must I write?

In 1903 Rainer Maria Rilke responded to a young poet (Rilke himself was only 28 at the time) who asked for feedback on his writing and poetry.  The response is cordial, though Rilke also tells the budding writer, “may I just tell you that your verses have no style.”

He then goes on:

You ask whether your verses are any good.  You ask me.  You have asked others before this.  You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work.  Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing.  You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now.  No one can advise or help you – no one.  There is only one thing you should do.  Go into yourself.  Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.  This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?

Judge for yourself whether there is any applicability for writers beyond poets.  Interesting nonetheless.

Here’s an English translation of the full letter (including the subsequent nine letters — a precursor of sorts to grad skool rulz).  The German here (including other Rilke letters).


Written by teppo

December 28, 2010 at 6:26 am

5 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Do you all consider sociologists ‘writers’?

    I have to admit, I don’t.

    The corollary for all-in sociologists, I think, would be a deeply felt need to consume data.



    December 28, 2010 at 9:24 pm

  2. A literal angle on a little post.

    Sure, academics aren’t necessarily writers, but academics definitely do write. And, beyond writing, in their work more broadly they need to find their own angle and voice (Meyerian cookie-pushing) — that part of Rilke’s advice can perhaps be extended/stretched. I’m guessing more than one top academic has deliberately ignored external feedback (editors, colleagues, friends, etc), in the pursuit of their own, novel angle.



    December 28, 2010 at 10:00 pm

  3. I guess my point is that the question placed “above all” in the quote — must I write? — would have to be answered in the negative by most sociologists, probably, I would venture, by every single one.

    Sociologists write because it is fun and beats other modes of making a living, not because it makes their very being possible.

    If one were to think of an act that sociologists feel compelled to do by a naturalistic calling, I would say it is: read, look at, consume data.

    That’s my experience, anyway, having gotten to know other sociologists.



    December 29, 2010 at 12:05 am

  4. Thank you for posting this. I think he’s writing about economy. If one “must write” then one will do what’s necessary to be understood. Sociologists, academics, and prose writers in general should feel what they write is important.
    It is interesting to read in this discussion that some sociologists are not passionate about writing. Writing organizes thought, makes ideas material, and forces one to question objectivity, method, etc. It’s not really “fun”, but academics would benefit from seeing it as more crucial to their discipline’s worth.


    Lisa Cohen

    January 2, 2011 at 6:51 am

  5. Rilke navigates creativity unhampered by labels. He urges us to find the source, the passion, the why. It’s an energy that is boundless. The rest is practice…relentless, sometimes tedious, whatever your discipline.



    January 21, 2011 at 12:21 am

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: