Passages – Rilke

Occasionally, I’d like to share passages from some of my favorite authors or works, and here is the first.

As a journalism student at San Francisco State University, I wanted to steer my writing style away from the limited, narrow focus of the inverted pyramid of news writing. Sure, the who/what/where/when/why and sometimes how of a journalism article is critical. But it doesn’t always make for the most interesting read.

I followed the magazine concentration, and was mentored by John Burks, who has the distinction of being the first managing editor at a little publication called Rolling Stone. (Maybe you’ve heard of it.) Of course, I learned to write hard news, but I’m more of a storyteller. I’m a feature writer at heart. I liked the idea of giving the facts but weaving words together in such a way that the reader had a better understanding of the story being told.

So, I took a Creative Writing class since I needed a few more credits to graduate and I had room in my schedule.

One of the books assigned was Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. I’ll confess that, at the time, I didn’t get much out of it, as a whole. But there was a passage that has stayed with me to this day. And it’s one I love to share with new writers, and anyone passionate about what they 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.

Now there’s some quality life advice that applies to everyone.

Whatever you do – whether you’re a writer, designer, artist, engineer, chef, security guard, athlete, financier, or clockmaker – you need to ask yourself this question. Is this really what you want to do with your life? Would you die if you were forbidden to do it?

Every so often, I find myself frustrated with my chosen profession. It’s a lot of work. It’s time-consuming. I could get a desk job somewhere with a commute and a business wardrobe and a steady paycheck and forget about the creative challenges that come with trying to live on a writer’s inconsistent salary.

But, I can’t do that.

Because, in the most silent hour of my night, my answer has always been, “I must.”

Do you have a favorite passage?