One of the things about my time as an undergraduate student that I am most grateful for- creative nonfiction. By studying Creative Writing and Literature, I came to a genre of art that I had never before recognized. Joe, my professor and North Star, slowly edged me towards writing about myself: the experiences that shaped me, the small moments that have stuck with me like some frail, never-ending metaphors. He gave me copies of his favorite Fitzgerald and EB White essays, read aloud from Cheryl Strayed’s essay ‘Heroin/e’ before her memoir was published. I can’t put words on what these essays did for me, what Joe did for me. The revelation hit me that I could tell my own story, that it was okay and more than that, that it might resonate, echo within people more than any fiction creation I could make.
Patti Smith’s Just Kids is an exquisite example of creative nonfiction at its absolute best. I started reading this book on my way to Ireland for the first time and finished it in one sitting- it was something I couldn’t get enough of, couldn’t put down in favor of sleep or music or conversation. I needed this story in this moment- I was on my way to a country I’d planned on going to with a man, one who bought a trip with me and broke up with me only a month later. I was going with a friend, someone I barely knew. I was facing the would-have-been romance in each place by myself, with only a ghost of his memory to commiserate with. Patti and Robert’s romance provided me not only with a nice escape from my own failed/beautiful/heartbreaking bout of love, but also provided me with some enlightenment on the mystery of falling in love and staying in love.
Just Kids tells the story of Patti Smith’s voyage to New York City where she quickly met with Robert Mapplethorpe. The two erupted into love, facing challenges of poverty and recognition via their artwork together: “I understood that in this small space of time we had mutually surrendered our loneliness and replaced it with trust.” Patti, coming from a rural town and a traumatic pregnancy/adoption, faced the daunting city with aspirations of artistry. Robert, coming from a strict Catholic household and the desire to appease his father, felt an undeniable urge to create. Patti explains to the readers how she came to know Robert’s childhood: “We used to laugh at our small selves, saying that I was a bad girl trying to be good and that he was a good boy trying to bad. Through the years these roles would reverse, then reverse again, until we came to accept our dual natures.” Patti learns a lot from her relationship with Robert, but perhaps the clearest lesson is this duality she mentions here- she learns that not everything, as she originally assumed, is easily predictable. Everything changes in unforeseen ways- “I learned from him that often contradiction is the clearest way to truth.”
Patti and Robert spent a few precious years together, broke and struggling to keep the heat on but in love and hopeful. Each of them produced art, endless drawings amidst the day-to-day work grind at restaurants and museums and bookshops. They came home always to one another, and this thrill of another human being waiting at home was enough to survive, to thrive, happily. Patti reflects on this time, this doomed, ill-fated time: “Where does it all lead? What will become of us? These were our young questions, and young answers were revealed. It leads to each other. We become ourselves.”
The innocence of the love between Patti and Robert soon dissolves. The two share hateful words, Robert dissatisfied with the attention he has gotten from his art, Patti frustrated that Robert no longer brings in sufficient money. But still they have one another, despite the looming thought Patti feels that the two of them will eventually cease: “I knew one day he and I would break. I would stop and he would keep on going. But until then nothing could tear us apart.” This was an epiphany for me while also being a sentiment I already knew deep within myself. Each relationship, for me, feels impregnable, until suddenly it’s not. I recognize Patti’s awareness here, the absolute certainty that the love will change, end. I’ve felt this myself. What I haven’t been able to feel, to master, however, is Patti’s recognition that ‘until then, nothing could tear us apart.’ I have never been strong enough to accept the finality, to live and love in the ‘until then.’ Perhaps next time I will be better equipped to do so.
Robert and Patti move apart from one another. Robert sleeps with his first man, Patti recognizes her sheltered, small sexuality. Robert finds photography, the medium that eventually gives him stardom. Patti writes poems, the first step to her huge music career. The two remain friends, always together in a way via art and their memories. They come back together and fall away again and again, eventually ending up living in the Chelsea Hotel, one of the most famous spots for aspiring artists to be. Here Patti and Robert meet Janet Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, even Salvador Dali. They become modern-day fan-girls of Andy Warhol. I loved reading about Patti’s experiences at the Chelsea Hotel, the decadence, the hope, the ambition that plagued the place. I smiled at the thought of so many creative, desperate people in one place and felt surprised that the place didn’t burst into flames from too-muchness.
Robert and Patti break again and again. Throughout it all, they support one another’s art and love, endlessly. I am amazed at the human love the two shared; there were faults, yes, but overwhelmingly there was pure appreciation, respect, and adoration. Patti and Robert are two people who the universe conspired to connect. Patti tells us that “He was the artist of my life,” and I feel confident that if Robert had been granted the chance, he’d say the same about her.
Patti makes it big. Her songs and her band and her voice and her poetry. Even as the fame happens, she cannot believe that she is the one who made it while so many she’d known had been lost to suicide, drugs, alcohol, or normalcy. It’s a real humility that I respect. The last portion of the book describes this time of Patti’s life and the ways in which she and Robert still kept in touch. “As I traveled the world I had time to reflect that Robert and I had never traveled together. We never saw beyond New York. Yet Robert and I had explored the frontier of our work and created space for each other. When I walked on the stages of the world without him I would close my eyes and picture him taking off his jacket, entering with me the infinite land of a thousand dances.” Robert never leaves Patti despite the other loves the two have. It is he she brings with her on stage, he who is nearly visible behind each lyric. And here’s another epiphany: multiple loves. That one can be entirely in love with and present with their current partner, but can also bring a past one with them wherever they go. I’m not humble or confident or zen enough to imagine this actually playing out with me and my partner, but I do recognize truth in it. I recognize strength and honesty. I recognize the desire I always have within me to immortalize my past lovers, to preserve their memory and the moments we shared; the sadness and absolute heartbreak I feel when a past lover rejects me from his life, the emptiness I feel when they transition from lover to stranger. This love that Patti and Robert stay in throughout their lives is something I’ve tried to force into each of my failed relationships- it never works. But that’s not due to me being undeserving of it- what Patti and Robert had and were able to cultivate in their lives both together and separate was something truly unique and transcendent. It was a blue star (their symbol for one another) in a vast sea of blackness- “Robert was ever in my consciousness, the blue star in the constellation of m personal cosmology.”
Robert becomes sick with HIV/AIDS as Patti settles into her life of marriage and motherhood. She takes time off from her tour, pregnant, and spends time with Robert in his hospital room. Her husband is there with them, supportive, creating art beside them. Patti reflects on their relationship and on their successes: “I knew I would one day see a sky drawn by Robert’s hand.” As he’s dying Robert attempts to make amends with Patti, amends that are unnecessary in her eyes. He laments that the two of them do not have children, that they haven’t lived together in years, to which Patti replies “our work was our children.” And this is true- together they made art and inspired one another to do so. If Patti wouldn’t have spoken to the boy in the park, would we have Robert’s photographs, Patti’s songs? That a human love can produce such everlasting and immortal work…
“Laughter. An essential ingredient for survival. And we laughed a lot.”