MY social and literary hero Patti Smith once said (three years ago to be precise): “I’m 67 years old; you’re not going to tell me what to do. The only person who can boss me around now is my daughter.”
And just a few short years behind Patti, I know that feeling well… although in my case, substitute son for daughter.
I started writing for myself when I was about 17, and almost five decades later, I am still writing.
As an angst ridden teenager I would while away my evenings writing poetry… you know the stuff, reams of stream of consciousness prose and rhyme littered with passions and desires, knitted together with unrequited love.
So, it was perhaps not much of a surprise that at the age of 22, I pursued a postgraduate teaching course in creative English and drama at Bretton Hall College in West Yorkshire.
I reckoned I had experienced deep love and rejection and that subsequently my own poetry had become profound and real.
Yes, I was a cocky, self-assured young man.
But that cockiness was soon dealt its first blow.
The university’s dean of faculty, a larger than life woman called Caroline St Leger, heard about my poetry and invited me to her room for “a small sherry and a reading”.
I was at first elated… I had an educated audience for my work.
I was a poet!
So armed with an A4 folder containing five years of my finest writing, I soon found myself sitting across a large oak table from the esteemed Ms St Leger, reading aloud a selected few poems.
Red-lipped with Bette Davis eyes and sipping cream sherry, she sat and listened intently.
I delivered my best poems, but she showed no emotion and carefully lit an untipped cigarette.
As the table turned I sat more awkwardly.
The ageing dean took her turn to read more of my writing quietly to herself.
She halted, sipped more sherry and took one long drag of her cigarette.
Then her critique began.
Her disassembling of my poetic structure and rhyming schemes was polite and scholarly.
Even her observation that she enjoyed my ‘lyric simplicity’ seemed like a compliment rather than a damnation.
But her final words dug deep and stayed with me: “It is clear that you don’t yet know love, Nic. When you have discovered love, you should try writing poetry again, until then write about what you know.”
I swallowed hard.
Crestfallen, I thanked her and walked back to my rooms.
“Don’t yet know love,” echoed in my brain.
Over the ensuing years I was married and divorced twice, helped create five wonderful children and kidded myself that along the way I had found love… and a few times too!
But it took 28 years in newspaper and magazine journalism and a nervous breakdown in 2013 for the poetic spark to eventually be re-ignited.
Now five years since the day of the breakdown, I have lost count of the number of poems – and attempted poems – I have written. But the truth is, I simply cannot stop writing.
During that time I have published two well-received books of my own poetry, and edited an amazing anthology of poems from a group of international writers.
Now I am two-thirds the way through writing my autobiography: Survive the Roller Coaster and Assume the Position.
Poetry is my art… and I have little care whether others read my words or not, because for me it is my calling… I write for myself, because it is all I know.
So now in the autumn of my life, dare I pass on any advice to younger writers?
I am unsure I am qualified to do that.
But, I will share Patti Smith’s advice, taken from her discussion with Christian Lund at the Louisiana Literature Festival on 24 August, 2012.
She spoke to an audience captivated by her charismatic charm and frank openness about the life challenges and dilemmas involved in pursuing a creative life.
These are her words, and for me they resonate so loudly. They are a profound lesson for any person diving into the ever-flowing human interaction with writing… or just plain living:
“A writer or any artist can’t expect to be embraced by the people.
You know I’ve done records where it seemed like no one listened to them. You write poetry books that maybe you know 50 people read and you just keep doing your work because you have to because it’s your calling.
But it’s beautiful to be embraced by the people.
Some people have said to me well you know, “Don’t you think that kind of success spoils one as an artist or you know if you’re a punk rocker you don’t want to have a hit record?” and I say “Well I say well fuck you!”
It’s just like one just does their work for the people and the more people you can touch the more wonderful it is. You don’t do your work and then say well I only want the cool people to read it. You know you want everyone to be transported or hopefully inspired by it.
When I was really young, William Burroughs told me – I was really struggling we never had any money – and the advice that William gave me was build a good name and 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 you know that name will be its own currency. And I remember when he told me that and I said, “Yeah, but William, my name’s Smith you know (just joking!).”
To be an artist, actually to be a human being in these times it’s all difficult. You have to go through life hopefully you know trying to stay healthy being as happy as you can pursuing and doing what you want.
If what you want is to have children, if what you want is to be a baker. If want you want is to live out in the woods or try to save the environment, or maybe what you want is to write scripts for detective shows. It doesn’t really matter you know.
What matters is to know what you want and pursue it and understand that it’s going to be hard. Because life is really difficult. You’re going to lose people you love. You’re going suffer heartbreak. Sometimes you’ll be sick. Sometimes you’ll have a really bad toothache. Sometimes you’ll be hungry.
But on the other end, you’ll have the most beautiful experiences. Sometimes just the sky. Sometimes you know a piece of work that you do that feels so wonderful. Or you find somebody to love. Or your children. There’s beautiful things in life so when you are suffering it’s part of the package.
You look at it: we’re born and we also have to die. We know that. So it makes sense that we’re going to be really happy and things are going to be really fucked up too. Just ride with it. It’s like a roller coaster ride. It’s never going to be perfect. It’s going to have perfect moments and then rough spots but it’s all worth it. Believe me, I think it is.
You know I’m sure that each generation can say that their time was the best and the worst of times.
But I think the right now we are at something different that I’ve never seen. It’s a pioneering time because there is no other their time in history like right now.
And that’s what makes it unique. It’s not unique because we have renaissance style artists – it’s unique because it’s a time of the people because technology has really democratized self-expression.
Instead of a handful of people making their own records or writing their own songs everybody can write them.
Everyone can post a poem on the Internet and have people read it. Everyone has access and access that they’ve never had before.
There is possibilities for global striking. There’s possibilities for bringing down these corporations and governments who think they rule the world because we can unite as one people through technology.
We’re all still figuring it out and what power that we actually have. But the people still do have the power more than ever.
And I think right now we’re going through this painful sort of like adolescence. Again, what do we do with this technology? What do we do with our world? Who are we?
But it also makes it exciting. You know all the young people right now, the new generations they’re pioneers in a new time.
So, I say stay strong. Try to have fun, but stay clean, stay healthy because you know you have a lot of challenges ahead.
And be happy.”
A video of Patti Smith’s Advice to the Young can be found on Vimeo at: http://vimeo.com/57857893