Why You Should Read Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet

This summer, at the Ashland Goodwill Store, I bought a book for one dollar. Not just any book, but one every poet should read. The universe sent me this book knowing I am diving deeper into the writing lifestyle. I’m past the point of getting my toes wet or devoting Sundays to this feat. I’m all in, ink from edits tattooing my arms, waking up early with lines of my next poem. Okay, I’m not writing 24-7, since I still hold a part-time job to pay the rent. But the commitment is increasing. I’m trying to maximize all the time I have. I’m giving this writing life my all.

Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke speaks to the struggle of the artist. Hell, it speaks to the struggle of creation. It is refreshing to read. Writer’s block is addressed, as is his health: “But I am not yet well, writing comes hard to me, and so you must take these few lines for more.” It’s frustrating when a physical illness or a depression prevents us from devoting time to creating.

The artistic process takes time. Rilke writes, “Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer. It does come. But it comes only to the patient, who are there as though eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly still and wide. I learn it daily, learn it with pain to which I am grateful: patience is everything!” Rilke, master of poetry, is a true master of metaphor.

As a writer, Rilke encourages fellow poets to ask questions without seeking the answers: “…be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are 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.”

“That is at bottom the only courage that is demanded of us: to have courage for the most strange, the most singular and the most inexplicable that we may encounter.” Recently, each of my writing teachers has advised me to “edit toward the strange.”

“The necessary thing is after all but this: solitude, great inner solitude. Going-into oneself and for hours meeting no one—this one must be able to attain.” This focus is needed to create and to revise. Recently, I have discovered that this focus can be achieved around others, but only if you are able to tune them out, via headphones or determination. Any library, coffeeshop, ice cream parlor or restaurant can be a place to find solitude. However, Rilke seems to speak to the importance of having a writing area. For me, I have two: my patio or my dining room table. Options are nice, and I prefer fresh air if it is warm enough.

On a College Campus Again…

Starting Monday I will be offering up my poems for workshop in an MFA Summer Residency.   This is the second of three summers, the cornerstone of a program that pushes us all to improve as writers.

I feel that my writing is becoming more personally resonant and more open. There is more freedom as I sit down to write. Last semester, my class engaged in discussion about self-censorship and why it is essential that we not censor our words in our writing. There are no longer “off-limit” topics. If there was a topic that I avoided, I am forcing myself to go there and write about difficult subjects, characters, and events.

Writing is an art and it is therapy. You might call it “free therapy,” but anyone who writes knows that in reality there is a cost to laying yourself bare on the page.   Writing digs deep into our human emotions. Not to mention the fact that poems are meant to be read aloud, and reading aloud in workshop or on stage such raw poems is tough.

Step by step. I will start with the writing and the workshopping process. Later, I’ll step my toes into the process of sharing with an audience: submitting to publications and reading aloud in public.

Art is emotion and it can be hard to wrap your brain around sharing it with the world.

But, this is why we write, and especially why we are in an MFA program.

We are taking steps to share our experience.

I’m Drawn to Artists

My parents shared with me their own appreciation of the arts.

Their talent certainly isn’t singing, but they aren’t afraid to sing their favorite tunes off-key.  Might I add, my mom is a world-class whistler.  She’s a songbird.

They always enjoy hearing quality live music.  Even now they especially enjoy local music and the singer-songwriters who play in smaller venues.  The best part of the concert is the backstory.  They reveal slices of their story in between the notes.

They encouraged my interest in reading.  The newspaper was more than news.  We read the bylines and continued to read our favorite weekly columnists who slipped in their own story as if we were reading chapters of their personal memoirs.  We discussed John Switzer’s philosophical take on the weather and the migration of birds, and Joe Blundo’s take on the intersection of morals and politics.

They took me to countless art galleries as we marveled at the genius of sculptors and painters.  They never had to drag me; I always enjoyed hypnotically gazing in wonder at works of visual art.  I’m not a visual artist, so I especially valued seeing this style of art.

Last summer, looking at my friend Greer’s oil paintings mounted on a wall at the Beachwood Community Center really hit home.  She has been practicing her art since as long as I’ve known her.  All artists practice their craft.  Art is about expression not perfection.

She’s been improving her own art technique and her artist’s eye allows her to share her story on canvas.  A picture is worth a thousand words.  I won’t do it justice by trying to explain.  The paintings are her point of view.  I did feel a sense of being outdoors after looking at her images, which were all grounded in nature.  Being outdoors brings a sense of calm but also it also brings me back to equilibrium.  I always pray for strength, health, and energy; nature freely gives me all of these.

The writing process is my main artistic venue.  My secondary venue is through music.  I have always been a singer in a choir, and for the past decade I have been dabbling in guitar.  I am certainly amateur, but what I enjoy most is setting my own lyrics to music.  A life beyond poetry on the page.  It’s more universal and more meant for sharing.

The process is visual.  Removing my guitar from its case.  Adjusting the strings back in tune.  Cutting my fingernails.  Making time out of my day to play notes, chords, and build calluses.  Allowing the time for songwriting to ooze out of my pores.  Waking up from a dream with a new phrase or refrain written.

Giving time to art is the key.  As much as you practice and edit, you must let inspiration have the time to make the masterpieces you are meant to create.  You must allow yourself the time to create your art and finally to share your art.

The writing process is more internal, and more about mastering your awareness.  A poem percolates from an observation.  Notice both beauty and injustice.  Practice mindfulness daily.

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(Art is about perspective. Kouros holding a ram, Akropolis, 600 B.C. in Thasos Town, Greece.)

Unpacking Baggage

As recently as my trip to Greece, I was reminded that I carry too much baggage with me.022

As we departed Greece and sat in the airport in Munich, I was the one who was lugging a thirty-pound backpack carry-on.  The other few members of the group also with me in Germany were smarter travelers.  They had small totes and daypack excursion backpacks that I would guess only weighed a maximum of ten or fifteen pounds.  Why couldn’t I be that carefree?

At the end of the evening’s dancing the waiter at the restaurant Archodissa in the island of Thasos picked up my backpack and handed it to me.  You absolutely must visit if you get to travel to the Greek islands of the Aegean Sea!  He asked me, with the usual Greek charm, “Is this full of rocks?”  No, I wasn’t packing my bag full of rocks and pebbles from the marble quarry.  It was mostly full of things that I brought from home.  First, I packed my antiquated laptop that ended up only lasting two hours without battery power, so I was tethered to a power outlet most of the trip if I was ready to type up new works or edit poems.  After the laptop, I carried a notebook for scribbling on the go, two books I was reading for class, and a water bottle.   The rest was filled with who knows what.  It doesn’t sound heavy, but trust me, I felt like I was carrying a military issued backpack.  At the airport it hindered me the most.  I felt my back straining.

Fast forward to moving day into a new apartment the final week of October.  I packed all my books, keepsakes, and papers in boxes.  Putting solely my clothes in the master bedroom allowed me to realize that I have too much stuff.  Yet, the moving process was swift, and I only did a quick sort as I packed.  My boyfriend and I got rid of three large bags of clothes before the move.  Then, as moving day arrived suddenly, he simply packed all the remaining shoes and clothes into plastic totes and I packed my shoes and clothes into suitcases.

Once arriving at our new place, the first place that is ours together, we both realized we each had a lot of baggage.  The pile of suitcases taunted me for weeks.  I realized that I was getting along fine without even opening most of the suitcases.  I was not ready to handle my baggage.  To do so I would have to put some summer clothes into the back of the master bedroom closet that has a large storage area of three-foot tall steps.

Cue the closet’s florescent light to flicker and finally burn out.  A dark closet was a good excuse not to handle my baggage.  Tuesday my apartment’s maintenance man came over and replaced the light.  Excuses gone, I have to make progress.  It still is a process, because who wants to try on tank tops in the winter?  However, I am aware that the accumulation of clothes that I don’t wear taking up space doesn’t contribute to the flow of creativity.

