In 1903, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke responded by letter to a young man seeking his advice. Rilke eventually wrote ten letters now collectively known and much published as Letters to a Young Poet. They are heartfelt advice from a successful (but still struggling) artist to another who was deeply mired in self-doubt. The classic language of these letters soars in beauty as well as lofty good sense. His idealism is applicable today to all who might pursue any sort of creative activity. Yesterday, on a pathside bench deep in a blustery, storm-destroyed forest, I reread the letters. Here, partly in direct quotation and partly in condensed summation, are some of Rilke’s ideas:
Your work needs to be independent of others’ work.
You must not compare yourself to others.
No one can help you. You have to help yourself.
Criticism leads to misunderstandings and defeatism.
Work from necessity and your compulsion to do it.
Work on what you know and what you are sure you love.
Don’t observe yourself too closely, just let it happen.
Don’t let yourself be controlled by too much irony.
Live in and love the activity of your work.
Be free of thoughts of sin, guilt and misgiving.
Be touched by the beautiful anxiety of life.
Be patient with the unresolved in your heart.
Try to be in love with the questions themselves.
Love your solitude and try to sing with its pain.
Be gentle to all of those who stay behind.
Your inner self is worth your entire concentration.
Allow your art to make extraordinary demands on you.
Bear your sadness with greater trust than your joy.
Do not persecute yourself with how things are going.
It’s good to be solitary, because solitude is difficult.
It’s good to love, because love is difficult.
You are not a prisoner of anything or anyone.
Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926) was born in Czechoslovakia and died in Switzerland. Dogged by fragile health and the constant search for inexpensive and healthful accommodation, he anxiously moved from one climate to another. Considered the greatest modern poet in the German language, Rilke counselled the young poet, known only as Mr. Kappus, over a five-year period. No evidence exists that they ever met.
PS: “Being an artist means not numbering or counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, standing confidently in storms, not afraid that summer may not come.” (Rainer Maria Rilke)
Esoterica: Two main themes — trust and patience — pervade Rilke’s letters. “Always trust yourself and your own feelings, as opposed to arguments and discussions,” he says. “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 a 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 is what it means to live as an artist.”
Dreams of an art teacher
by Raimond Domino, BC, Canada
I’ve been trying my hardest to achieve the dream of being one of the best artists in the world, but as I look at myself now it seems I’m still a broken young man and still wandering in a desert. When I came to the college I never wanted to teach art, though I always wanted to help others in that sort of field. Although my dream may be smaller than others, impossible maybe, I still want to do big things, great and possible to the human eye or understanding. Even when I’m on my third whiskey I still give a toast that one day people will say, “Hey, remember that artist named Ray, he’s the guy who inspired me to move forward and become something.” At least I know that my dream is so far from me and everywhere I go, the sky is the sky and the people are the same. But dreams are never lost, they do not go only one way, nor are they ever stagnant.
Looking at the work of others
by Jamie McDonald Gray, Calgary, AB, Canada
I was particularly touched by the advice, “Be gentle to all of those who stay behind.” For me, as a mature student in an art college full of courageous and brilliantly talented young people, it strikes me that I should also remember to “be gentle to all of those who go ahead.” For me it’s easy to be gentle to those who aren’t quite where I yet am. But I find that I become easily discouraged about my work and self when I look at some of the amazing art that’s being made in the college setting every day, and then tend to analyze and judge those artists who have run on ahead. It’s all too easy to practice “age-ism” on myself and become my own victim.
Grief and confidence
by Casey Craig, Wimberley, TX, USA
I usually don’t suffer from self-doubt. I realize that my work is unique and will not appeal to everyone and I’m comfortable with that, but my father recently passed away and grief does awful things to one’s confidence. Before I always seemed to have goals and a plan for what paintings were in my future, but recently I look around in my studio and think, what am I supposed to be doing? I am printing out your summation of Rilke’s ideas and posting it in my studio to help guide me back to my confidence and creativity.
