I’m rereading Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, and I’m getting more out of it this time around. I’m working on being more intentional about my writing, and I dig Rilke’s direction and guidance. Reading his letters is like talking with an older and wiser friend. The other day this paragraph jumped out at me:
There is only one way: Go within. Search for the cause, find the impetus that bids you write. Put it to this test: Does it stretch out its roots in the deepest place of your heart? Can you avow that you would die if you were forbidden to write? Above all, in the most silent hour of your night, ask yourself this: Must I write? Dig deep into yourself for a true answer. And if it should ring its assent, if you can confidently meet this serious question with a simple, “I must,” then build your life upon it. It has become your necessity. Your life, in even the most mundane and least significant hour, must become a sign, a testimony to this urge. [emphasis original]
I like this. It makes sense. I tend to want to be a serious person, and this feels fitting — like if something matters that much to me, I should make sure to build my life around it. Really, when I think about it, I’m already most of the way there to an answer. I always have a notebook (or two, or three…) with me at all times. I love words, I love language, and I know that’s where my gifts lie. I’m just now getting back to that, when I used to engage in it more often when I was younger. It’s been years since I wrote a story — at least since high school — but I realize that I’ve always written, in one way or another. Maybe now I’m not going to deny myself or put myself off anymore. Some things are too important to leave to the experts or the professionals, after all.
But what if I ask myself and I find out I don’t want to write?, someone might wonder. Rilke answers that too, later in the same letter:
It is possible that, even after your descent into your inner self and into your secret place of solitude, you might find that you must give up becoming a poet. As I have said, to feel that one could live without writing is enough indication that, in fact, one should not. Even then this process of turning inward, upon which I beg you to embark, will not have been in vain. Your life will no doubt from then on find its own paths. That they will be good ones and rich and expansive — that I wish for you more than I can say.
So there you have it. Ask yourself the question: Must I write — or paint, or sing, or whatever your art form is? Does this matter to me more than my life? Then go after it with everything you’ve got — and if not, keep looking until you find that one thing that lights your fire.
As for me, I’m fairly certain what the answer would be even before I ask the question — which in itself is the answer.