Smith and Bowie


At the beginning of January, I saw Patti Smith in concert. This wasn’t the first time I had the privilege of seeing her live. I saw her only a few months before on the LA stop of her M-Train tour. She talked about writing and also sang a few songs for us. When I heard she was coming back and would be performing all of Horses, which is her first album (and my favorite of all her work), I promptly 1) had a coronary and 2) saved up for a ticket.

I’ve admired Patti’s music for years, but it wasn’t until last year when I read her memoir Just Kids that I really devoured her writing and interviews. I was struck by her absolute determination to live without concern for the constraints of gender, or decorum, or dogma. She wanted to become an “artist” in the purest sense of the word, and to do that, she would have to be free of any excess or affectation.

And now, seeing Patti live, one sees the result of that determined focus. From the cheapest seats in the house, I watched as Patti remained present while faced with a huge theater of people going absolutely insane because they were breathing the same air as her. She was constantly interacting and reacting with everyone on stage, including her two children, who performed with her. Even her voice is wild, with its unflinching ties to her instincts and emotions and total disregard for technique in the classical sense. Watching her perform, I realized that every moment with Patti feels authentic because she feels free to do exactly what she wants. She doesn’t live in a predetermined way.

The struggle for freedom is an important theme for young Patti in Just Kids. Patti is one of those rare people who truly did something that hadn’t been done before: she merged poetry and rock and roll. She trusted herself and her band so completely that she was able to break through creative barriers that many of us never will. Even now, her songs are evolving, and she altered some of her lyrics on stage to reflect the time that’s passed and the things she’s learned and the people who are no longer in her life. Patti doesn’t reach for an end point. She responds to the world around her, and what the audience receives is her art. It’s never static.


I’ve never been as devoted to Bowie as I am to Patti. But I love Bowie’s music and have always been fascinated by his personas. So when I saw the headline on the front page of the LA Times, I felt some of the grief of his dedicated fans, though many of them felt it more deeply than I did. More than anything, I felt a greater sense of loss, like there was suddenly a hole in the world.

The word “authentic” comes rife with negative connotations. I used it to describe Patti, and I believe it can also be used to describe Bowie, though in a very different way. Patti chose to make much of her creative evolution public in Just Kids, but David Bowie has made his evolution public from day one. As he changed his appearance and adopted various stage names, he was going through vastly different times of his life.

During middle school, sometimes a girl would start wearing punk ties or a boy would put on a chain, and people would describe them with the King of Adolescent Insults: “Fake.” We didn’t allow others to grow or change without calling them out on it. Somehow, the fact that we could see their progression nullified the changes they were trying to make in the first place. Choosing to be publicly vulnerable in this way is challenging, because when you let people see your interior life, their insults can hit much deeper.

And here we have Bowie, someone who made his career on publicly examining and reexamining different facets of himself. In the age of branding, in which your image needs to remain consistent so that the consumer “knows what she’s getting”, Bowie’s success is that much more striking. Like Patti, Bowie allowed himself to be free in experimenting with his art – and for him, this included different ways of adorning his physical body. The result is that Bowie became a beacon of hope for us as we grow up and inevitably adopt some different identities ourselves. No matter what the mean kids whisper, it’s more important to be true to where you are in this moment than to hide yourself away. And when I find myself questioning someone’s decision to make a major change or take on new responsibilities, I always remind myself of this.


Patti’s concert and Bowie’s death happened within days of each other. Somehow these two events seemed significant not just on their own, but together. Patti and Bowie are both iconic artists, but superficially, they seem extremely different. But the feeling I get from watching them perform or listening to their music is the same: the feeling that if I did the work I wanted without regard for what I thought others expected, somehow I would get to where I wanted to be. I’m grateful to Bowie and Patti for that lesson, and I’m also grateful that Bowie has left behind such a rich legacy. People are still mourning him all over the world, as it should be. And they’re mourning in vivid color, which is probably the way he’d like it.

