An earnest conversation

Another Hemingway mug for another Hemingway post.

Another Hemingway mug for another Hemingway post.

My friend Mary read my recent Hemingway post and insisted suggested I pick a different bio to read. She said, everyone knows Hemingway’s an asshole! Then she said something about his undue influence. (That’s why I’m not using her last name. I’m afraid the literati might throw books at her.)

Before our conversation, I’d been reading about Hemingway’s lost manuscripts and was feeling kind of sorry for the guy. (If you don’t know the legend, Hemingway’s wife took his early manuscripts – the only copies – with her on a train. She was meeting him somewhere in Europe, and by the time the train arrived, her bags, and his work, had been stolen.)

I don’t think this story would have moved Mary.

We ordered dinner, and then Mary rattled off a quick list of great memoirs. Patti Smith. Neil Young. Bob Dylan. Hillary Clinton.

I wondered what was most important for me as a writer. Studying how an acclaimed writer evolved during his life? Learning how a woman crashed through the glass ceiling in politics? Analyzing how artists moved our culture with their music, lyrics, politics, and challenges to the status quo?

If I could only read one of those books, it would be Patti Smith, and not just because she once worked at a bookstore. She was a game-changer. I’d argue Hemingway was a game-changer, too, but eventually somebody would have popularized simple language/sentences. Right?

You could write books about Patti’s influence (and people have).  I don’t mean to minimize her career, but I do have a novel to finish. So here’s my bottom line: Patti Smith had genuine defiance. She defied record companies, politicians, censors, and more. But for me, her most significant defiance was the way she extended her middle finger at music industry execs, who continue to support the standard that “rocker chicks” should be babes. The “babes” can become icons, but the path to icon status surely involves long curly tresses, red lipstick, and plunging necklines ready to rip and expose surgically enhanced double Ds.

For most performers, defiance is simply part of the marketing plan. I don’t think Patti ever had a marketing plan, and if a PR company wrote one for her, she probably ripped it up and extended her middle finger.

Here’s something Patti Smith told New York Magazine:

When I started performing a lot with Lenny Kaye and Richard Sohl, we had goals: to infuse new life into performing poetry—merging poetry with electric guitar, three chords—and to reembrace rock and roll. It drew us together and kept us informed, whether through Bob Dylan or Neil Young or the Who. In the early seventies, rock and roll was monopolized by record companies, marketing strategies, stadium rock. Tom Verlaine and Television were for me the most inspiring: They were not glamorous, they were human.

I don’t think it’s possible to be the “Patti Smith of kid-lit.” But I wouldn’t mind a little more Patti in my DNA.

So there you have it, Mary. More Patti, less Ernest.

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