In the early years of the 20th century, a 19-year-old student began a correspondence with the Austrian poet Rainer Maria Rilke, seeking advice on his own poetic efforts. Rilke’s responses, compiled in one of my favorite books of all time, Letters to a Young Poet, seem at times to dissuade the aspiring poet. In his first letter, Rilke gave his correspondent a challenging litmus test to help him determine whether or not he should even attempt to live the writer’s life.
“[A]sk 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.” But if there is no clear “I must,” Rilke told him, then there is no question: he must not.
I have always felt myself to be balanced unsteadily on the fulcrum of this Rilkean imperative. For Rilke, “I must” means literally: “I would have to die if I were forbidden to write.” That is one uncompromising position. And as much as I have always wanted to be a writer, so many days of my life I simply don’t write. By Rilke’s standards, I likely lack the urgency and perseverance to make my life and my livelihood as a writer. And now, more than ever before (thanks to a little person who takes up a large percentage of my thoughts, time, and heart), I lack the ability to “build my life” completely around writing. I’m pretty sure that I fail Rilke’s test.
But not writing is almost always more complicated than poor time management or a lack of perseverance. It’s caused not only by daily work, distractions, and lack of discipline, but also by the peculiarities of my own interior life. More specifically, my very real lack of discipline is only compounded and amplified by my lack of courage. Yes, I want to be a writer, but what if I can’t pull it off? What if I just don’t have what it takes?
And then there is the simple reality that even in the face of an internal “I must,” it’s still work, after all! In other words, in the “most silent hour” of my afternoon (that’s the scant 2-hours, if I am lucky, of the baby’s nap time), I ask myself: “must I write?” And then I see the dishes and laundry and hoovering that need to be done. More than anything, these other tasks are compellingly simple and satisfying. I know that I can succeed as a homemaker; I love to make tidy lists of discrete tasks and cross them off as I accomplish them. But as a writer, the tasks, the process, and the value of the final product are all a little too ambiguous. I’ve learned that the surest way to open up a yawning abyss of uncertainty and potential failure in the middle of an otherwise fulfilling “to-do” list is to make task number one “start writing.” That item always gets shunted to the foot of the list, if it’s included at all.
Which is not to say that it doesn’t feel natural and deeply right to be writing. In fact, that’s another component of the problem; I have never been able to teach myself how to take something that feels so natural and turn it into a daily discipline.
In any case, how much can a poet’s test tell someone who wants to write non-fiction pieces about science and the history of science? I’m not sure, since I have always struggled to understand how poetry fits in to the scientific or scholarly life. But I do think that most writing, of any form, is a process of building connections. Or else it is a process of observing the connections that already exist. If this last sounds almost mystical to you, then you’ll love what I am going to divulge next. For me, all writing seems just a tiny bit alchemical. I just don’t know how it happens. I don’t understand how images and experience and knowledge could possibly be transmuted, through the labor of composing sentences, into something more, something whole. And yet, they are.
Moreover, in my experience, sometimes writing is done best in the complete absence of writing. Writing is both a physical and mental labor, an intense effort to observe and build connections. But when I use writing to look intensely at an object, interesting new connections are almost certain to appear in my peripheral vision. And it’s not until I take a break from all of that intensity, step away from the computer or notebook, that I can begin see the whole picture. In the vacuum created by stepping away, there’s freedom, room to breathe and think more fluidly. Every time that I have spent a long time writing, I have felt a need to escape it. It could be just a momentary escape, walking to the window or getting a glass of water. Or it could be a break of a week or two. And it’s almost always the case that when I return, something new emerges or a confused idea becomes clear.
You can probably see now that my slippery and quasi-mystical ideas about writing might be getting in the way of turning myself into a disciplined writer.
But I have come close in the past. In fact, poetry was the medium that first brought me closest to daily disciplined writing. As an undergraduate biology major, I took poetry workshops where I was required to submit my work for discussion and critique by the group. The pressure of this public performance was enough to keep me writing more regularly than ever before.
More recently and more relevantly, I wrote my dissertation. I thought this latter would be a true test of my commitment to writing, a demonstration of my capacity for disciplined work and my ability to live the writer’s life. But just like the poetry workshops, there was always an audience waiting, readers with expectations, which helped fuel my discipline; hardly the “silent hour of your night” that Rilke requires.
And yes, I do think that the Rilkean silence and isolation of the night is important. Of course it’s true that writers always have audiences. But the longer I consider what it takes to become a writer, to live my life as a writer, the more convinced I become that a crucial element is the willingness and courage to plunge ahead without too much consciousness of the critical eye of the reader. The reader demands and I may well produce to meet that demand. But the free-market, supply-and-demand model of writing only takes me so far.
What if, instead, the demand for my writing originated within? What if the drive was self-contained, rather than based upon a desire to please an external judge? Granted, it doesn’t sound like the most lucrative approach to writing. But there’s nothing lucrative in not writing, either.
Perhaps this is just what it takes, to ask myself: Must I? To answer: I must!