The other day I dragged out my old copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet, looking for a certain quotation . Old books are like old friends, reminding you who you were, who you’ve been. This book reminds me of how I read it in one of the art studios at Grinnell, perched up on the counters near the windows. It shows me how I wrote my name in the front, says “Here is how you rounded your 9s, this was the curve of your letters.” From between its pages it lets fall an index card covered with the careful handwriting of an old love. Return movies. Walgreens. Dry Cleaners. And on the back, in my hand: Friends love the person you were and the one you’ve become – and the one they know you’ll always be….
It’s all very mysterious and familiar.
And then, on page 18 and 19, the book shows me sentences and paragraphs I underlined a thousand years ago:
Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, 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.
The question is: how do we build our lives according to the necessity of writing? It’s one I’ve been grappling with all year (and maybe earlier – perhaps I’ve been asking myself this question from the moment I took pen in hand and carefully underlined this passage).
Not only do we need space and time to write, we need to feed the inner writer (or as Maureen Johnson says, the BRAIN MONKEYS a steady diet of life: of love, of hate, of hunger and anger and hurt. Whenever something interesting happens to me, the inner writer says, hmm, this might work in a story. I confess to standing through the most dire tragedies – weeping in a freezing cold church at the funeral of someone I dearly loved – and thinking on some level, in some far back place in my head: so this is what it feels like.
And, the perennial question of writers: How can I use this?
Sometimes, though, the well runs dry, and life begins to seems stale and repetitive. At this point, I think that building your life according to the necessity of writing means finding ways of surprising yourself, even shocking yourself, out of your comfortable experiences and ways of thinking.
Sara Ryan wrote about this recently. “I do think that especially as we settle into professions and circles of friends and stable relationships, it gets harder to find new things that shake up our brains and engage us with the world differently.”
Sometimes I beat myself up for jumping out of the box too much, for structuring my life in strange and surprising ways, for making major life decisions without solid reasons other than “It seemed like a good idea,” or “It seemed like what I needed to do.” At 20, I moved to Boston just because the very idea frightened me so much. I’ve learned that tackling something that scares me is an opportunity for growth. (With the possible exceptions of muggers, and wild animals. I’m not planning to tackle any hippos in the near future.)
Studying improv taught me the power of Yes, And. Before improv, I generally said no when people asked me to break out of my comfort zone. Want to come out and party with us? No, I think I’ll probably just head home. Want to drive to Michigan this weekend, just because? No, I should really stay home and clean the house. After taking improv classes, I started saying yes. It’s bar time: want to go to the casino? Sure! Why not. Want to take a writing class? Want to have dinner with me? Want to learn how to meditate? Yes, yes, yes.
Every new experience is a chance for growth, and it all feeds the writer.
A few weeks ago, a musician friend of mine called me and said, Hey, my band’s going to be in your area for a week; want to come on the road with us? Normally I’d say no, I really shouldn’t, the responsible thing would be to stay home and work, blah blah blah. But my inner writer was feeling parched, and my life was feeling a little gray, so I said, Sure! Why the hell not? It will be fun. So this weekend I’m going to meet the band in Indiana and travel through the Midwest with them for a few days, spy on them a little, see what it’s like to be a professional musician living on the road, try to imagine how it feels when it’s your job to be perfect on stage every night.
It might be fantastically fun, it might be painfully boring, but it will be something. Something surprising, something different. And though there’s the little voice in my head asking, um, you’re going on the road with a band for a few days? Are you seventeen? Are you nuts? there’s another voice in my head, more insistent, more reassuring, saying resolutely: Build your life according to this necessity. You must.
1“How should we be able to forget those ancient myths that are at the beginning of all peoples, the myths about dragons that at the last moment turn into princesses: perhaps all the dragons of our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us once beautiful and brave. Perhaps everything terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.” – Rainer Maria Rilke, Letter 8, Letters to a Young Poet.