Between Authenticity and Self Evaluation in Art, from Rainer Maria Rilke

I can’t give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to, the question of whether you must create. Accept that answer, just as it is given to you, without trying to interpret it. Perhaps you will discover that you are called to be an artist. Then take that destiny upon yourself, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what reward might come from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and must find everything in himself and in Nature, to whom his whole life is devoted.

– Rainer Maria Rilke,  Letter # 1, Letters to A Young Poet

“Early Spring,” by Kolomon Moser, Illustration to a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, completed 1901.

Sometimes, we come across writers whose prose and ideas regarding the overarching questions of life- dignity, courage, hope, and love, become integral to our understandings of the world. Several years ago, whilst researching Rainer Maria Rilke’s influences for the young Werther for a literature class in college, I came across “Letters to A Young Poet.”

The book was composed as a series of letters composed as part of a five year correspondence between German author Rilke, and an an Austrian journalist and military cadet, Franz Kappus. Kappus was 19 when he wrote to Rilke looking for guidance and an honest critique regarding some of Kappus’s poetry. Rilke himself was about 27 when he responded to Kappus in 1902, which resulted in several timeless meditations on what it means to be an artist and a person, that Kappus eventually published in 1929.

Here are five essential insights on the process of creating art, from the first letter written by Rilke to Kappus, about the steps every writer must take, in order to remain true, both to themselves and to their craft. These beautiful insights pinpoint to how every writer must embrace that the biggest reward is not recognition, but the process of self discovery.

1. Stop looking for reassurance from critics and outsiders, because no one can help you.

“You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you – no one.”

2. Explore the reasons why you write. If you think you MUST write in order to survive, then listen to this inner voice and question it.

“There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. 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.”

3. Embrace your feelings and be honest in the way you describe your surroundings, in order to realize how your ordinary feelings can be extraordinary. Avoid, simultaneously, trying to situate yourself within a simple genre, instead staying true to your feelings and emotions as a means to guide your writing as an honest exploration of truth.

“…Come close to Nature. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose. Don’t write love poems; avoid those forms that are too facile and ordinary: they are the hardest to work with, and it takes a great, fully ripened power to create something individual where good, even glorious, traditions exist in abundance. So rescue yourself from these general themes and write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty Describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember.”

4. If you do not find inspiration in your surroundings, examine yourself and your past, in order to create an enriched awareness of your personality.

Poet Rainer Maria Rilke

If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sound – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attention to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance.

5. When writing becomes a necessity to understanding ourselves, critics cease to matter. In turn, when critics cease to matter, one is able to truly create good art.

“And if out of this turning within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not. Nor will you try to interest magazines in these works: for you will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it. A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it.

In a nutshell, you must examine the sources of your questions in order to establish whether and how you must and will create.

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2 thoughts on “Between Authenticity and Self Evaluation in Art, from Rainer Maria Rilke

  1. Thanks for your thoughtful post on authenticity and creating.

    It’s been years since I’ve read Rilke, but will now revisit my copy to see what I underlined years ago in “Letters to a Young Poet”… Cheers!

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