Art and self-definition
by Sam Hunter, CA, USA
I was recently diagnosed with a rather rare genetic heart condition. Part of the treatment offered to me is psych counseling and because the prescription pad is their hammer, my condition, of course, resembles nails that require pounding with drugs. I have resisted because I’m not depressed, anxious, or any of the other things that they like to fix with meds. I’m a bit shocked, but I’m working on accommodating this into my self definition which is first, and foremost, an artist. Like most artists, I need all of me to speak my art — the highs, the lows, the fears, the celebrations, and yes, even this diagnosis. Art will be made that might ignore it, rage about it, love it and accept it, but it will deal with it and accommodate it into my ever-evolving self-definition as an artist.
Rilke’s ‘extraordinary demands’
by Linda Blondheim, Gainesville, FL, USA
“Allow your art to make extraordinary demands on you.” I believe this is the key to a successful artist’s career. Most truly successful artists I know are consumed with their art.
It is a demanding task master. I know many artists who talk about wanting success but who are unwilling to give up anything in their family life or social life or lifestyle to achieve success. They are unwilling to put the hours of work into painting, the studies and exercises which will improve their work. They are also unwilling to learn anything about marketing, framing or other business fundamentals which will lead to their success.
Letters to a Young Artist
by Candace Fasano, Fernandina Beach, FL, USA
I recently purchased a wonderful little book that many artists may also enjoy which was also inspired by Rilke. It’s called Letters to a Young Artist, by Gregory Amenoff, Jo Baer, John Baldessari, Xu Bing, Jimmie Durham, Joseph Grigely, Guerrilla Girls, Cai Guo-Qiang, Joan Jonas, Alex Katz, Elizabeth Murray, et al. Originally it came out in 2005 in a special edition of the magazine Art on Paper and then was published in 2006 in New York by Darte Publishing. There are 23 letters in all from a wide variety of artists. It’s fascinating and valuable.
The life of a loner
by Lenny Niles, Lincolnshire, UK
As a loner, I don’t consider myself part of a subculture that blatantly refuses to interact socially in general and I certainly don’t need a psychiatrist to prognosticate the condition. In fact no two loners are alike, but have only one thing in common: they just simply love being alone. My associates who have gregarious natures and seem always striving to be the centre of attraction openly accuse me of ‘Stand-offish ness’ being ‘Stuck-up,’ ‘Selfish,’ or ‘Sad’ and of course; ‘Secretive.’ It would seem that being alone is what others dread most. They don’t seem to understand that being alone is not the same as being lonely. Loners are not survivors in the modern interpretation but have always been dominantly active in the creation of culture throughout the course of time.
Living in the safe haven
by Lorelle Miller, CA, USA
So much of my time is spent in isolation that it can become very depressing, that is until I go get off my duff and start painting. When I think back at the very beginning of doing art as a little girl, it is what I did because I was alone or lonely. The creativity swept me to a different place where a sense of satisfaction resided. It was my safe haven. Funny how in some ways we never change. Still there are moments of alone time or lonely time. Still the relief comes when the process is in effect and always are the questions and doubts.
Truth lies in the words that it all boils down to the mastering of ourselves. Discipline, determination, and decisiveness, have become my motto, though admittedly, I am not always that strong. Then to allow and not regret. Joy can be found at the end, the satisfaction and fulfillment wait there with open arms, at least most of the time.
Let it go
by Carole Walch, Wilsonville, OR, USA
When my husband was President of the Los Angeles Rotary Club (LA 5), a VHS film came into his hands, which I promptly kept for myself. It was a most unique idea for a fundraiser for their Foundation in producing a film following six artists around for a year. It resulted in this video: Denver Rotary Club’s Artists of America: SIX ARTISTS SHOW AND TELL HOW THEY PREPARE THEIR ART (1988 by the Denver Rotary Foundation). It is an annual event held in The Colorado History Museum. The artists were: Chen Chi, Glenna Goodacre, Allan Houser, Richard Schmid, Bettina Steinke, and John Stobart. One of the comments made by Glenna Goodacre was to say she had to finally just step back from a piece of sculpture and let it go. You can ruin a piece of art by picking it to death.
