March 2, 2024

A writer’s life of uncertainty

There is a lot of “advice” out there for aspiring writers; some of which is incredibly helpful, some not so much. Dispensing advice is always tricky, particularly when writers try to answer the one big question they always get asked at festivals and book launches: “how does one get published?” The answer to this question is a veritable minefield. Often, authors do their best to give inspirational advice, usually relating to their own careers. The thing about advice is, it’s frequently based on an individual’s experience, which is altogether personal and unique; just because their writing path has followed a certain pattern does not necessarily mean it will be the same for others. Most people are aware of this but it still doesn’t prevent us from seeking advice from those who are “living the dream” of being full-time writers.

When I think of the advice that has helped me in the past, I predictably turn to books themselves. Often I return to Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet which has become a handbook not only for writers, but for all who work in the creative field. For those who are unfamiliar with the book, it is the correspondence between a young aspiring poet Franz Kappus and his older mentor and poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. Here is a paragraph that I return to regularly:

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

Rilke has helped me reconcile my own thoughts on being a writer and helped me approach my own creativity differently.

He sums up the uncertainty that comes with pursuing the artist’s life perfectly:

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.

To bear the “burden” of being creative can typically mean working a nine-to-five job that you are not passionate about but need to pay the rent, reporting to your desk at all hours of the night to get some writing done or being sadly misunderstood by others who don’t see the point of your creative pursuits. It means living a life of uncertainty; a life where you are often unsure of where your next paycheck will come from and where you experience bouts of self-doubt and rejection, never knowing when you’ll be published next or if you’ll ever be published at all.

However, uncertainty aside, it is a wonderful privilege to be able to create something from nothing; to be able to creatively contribute may be a “burden” in some ways but in others, it is also both an honour and responsibility.

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