Rilke on Writing and What It Takes to Be an Artist
By Maria Popova
Even more complex and nuanced than the question of how to be a good writer, which has elicited answers from some of humanity’s most beloved authors, is the question of why be a writer at all — why, that is, do great writers write?
Among the most memorable and invigorating answers are those sprung forth by W.H. Auden, Jennifer Egan, Pablo Neruda, Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace, Italo Calvino, and William Faulkner. But the finest, richest, truest answer of all comes from Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875–December 29, 1926) in Letters to a Young Poet (public library) — those invaluable packets of wisdom on writing and life, which Rilke bequeathed to a 19-year-old cadet and budding poet named Franz Xaver Kappus.
In the very first installment from their now-iconic correspondence, the young poet shares some of his writing with his mentor and extends the simple, enormously difficult question of how one knows one is a writer. Echoing Nietzsche’s famous assertion that “no one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” Rilke offers:
Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write.
In a sentiment that calls to mind Bukowski’s incantation from his poem “So you want to be a writer” — “unless it comes out of your soul like a rocket … don’t do it,” he admonished — Rilke adds:
This above all — ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple “I must,” then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it.
A work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity. In this nature of its origin lies the judgment of it: there is no other.
But despite his opening caveat, Rilke does offer young Kappus advice both practical and poetic:
Try, like some first human being, to say what you see and experience and love and lose. Do not write love-poems; avoid at first those forms that are too facile and commonplace: they are the most difficult, for it takes a great, fully matured power to give something of your own where good and even excellent traditions come to mind in quantity. Therefore save yourself from these general themes and seek those which your own everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, passing thoughts and the belief in some sort of beauty — describe all these with loving, quiet, humble sincerity, and use, to express yourself, the things in your environment, the images from your dreams, and the objects of your memory. If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.
Rilke concludes with a numinous definition of what it means, and what it takes, to be an artist:
I know no advice for you save this: to go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. Accept it, just as it sounds, without inquiring into it. Perhaps it will turn out that you are called to be an artist. Then take that destiny upon yourself and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what recompense might come from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and find everything in himself and in Nature to whom he has attached himself.
Letters to a Young Poet remains nothing short of secular scripture for the creative life, replete with Rilke’s wisdom on what books do for our inner lives, the life-expanding value of uncertainty, what it really means to love, and how great sadnesses bring us closer to ourselves. Complement this particular portion with artist and MacArthur fellow Teresita Fernández on what it really means to be an artist and writer Dani Shapiro on the pleasures and perils of the creative life, then revisit Rilke on our fear of the unexplainable and his stirring letter to his boyhood teacher at the military academy that nearly broke his spirit.
Published October 4, 2016