I found a hardcover copy of Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet for $5 at my favorite used bookstore last week. The purchase couldn’t have come at a better time. I have been distracted these days, unmotivated, defeated, but now it’s time to sit down and write.
Letters to a Young Poet is one of those books that everyone should read at least once and then again when you’re feeling a little lost. The passage below really resonated with me the other night and isn’t only for writers. These words are for anyone, creative or otherwise, who was looking for answers in the wrong places. Maybe the only question we should be asking ourselves should be, “Must I?”
You ask whether your verses are good. You ask me. You have asked others before. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts. Now (since you have allowed me to advise you) I beg you to give up all that. You are looking outward, and that above all you should not now do. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Investigate the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, and acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. 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.
-Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
Also, here’s a great video of Dennis Hopper reading an excerpt from the book: