King’s On Writing, pt. 2: “If God Gives You Something You Can Do, Why In God’s Name Wouldn’t You Do It?”

Rilke, in his Letters to a Young Poet, is widely quoted as telling said young poet to try anything other than writing. If the whippersnapper just can’t keep himself away from the pen and paper, well, then Rilke supposes it’s okay to carry on. This dour-faced wisdom is waved about in many creative writing classes, and I now believe it’s possibly used by professors as a means of lightening the number of manuscripts they’ll be required to read in workshops.

But for some time I believed the Rilke-wisdom, and wondered what to make of the handful of rogue poets I know–or in some cases, used to know–who are quite good. Many can do enviable things with language, and many of them are writers I’ve looked up to. But they produce maybe a handful of poems each year, or none at all. I suppose Rilke would tell them that this is an indication that they’re not, in fact poets. They have lives that fulfill them, or occupy them at the very least, without the need to put black marks on a white background and ascribe some meaning to them.

In his book On Writing (see the below post for a bit more on the book), Stephen King contemplates novelists like Harper Lee, who wrote one book and subsequently evaporated from the public eye. He wonders what writers like Lee “…do with the rest of their time…knit afghans? Organize church bazaars? Deify plums? I’m probably being snotty here, but I am also, believe me, honestly curious. If God gives you something you can do, why in God’s name wouldn’t you do it?”

Boy, that’s refreshing! I’m pleased that someone’s confirmed my suspicion that Rilke’s admonition wasn’t much good. After all, do we tell young men and women with aptitudes for astrophysics that they must search their souls and determine whether they really must be rocket scientists? It’s a bit much, isn’t it? A bit of the old self-aggrandizing of the work as a means of plumping the worker’s ego.

And there’s something empowering about a guy like Stephen King saying, “hey, if you can do something, bloody well get on with it,” don’t you think? Taking an attitude of moving ahead with one’s talent rather than spending too much time on navel-gazing and self-searching would result, I think, in a great deal more good work, both from students trying out their narrative chops and from established writers who need to get out of the doldrums. So to all the rogue poets out there: if God gave you something you can do…

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9 Replies to “King’s On Writing, pt. 2: “If God Gives You Something You Can Do, Why In God’s Name Wouldn’t You Do It?””

  1. Boy, if I had a buck for every writer who had the talent but not the drive … I wouldn’t have to write! But then, I would anyway.

    Now if I only had the talent…

  2. But let’s not forget that writing isn’t easy. It isn’t a simple matter of allowing one’s grace from God to flow onto the page and sit back and admire the results.

    Most of the time I feel like Sisyphus and think my life would be much better if I just put the damn rock down. But, in the end I keep pushing.

  3. Man, you’re totally inspiring me. I can’t wait to be done with a certain thing that’s coming to an end soon (wink) and get to work on my manuscript!

  4. Joe, come on! You’ve got the chops. I have no doubt that your novels–current and finished–will see daylight.

    Ann, it’s definitely not easy…but those blissed-out moments when things are really working? To me, it’s worth pushing the damn rock. 🙂

    Laurie, good! I can’t wait for you to finish your ms.

  5. Interesting that King brings this adage up. Once upon a time when I was looking to be ordained in the Episcopal church I was given the same admonition. It’s quite commonly, shall we say ‘offered’, to postulants. It’s another way of saying: “Be sure this is what you /really/ want and need in your life because the road is not easy”.

    I chose against such a life but the advice is equally weighty for a writer. I have chosen to pursue writing, partly because of such an admonition. Writing, regardless of the genre, carries with it a piece of the writer–a sliver of our life is left in every single piece we write. It can’t be any other way. Nor would we have it any other way.

  6. Hey, don’t underestimate the power of navel-gazing. I’ve found some really great stuff in mine. A little stinky at times, but nonetheless inspiring. Love your contemplative outlook.

  7. It is frustrating, what Rilke proposes: Write only if you can’t keep away from pen and paper. Or keyboard, as the case may be.

    I’m afraid Rilke speaks to my own experience, but I don’t believe it should have been that way. I believe more respect is due the literary arts. I think poetry, and writing, should be championed as a higher calling, not a last resort.

  8. Agreed, Claire. You said it better than I did: it’s a higher calling, not a last resort.

  9. I love what Stephen King says, and I found this page by Googling that quote, but I think you all might be missing both of the authors’ points. Rilke’s just saying that if you’re not sure if you’re supposed to be a writer or not, go ahead and try doing something else. You’re just going to go back to writing, so you might as well stick with it now.

    Stephen, on the other hand, is saying, if you know how to write, you should write as much as you can and put your work out there for people to enjoy. There’s no point in having a talent/skill and not making much use of it.

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