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…