Whenever I get swept up in the competitive, audience-seeking dimension of the writing life, I turn to Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet as an antidote. Rilke returns me to my essential, life-giving reasons for writing.
What goes on in your innermost being is worthy of your whole love; you must somehow keep working at it and not lose too much time and too much courage in clarifying your attitude toward people.
Art-making both awakens and fulfills basic spiritual needs, Rilke says, and that this role is ultimately sufficient.
A work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity.
Out of the cacophony of writing advice out there, Rilke stands alone in emphasizing love as the central creative force in our work. We must love our doubt, love our solitude, love the questions, love our subject, and make love our subject. Even suffering in the creative process is worthy of love:
Why do you want to shut out of your life any agitation, any pain, any melancholy, since you really do not know what these states are working upon you?
To Rilke the soul of a creative project is tender, solitary, and full of potential. Only those readers who treat it with love are worth listening to.
Works of art are of an infinite loneliness and with nothing so little to be reached as with criticism. Only love can grasp and hold and be just toward them.
At the heart of Rilke’s letters is unabashed faith in the writer’s inner world. Who else treats that silent life with such respect?
I do only want to advise you to keep growing quietly and seriously throughout your whole development; you cannot disturb it more rudely than by looking outward and expecting from outside replies to questions that only your inmost feeling in your most hushed hour can perhaps answer.
Who among us doesn’t benefit from this reminder? We each have within us a potent, generative life-force that feeds our creative work, and attending this is the foundation of all art-making. That said, I’ll sign off to enter that lovely private sphere.
Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew