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Big Ideas

Rainer Maria Rilke: Trust In What Is Difficult

Our new "Creative's Bookshelf" series recommends essential books that inspire and instruct. We start with Rilke's timeless work, "Letters To A Young Poet."

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.

More Posts by Jocelyn K. Glei

A writer and the founding editor of 99U, Jocelyn K. Glei is obsessed with how to make great creative work in the Age of Distraction. Her latest book is Unsubscribe: How to Kill Email Anxiety, Avoid Distraction, and Get Real Work Done. Her previous works include the 99U’s own bestselling book series: Manage Your Day-to-Day, Maximize Your Potential, and Make Your Mark. Follow her @jkglei.

Comments (11)
  • Jeffrey Davis

    Thanks for the post. Rilke is among my trusted dead mentors of sorts. Beginning writers try out everything because everything so new. Experienced writers often try only what’s comfortable and what they’re good at. Smart, innovative writers move toward the difficult. “Move toward the difficult” is a good practice for creatives to live by.

  • Karin

    Thank you for the reminder to re-read Letters. However, for those out there who have not read it before I’d like to respectfully disagree that it is possible to read this book in one sitting. There is so much in it to inspire reflection…I know we all have little time to spare, but follow Rilke’s advice and let yourself descend into solitude and thoughtfulness as it comes -even if it takes you a week or two to finish the book.

  • Binita

    Thanks for the reminder – Letters was given to me by a woman when I was in my early 20’s and it saw me through those precious confused and highly creative years. It captures the spirit of managing creativity when you are young.

    Now you have inspired me to revisit it and see if if letters can work its magic again…

    You are so on it Scott!

  • jkglei

    Binita, Thanks for the kudos on the piece. I’m finding “Letters” to be just as good a read at age 33 as it was in college. It really does hold up.

  • K-eM

    This seems to underscore, for me, how our culture rejects solitude and true creative growth so completely. In trying to create a private space to be creative I have had people try and pry me out with accusations of being anti-social or even unproductive. In creative growth I consistently run into the idea that you do that in your twenties and then you simply produce. Even in creative circles.

  • cnb

    Ahhh..this book used to be a bible for me w/r/t relationships and knowing myself first before mashing myself with another. Wish I’d followed it the first time through. Now I’ve got the message.

  • Joe McCarthy

    Very inspiring. Unlike other commenters, this is my first encounter with Letters, and I’ve ordered the book to join the ranks of the initiated.

    I just finished reading John Hagel’s review of Sherry Turkle’s new book, Alone Together (and ordered that book too). Rilke’s emphasis on solitude reminds me of an article by Turkle I read 5 years ago about self-reflection vs. self-expression, and how technology sometimes leads us to check in with others (“what do you think?”) rather than checking in with ourselves (“what do I think?”).

    The willingness to embrace difficulty reminds me of something I heard Brene Brown say in her TEDxHouston talk on wholeheartedness as connection through courage, vulnerability and authenticity, in which she describes the challenge – and benefits – of leaning into the discomfort.

    It seems as though profound wisdom surfaces and resurfaces through different channels over the ages.

  • Jeff Dolan

    Beautiful post. Thank you.

  • Traveling bags

    Nice review ! I like your article and i will definitely look again……………………………………

  • Matthew

    Well said Karin. I just finished reading “letters”, and was taken away to another place by Rilke’s otherworldly wisdom and candor. It was an absolute delight.

  • Dan Hale

    I have become so much more productive since I started renting a studio space. Some people are comfortable working from home but for me leaving my apartment and physically transporting my body to a place designed only for art is crucial. Even when I am “messing around” at my studio I am doing sketches or other artwork.

  • Saya

    It is very true. Solitude, patience and give time to grow or search to find within ourselves IS part of creative process.

  • Project Management Certificati

    Wow Such a great Article. I am very happy to read this. It is bes article for me. Thank you.

    Project Management Certification

  • sandra

    Looks a little like Chris Cornell… xxoo

  • k

    “Move toward the difficult” sounds really good. I dobut strongly if i will be able to defeat my lazyness and somehow constitute myself as human beeing. I feel strongly dissapointed.

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