I recently had a professor talk to me about the publishing world in literary magazines, and he said the most depressing (albeit true) thing: almost anybody that gets published these days knows somebody in the industry. Being “swept up” by a press is a rarity and comes once in thousands of submissions.
Yet, in reading and re-reading Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, I find myself both agreeing wholeheartedly in all of his points about “being” a writer—that we must go inside ourselves first, etcetera—and disagreeing on the fine-tooth comb details he provides. There is something romantic about Rilke that we as artists get swept away in but, in reality, the art of writing has become somewhat of a business, as much as we cringe to think about it that way.
So how do we go about “being” a writer in this world when the world itself is against us and all our romantic notions? How can we both heed Rilke’s dreamy advice in his Letters to a Young Poet and ground ourselves in the grit that is our literary community (full of networking, schmoozing, and picking up business cards at the AWP book fair)?
Here is my (somewhat unsolicited) advice for all those young writers out there who know they like to write but are paralyzed by the thought of what to do next. I’ll be going against the grain of Rilke’s advice (as much as I hate myself to do so) but my intentions are good. Hopefully you’ll walk away from this with a hybridity of advice. Listen to Rilke, but listen to me, too. As Rilke says in Letters, (with a little tweaking of the sentence by me), “I want to thank you for your great and welcome trust.”
SEEK OUT ADVICE AND HELP FROM ANY ONE YOU CAN (yes, even your mom)
Rilke says in reference to the young poet sharing his work with magazines, famous poets and others and asking for advice to make his poetry better: “Nobody can advise and help you, nobody.”
I say there is no sense in waiting around for the great apple of art to fall on your head and strike you with this immeasurable, immaculate “talent” we are all desperate for. When I was a young artist, I had to hustle. I had to ask everybody for advice. I asked my parents if they thought I should go to school for writing, and my mother prompted me to get a business degree or go to law school. I asked my teachers and professors for advice on my writing: some told me I wasn’t good enough; others immediately gave me books to read, writing prompts, contest information, their personal phone number so I could call them and ask questions any time I needed.
There is a well of generosity and knowledge out there in the literary world and it doesn’t hurt to throw your writing at others and ask them to tell you what they think. I know what Rilke means here: go not looking for the external world until you have found the internal inside yourself. I believe this to be true, but I also think when you are new to the craft, the internal world is a messy place, full of insecurities, doubts, clichés, and just unknowingness. This void of the unknown is scary and it’s best to seek outside navigational advice any time you feel afraid. Art-making will always be scary. You will never regret stepping outside of yourself and asking others to “take a look at my poems,” or “who else should I be reading right now?”
The worst thing that could happen is someone declines to give advice or you get conflicting ideas about where to go next. If that happens, yes, refer to Rilke: “go inside of yourself.” You’ll know what to do then.
DO NOT ASK YOURSELF IF YOU NEED TO BE A WRITER
Rilke says, “This before all: ask yourself in the quietest hour of your night: must I write?”
I say if you are reading this blog, if you are showing a true interest in learning the craft of writing, immersing yourself in the literary communities around you, and—above all—writing, there is no need to ask yourself, cupcake. You are there. You are a writer.
Now, the question becomes: “Did I write today?”
If you haven’t, minimize this blog and open up your Word document. Poems and prose don’t write themselves. Your hands must be present as well.
THERE IS SUCH A THING AS TOO MUCH TIME IN NATURE
Rilke says, “Draw near to Nature.”
I would argue that a healthy does of “Nature” does us all a bit of good, but be warned: if you are out in Nature, soaking up the sun, eating edible plants, washing your arms in bugs-spray, breathing in all that unpolluted air, and “taking in” that view, you are not writing. You might be gathering images and ideas in your head, which is a necessity when it comes to the process of writing, but keep in mind that you are still not writing.
Too much time spent in Nature—or spent anywhere in the world for that matter, shopping, playing soccer, eating exotic foods—is a vacation from the physical act of writing. No matter how much you are “thinking” about writing, you will never actually have any physical object (a poem, a short story, a novel) without taking the time to sit down and write.
This piece of advice isn’t in opposition of Rilke’s, but rather an add-on. Yes, draw near to Nature, bask in its beauty, and get yourself a healthy dose of inspiration. Then run home as fast as you can and write as much as you can. Put in the same amount of time you spend out in Nature into your writing as well. Do not leave yourself un-balanced. It does no good if you spend all that time acquiring all that inspiration and truth from the outside world for your writing if you do not actually write.
WRITE LOVE, SCUM-BAGS! WRITE LOVE!
Rilke says, “Do not write love poems.”
To that I say: “pfft!”
You may not want to show these poems to anyone, ever, but write these poems. They are a necessary evil as they teach us how to reach inside of ourselves to our darkest, often scariest place, and somehow pull out words to match our emotions. Love is nasty and any amount of trying to match its nastiest in the written form is a victory in itself.
Write your cliché love poems. Write your dirtiest fantasies. Get it all out in the open and once you are spent, put those words away for a while. You can always come back to them, but now you have emptied yourself of the chaos that is love and you might be able to write something else.
There is nothing wrong with writing clichéd themes as long as you can say: “I surprised myself.” If you have surprised yourself, you’ve probably surprised your readers as well.
You can, in my humble opinion, never have too many love poems in this world. There is no such thing as too much love.
GET OFF THE COUCH
Rilke says, “If your life seems poor to you, do not accuse it; accuse yourself, tell yourself you are not poet enough to summon up its riches.”