Yesterday, my boyfriend hung the mirror above my dresser.  Baby steps.

My baggage won’t define me.  The action I take in this moment defines me.

 

Quitting is no longer a dirty word

The act of quitting was always discouraged as I was growing up.

If you start something, you see it through to fruition. When you start a sport, you continue it for the entire season. I attributed the act of quitting to a character weakness. You didn’t want to be the person who quit their job every six months. You didn’t want to be the one who kept quitting one hobby after another, purchasing the gear for each activity, which became simply wasteful junk in the closet.

I grew up thinking that the word “quit” should not be in my vocabulary. I grew up always viewing my ultimate strength as being genuinely committed and dedicated.  I did not quit. I was committed and dedicated to every sport, choir, theatre production, job and friendship I was a part of.

However, there have been several key moments in my life that were punctuated by quitting.

Once you are ready to make the decision to end something you finally see it is time to give yourself the gift of freedom. To earn your own freedom you have to cut all the puppet-strings.  The time came for me to find my own freedom.   I had to quit my job because I had to go back to my original dream. I have always wanted to be a writer. I am not sure when I talked myself into becoming a teacher.  I suppose halfway through college it crossed my mind.

After graduation I felt such disappointment and failure; after job searching all over central Ohio I discovered that all a four-year bachelor’s degree in English qualified me for was to be a pre-school teacher. Once hired, I even started taking night classes to earn a two-year associates degree focused on Early Childhood Education. It was a slap in the face that I was teaching in the pre-school room. I enjoyed it for a while, but I was putting a false smile on my face when I worked long hours teaching literacy to 3 and 4 year olds.  My life was spinning in such a rush. I adapted to become the one that multi-tasked the educational and emotional needs of my students. Being a college student was nothing compared to the responsibility of shaping young minds.  The majority of my colleagues were mothers, but I didn’t have such hands-on experiences. I quit the job because it overwhelmed me and stressed me out beyond control. Needless to say, several weeks where I worked 10-12 hour workdays covering extra shifts were the nail in the coffin in this decision.

Fast-forward to 2014 and I made a similar decision. Teaching high school English for seven years was so rewarding and I really did feel more comfortable in the role every year. But the beginning of year eight it felt more and more that it was not my true purpose. I taught the fall semester, but I knew that I would not be able to finish the year out. Deep contemplation in December 2014 helped me realize that I had to leave the school district. I needed to quit my job as a teacher in order to return to my original life dream. As a very young girl, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I always dreamed of following in the footsteps of the writers whose books I enjoyed.

So, I have quit teaching.

But maybe someday I will teach again, in a different way.

It is always a possibility that I would choose to teach.

I have quit, but it is only follow my true purpose. I am a writer: unpaid, fledgling, emerging writer. Someday very soon I will be more.  For now I can sleep at night because I have found part-time meaningful employment 25 hours a week.  As a teacher I consistently worked well beyond 50 hour weeks.  I may have quit the salary, benefits, and pension that would cause many people to stay in the teaching profession until they retire. But I don’t care about fancy things, so I can adapt to living on a fraction of my previous salary.

If it gives me more free time to write, then it is God’s will.

Leaving teaching helped me earn freedom that I have only known the summer before my senior year at college when I chose to not have a summer job so that I could write. Other than the summers of 2001 and 2015, I have always been some combination of student and worker bee.

The realization had to come through teaching.  I can only explain it in that while I was teaching the students to follow their dreams I realized I had to take my own advice. Teaching reminded me to follow my true purpose:  writing my story.

Gratitude

I am constantly reminded of my blessings as I move into my new apartment.  I have a lot of things I was given as a gift for a special occasion, and I have a lot of things that came to me as a surprise and I loved just the same.  As I unpack I remember not only the time that I acquired the possession, but who gave it to me.  And unfortunately, some of the people who have passed on are the one who have passed on their belongings to me.

