Friday, March 24, 2017

Famous Speech Friday: Patti Smith on the artist's journey

Whenever you answer a question in a live event, you can think of the answer as a small speech. Just such a speech came fully formed in an answer from Patti Smith, a singer, songwriter, poet and visual artist, who is sometimes called the "punk poet laureate."

Recently, at a live event recorded on the Here's the Thing podcast with Alec Baldwin, Smith was interviewed and then took questions. Near the end of the podcast, you can hear this questioner and the response that, to my ear, is a great small speech about the artist's journey. I've had it transcribed for you in full, question and answer:
Audience Member: Ms. Smith it’s an honor to speak with you. As an artist and art educator I’ve used Just Kids in my classroom to basically talk about an artist's journey and discovering your path. You always do advice to a young artist, what ammunition would you have to help stockpile that we can continue to encourage positivity, creativity, and individuality?  
Patti Smith: Well, you know, the advice that I have is always very simple if you want to pursue life as an artist. I could go all the way back to when we first started talking about Robert Mapplethorpe. He wanted to be an artist and he had to sacrifice a lot to make that choice. He sacrificed all his comforts, the support of his family, his scholarship--he sacrificed all of that because he knew what he wanted. He had a vision, he felt he had a calling, and when you have that and feel that, you can’t live without pursuing it. 
Then you have to do everything you can to magnify the gift that you have, and it’s going to cost you. You have to be willing to sacrifice. You have to be willing to work really hard, you have to be willing to perhaps go years, or quite a lot of time, without recognition, without acknowledgment. And you have to, in the face of all of that, maintain your vision as vision. 
Being a real artist, and maybe in some old-fashioned sense, the way I look at art, it is a sacred quest and it doesn’t have anything to do with fame and fortune. You can achieve fame and fortune in the pursuit of it because perhaps the stars are aligned, but that can’t be your prime directive. Your prime directive has to be to do something new, to give something new to the canon of art, to give something new to the people, to do something great, enduring, inspiring, something that will take people somewhere they’ve never been taken and you have to remember why you want to create. 
And so, I just say, simply, hard work and sacrifice. Happily. Because if you can’t sacrifice with joy, then it’s meaningless. And if you sacrifice and you maintain your joy and enthusiasm and curiosity and your ability to work hard, you’ll achieve something. So that’s what I’ve got.
What can you learn from this famous speech?
  • Be declarative: Too many speakers hedge, hem, and haw when it comes to expressing opinions, but if you have a point of view, declaring it clearly makes for a strong, vivid speech. Read Smith's answer aloud to see just how powerful a statement it is.
  • Be authentic: There's not a shred of advice in this answer that does not reflect Smith's own experience. She speaks movingly in the interview of not seeking great fortune, and instead building an independent way for herself as an artist, with a modest life and income. So this advice doesn't ring hollow at all.
  • Be thorough: It would be easy to give a pat answer here, but Smith takes the time to develop the thought. She starts with an example, using it to illustrate motivation. Then, in each successive paragraph, she builds on it with what the artist has to do, what her prime directive should be, and finally, sums it up simply.
I don't have video of the live event on which the podcast is based, but there's audio at the podcast link, above, and I can share Smith in performance at the Nobel Prize ceremony, performing Bob Dylan's "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall." She talks about this performance and how Dylan impacted her work in the podcast. At the two-minute mark in the video, she falters, apologizes, and asks to start a verse again, confessing to the audience, "I'm so nervous." And the black-tie audience applauds her.

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