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Sunday, March 15, 2015

A revelation about what to do next creatively

By Ted Slowik

Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe
I've been thinking a lot lately about what to do next, creatively, in my free time.

Free time is a precious thing, and it shouldn't be squandered. Take it from someone who's been dead for six minutes. There are better ways to spend your time than binge-watching Netflix on the couch. Trust me.

It's taken six months to figure out what I want to do next. For the past several years I've focused on music. And I feel I've become a much better songwriter, musician, performer, vocalist and recording artist. I still enjoy music very much and plan to continue making it whenever I want. And it'll make me happy and be fun.

But I've felt for some time that music is not my true calling, and that writing is. The question I've been trying to answer is, what to write? Nonfiction or fiction? A novel or short stories? What do I have to say that's worth saying?

The answer came to me while I was camping in Florida this past week. My sister Liz, with whom I've always been especially close, loaned me the Patti Smith book "Just Kids." I've been reading a lot of rock bios and memoirs lately, about Eric Clapton, George Harrison, Keith Richards, Patti Boyd, Roy Buchanan and others. "Just Kids" may be the best-written I've read. It won the 2010 National Book Award for Nonfiction.

I didn't know much about Patti Smith. "Just Kids" tells the story of Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe starting out as starving artists in New York in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It's a beautiful love story, and the book is a fine showcase for Smith's skills as a writer thanks to her lifelong love for poetry.

Arthur Rimbaud
Smith was greatly influenced by the French poet Jean Nicolas Arthur Rimbaud (1854-1891), one of the greatest poets ever to have lived, ever though he only created for a brief period in his late teens. He famously wrote to a friend the following lines that described his decadent behavior:

"I'm now making myself as scummy as I can. Why? I want to be a poet, and I'm working at turning myself into a seer. You won't understand any of this, and I'm almost incapable of explaining it to you. The idea is to reach the unknown by the derangement of all the senses. It involves enormous suffering, but one must be strong and be a born poet. It's really not my fault."

I could relate to the notion that complete commitment to one's craft is necessary to create art that is truly worthwhile and lasting. And maybe the young can do it. That is, live irresponsibly and in poverty for a few years. But not old people with bills and mortgages and responsibilities and day jobs.

Because face it, if you were any good as an artist or musician at age 50, you'd be doing it full-time.

I'll be honest. Since the heart attack a year ago I've wondered at times why I'm still here. What's my purpose?

So after reading Smith's book I realized I should write the story of how my wife Jo and I met and fell in love.
First date, Valentine's Day 1985

This works for a number of reasons. First of all, I cannot think of subject matter more personal and meaningful. Family is most important, after all, and I'll write the story so our kids Hannah and Noah will always know how much I loved their mother.

The timing seems right. Has it really been 30 years? Gosh, seems like yesterday. I remember well the love I felt for Jo and there are still many of our friends around I could talk to in order to gain additional details and perspectives.

It solves the dilemma of what to do as a creative outlet other than music that is purposeful and rewarding and without regard to any sense of commercial success. Ours is a beautiful story, and I intend to write it for an audience of three people, as best as I can. I expect the process of telling this story will require a great deal of time and effort.

That's OK. I can continue doing other musical and writing projects while working on this story. Maybe my purpose for being here is to tell this story. There is universal truth in love and beauty.
Honeymoon in California, 1990