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Rilke on Writing and What It Takes to Be an Artist

“Go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create.”

Even more complex and nuanced than the question of how to be a good writer, which has elicited answers from some of humanity’s most beloved authors, is the question of why be a writer at all — why, that is, do great writers write?

Among the most memorable and invigorating answers are those sprung forth by W.H. Auden, Jennifer Egan, Pablo Neruda, Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace, Italo Calvino, and William Faulkner. But the finest, richest, truest answer of all comes from Rainer Maria Rilke (December 4, 1875–December 29, 1926) in Letters to a Young Poet (public library) — those invaluable packets of wisdom on writing and life, which Rilke bequeathed to a 19-year-old cadet and budding poet named Franz Xaver Kappus.

1902 portrait of Rainer Maria Rilke by Helmuth Westhoff, Rilke’s brother-in-law

In the very first installment from their now-iconic correspondence, the young poet shares some of his writing with his mentor and extends the simple, enormously difficult question of how one knows one is a writer. Echoing Nietzsche’s famous assertion that “no one can build you the bridge on which you, and only you, must cross the river of life,” Rilke offers:

Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write.

In a sentiment that calls to mind Bukowski’s incantation from his poem “So you want to be a writer”“unless it comes out of your soul like a rocket … don’t do it,” he admonished — Rilke adds:

This above all — ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple “I must,” then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it.


A work of art is good if it has sprung from necessity. In this nature of its origin lies the judgment of it: there is no other.

But despite his opening caveat, Rilke does offer young Kappus advice both practical and poetic:

Try, like some first human being, to say what you see and experience and love and lose. Do not write love-poems; avoid at first those forms that are too facile and commonplace: they are the most difficult, for it takes a great, fully matured power to give something of your own where good and even excellent traditions come to mind in quantity. Therefore save yourself from these general themes and seek those which your own everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, passing thoughts and the belief in some sort of beauty — describe all these with loving, quiet, humble sincerity, and use, to express yourself, the things in your environment, the images from your dreams, and the objects of your memory. If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.

Rilke concludes with a numinous definition of what it means, and what it takes, to be an artist:

I know no advice for you save this: to go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. Accept it, just as it sounds, without inquiring into it. Perhaps it will turn out 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 recompense might come from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and find everything in himself and in Nature to whom he has attached himself.

Letters to a Young Poet remains nothing short of secular scripture for the creative life, replete with Rilke’s wisdom on what books do for our inner lives, the life-expanding value of uncertainty, what it really means to love, and how great sadnesses bring us closer to ourselves. Complement this particular portion with artist and MacArthur fellow Teresita Fernández on what it really means to be an artist and writer Dani Shapiro on the pleasures and perils of the creative life, then revisit Rilke on our fear of the unexplainable and his stirring letter to his boyhood teacher at the military academy that nearly broke his spirit.


Leonard Bernstein on Cynicism, Instant Gratification, and Why Paying Attention Is a Countercultural Act of Courage and Rebellion

“There is so much inherent goodness in people that if they aren’t inhibited by traumas and are given half a chance, it shines through.”

Leonard Bernstein on Cynicism, Instant Gratification, and Why Paying Attention Is a Countercultural Act of Courage and Rebellion

Composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein (August 25, 1918–October 14, 1990) remains one of the most irrepressible creative minds and largest spirits of the past century. He was awarded twenty-three Grammy Awards, ten Emmy Awards, and twenty-two honorary degrees. For Bernstein, his life and his work, his art and his political convictions, coexisted inseparably within the vast container of his unrelenting idealism. During the Hoover administration, the FBI had a file on him almost seven hundred pages long. When JFK was assassinated, Bernstein delivered a remarkable speech about the only true antidote to violence, which has only grown in poignancy and timeliness in recent years. He met tragedy and turmoil with tireless resolve for betterment. “We must believe, without fear, in people,” he wrote in his largehearted personal credo, and he enacted that belief in every realm of his life — but nowhere more so than in his work with children, whom he educated and nurtured into a creative life for more than four decades through his Young People’s Concerts, television specials, books, and lectures.

Leonard Bernstein making notes at the piano, 1955 (Photograph: Al Ravenna / Library of Congress)
Leonard Bernstein making notes at the piano, 1955 (Photograph: Al Ravenna / Library of Congress)

On November 20, 1989 — less than a year before his death — Bernstein, who was otherwise averse to interviews, invited into his home longtime Rolling Stone contributing editor Jonathan Cott for a long dinner conversation. A decade after conducting Susan Sontag’s most dimensional interview, Cott took Bernstein by the hand and walked the maestro across the landscape of his own life as Bernstein reflected on everything from music to education to love.

