Must I Write?

October 23, 2013 § 4 Comments

For those insecure times when all one needs is approval…

Paris, February 17, 1903

Dear Sir,

      Your letter arrived just a few days ago. I want to thank you for the great confidence you have placed in me. That is all I can do. I cannot discuss your verses; for any attempt at criticism would be foreign to me. Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism : they always result in more or less fortunate misunderstandings. Things aren’t all so tangible and sayable as people would usually have us believe; most experiences are unsayable, they happen in a space that no word has ever entered, and more unsayable than all other things are works of art, those mysterious existences, whose life endures beside our own small, transitory life.

      With this note as a preface, may I just tell you that your verses have no style of their own, although they do have silent and hidden beginnings of something personal. I feel this most clearly in the last poem, “My Soul.” There, something of your own is trying to become word and melody. And in the lovely poem “To Leopardi” a kind of kinship with that great, solitary figure does perhaps appear. Nevertheless, the poems are not yet anything in themselves, not yet anything independent, even the last one and the one to Leopardi. Your kind letter, which accompanied them, managed to make clear to me various faults that I felt in reading your verses, though I am not able to name them specifically.

      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. 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 while life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. Then 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 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.

      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 not poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sounds – wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attentions 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. – 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. So, dear Sir, 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 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 the 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.

      But after this descent into yourself and into your solitude, perhaps you will have to renounce becoming a poet (if, as I have said, one feels one could live without writing, then one shouldn’t write at all). Nevertheless, even then, this self-searching will not have been for nothing. Your life will still find its own paths from there, and that they may be good, rich, and wide is what I wish for you, more than I can say

      What else can I tell you? It seems to me that everything has its proper emphasis; and finally I want to add just one more bit of advice: to keep growing, silently and earnestly, through your while development; you couldn’t disturb it any more violently than by looking outside and waiting for outside answers to question that only your innermost feeling, in your quietest hour, can perhaps answer.

      It was a pleasure for me to find in your letter the name of Professor Horacek; I have great reverence for that kind, learned man, and a gratitude that has lasted through the years. Will you please tell him how I feel; it is very good of him to still think of me, and I appreciate it.

      The poems that you entrusted me with I am sending back to you. And I thank you once more for your questions and sincere trust, of which, by answering as honestly as I can, I have tried to make myself a little worthier than I, as a stranger, really am.

Yours very truly

Rainer Maria Rilke

A Writer’s Voice

October 3, 2013 § Leave a comment

My blog is two weeks old today – just a baby. Instead of another story, I’d like to share with you how I found my voice.

How did you find yours?


Finding one’s own voice as a writer is rather like growing up. As a child one emulates those one thinks are better than you – or at least that’s what one believed at the time…

When I was about twelve I read everything by D. H. Lawrence and Thomas Hardy. I kind of fell in love. They became an obsession. I buried myself deep in their worlds and refused to come out until I’d read every word. I must have found what I was looking for, but I stayed hungry.

In 1997, and used to writing academic non-fiction, I had a shock. I discovered Arundhati Roy. She won the Booker that year for her novel, The God Of Small Things. It was a light bulb moment. I recognised her. I loved the way she thought, loved the way she constructed sentences, loved the way she handled the subject matter. I also recognised something else – it was if I understood what she was doing. Maybe I could do it too. So I copied her, or rather emulated her – for about twenty thousand words – in the form of a fledgling cathartic novel. But the little bird died – it got to be such hard work feeding it, and I let it fall out of the nest. It was as if I was trying too hard to be her – and so I was doomed to failure.

I learnt a lot from that experience, so I did it again and again. Over the years I devoured contemporary writers and developed a passion bordering on obsession. Most writers didn’t touch me at all, I could establish no relationship with their minds: but a few held me fast. As well as reading their work, I found out about their lives. I read many Irish writers like Colum McCann and Colm Toibin, American and Canadian novelists like Attwood and Isabel Allende; and the wonderful Asian and African writers who have emerged over the last twenty years. And I recognised something in their work that had an affinity with my own. I immersed myself again.

Then I began to steal. Not borrow, but steal. I’d take an idea, or maybe just a sentence, and run with it. Sometimes it grew and became indisputably mine, at other times it simply died.

Some writers I fell out of love with – it can be hard after all to stay friends with ex lovers; but others, particularly poets like Eliot and Hughes, stick around to be good, reliable companions when I need to touch home base.

After a few years of writing and experimenting, the balance between reading and writing changed. The books lay about largely unread, and I began to write more. I starting breaking the rules I’d learned, and realised I’d started making up my own. Then it started to happen: my writing voice flourished. The strange thing was I didn’t like a lot of the stuff I had written. It took me a while to realise what was happening – I was still refining that voice. It was changing – it had to change. So I decided to be kind to myself – I stopped reading fiction. I read travelogues, books on art, gardening – anything that interested me. And I just wrote for the love of it.

Today that voice isn’t that different from before – but now I know it’s mine.


Mother Earth

September 22, 2013 § Leave a comment


The old ones called me Mother Earth, and knew I was sacred. They worshipped my mountains and my rivers, leaving only footprints. And I will always remember – they took only what they needed.

They travelled across my skin looking for comfort, in search of peace. They  knew I was alive and asked questions I freely answered – then they fed me and left me to rest.

 But now most call me dirt and think I have no heart. There is darkness as you strip me naked. You see neither my face nor my tears, and you are deaf to my warnings: my tsunamis, my earthquakes, my floods. You have muted me, and blinded me too.

I am becoming empty and tired. You have burned, raped and stolen from me, and taken out my insides. I know I am captive. As you take more, the less I have to give: soon I will be barren.

I need rich forests on my hillsides again and clean rivers feeding my oceans. I need plants to anchor my soil and to keep my air alive.

Maybe some of you understand that you need me. But I am losing my soul as you have lost yours. If I die, I will be useless to you, and you will be no more.

Where Am I?

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