Letter to a Young Writer

While at Hedgebrook in August, I wrote a “letter to a young writer,” for a new series on the Richard Hugo House blog. The curator, Kristen Steenbeeke, asked us to offer advice a la Rilke‘s “Letters to a Young Poet.”

If memory serves, I first encountered Rilke’s advice many years ago, before I considered myself a writer. I was taking acting classes at Freehold with Robin Lynn Smith, one of the most transformative teachers I’ve ever worked with. She gave us several quotes from Rilke, including this one from the Letters:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

That idea of living the questions was completely foreign to me. Until then, I had navigated my life by wrapping a choke hold on my ideas of right and wrong, by trying to think my way toward the next, smartest step. The practice of acting, among other things, involves learning to be present and to respond to what is happening. It’s a matter of learning to welcome–however terrifying, and believe me, at first it was terrifying–the sensation of not knowing where a situation or choice is leading. Over time, the conscious decision to tolerate ambiguity, to live the questions, transformed me. The navigational center of my life expanded to include my emotional, intuitive and imaginative capacities.

I know, I know–that Rilke quote, “live the questions,” appears on so many coffee mugs and greeting cards it’s verging on a cliche. But that doesn’t make its advice any less radical.

As a writer, the willingness to accept not knowing the answer is crucial. How else could I welcome a seemingly nonsensical image and let it carry me to the page, to discover something I didn’t know I needed to say?

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