Their beautifully layered and symphonic conversation was eventually published as Dinner with Lenny: The Last Long Interview with Leonard Bernstein (public library).

Cott casts his subject:

Leonard Bernstein adamantly, and sometimes controversially, refused to compartmentalize and separate his emotional, intellectual, political, erotic, and spiritual longings from the musical experience.


Above all, in every aspect of his life and work, Bernstein was a boundless enthusiast. In the course of my dinner conversation with him, he informed me that the word “enthusiasm” was derived from the Greek adjective entheos, meaning “having the god within,” with its attendant sense of “living without aging,” as did the gods on Mount Olympus.

Bernstein’s greatest point of enthusiasm was his lifelong devotion to enamoring young people with music. He understood that love and learning are inextricably linked, that learning is a kind of love and love a kind of learning, and used his robust and radiant enthusiasm as a force of illumination. He tells Cott:

Though I can’t prove it, deep in my heart I know that every person is born with the love of learning. Without exception. Every infant studies its toes and fingers, and a child’s discovery of his or her voice must be one of the most extraordinary of life’s moments… Imagine an infant lying in its cradle, discovering its voice, purring and murmuring MMM to itself.

As we grow up and learn to be cynical, Bernstein argues, we gradually stifle this inherent love of learning, turn off our curiosity, and become calcified. Out of that cynicism springs the impulse for instant gratification — the very opposite of the pleasurably protracted challenge of learning. A generation before the incessant input feed of the Internet gave us continuous quick fixes of on-demand approval and outrage, Bernstein considers the cultural and civilizational conditions that have contributed to this epidemic of instant gratification:

Everyone who was born after 1945 when that bomb went off is a completely different kind of person from those who were born before then. Because they grew up in a world where the possibility of global destruction was an everyday possibility, to the point where they didn’t even think about it that much. But it conditions the way they live… Anybody who grows up — as those of my generation did not — taking the possibility of the immediate destruction of the planet for granted is going to gravitate all the more toward instant gratification — you push the TV button, you drop the acid, you snort the coke, you do the needle… and then you pass out in the bed … and you wake up so cynical… And guilt breeds fear and anxiety, and anxiety breeds fear, and it goes around — it’s that old vicious circle where one thing reinforces the other, which drives you day and night to instant gratification. Anything of a serious nature isn’t “instant” — you can’t “do” the Sistine Chapel in one hour. And who has time to listen to a Mahler symphony, for God’s sake?


You can’t “do” the Sistine Chapel instantly — you have to lie on your back and look up at that ceiling and contemplate. And we’ve already lost a whole generation of kids who are blind to anything constructive or beautiful, who are blind to love, love, LOVE — that battered, old, dirty four-letter word that few people understand anymore.

Leonard Bernstein in his final years
Leonard Bernstein in his final years

But rather than despairing over this nascent orientation of spirit, which would itself be an act of cynicism, Bernstein turns to the reasons for hope — hope he devoted his life to seeding and seeing bloom. (Active hope, lest we forget, is the antidote to cynicism.) He tells Cott:

We must get back to faith and hope and belief — things we’re all born with. But unfortunately we’re also born thinking we’re the center of the universe. And of all traumas, that one is the biggest and most difficult to get rid of. And the hardest principle to absorb is the Copernican one: that you’re just another speck on this planet, which is a speck in the solar system, which is a speck in the galaxy, which is a speck in the universe … which is a speck in something even bigger that we don’t have the minds to contemplate.


No subject is too difficult to talk to the kids about. You just have to know where the pain is.

When Cott brings up the Hasidic Rabbi Dov Baer’s assertion that “each person consists of a certain song of existence, the one by which our innermost being was created and is defined,” Bernstein responds:

We destroy our children’s songs of existence by giving them inhibitions, teaching them to be cynical, manipulative, and all the rest of it… You become hardened, but you can find that playfulness again. We’ve got to find a way to get music and kids together, as well as to teach teachers how to discover their own love of learning. Then the infectious process begins.

Echoing the great cellist Pau Casals — who, at the age of 93, wrote beautifully about how working with love prolongs one’s life and called on us to “make this world worthy of its children” — Bernstein reflects on his life’s greatest passion:

Being with young people has kept me alive, I tell you, and I would do anything for them. Think of what we can do with all that energy and all that spirit instead of eroding and degrading our planet on which we live, and disgracing ourselves as a race. I will spend my dying breath and my last blood and erg of energy to try to correct this impossible situation.


