Mapplethorpe, and put herself in the right places at the right moments.

It was her friendships that made her the artist she finally became, supporting her, guiding her, teaching her, gently pushing her into the right direction. In Just Kids, she describes it as ifthere had been all these men giving her a stage and a voice. But really, it was shewho did it. She made friends who inspired her to explore her talents. She painted, she wrote for the Rolling Stone, she wrote poems and plays, she performed in theatre. But most of all, she listened, she let herself be taught, soaking up each and every piece of input she could get. Rather than being a self-centred know-it-all, she let people in, tried out what they suggested, and by that finally realized what she was meant to do.

“I want to be a poet, not a singer.”

“You can be both,” he said. (143)

Another perk of artistic friendships is the environment they provide. Fellow artists know your struggle, they know how it feels to be the odd one out. They know what it means to see as you do. And they know all your doubts, your discouragement, your despair. They have literally been there, done that. Let them be your safe place.

At its best, our friendship was a refuge from everything, where he could hide or coil like an exhausted baby snake. (236)

And last but not least, you need to be friends with other artists to keep you sane by fuelling your insanity. People who understand what is going on in your head are way more fun than people who keep telling you that you are weird.

Laughter. An essential ingredient for survival. And we laughed a lot. (104)

5. Above all: Commitment

There is one thing lying at the very bottom of success. Whether you are connecting to your calling as an artist, connecting to your visions, or connecting to people, commitment is key. Anything done half-heartedly is headed for failure.

He wasn’t certain whether he was a good or bad person. Whether he was altruistic. Whether he was demonic. But he was certain of one thing. He was an artist. And for that he would never apologize. (22)

Be it. Own it. Do not apologize for it.

Let me tell you a personal story about Commitment

I gave this book as a present to someone who used to be important to me. I even took the time to highlight all the quotes that spoke to me because I felt they might speak to him too. Then I sent it to him and added a note that said something along the lines of “We don’t need each other, but fuck that. Let’s embrace the chaotic relationships because chaos is where the most beautiful art stems from.”

I thought he understood what I meant by that. I thought he understood that relationships between people can be intense and chaotic and painful but still good, as long as you keep all the expectations out of it. You also could not tell what Patti and Robert were, but they would not let expectations define what they meant to each other.

It turned out that guy had it all wrong. After a long period of silence he answered that he disagreed. He said, art was not everything and artists should not be so arrogant to think that they were beyondanyone or even better than others. He said that reality felt better right now, that concentrating on life, on himself alone, that not thinking too much felt good. That he had to ban our friendship from his life to feel better.

To say that I was never even a tiny bit in love with that person would be a lie. He was never my Robert nor was he ever going to be. But I still did not expect him to be so ignorant. I thought he knew better. Reading this, seeing him getting it all mixed up, hurt. Did he really not understand anything I said? After all our late night conversations?


My point is this:

It is not the artist who is beyond anything, it is the world that is beyond the artist. 

This is the reason why it is so painful to embrace all these feelings and impressions. This is why you feel the urge to process them into something meaningful. Ignorance to that or avoiding people who make you feel things you do not understand is not what artists are meant to do.

But by one thing he was right. Sometimes, this feeling of helplessness gets so overwhelmingly painful that you cannot cope. That letting it all in might just drown you. So you probably have the option to ignore it, more or less. You could still feed your urge to create without letting all this force pass through you, in order to protect yourself. But then your art will always be mediocre. Because as long as you hold something back, thinking of what others may think or how others are going to consume your art, you are not going to dig deep enough within yourself. When doing what you do is comfortable, you are not creating something breath-taking.  How are you going to take someone’s breath if you can still catch yours?

But maybe that is the better way for you. Because creating something original is exhausting and it takes a lot of time and even more strength. If your happiness is at stake, mediocrity is a low price to pay after all.


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Side note – English is not my native language so please excuse any mistakes or even better: Point them out to me so I can correct them


All text & image quotes taken from: Smith, Patti (2010): Just Kids. Bloomsbury


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