This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. From Letters to a Young Poet, by Rainer Maria Rilke
I read the above lines decades ago and I carried them with me ever since. They impressed me enough to think of them every time I had a conversation with others about writing, every time I published a novel and pondered its significance, and every time I considered changing my own life. I remembered them well enough to quote them in a blog of mine about writing — on Medium, (The Struggle) To Write or Not to Write, of June 16, 2017.
Two points of the quote are essential to me. The first is the question of whether you ‘would have to die if you were forbidden to write.’ The second is the urging to build ‘your life in accordance with this necessity,’ even in ‘its humblest and most indifferent hour,’ as ‘a sign and witness to this impulse.’
I am embarrassed to admit it, but were I forbidden to write, I would certainly not die. Writing makes me happy, but I love life even when I am sad. Does this mean that I’m not passionate enough, or that writing is not important for me? ? Did Rilke mean death to be taken literally, or as a metaphor? Would Shakespeare, Cervantes, or Dickens have died if they couldn’t have written? The excerpt above is from Letters to a Young Poet. I am many things, but no longer young. I look back at my life and see that I did I survive those times when I was unable to write.
Addressing the second point is more complicated. Until recently I worked for a living and I wrote when I could. It is how it is. Three years ago I retired, and writing has taken a very important role in my life. In that sense I am a happy man and I am following Rilke’s advice. My days revolve around writing and most everything else falls by the wayside. I have all I need — a supportive family, a nice house, and peace of mind.
Every morning I go to my desk and spend the first four to six hours writing. Once I’m done, I move on to other things. I read, I do correspondence, I write this blog. I walk and I play tennis. Sometimes I nap. When we travel, the laptop comes with me. There is always time to write in the morning or during a break.
Recently I watched a TV series about Einstein and Picasso on National Geographic. Their genius undisputed, the manner in which they treated people in their lives was similar. Their personalities left a lot to be desired, to put it mildly. They were convinced that their work was of critical importance, and if they hurt people in the process of pursuing their goals, so be it. Reaching the pinnacles of their art and science required sacrifice, and they sacrificed the people closest to them in their lives. I don’t want to be like that. When we go visit friends or throw a big dinner party at the house, I have to accept the fact that my writing will take second place. It’s not easy and sometimes I’m unhappy for it. But I do it nevertheless.
And now, the sore subject of doubt: As any writer knows, doubting the result is part of the process. I read some pages I wrote and think they are brilliant, then read them again a few days later and feel they are trash. What is the truth? Is my plot engaging? Are my characters well defined by feelings, rather than simply by what they do? Is my dialogue vivid enough, realistic, bizarre, funny, and does it move the action forward? Do I explain too much? And so it goes….
Validation can only come from the feedback of others, and perhaps not even then. Agents are hard to find, publishers even harder. Self-publishing gives one hope and a moment of euphoria, but then comes the wait. Networking, marketing, selling are all devil’s work for me. They take me away from the desk and the keyboard, where I feel I belong.
The novel I currently work on is epic. All these thousands of hours and hundreds of pages, are they worth it? Will it all rest in a drawer when I am done?
Rilke tells me to organize my life around writing, but there is no guarantee for success. A deal with the devil might be what I need.
Yet Rilke also says: Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer. It does come.
I hope it does.
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