2015 in Books

Though the title implies that I’m going to be talking about books I’ve read, that’s not really true. I definitely discovered a few gems this past year — my favorites were Just Kids by Patti Smith and The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison. But when I say I was immersed in books in 2015, I’m talking specifically about one book: mine.

I finished my first manuscript ever this past year. It was in November, at around 1:30am on a Monday morning. I was so wired that I couldn’t get to sleep for another hour and a half. I paced back and forth in my tiny bedroom, shaking out my hands as if I’d burned them. Which, considering the magical abilities of one of my protagonists, is an oddly appropriate reaction for me to have.

The experience was immersive and repulsive at the same time. I was confronted with many of the problems I need to fix in my prose, some of them so bad that I’d feel sick rereading my work from the previous day. In previous years, this would’ve scared me away from my computer, and I would’ve avoided writing until I dragged myself back to my desk weeks later, unable to deny that putting word after word until they make a story is the only thing that really gives me a sense of accomplishment and peace.

This time, I didn’t do that. This time, I sat my ass in the chair and would not let myself get up until I had reached my word count goal for the day.

“Just get up for a minute,” my shoulder devil said. “Just go warm up your cup of coffee. Just take a walk in the woods. Just read about how other successful writers manage to make themselves finish things. Surely their advice will help you. Surely you will not be distracted by other shiny links to other articles about other things that aren’t at all related to what you’re trying to do here.”

But ah, the shoulder devil didn’t realize that I am older and wiser than I used to be. I knew that if I set down any of these paths, it was the equivalent of entering into a black hole, and soon that entire day would be gone. I would be lying if I said that she never won out, because sometimes she did, and I lost the equivalent of a couple of weeks. But as time went on, something miraculous happened. It became easier and easier to say, “Shush. Can’t you see I’m busy?”

So I kept going, and a year after I started, I was up in the middle of the night staring at a huge pile of printer paper, and on that paper was a story that I created. I felt as though I’d come up for air after a journey to an underwater city, and the magic of everything I’d seen hit me all at once.

In all this melodramatic euphoria, there was a reality I was overlooking. The manuscript totaled over 143,000 words. This is 50,000 words above my original goal. Needless to say, this is bad, but it didn’t get me down. Nothing could get me down that night.

But that night only lasted for a few more hours, and when I woke up the next morning, my immediate thought was, “Oh my glob I need to cut out over a third of my manuscript.” My second thought was, “Give yourself a little time.” So that’s what I’ve been doing – giving myself space so that I can look at the manuscript with fresh eyes.

That break time is winding down now, and I’m getting ready to hop back into it. In the meantime, I’ve been making some reading-writing goals for the new year, and I thought I’d share them here:

1) Read more YA lit.

Disclaimer: I write mostly YA. So when I looked at my Goodreads 2015-in-review page and saw that I only read a handful of YA novels, I got the O_O face. I’m a firm believer that one needs to be well-versed in the genre in which they write. The challenge that I run into is that reading YA while writing YA can lead me to some problems — specifically, my writing style begins to look suspiciously like that of the book I’m reading. So I need to find a way to incorporate more YA into my 2016, and one of my goals is to figure out how to do this while maintaining my own voice in my writing. The specific goal I’ve set for myself is twenty YA books. I’m starting now with Daniel José Older’s Shadowshaper.

2) Complete my first standalone novel.

I’ve had the idea for a story about a girl who is on the run from an evil queen for a while, and I think it’s finally past the embryonic stage and I’m going to be able to get it on the page this year. This book will be a standalone novel, which will be a new experience for me, since my previous manuscript is the first in a four-book series. I’m excited to see how the process for writing a complete story pushes me in a new way.

And last, but definitely not least:

3) Complete revisions of my first manuscript and submit it to literary agents.

This is a big one. The one I’m most excited and nervous about. My manuscript needs a lot of work. A monstrous, painful amount of work. But I’ve been getting myself ready to revise and submit for a while now, and when the time comes and I’ve done all I can do with my manuscript, I believe I’ll be ready.

So here’s to 2016. Let’s see where it goes.