Write to Be Whole
Five Rainer M. Rilke lessons to take for life
In 1903, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926) and the aspiring poet Franz Kappus begun a postal exchange that would last until 1908. What was initially intended as an innocuous attempt to pick the mind of a prominent literary figure became a spiritual adventure into the confines of a writer’s life and of how one is placed on society because of that aspiration.
On reading the letters, one risks not realizing how different a technique Rilke uses to talk about the writing process, so much inspired they are by the life wisdom it contains.
Rilke faces writing as a problem of how, not of what. Confronted with the question on the specificities of the writing technique necessary to make one a great poet, as if dismissing the question, on the grounds that critique stiffens more than exalts, he proceeds to an investigation on the life of the writer itself, as if saying that what is going to make someone a writer is the life they live, instead of the technique they use to portray the world on paper.
On his first letter to Mr. Kappus, he says
I cannot go into the nature of your verses: for all critical intention is too far from me. With nothing one can approach a work of art so little as with critical words: they always come down to more or less happy misunderstands.
Here we see the genius of someone not preoccupied with the right way of putting the words on paper but with if they express truly the life of the person holding the pen.
Now, it’s important that we do not miss the weight that those words get when coming from a person like Rilke, who was, to put it mildly, someone who had to overcome various barriers to keep writing.
His low physical vitality associated with recurrent moments of ill-health made him a weather nomad, forced to keep moving constantly from place to place around the continent to find somewhere where he would feel better. He was also very poor, despite his talent, to the point of being impeded to buy the books that he needed.
With a dozen books published, he didn’t make very far on the road to recognition either, living the greatest part of his life relatively unknown and underappreciated, relative to the status of his legacy. In spite of that, he did not stop writing and did not let himself be carried away by contempt for his profession or his targeted audience.
Here follows a list with some of the most important features present in his correspondence with Franz Kappus, for it is easier to retain and present if organized that way.
1. Write because you need to
Writing is not easy. It’s hard to think of any serious writer who hasn’t had their skills severely challenged or who wasn’t tempted by the idea that they shouldn’t write at all.
In the face of circumstances like that, it’s important that writers know why they write, and one must not be satisfied with some flimsy explanation like because one loves reading so much, or because one finds it so beautiful, or because one likes to think of their work sitting on people’s shelves.
Those are indeed natural drives that any aspiring writer can relate to, just as the desire for money and recognition. But they are extrinsic motivation, as opposed to intrinsic motivation, which comes from within. They come and go. They would not hold you fast should a crisis come.
No matter who’s the writer, he or she should have at least a modicum of motivation stemming from the inside. They’ve got to believe that writing has an inner value that transcends all sorts of conveniences it happens to be associated with. Rilke writes
Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.
This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meat this earnest question with a strong and simple “I must”, then build your life according to this necessity.
2. Don’t blame life, blame yourself
If your daily life seems poor [of things to talk about], 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.
This passage reflects a stance that permeates the whole of what I don’t hesitate to call Rilke’s philosophy, although he didn’t present it as such. He makes it very clear in his letters how mistaken he thinks to be the path of those to prefer to victimize themselves in the face of fate.
One doesn’t need to say that catastrophes, illnesses and bad luck do exist, but it’s just not helpful to feed on them as a way of relativizing the many to come judgments and burdens the world is going to put on our backs.
Rilke teaches that we should own them as if we were responsible for our own blindness, which ends up being liberating because instead of getting locked on what we can’t do, we are challenged to do what we can’t.
3. Love the questions themselves
We often associate questions with anxiety and insecurity. Questions define boundaries beyond which we can’t go. They are verbal proof that our understanding of the world is limited and, for that reason, potentially false.
It’s also said that questions are oftentimes more important than their answers. They reveal the very environment writers should be caring about, the place of the novel, the no-man’s-land, the place where real and unreal confound, where one is of all alone.
Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foregn tongue. Do not seek the answers which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. — Rilke, Fourth Letter
4. The value of solitude
For Rilke, solitude should play a major role in the development of every writer. It’s what gives them the necessary distance they need to detach themselves from the world in order to make sense of it.
No one nowadays would deny the productivity that may be associated with being alone. But Rilke means something different. For him, solitude is what grants that bitter-sweet sensation that life is at once wonderful and tragic, solitude is what permits dwelling on that the longest. For him, one should seek this mental place and make a home in it. He writes
Love your solitude and bear with sweet-sounding lamentation the suffering it causes you. — Rilke, Fourth Letter
Solitude is what we have of opportunity for inhabiting our sadness. That is to say that whenever we feel down because things are not quite as we wished them to be, instead of brushing them off, we should embrace it, capitalize on its effect, as a way of healing and evolving.
5. Kindness and wisdom
Rilke’s profound stoic kindness is unmissable. The image he has of writers as being these organisms capable of engaging with the world with their creativity but who are also not dismissible towards the parts of their nature that are unmovable has the effect of closing the cycle of an author’s life, giving them a place in the world and reason to go on.
Rilke’s kindness and consequent wisdom may serve us as a demonstration that a writer can be a lot more than the person who translates thoughts to words. A writer is someone actively seeking equilibrium with their environment and with themselves. A writer is someone whose path is a living demonstration that life is well worth it, in spite of everything.