Listen: Arena Review of Patti Smith’s ‘M Train’

Listen: Arena Review of Patti Smith’s ‘M Train’

Patti Smith

Poet, musician, author, artist, trailblazer: Patti Smith is all these things but labels alone cannot do justice to the ambition and breath of her creative work. M Train, her latest book, is a memoir but it is a different beast than Smith’s much-loved Just Kids (2010), which focused on her early career and relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe. In M Train Smith is struggling to write, wading through the ghosts of times past, telling killer anecdotes and drinking a lot of coffee. For anyone interested in creativity, in writing or in just hanging out with one of the most interesting artists at work today, M Train is a book to savour.

You can listen to my review of it for RTÉ Radio One’s Arena by clicking here.

The Digital Self : Anaïs Nin & Our Internal Lives in the Internet Age

fragmented self image

My first proper introduction to Anaïs Nin’s work occurred when I happened upon a tattered copy of her journals in a second hand bookshop. Until that point, the only writing of hers I’d encountered was the oft-quoted observation, ‘We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are.’ Young though I was, the insight of those words – which, since the advent of the internet, have spawned many a cheesy ‘motivational’ meme – stuck with me.

The rational, structuralist mind presumes a knowable, evidential truth: if we logically and clinically examine a situation, we can arrive at a clear consensus. There is comfort in this approach. It provides a kind of order that our lives lack and a sense that something is knowable, amongst all the chaos. However, our collective reality, if such a thing exists and can be considered to be ‘shared’, is a mishmash of understandings, interpretations, presumptions, all tainted by human fallibility. For all that empathy allows (and it allows a great deal), we can only ever see things as we are  and how we are determines how things appear to be. As a consequence, our vision and the reality that flows from it is incomplete. Truths are not absolute, they are specific, context-driven and oh so messy, just like the selves we harbour within us. To make sense of our lives however, and in order to exist in the world and in society, and in order to change the world and society, we have to buy into, sometimes strategically,  ‘absolute’ truths, problematic though they maybe. It’s a messy, messy business we are all doomed to struggle with.

A piece by the consistently excellent Brain Pickings, In Defence of the Fluid Self: Why Anaïs Nin Turned Down A Harper’s Bazaar Profilerecently got me thinking about Nin’s insights in a modern context. The piece references Nin’s infamous diaries, specifically an entry which explains the motivation behind her decision to decline a profile with Harper’s, a hugely popular publication. According to Nin, her decision stemmed from an unease and an unwillingness to be pinned down or explained away, as if the complexities of her creative being – and by extension, anyone’s creative being – could ever be fully realised or described outside of the internal terrain and the dangers of trying to definitively capture or spotlight these precious parts of ourselves for consumption or recording while we are still evolving. As Brain Pickings creator Maria Popova so beautifully puts it, ‘the anguish of having one’s sincerity mistaken for pretense, and above all the agony of being fossilized while still growing.’

Would the fluidity that characterises the internet age – the constant churning of information and opinion, the ease at which ideas and work can be created, shared and altered – have appealed to Nin or would she have balked at the so-called freedom afforded by the likes of social media, allowing us to create our desired selves (or should that be ‘brands’?) within strict parameters? Or would Nin, like Jaron Lainer, see such technology as regressive, demanding we reduce our identity to a carefully mediated/manipulated ‘image’ that acts as little more than a shopfront, obscuring if not downright denying the complexities of true self, a phenomenon which is so fragmented, so influx it is beyond the capabilities of even the most sophisticated computer program or social network.

Perhaps this remains the point. For our all gadgetry, for all our digital bells and whistles, technology cannot, as yet, replicate the vast, messy oceans within us, capture our multiple selves or remedy the flawed truths that define the human experience. And even if someday it could,  would we really want it to? As Nin might ask, where would be the adventure in that?

Photo Credit: michmutters via photopin cc

Crannóg 34 Launch

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Creative writing is a curious thing. Locking yourself away, squinting at a page or a screen, scribbling down sentences that are ninety percent awful, seven percent passable and three percent vaguely satisfying, is hardly the foundation for a healthy social life or any type of functional life, full stop. It’s hard and lonely and if people think you’re a little bit mad because you feel you simply have to write, then hell’s bells, they are probably correct. 

Having written non-fiction for the bulk of my life and having it come relatively easily to me did not prepare me for the realities of fiction writing. Creating opinions as opposed to creating entire worlds are two very different crafts. Last week, for the first time ever, I read something I had written to a room of almost complete strangers ( a group of friends came along from my MA course to surprise me, which they did. They also made me very happy, bless ’em.) Now, I’ve been on stage, radio, TV etc. and reading things to an audience is generally not a problem for me. That is, of course, because the ‘thing’ is at a quite a nice remove. A script, a running order, notes – all written by someone else you see or by me in a professional capacity, all concerning topics I can talk about but still remain, on a personal level, a safe distance from.

There is no hiding place when it comes to reading your fiction in public. If people hate it, you’ll see it in their faces, you’ll feel it in the air. No wonder so many writers eschew reading their work for audiences altogether. Even if the story is entirely fictional, it is still you, on a page, laid bare for people to draw all kinds of conclusions from, not safely tucked away at home where you can’t see them but right there, in front of your eyes, as you quiver on stage.

But I did it and it wasn’t bad. I survived, without gagging, crying or making a hasty beeline for the loo mid-performance. The generosity of the other writers was what really blew me away though. As a novice, I will never, ever forget it. People don’t have to be nice or kind or encouraging, especially those far more established than you, but when they are, what a gift it is. The piece I read is called Two Eyes, Watching from the latest edition of Galway’s brilliant (if I do say so myself) Crannóg magazine, issue 34, whose launch we were celebrating. The cover is by local artist Harriet Leander. As you can see from above, it is just gorgeous. Thanks to team Crannóg for having me and to all the authors and poets who lit up the Crane Bar last Friday night. You can pick up Crannóg here or from (the best bookshop in Ireland, folks!) the always outstanding Charlie Byrnes in Galway City.

P.S. Here’s a nice collection via Flavorwire.com of brilliant author’s reading their work in public. Hope it inspires you.  Truman Capote is probably my favourite out of the lot. To Tiffany’s!