GrubWrites

When Stumbling on a Book Can Change Your LIfe

By Katrin Schumann

Do you ever really struggle to find just the right book to fit your mood? When I’m deeply embroiled in my own writing, I get particularly fussy about my reading material. I want to be inspired and energized—I really don’t want to think: How the hell did THIS get published?

So when I find a book that grabs me and won’t let go, I’m filled with pure delight and gratitude. This happened when I picked up M Train by Patti Smith.

I was on vacation and had already cycled through three books in two days. I didn’t have high hopes for Smith’s book, mainly because I know so very little about her (having somehow entirely missed the fact of her existence). But also, I hate to admit, the cover put me off: drab and black, a defeated-looking woman holding her head in her hands. This, inspiring? Hm.

Boy was I wrong.

M Train is a sort of memoir, nonlinear, episodic, poetic. It feels both carefully considered and absolutely unforced. It manages to be complex and mysterious, while not being confusing—quite a feat for a writer.

Why do we read memoir? To learn about someone else’s life, sure, but really, to learn about our own. Since I was coming to Patti Smith with zero preconceptions, I was blown away by the way she navigates the world on her own terms. I took away some life lessons that I think apply to the personal as well as the professional:

  • Don’t care so much about other people’s expectations. Sometimes, when we do what we want or write what we want, it gives other people the opportunity to learn something unexpected. Always trying to please others is exhausting, impossible and also not a lot of fun.
  • Give yourself permission to like what you like. How refreshing to read a writer who can quote obscure European literature and obsess about TV crime shows with equal enthusiasm and no sense of self-consciousness! It's liberating not to be defensive about what makes us tick.
  • Don’t let fear stop us from trying things. We often second guess our own abilities, and worry too much about pleasing others. We shrink back when we could have fun stepping forward. Sometimes we just need to be brave and willing to fail.
  • We need to make time to THINK. We are a production oriented society. Sitting around and thinking is not greatly admired, yet Smith makes it seem infinitely rewarding. We must allow ourselves the time to explore, learn and grow if we want to write books that people will read. Sometimes this means doing “nothing.”
  • You can create a compelling narrative without having an agenda. This takes real craft and rigor. Smith is able to write about the things she loves and values without apology, and without forcing it down our throats. I’m not sure how she pulls this off, but I know it shows immense skill.

As artists and writers, let's always keep this thought of Smith's in mind: "In my way of thinking, anything is possible. Life is at the bottom of things and belief at the top, while the creative impulse, dwelling in the center, informs all.”

grubstreet Image
About the Author

Katrin Schumann is the author of The Forgotten Hours (Lake Union, 2019), a Washington Post bestseller; This Terrible Beauty, a novel about the collision of love, art and politics in 1950s East Germany (March, 2020); and numerous nonfiction titles. She is the program coordinator of the Key West Literary Seminar. For the past ten years she has been teaching writing, most recently at GrubStreet and in the MA prison system, through PEN New England. Before going freelance, she worked at NPR, where she won the Kogan Media Award. Katrin has been granted multiple fiction residencies. Her work has been featured on TODAY, Talk of the Nation, and in The London Times, as well as other national and international media outlets, and she has a regular column on GrubWrites. Katrin can also be found at katrinschumann.com, and on Twitter and Instagram: @katrinschumann.

See other articles by Katrin Schumann

Rate this!

Currently unrated