I just took the obligatory Thanksgiving Day nap.  This year I did have some turkey, so maybe it was the tryptophan, but I had a strange dream.   The very bed frame that I was just snoozing upon used to be at my paternal grandparents’ house.   The artwork I finally mounted to the wall in my new family room was my maternal family’s heirloom art.  It has always been in the front room of every one of my apartments.

In my dream I was in the same room with both of my grandmothers.  They each were sitting, the room was dimly lit, and I was there enjoying their company.  I turned to talk to my maternal grandmother and I said “I wish we had more time.”  True to her character, she smiled and nodded, showing off her infectious smile and the twinkle in her eyes behind thick glasses.  She said “We will.”  I was crying in the dream.  I leaned in to hug her, but it was as if she had already vanished.  Definitely, as I awakened I felt that I experienced a real “Our Town” moment.

I am grateful for all of my relatives, past and present.  There are too many names to list them all.  This year I am especially grateful for every person in my life that has supported me in my quests for love, health, education, and the continual pursuit of my writing goals.  Both of my grandmothers supported me best emotionally.  I am grateful that I did have time with each of them.  Just as my parents do, my grandmothers loved me unconditionally, and they truly understood me.

I am grateful for every memory that I have of my relatives.  The grandparents, aunts and uncles who are no longer here have left a lasting impact on my life.  The best presents I ever received for Christmas didn’t come in wrapping paper.  They all gave freely of their laughter, their hugs, their comedic wit, their stories of Christmases past, and their cooking.  They gave me love through our family gatherings.

I am grateful for the family gathering I attended today at my sister-in-law’s childhood home.

Family means feeling at home.  At my new place, I am feeling at home; I am hanging nails at the wall, and next spring I might even plant flowers in the dirt.

Family means roots that go back generations.  The angels who have left our company keep influencing the family story.

Back to the Future

“Being here I’ve realized what my final chapter is.  It’s this” were the words spoken on tonight’s episode of Chasing Life.  The main character, who is once again battling cancer, has decided to go to Italy and spend time dedicated to writing her book.  Her book is her story, her memoir of all the gritty tough moments that she has struggled with and continues to struggle with.  She watches a sunset and comes to accept her own mortality, saying, “I could die here…literally.”

The writers of Chasing Life have a way of saying all the things that we don’t want to dwell upon.  After all, her mother is a therapist.  The script is an offering of group therapy for all who tune in to watch it.  For some of us, the moments she has to spend in the hospital cut too close to the bone.  While it may be hard to watch, the series is focused on its message.  It tells you to keep fighting for your life.  It tells you to embrace your own story and to share it.

Back to the Future…1995

If I was cast in a new version of the Michael J. Fox classic, I would blast back to an idyllic time:  1995.

I would see victory in the form of electric energy.  I would watch myself from the wings as my younger self performed a monologue holding a snake moments after it hissed at me from its cage.  Under the theatre’s lights, the snake calmed and slinked around my arms and shoulders.  I would see myself shooting a cap gun during the spring musical to make the sound effects for the scene with a fake gun.  I would see myself sing and dance as part of the choir to a packed audience.  I would see fearlessness.

I would watch my defeat when I put myself on the line.  I would watch myself play my longest tennis match ever, fighting over every game, tied and tied again at deuce.  I would see fighting back tears of exhaustion as I lost and shook my opponent’s hand over the net.  I would watch myself run the second leg of the 4 x 100 at an indoor track meet, drop the baton, and step outside the lines to cause my team’s forfeit.  I would work twice as hard the next time I was given the opportunity to be part of a relay to ensure the handoffs were near perfection.

That is what life is in the theatre, the tennis court, the track, and the classroom:  it is glimpses of near perfection.  It is hard work to get to the place you have dreamed and dreamed and dreamed.  High school is where you decide what you will do next to make your dreams come true.  After you graduate, it is up to you to motivate yourself every day to achieve your dreams.

Back to the Future…2015. 

My future chapter is full of blank pages.  What is next?  I really don’t know.  I am okay with the uncertainty.  After all, every day I am traveling along an uncertain path.  All I know is that every day, I write another page of the future chapter.

Write. Edit. Repeat.

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