Rilke has a point here— there are poetic moments in even the smallest of places. And yet, and yet, I am going to reach further here and say, sometimes, we literally are living a poor life. Not because of monetary reasons, not because of situational reasons or poorly-dealt circumstances, but because we have refused to get off the couch. Literally, metaphorically, whether coming from a place of tiredness or denial, we have decided life is “okay” on the couch and we would rather not press our luck by moving from the place we’ve grown so accustomed.
To that I say, go, cupcake! Get off that couch before it’s too late.
As artists, we must push ourselves to explore the depth of this world and that does not mean exploring the depth of our immediate world but exploring the depth of places we are trekking to see. Go out into this world and do not be afraid. Accuse yourself of staying in one place too long (physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally). Accuse yourself of being less than exploratory. You must be vigilant in this life.
It is too short and too chaotic to just stand still. You will never experience half of the riches of this life if you deny yourself the opportunity to get up and move around a bit. You can always come back to the couch after an exhaustive day exploring.
Try your best, my love. Try your best to get off the couch and move.
SUMBIT TO JOURNALS — EVEN IF YOU AREN’T “READY”
Rilke says, “You will not attempt, either, to interest journals in these works.”
I have an aversion to submitting my work, which is why this next section is more of a pep talk for me than it is advice for you (but you are certainly welcome to listen).
Rejection is hard. Art-making is hard. The last thing you want to be thinking about while you are making your art is “will this get published?”; “is this ‘good enough’ to be published?”; “will the world accept this art?”—or my personal favorite, “is the thing I am making worth sharing with others?”
And when you are making your art, you shouldn’t be thinking these things.
Afterwards, however, is different.
For those of you who feel so much anxiety about submitting that it makes you crawl up into a ball and hide: perhaps you should skip this section and move onto the next.
But for those of you who feel like your writing is never “complete,” to that I say, “it never will be.” Art is always evolving. Art is always changing. Even if you get something published in a literary magazine, you may change that draft of the work again and again before you make a collection out of it. We should always be looking at ourselves and the work we produce and asking, how can I make this art—and myself as an artist—better? It is the nature of creation.
For those of you who say, “my aesthetic isn’t what’s popular right now,” I say, “revolutionary art was never popular at the time.” Make stuff that’s radical! Make stuff that’s different! Send your work to magazines and presses that go against the grain, that try to publish experimental works.
So what if something turns out to be “not ready?” Get your rejection back from a few places and take a critical eye to the piece. Try to see what isn’t working, what publishers might not find “quite there yet”.
If we do not put ourselves out there, how will we ever know what we can do or not? Art is subjective. Sure, one editor might say, “this isn’t what we’re looking for,” but another might say, “where have you been?”
“We’ve been waiting for you this whole time.”
STRAY AWAY FROM THE PERSONAL STUFF
Rilke says, “Go into yourself and explore the depths whence your life wells forth.”
This one is tricky. On one hand, writing from the personal part of yourself always produces an authenticity to your writing because it is what you know. Keep this authenticity in your writing as much as you can.
On the other hand, if all we write is the personal stuff, there is no exploration of anything unknown or in opposition to ourselves. This can lead to a mundaneness and a feeling of being “stuck,” or “in a rut” in our writing, where we continue to write the same thing, over and over and over again. We must surprise ourselves in our writing. Be bold. Go where you haven’t before.
Sometimes we all need a little surreal in our lives, a little dystopia, a little madness and magic. Reach further than yourself. This is in writing and in the reality of the world. If we all looked into ourselves all the time, what and whom would we have empathy for?
Sometimes, we all must ask ourselves, whose shoes would I like to wear today?
The answer should be different every time.
BE LOUD! BE SILLY! D@$*%#MKER)$&
Rilke says, “grow through your development quietly and seriously.”
When I was younger, I had to participate in a Christmas play, one with bells and whistles and songs. I was a rambunctious child, curious and devious and loud. At rehearsal, the adults in charge gave me bells to practice with for the performance but, on the night of the play, all of the children were passed out bells except for me. Apparently in rehearsal, I had shown that I was inept at following the prompters for when to ring my bells. I wanted to ring my bells whenever I pleased. During the play, when I had no bells to ring, I became a nightmare: I wandered around the stage, leaving my spot, dancing instead of staying still, screaming the lyrics to the song, sitting down on stage when I grew tired, stomping my feet, glaring at the other children politely shaking their bells. At the end of the night, all the adults regretted not giving me bells because I had ended up making a worse show of myself without the bells than with the bells.
Here is my advice: when life doesn’t give you bells to play, play the bells anyway. Be loud. Be silly. Do what feels right to you, not anyone else. When the world goes against you, go against the world and be a better you for it.
Above all: play.
When you are a young, aspiring writer, you will have days where your writing is shitty. That is all there is to it. You will use clichés, you will have plot holes, your metaphors won’t make sense, there will be no rhythm to your sentences, you will ruin the simplest of images. You will be a shitty writer sometimes, and that is okay.
It is more than okay.
You must remember to be silly, to be loud, to play with your art, even when others do not want you to. Don’t listen to Rilke! There is no need to be so quiet and serious. When we are starting out in a craft, we often take for granted just how much room we have to mess up, to make mistakes, to embarrass ourselves. We deserve to do all of those things. We deserve the right to ring our bells.
* In all seriousness, please read Letters to a Young Poet. It helped me tremendously in a time of deep doubt and reflection on who I was as a writer. These letters may help you too.
Kelsey Schurer is a second year fiction writer at Virginia Tech. She reads fiction for the minnesota review.