Rainer Maria Rilke at his desk.

Rainer Maria Rilke: Trust In What Is Difficult

A riddle: What is one of the most crucial commodities for creative people that’s also becoming increasingly difficult to obtain in the 21st century? The answer: Solitude.

The possibility of interruption and distraction is everywhere today, making true-blue “alone time” more difficult to find, and to endure, than ever before. Thus, as we kick off our new “Creative’s Bookshelf” series, highlighting touchstone books for creative minds, Rilke’s Letters To A Young Poet – an almost spiritual paean to the artist’s need for solitude – seems an apt starting place.

Letters collects the ten missives sent by one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, Rainer Maria Rilke, to an aspiring writer and army lieutenant named Franz Kappus. “Being not yet 20 years old and barely on the threshold of a profession which [he] felt to be directly opposed to [his] inclinations,” Kappus wrote to Rilke in 1903 seeking his creative counsel.

Although Kappus initially wrote to request feedback on the quality of his poetry, Rilke had little interest in critiques. As he remarks in Letter 1, “Nothing touches a work of art so little as words of criticism: they always result in more or less fortunate misunderstandings.” Instead, Rilke uses the letters as an opportunity for a lofty meditation on how the artist cultivates great works. His advice is as relevant and sustaining today as it was more than a century ago.

Rilke on the essential nature of solitude (Letters 6 and 7):

What is necessary, after all, is only this: solitude, vast inner solitude. To walk inside yourself and meet no one for hours — that is what you must be able to attain.

You should not let yourself be confused in your solitude by the fact that there is something in you that wants to move out of it. This very wish, if you use it calmly and prudently and like a tool, will help you spread out your solitude over a great distance. Most people have (with the help of conventions) turned their solutions toward what is easy and toward the easiest side of the easy; but it is clear that we must trust in what is difficult; everything alive trusts in it, everything in Nature grows and defends itself any way it can and is spontaneously itself, tries to be itself at all costs and against all opposition. We know little, but that we must trust in what is difficult is a certainty that will never abandon us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be one more reason for us to do it.

On the role of patience (Letter 3):

Always trust yourself and your own feeling, as opposed to argumentations, discussion, or introductions of that sort; if it turns out that you are wrong, then the natural growth of your inner life will eventually guide you to other insights. Allow your judgments their own silent, undisturbed development, which, like all progress, must come from deep within and cannot be forced or hastened. Everything is gestation and then birthing. To let each impression and each embryo of a feeling come to completion, entirely in itself, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own understanding, and with deep humility and patience to wait for the hour when a new clarity is born: this alone is what it means to live as an artist: in understanding as in creating.

In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!”

On embracing difficulty (Letter 8):

If we only arrange our life in accordance with the principle which tells us that we must always trust in the difficult, then what now appears to us as the most alien will become our most intimate and trusted experience. How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races, the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses? Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage.

Letters can easily be read in one sitting. We recommend Stephen Mitchell’s excellent translation.

*Image via Bildarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz.

More insights on: Books, Disconnecting, Perseverance

Jocelyn K. Glei

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As Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei leads the 99U in its mission to provide the “missing curriculum” on making ideas happen. She oversees the Webby Award-winning 99u.com website, curates the popular 99U Conference, and is the editor of the 99U books, Manage Your Day-to-Day and Maximize Your Potential.
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