Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Rilke's Wisdom

Cartoon by Austin Kleon (see end of posting for details)

Yesterday afternoon I had the sweet luxury of sitting on my porch, re-reading the beginning of Rainer Maria Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet. Rilke was only twenty-seven at the time he penned these letters to a nineteen-year-old military school student who had written him asking for advice about becoming a writer. The following passage particularly resonated with me:

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. . . . (Letter One, 2/07/1903)

Sometimes it's important to bounce our ideas off others. (I do this with the women in my Creative Women's Business Group--see my 11/24/06 posting.) The key phrase in the above passage is "right now." When all is said and done, we are the ones who live with our choices.

Note: I came across Austin Kleon's wonderful cartoons when I Googled "Rilke." Kleon's bio describes him as "a writer and cartoonist" whose "Newspaper Blackout Poems have been featured on NPR’s Morning Edition, in Toronto’s National Post, and all over the web." Visit him online at:


  1. Anonymous9:15 AM

    Thanks for sharing Rilke's Wisdom with us.


  2. Anonymous5:32 PM

    Hi Prill - Some time has gone past since my last post. I am not a threat to you. My hope is to be a facilitator for you. There is no one who remembers you better at eight than I. It occurs to me in cohesion with your recent posts that you have begun to follow my advice. I need nothing else. I leave you with Goethe. "Each indecision begins it's own delays and days lamenting over lost days...What you can do or think you can do, begin it. For boldness has Magic, Power and Genius in it." In Remembrance and in the Present. Anonymous.

  3. How lovely to read something truly literary. I don't run into that nearly as much as I'd like, Prill. I write a column, Back to Literature. Talk about stuff like the Nobel and Pulitzer. This month it's on regional work--more specifically about Utah or Intermountain region work. So much is out there on the South and our country is so much more varied than the coasts and Faulkner country. (-: Find it at

    Thanks again. You are always full of surprises.


  4. Dear Anonymous,

    You have no way of knowing this, but that Goethe quote is the same one I use with my e-mail signature. It's a very loose translation of a passage from Faust. The Goethe Society of North America ( tracked down the source and discusses its findings on its website. Interesting reading on several levels.

    Anyway, I've never felt you were a threat. I've always assumed that you had my best interests at heart. I'm very curious, of course, about you. I still can't believe I wouldn't remember you from third grade. (Did you continue at Burr Farms or move away?) One of these days perhaps you'll reveal your identity.

    Only the best,


  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Dear Readers, When you see that a comment has been deleted, it's not because I'm censoring what comes in, but because I've mistakenly pressed the "Publish Your Comment" button before I was ready. What I've deleted, in other words, is a draft of something I plan to say in a more polished form in another minute or two.

    About censoring, when I first started this blog in 2006, I made a decision to publish all comments. I know there's a risk in this, but encouraging free speech is important to me. I welcome healthy debate. So feel free to disagree with anything I've said, challenge me when I gloss over important issues, correct me when I get my facts wrong, etc.

  7. Here's a more polished version of the comment I was drafting a few moments ago when I prematurely pressed "Publish."

    Carolyn, As a writer, you'll appreciate this anecdote from one of the late bloomers I interviewed back in 2004, Elizabeth Buzzelli:

    Several years before, one of Elizabeth's friends was working on a novel. She had only a few chapters left to write when she started to panic. She didn't think that what she had written was very good and didn't feel she could finish the story. She lost her confidence. At one point she even tried to give back her advance.

    The novel ended up winning a Pulitzer Prize.

  8. Anonymous9:33 PM

    Hello again Prill - I am thrilled by the coincidence and your prior knowledge of the Goethe quote and it's origins. Our school is no longer there of course. I remember our teacher and the librarian and the you? I never moved away, Prill. If I have a lasting effect on you I want it to be that you realize how important you are. The Rilke letter is exactly what I was talking about. You seem to intuit it and have found confirmation in famous literary quotes and literary/artistic history. I need to keep my anonymity, Prill. Some day at some reunion I will tell you who I am. The Rilke letter is key. Focus on the improbable and the story will write the meaning. Since you are fortunate to have traveled, carve pieces of your experiences off of your sojourns and characterize. Your talents are manifest in translating the individual specific to the public in general in order to make your point for the common good. Now work it backwards from the accepted to the idiosyncratic. Jump over cultural and sexual hurdles if you can. The obstacles are in your own perception and therefore are within your power to remove: I will write you more down the road. In the meantime, Go with Goethe. All the Best. Me.

  9. So much food for thought.

    I live near where Burr Farms used to be and still visit the field where the jungle gym was. (It's one of the places I go to be alone with my thoughts.)

    I well remember Mr. Metellits (sp?), Mrs. Eisenberg and her daughter Deborah (Mrs. E. once told my mom that my writing made her cry), and of course, Mark Rudd.

    I vaguely remember that he played the sax. (Is my memory accurate?) He steered me to read all sorts of wonderful books--from a series of biographies beginning with Olympic skater Carol Heiss (much of my non-fiction writing, interestingly enough is biography-based) to serious works of literature such as Wuthering Heights. (I think I was in 5th grade when I read it.)

    Of course, what I haven't mentioned is how amazing it was that the Board of Ed hired a black man to be our librarian. He was the only professional black man I ever saw in this lily-white town in the early 60's. And the fact that he was smart, interesting (the sax thing intrigued me to no end), and truly interested in us kids (not in a creepy way like Mr. Morrison, but in an empowering way) forever shaped my views on race.

    I was talking with Scott Rose about Mr. Rudd last year (do you remember Scott?), and he had a similar take on the whole thing.

    As to no one remembering me better at eight than you, I think my mom would beg to differ. :-)

  10. Anonymous11:06 PM

    Okay Prill - Maybe your Mom remembers you at eight years old better than I. I am thrilled again by your memory and the sense of nostalgia that I also feel deeply. I feel the same way as you and Scott Rose do about Mr. Rudd and yes he played the saxophone and yes he was a wonderful teacher who instilled in us a love of books. Mrs. Eisenberg was remarkable. She believed in me and I wanted to succeed to please her. Mr. Metelits was a fine Principal, we were lucky. Okay, enough for now. I know that your capacity for biography is your forte. Fictional biography is work. You have to construct your character and in doing so reveal pieces of the character from the inside out and the outside in. It is said that, "you write what you know." I am suggesting that you write what you don't know, Prill and imagine it and research it until it takes on a life of it's own. You can live vicariously through your character if you want to and inhabit her. There are no rules, Prill. You are good at knowing the rules. Time to break a few on your way to literary renown. Good night, Prill.