In 1902, whilst at school, a young hopeful poet was sitting under a tree reading “Poems by Rainer Maria Rilke”. A teacher came past, enquired what Franz Kappus was reading, and flicking through the pages said, “So, our pupil Rene Rilke has become a poet.”
Kappus wrote to Rilke seeking advice and validation. Over the course of five years, the two exchanged correspondence. In 1929 Kappus published Rilke’s letters, and it stands as some of the best advice for anyone, young or old, wanting to write.
Indeed, some of his advice should be taught to everyone, regardless of it they seek to be creative.
If your everyday life seems to lack material, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to summon up its riches, for there is no lack for him who creates and no poor trivial place.
There can be no doubt of the Stoic sentiment behind these words. Marcus Aurelius once wrote, “Our life is what our thoughts make it.” It is the duty of the poet to seek out the beauty in this world, no matter how bleak it may seem on first viewing.
Rilke’s advice on how to do this is:
… go into yourself and … examine the depths from which your life springs; at its source you will find the answer to the question of whether you have to write.
Substitute the word “write” for whatever your passion is. Too many people don’t make that journey to the source, and rather cling to the dream without doing the hard yards to make it a reality.
As discussed previously, writing is hard. It requires dedication and the ability to take on the moral responsibility associated with it. Margaret Atwood likens it to digging a hole compared to digging a grave. Very different simply because the latter will be the resting place for a person who once lived.
Rilke extols the benefits of seeking “out the depths of things”.
With regards to reading, he wrote:
Live in these books for a while, learn from them what seems to be worth learning … This love will be repaid you thousands and thousands of times.
I have, for the longest time, read and highlighted books. Be it favourite lines from a fiction writer, lines like this one from Dave Eggers:
Their silhouettes are smudges scratched by the gray lines of the cold rain.
Or mind blowing concepts by a non-fiction writer , such this from Abby Smith Rumsey:
Extending the reach and longevity of knowledge became a distinct advantage not only over animals, but also over rival Homo sapiens.
Rilke’s advice aligns with Rumsey’s observation nicely. The competitive advantage will only arrive if the lessons are truly learned. Niklas Luhmann had the perfect technique for extracting this knowledge from the texts he read. He created what he called “Literature Notes”, which was his way of seeking the depths of what he was reading. He then transferred this knowledge into his “slipbox”, which extended the value of what he read and thought about.
Luhmann allowed his notes to act as a conversation partner, allowing the thoughts to form almost on their own accord. Luhmann, by all accounts, didn't focus on his output, which was prodigious. He focussed on the singular notes he extracted from his reading.
Rilke advised Kappus that “Everything must be carried to term before it is born.” There must be patience for the “new clarity”.
These things cannot be measured by time, a year has no meaning, and ten years are nothing. To be an artist means: not to calculate and count; to grow and ripen like a tree which does not hurry the flow of its sap and stands at ease in the spring gales without fearing that no summer may follow. It will come.
As Pete Seeger sang “To every thing there is a season.” Be content in the current season, knowing there will always be a turning.