Being an artist is a privilege. But all writers, poets, painters, artists know how difficult it can be to follow your creative instincts and make a life of it. There are days when you think to yourself, is it worth it? Let me stop you right there, and introduce you to a man called Rainer Maria Rilke. For almost a century, Rilke’s letters have been the go-to manual for all young artists struggling with the life of the artist. Rilke’s voice is like a gentle hand reaching out, pulling you out of the misery of a bad day, restoring your faith in the creative life you have chosen for yourself.
The fact that we have Rilke’s letters is today is because of a man called Franz Kappus. He was a young student at a military academy in Vienna, who read Rilke’s poems in his spare time. Kappus not only shared Rilke’s love of poetry, but he was studying at the same academy where his idol spent several (unhappy) years. In the fall of 1903, Kappus decided to send his verses to Rilke to get some feedback, and he accompanied his poems with a letter.
That was the start of a five year period during which Rilke would write the now famous ten letters. And guess how old Rilke was when he received the first letter? A mere 28 years old. He was not writing as an old man reminiscing about his life, who owed his wisdom to a lifetime of reflection and retrospect. He was struggling with the same questions and emotions that Kappus felt, the same ones every artist feels embarking on his or her difficult, mysterious and ultimately lonely, journey.
What stands out in Rilke’s advice is his humility. We could all benefit from keeping this in mind the next time we dole out advice from our high horses (‘I know more than you,’ we seem to be saying.) He was sharing his own experience, his own struggle with the same questions that he sensed Kappus to be struggling with. His focus is on the inner life of the artist. Rilke’s advice will not only make you a better writer, it will also make you a better person.
On Looking Within
“You ask whether your poems are good. You send them to publishers; you compare them with other poems; you are disturbed when certain publishers reject your attempts… I suggest you give all that up. You are looking outward and, above all else, that you must not do now. No one can advise and help you, no one. There is only one way: Go within. Search for the cause, find the impetus that bids you write.”
“I know of no other advice than this: Go within and scale the depths of your being from which your very life springs forth.”
“If, as a result of this turning inward, of this sinking into your own world, poetry should emerge, you will not think to ask someone whether it is good poetry. And you will not try to interest publishers or magazines in these works. For you will hear in them your own voice; you will see in them a piece of your life, a natural possession of yours. A piece of art is good if it is born of necessity.”
On Writing What You Know
“Draw near to nature. Pretend you are the very first man and then write what you see and experience, what you love and lose.”
“Beware of general themes. Cling to those that your everyday life offers you. Write about your sorrows, your wishes, your passing thoughts, your belief in anything beautiful. Describe all that with fervent, quiet, and humble sincerity. In order to express yourself, use things in your surroundings, the scenes of your dreams, and the subjects on your memory.”
“If your everyday life appears to be unworthy subject matter, do not complain to life. Complain to yourself. Lament that you are not poet enough to call up its wealth. For the creative artist there is no poverty – nothing is insignificant or unimportant. Even if you were in a prison whose walls would shut out from your senses the sounds of the outer world, would you not then still have your childhood, this precious wealth, this treasure house of memories? Direct your attention to that. Attempt to resurrect these sunken sensations of a distant past.”
On How The Artist Must be Self-Sufficient
“For the creative artist must be a word of his own and must find everything within himself and in nature.”
On Cultivating Aloneness
“Your aloneness will expand and will become your home, greeting you like the quiet dawn. Outer tumult will pass by it from afar.”
“What you really need is simply this – aloneness, great inner solitude. To go within and for hours not to meet anyone – that is what one needs to attain. To be lonely as one was lonely as a child, while adults were moving about, entangled with things that seemed big and important – that must be the goal.”
“Progress quietly and seriously in your evolvement. You could greatly interfere with that process if you look outward and expect to obtain answers from the outside – answers which only your innermost feeling in your quietest hour can give you.”
“To be an artist means not to compute or to count; it means to ripen as the tree, which does not force its sap, but stands unshaken in the storms of spring with no fear that summer might not follow. It will come regardless. But it only comes to those who live as though eternity stretches before them, carefree, silent, and endless. I learn it daily, learn it with many pains, for which I am grateful: Patience is all!”
On Developing Your Own Judgment of Art
“The natural growth of your inner life will guide you slowly and in good time to other conclusions. Allow your judgments their own quiet, undisturbed development, which, as with all progress, but come from deep within and can in no way be forced or hastened… To allow the completion of every impression, every germ of a feeling deep within, in darkness, beyond words, in the realm of instinct unattainable by logic, to await humbly and patiently the hour of the descent of the new clarity: that alone is to live one’s art, in the realm of understanding as in that of creativity.”
“You are so young; you stand before beginnings… have patience with everything that remains unsolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them. It is a question of experiencing everything. At present you need to live the question. Perhaps you will gradually, without even noticing it, find yourself experiencing the answer, some distant day.”
On Embracing Struggle
“We must embrace struggle. Every living thing conforms to it. Everything in nature grows and struggles in its own way, establishing its own identity, insisting on it at all cost, against all resistance.”
We must “endure our griefs with even greater trust than our joys. For they are the moments when something new has entered into us, something unfamiliar.”
“Therefore it is so important to be alone and observant when one is sad… the quieter and more patient, the more open we are when we are sad, the more resolutely does that something new enter into us, the deeper it is absorbed in us, and the more certain we are to secure it, and the more certain it is to become our personal destiny.”
“You must not be frightened, dear Mr. Kappus, when a sadness arises within you of such magnitude as you have never experienced, or when a restlessness overshadows all you do, like light and the shadow of clouds gliding over your hand. You must believe that something is happening to you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand. It shall not let you fall.”
On Having Courage
“How could we be capable of forgetting the old myths that stand at the threshold of all mankind, myths of dragons transforming themselves at the last moment into princesses? Perhaps all dragons in our lives are really princesses just waiting to see us just once being beautiful and courageous. Perhaps everything fearful is basically helplessness that seeks our help.”