Yin and Yang of Rilke
by Kim Fancher Lordier, San Francisco, CA, USA
Self-doubt has been quite prevalent in my life, even with an amazing support system of family, and being blessed with a few honors along the path. Advice always positive, but not always applicable to my desperate need to understand my passion, and the pursuit of my craft. Honors, while remarkable, do not fill the space of not being able to grasp what it is that I search for. I reach for the outside affirmation, but really this must come from within. As I go along and learn to share time with those in my life, I find that I must stay selfish just to breathe. I come away from your letter and my thoughts and know that it is about balance. “Independence from others’ works,” but understanding that one must be cognizant of what has been done before and learning from the processes. “No one can help you,” and yet, for some, there are those out there willing to lend a hand or answer a question, but it is up to you to find the truth. I feel there is a Yang to the Yin of Rilke’s ideas. Forever a circle, sometimes a rollercoaster spinning, sometimes slowing down enough to almost feel in control.
by Dave Wayne Wilson, White Rock, BC, Canada
I remain confused by your letters and perspectives. It seems that you never clarify whether truth in art is as important as success in art. I don’t recall having heard from you about this. Do you equate these things: is success a measure of accomplishment? I so often get the feeling that you esteem socio-economic acclaim at least as much as those priorities stated in Rilke’s letters. Maybe I’m missing something here.
(RG note) Thanks, Dave. In attempting to sum up the ideas held within Rilke’s letters, you have to realize that I’m only the postman. In our daily business of trying to understand and pin down the values and struggles of the creative life, we may wish to lean on others who have given the subject some thought or approached it from another direction. To answer your question, it’s been my observation that from time to time truth in art can and does actually lead to success in art. Socio-economic and otherwise. There are of course always going to be some flowers blooming in the desert, and others who bloom undeservedly in artificial soil, and in this sense our world is unjust. But there is a semi-solution, it applies to so many facets of life, and in this case Rilke nailed it: “Try to be in love with the questions themselves.”
Rilke on a fridge magnet
by Virginia Wieringa, Grand Rapids, MI, USA
Just yesterday I bought a fridge magnet with Rilke‘s words: “I beg you… to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try and love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything, live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.”
Loneliness of the painter
by Ruth Beeve, Concord, CA, USA
This time the ideas of Rilke seemed to speak to my loneliness and anxiety not only about my work, but about my life in general. I was widowed four years ago, so for the first time in my life I am living alone. My feelings about the solitude of the studio get mixed up with my general feelings of the loneliness of bereavement. I can get caught up in painting and forget everything else. I don’t feel lonely then, but when the session is over, I’m still alone. Perhaps I need to learn to embrace the loneliness and not fight it. As Rilke says, “Love your solitude and try to sing with its pain.” I’ll try it.
Need for Rilke and others
by Lynn Harrison, Toronto, ON, Canada
Each week, I regularly present a new song live on a local radio station. After my performance this morning (but before I read your letter), I noticed myself getting hung up on judgments and comparisons. Was the song “good enough”? Could I “fix” the interview segment — control it in some way — so next time I might come across better? It was so good to come home to Rilke’s wise words. As it happened, the song I had just written was about surrendering to the deep uncontrollable side of life — trusting the darkness. Even though I can articulate this deep knowledge in my art (sometimes!) my personal day-to-day anxiety can sometimes prevent me from hearing this universal message. That’s why I need artists like Rilke (and the people in this community too) who so generously share both their struggles and their joys.
Pain stays with us
by Cynthia Waring Matthews, Ojai, CA, USA
In 1996 I published a book called Bodies Unbound, about my journey into the bodies of earth in which I massaged over 20,000 people and what I discovered about what bodies carry — not only the spirit of the person on the table but their ancestors as well. I realized I was reading the ancestral problems they didn’t know how to deal with and therefore passed them on. It took me 10 years to write my book. It is now on many recommended reading lists for massage schools. I am now performing a one woman show based on my work. An all-black church in the slums of Brooklyn asked me to come to them. Their pastor read my book and called me to the church to help them heal from the wounds of slavery they were still passing down to their children. From being a massage therapist, and staying with my passion of writing, it has led me into a life I never dreamed of.
Responsibility for environment
by Mark D. Gottsegen, Greensboro, NC, USA
In the recent clickback regarding cleaning brushes, no one asked what to do with the left-overs from washing brushes. Down the drain? No, that’s environmentally irresponsible — putting solvents and pigments into the waste stream is never a good idea. If you have a septic system, you will pollute it; if you have a municipal sewer, you will pollute it. If you are in a class or a school, then in the US doing this violates federal law; if you are an individual artist, doing this is just bad practice.