There is so much inherent goodness in people that if they aren’t inhibited by traumas and are given half a chance, it shines through.

Bernstein died eleven months later, having handed this great chance-giving gift to generations through the power of music and the infectiousness of his enthusiasm.

Complement the electrifying and elevating Dinner with Lenny with Bernstein on why we create, how art fortifies our mutual dignity, his stirring tribute to JFK, and his touching letter of gratitude to his mentor, then revisit Cott’s conversation with Susan Sontag about love, sex, and the world between and how cultural polarities like young vs. old, male vs. female, and intuition vs. intellect imprison us.


Broadcasters of the Self: Ian McEwan on Our Age of Identity and How the Politics of Modern Selfhood Imperils the Art of Listening

“When you make the self the outer limit of your politics, you then begin to ignore a great deal of the attitudes, situations, dilemmas, misery of others.”

Broadcasters of the Self: Ian McEwan on Our Age of Identity and How the Politics of Modern Selfhood Imperils the Art of Listening

“A self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her ode to correspondence — or what she called “the humane art.” But in today’s highly combustible culture, the mutual response at the heart of co-respondence has been replaced by a kind of mutual reactivity, a co-reaction — we fling intransigent opinions at one another, all the while continually contracting our humanity and calcifying our selves in order to shield against the hard-edged opinions of others. We are increasingly averse to engaging in the uncomfortable luxury of changing our minds, which is, of course, the primary practice of personal change and growth. The radiant self-revision of becoming, that most beautiful and hope-giving feature of the human experience, has given way to a stubborn self-righteousness of being.

A century and a half after Walt Whitman contemplated identity and the paradox of the self, the great English essayist and novelist Ian McEwan examines the subject from an inventive angle in his novel Nutshell (public library) — a modern reimagining of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, told from the perspective of the yet-unborn protagonist observing, reacting to, and rebelling against the classic murder plot from within his mother’s womb. Through the garden gate of playfulness, McEwan ushers us into to the wilderness of our messiest, most pressing civilizational and existential problems.

In one particularly poignant passage, he caricatures the identity politics of the modern self through his unborn narrator:

A strange mood has seized the almost-educated young. They’re on the march, angry at times, but mostly needful, longing for authority’s blessing, its validation of their chosen identities. The decline of the West in new guise perhaps. Or the exaltation and liberation of the self. A social-media site famously proposes seventy-one gender options — neutrois, two spirit, bigender…any colour you like, Mr. Ford. Biology is not destiny after all, and there’s cause for celebration. A shrimp is neither limiting nor stable. I declare my undeniable feeling for who I am. If I turn out to be white, I may identify as black. And vice versa. I may announce myself as disabled, or disabled in context. If my identity is that of a believer, I’m easily wounded, my flesh torn to bleeding by any questioning of my faith. Offended, I enter a state of grace. Should inconvenient opinions hover near me like fallen angels or evil djinn (a mile being too near), I’ll be in need of the special campus safe room equipped with Play-Doh and looped footage of gambolling puppies. Ah, the intellectual life! I may need advance warning if upsetting books or ideas threaten my very being by coming too close, breathing on my face, my brain, like unwholesome dogs.

I’ll feel, therefore I’ll be. Let poverty go begging and climate change braise in hell. Social justice can drown in ink. I’ll be an activist of the emotions, a loud, campaigning spirit fighting with tears and sighs to shape institutions around my vulnerable self. My identity will be my precious, my only true possession, my access to the only truth. The world must love, nourish and protect it as I do. If my college does not bless me, validate me and give me what I clearly need, I’ll press my face into the vice chancellor’s lapels and weep. Then demand his resignation.

In his wonderful On Point conversation with Jane Clayson, which originated this recording of McEwan reading from his novel, he addresses the problem of modern selfhood directly — a Gödelian incompleteness problem, as it were:

We live in a new era — mostly of self-expression, but not so much of listening. We are not Hamlet so much these days — we are broadcasters of the self… Selfhood is extremely important, of course — who can deny it? — but when you make the self the outer limit of your politics, you then begin to ignore a great deal of the attitudes, situations, dilemmas, misery of others. So there should be a limit, I think, on the limiting factor of selfhood.

Listening — that is, abandoning the self and abandoning yourself to another’s point of view — is what the internet has not really given us. It’s given us trolls, it’s given us tsunamis of opinion. Perhaps it’ll take a bend in the future that we can’t yet foresee.

Complement this fragment of the singularly satisfying Nutshell with philosopher Amelie Rorty on the seven layers of personhood in literature and life and Amin Maalouf on how we inhabit our identity.


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