*This post is part of Free for All’s “Making Magic” series, which will focus on Kelley’s exploration of the opportunities in the library’s Creativity Lab as well as musings about art, creativity and imagination.
Recently, I watched Patti Smith’s Nobel Prize ceremony performance of Bob Dylan’s A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall. Smith was chosen to accept the prize for Dylan who was unable to attend, a huge honor of course, and her performance to quote the “New Yorker” was fierce. The fierceness came from the Philharmonic’s gently accented orchestral accompaniment; the fierceness came from the deep and gravelly tones of Smith’s famous voice; the fierceness came from the power of lyrics that reflect dark times that resonate today; but most of all the fierceness came because Smith messed up and she owned it gloriously.
When Smith forgot the lyrics of the second verse, rather than mumbling her way forward, she politely asked the orchestra to stop and then apologized to the audience for being so nervous. Her apology was genuine, and despite the fact that Patti Smith is a famous rock star her visible nervousness was real. This performance was important to her, the significance of the ceremony was overwhelming, and it meant a lot to her to get it right. When the instruments began again, Smith’s voice was stronger and the performance all the more powerful because Smith broke down the wall, let the audience in, and acknowledged that she was human and that the emotional weight carried in her heart and by this song were real.
Sometimes the hardest thing about being a writer or artist, and one of the toughest things about life, is being honest about things that are difficult to face. But the best stories and essays, the best works, are not the ones about the day when everything went perfectly; they’re the ones that dig deep to talk about the pain, the guilt, the hurt, the brokenness, the honest portrayals of the times when we messed up. We all have those things inside of us, but the power of artists is their ability to bring them to the open to help us learn and heal. When Smith stopped the orchestra, she made it not only OK to be imperfect, she made it powerful to be imperfect. She honored herself and her art by embracing all of the many facets of herself and her performance. In the process, she honored the song by infusing it with a deeper reverence that would have been lacking without that moment when her heart was just too full.
So the next time you’re writing, painting, performing, or otherwise creating, I encourage you to think about the power of imperfection and the glory of being genuine. In the meantime, find some inspiration in two musicians who are also wonderful writers: Bob Dylan and Patti Smith.
Just Kids by Patti Smith
Having devoured this book in two afternoons, it’s no surprise that I can’t recommend this National Book Award Winner highly enough. Smith’s memoir of her relationship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe not only tells their story but paints an engrossing picture of life in the days when the boho set lived in New York’s Chelsea Hotel. Smith and Mapplethorpe support each other’s interests and art, and even after they are no longer a couple, they maintain an intense friendship that lasts until Robert’s death. A powerful story beautifully told.
M Train by Patti Smith
In M Train, Smith tells the story of her artistic process and the loss of her husband through a tour of the places that have shaped her life. Starting with a coffee shop and then moving to international travel, Smith’s M Train is an tour of an artist’s life.
Chronicles: Volume One by Bob Dylan
Dylan’s memoir explores his life and career highlighting the people and places who influenced him and his music. The New York Times’ book review said that “this book recaptures its author’s first stirrings of creativity with amazing urgency. Mr. Dylan is fully present in re-experiencing the dawn of his songwriting career.”
The Lyrics: 1961 – 2012 by Bob Dylan
Read the lyrics to the songs that earned Dylan the Nobel Prize in Literature. To quote the Los Angeles Times, Dylan “was the rebel, the healer, the bard in blue jeans and oversized shades who sang a generation through war and peace, past the perils of unrest and self-complacency. . . . And now Dylan has entered that pantheon, shoving against the boundaries of the definition of ‘literature’ just as he pushed past so many borders in music.”