Collect the veggie oil, waste water (or sludge), waste solvents, dirty rags and paper towels (dried) and take all the collected waste to your community’s hazardous waste collection station, where it is consolidated, incinerated and burned to ash. Then it is cast into concrete billets and encapsulated. Only then can it be taken to a protected, certified landfill. The cleaning part is the easiest. Being environmentally responsible is more difficult.
On brush cleaning
by Sara Genn, Santorini, Greece
Regarding your recent observation that women artists may be more predisposed to cleaning their brushes, Laura Kipnis’ recent post-feminist investigation into women’s relationship to dirt (among other “things”) The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability comes to mind. The studio may still be the only haven where both ambivalent and activist neat freaks can spit and polish without femininity burn. The studio is a gender-free zone where those of us who buy ’em cheap and let ’em dry up on the palette and the gleeful soap-wielding sable-lovers can exist in harmony.
What to do with old art
by Caroline Stengl, Victoria, BC, Canada
The other day I tackled the monumental task of weeding out my collection of old art that I made over the years. I now have a bulging portfolio of art I no longer want. Some of it would only be worthy of being given away. A handful of pieces are technically good or somewhat attractive so might be worth something, however they are leagues away from the quality of work I produce now. What should I do with this stuff? I don’t have the heart to throw them out, however giving them away or selling for peanuts seems like it would devalue my work or my reputation. Any advice you can give me?
(RG note) Thanks, Caroline. You need to make a ritual of systematically getting rid of substandard work. Shredding is fun. And then it’s off to the land-fill. Burning is the most satisfyingly final but in many jurisdictions outdoor burning is not legal and not environmentally responsible. Your fireplace, if you have one, can be an altar to your self improvement and an hour of sacrifice at this altar can be cathartic to the creative soul.
Enjoy the past comments below for Letters to an artist…
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2013.
That includes Alan Soffer of Philadelphia, PA, USA who wrote, “Your letter with Rilke’s thoughts touched me deeply. I will probably be reading it to the group I am teaching in Jamaica this coming week. I have put all of them in touch with the Painter’s Keys website.”
And also Jamie Lavinof Gardner, KS, USA who wrote, “I’m getting ready to start hosting some workshops and I’m having ‘DON’T EAT THE PAINT’ put on my smock! — just for Laughs.”
And also Natalie Barrett Cook of Houston, TX, USA who wrote, “I find solitude to be painful, but it is during those periods when some of my most delightful art has been produced. It’s then that my spirits are lifted.”
And also Mary Lapos of Danville, PA, USA who wrote, “Rilke‘s words were like those wonderful moments that follow thunderstorms when an intense quiet and a sense of total peace pervades, if only for a time, in which you draw a few breaths.”
And also Christine Thomas of Fairbanks, Alaska who wrote, “Rilke‘s advice, ‘Your work needs to be independent of others’ work, you must not compare yourself to others and work from necessity and your compulsion to do it’ are the driving force of my art — though I must admit it has often meant putting blinders on and looking straight ahead and not to the side.”
And also Les Ducak of Burlington, ON, Canada who wrote, “As I start a new series of art classes, the advice of the poet to the young artist is applicable to me. It is not in my power to hasten and speed up the development of my students. I can give them information and techniques, but not maturity and experience.”
And also Jeffrey Hessing of Nice, France who wrote, “My favorite quote from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet is, ‘There is beauty everywhere if you are poet enough to call it forth.’ If we are ever-evolving artists, we remain young poets our whole lives.”
And also Taylor Ikin of Tampa, FL, USA who wrote, “Even though I have most of my students receiving your letters, I often print one out and read it as the motivation piece to start each class session. Most often the reading prompts further discussion and by the time we load our brushes we’re off and running with positive thoughts and are well primed to make art!”
And also Ruth Armitageof Tualatin, OR, USA who wrote, “The miracle of technology is that instead of sharing your wisdom with one struggling artist, you now can share with thousands with the click of a mouse.”