In these letters, Rilke initiates Kappus into the mysteries of writing poetry as well as into the art of living a meaningful life. The advice given by Rilke is just as valuable today, as it was more than a century ago. Perhaps, in a networked world in which solitude has become a rare luxury and treat, I feel that Rilke's advice has become even more valuable.
I will present some excerpts of the letters in the original German as well as a translation into English.
The letter dated February 17, 1903 contains the following passage:
Schreiben Sie nicht Liebesgedichte; weichen Sie zuerst denjenigen Formen aus, die zu geläufig und gewöhnlich sind: sie sind die schwersten, denn es gehört eine große, ausgereifte Kraft dazu, Eigenes zu geben, wo sich gute und zum Teil glänzende Überlieferungen in Menge einstellen.
Darum retten Sie sich vor den allgemeinen Motiven zu denen, die Ihnen Ihr eigener Alltag bietet; schildern Sie Ihre Traurigkeiten und Wünsche, die vorübergehenden Gedanken und den Glauben an irgendeine Schönheit - schildern Sie das alles mit inniger, stiller, demütiger Aufrichtigkeit und gebrauchen Sie, um sich auszudrücken, die Dinge Ihrer Umgebung, die Bilder Ihrer Träume und die Gegenstände ihrer Erinnerung.
Do not write love poems; try to initially avoid those forms that are too commonplace and ordinary: they are the most challenging, because it takes great strength and maturity to create something of your own, when you have to compete with so many good and even great predecessors.
So save yourself from these general themes and instead write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, your fleeting thoughts and your belief in some form of beauty - describe all this with heartfelt, quite and humble sincerity. When you express yourself, use the everyday items around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects from your memories.
Why is Rilke's advice so important? And why does it apply to all writers, not just to poets?
Many of us who try to write run into the highly prevalent and painful condition known as "Writer's block". Here is what Professor Wikipedia says about "Writer's block":
Writer's block is a condition, primarily associated with writing as a profession, in which an author loses the ability to produce new work. The condition varies widely in intensity. It can be trivial, a temporary difficulty in dealing with the task at hand. At the other extreme, some "blocked" writers have been unable to work for years on end, and some have even abandoned their careers.
There is no straightforward cure for this agonizing ailment, which can paralyze the mind and soul alike. In an aspiring writer, it awakens the desire to eat junk food, watch mind-numbing sitcoms and snap at all fellow primates that try to communicate with you. Most of my Writer's block flare-ups occur when I try to right about lofty and grand themes, such as Love, Death or Justice. Whenever I sit down in front of my keyboard to start writing about such a profound theme, I think about all the wonderful poems, essays and novels that have been written about these topics in the past. My fingers are paralyzed, because I feel there is nothing I can add to what Goethe, Rilke, Eichendorff and Star Wars have already eloquently put in words.
But Rilke tells us that this is the wrong approach. We should focus on the tedious details of our lives. Let us face it, most of our lives are quite boring and ordinary, but these mundane and tedious details are what really define us and distinguish us from other writers. When I have to decide whether my sixth "How-to-be-a- Writer" self-help book should be either "Write Is a Verb: Sit Down, Start Writing, No Excuses" or "Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing" or when I experience Schadenfreude that I made it onto the commuter train on time, but the person who pushed me aside earlier is left standing angrily at the platform. These mundane moments are much easier to describe, because they are truly my own experiences and when I write about them I am not burdened by the history of great writing. I do not know what self-help writing guides Shakespeare used, but I am pretty sure he did not read "Write Is a Verb: Sit Down, Start Writing, No Excuses" and I am also pretty sure he did not experience the Schadenfreude of getting on the train.
Once I start writing about these seemingly mundane topics, my writing is more sincere. I also realize that extraordinary ideas are derived from ordinary details.
The complete German text of the letter can be found on www.rilke.de.
An English translation of the complete letter is available here.