Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Patti Smith’s M Train: Focus on the Heart of Your Story

I recently listened to the audiobook of Patti Smith reading her own M Train. The book is a memoir about various pilgrimages that the singer/songwriter has made in recent years, particularly journeys related to literary figures she deeply admires.

The pilgrimage I loved reading about was the first one she narrates, an unlikely trip to Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni in French Guiana, the godforsaken site of a prison that was the transfer point to the infamous Devil’s Island. Patti Smith and her husband Fred “Sonic” Smith travel there to gather stones from the prison, stones that she later places on the grave of the French writer Jean Genet, who lamented that his own jail sentence came too late to experience that most legendary of penal colonies.

Patti Smith and Family
I also really enjoyed Patti Smith’s account of a meeting in Berlin of the CDC (Continental Drift Club), an international society of 27 members dedicated to the memory of Alfred Wegener, an obscure but notable geophysicist who died on an ill-fated expedition to Greenland. Wegener was seeking evidence for his now widely accepted theory that the continents were originally all part of one connected landmass. The members of this society are known only by a number, and Patti Smith is an unexpected addition to this lovable collection of geology nerds. It’s a wonderful vignette.  

After several of these literary hajj narratives, though, I started to get bored. There’s only so many times I can hear about Patti Smith laying flowers on the graves of dead writers, all but one of them male. Her adulation of these writers, much as I also revere them, becomes somewhat sophomoric.

What I think Patti Smith loses in M Train is the heart of her story: her relationship with her husband, the MC5 guitarist Fred “Sonic” Smith. The most moving parts of M Train for me are the times when Patti Smith lifts the curtain and we see the deep love she and her husband shared—Patti giving up her dream of opening a literary café in New York to move to Detroit to be close to Fred, the boat that they owned in Michigan that didn’t float but that they spent time in together in their yard, his untimely death at age 45. Why isn’t there more in M Train about how they met, how they fell in love, what it was like to lose a husband so young, how their kids reacted to his passing?

I realize those are moments that she may not feel like imparting to strangers. I love and admire Patti Smith as an artist, but I feel that she let this book get away from her when she declined to tackle those more personal scenes. The lesson here for writers is that you’ve got to look your story right in the eyes. Don’t get distracted by its cool hat or shoes. Stick to the emotional heart of your story.

Zack's blog on Patti Smith’s book Just Friends

Zack’s most recent book of poems, Irreverent Litanies
Zack’s most recent translation, Bérénice 1934–44: An Actress in Occupied Paris by Isabelle Stibbe

How to Get Published

Getting the Most from Your Writing Workshop
How Not to Become a Literary Dropout
Putting Together a Book Manuscript
Working with a Writing Mentor
How to Deliver Your Message
Does the Muse Have a Cell Phone?
Why Write Poetry? 
Poetic Forms: IntroductionThe SonnetThe SestinaThe GhazalThe TankaThe Villanelle
Praise and Lament
How to Be an American Writer
Writers and Collaboration
Types of Closure in Poetry

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