On Creativity - Art, Jewelry, Writing · On Teaching

Rilke’s Failures and the Importance of Thinking Big

“There is only one way. Withdraw into yourself. Explore the reasons that bid you write, find out if it has spread out its roots in the very depths of our heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if writing was denied to you. Above all, ask yourself in the stillest hour of the night, “Must I write?” Dig deep into yourself for an answer. And if the answer should be in the affirmative, if you can meet this solemn question with a simple strong “I must” then build your life according to this necessity. Your life right down to its most indifferent and unimportant hour must be a token and a witness to this compulsion.”

That’s part of the advice that Ranier Maria Rilke famously offered a young poet in 1903 — it’s quoted often enough that it’s basically become a creative process cliché.

It’s still sound advice for any writer, but I think it’s important to understand that Rilke was describing his ideal — not his own writing practice.

At the time Rilke wrote his advice to that young poet, Franz Xavier Kappus, he’d just left Paris, where he’d been working on a monograph about Auguste Rodin, and studying Rodin’s creative process. A few months after he offered his advice to Kappus, Rilke wrote to a friend: “I must learn to work, to work, Lou, I am so lacking in that! Il faut toujours travailler – toujours – [Rodin] said to me once, when I spoke to him of the frightening abyss that open up between my good days…”

Those good days, any writer will recognize, are the good, productive writing days. Rilke was persuaded by, but ultimately unable to follow Rodin’s rallying cry: One must work always – always.

Rilke wanted to arrange his life around his writing, and nothing but his writing. Two volumes of letters to friends and family show that he was not always able to do it. But it’s important to remember that he did get an awful lot of important writing done in his rather short life.

The take away: If you make it your goal to put writing at the center of your life, and achieve only partial success, you’ll get a lot more written than if you make it your goal to carve out a small space in your life for writing. When setting writing goals, thinking big is better than thinking small.

And why am I thinking about all of this?  I’m prepping for a few classes I’m teaching this summer on the Business of Freelance Writing.  One is at The Arts Center of the Capital Region, on June 2nd, and the other will be at Hudson Valley Writers’ Center, in Sleepy Hollow, on July 14th.


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