So. You want to be a writer.
In the first of his “Letters to a Young Poet,” Austrian writer Rainer Maria Rilke gently tells an admirer that he refuses to criticize his poetry, constructively or otherwise. Rilke goes so far as to discourage his young fan from seeking anyone else’s counsel, instead asking him to meditate intensely, then ask himself a simple question: “Must I write?” If not, Rilke says, he shouldn’t, and should instead follow whatever alternate path his meditations divined for his life. But if yes, then Rilke encourages him to go after it with everything he has and like no one else has ever done, to make every element of his existence “a sign and witness to this impulse.”
As advice goes, it’s fairly intense. But in the 90 years since its publication and in the decade since I first read it, Rilke’s words still resonate to this day. And as someone who has wanted to be a writer since he first learned to read, I can’t think of better advice to give to a would-be writer, be they a poet, an author, an essayist or a journalist.
So read Rilke’s letter in full. And then take the time to ask yourself if you need to write. Be sure to parse out want from need, because they’re easily confused — needing to drink water vs. “needing” to see “Avengers: Endgame,” for instance. Dive within yourself, strip away all artifice and illusion, and don’t resurface until you have an honest answer.
If you want to write, by all means indulge yourself here and there. Blog. Tweet. Comment. But if you don’t need to write, don’t try to make a life out of it.
Dear God, do not.
2018 was a disastrous year for press freedom around the world, as journalists found themselves harassed, detained and murdered. Even as it recovers from the nadir that was 2016, public confidence in the press has been steadily declining since the 1970s, as people pick and choose the news they want. Newsrooms are not bleeding staff so much as hemorrhaging, a trend that does not look like it’s letting up anytime soon. And for those who are still standing, they now face a tidal wave of seething discontent unleashed by dictators and would-be strongmen around the world all too eager to dismiss any uncomfortable story with the two most frustrating words this side of “continental breakfast” — fake news.
And even if you get through all that, think about what it means to be a writer in 2019. Do you want to live in a world of misleading clickbait and inane listicles, where Tucker Carlson is a trusted political commentator and E.L. James is a best-selling novelist? Where you can spend hours if not weeks pouring your soul into a piece, only for an army of internet trolls to flood the comment section at best or to swamp your personal life with death threats at worst? Who needs to sit for hours, staring at a computer screen until the whites and blues of a blank Word document are seared into your retinas, and eventually write something that no one reads? To come up with a great idea for a piece, only to realize that someone beat you to the punch and that even if you could do it better, the world of writing is one that tends to value speed over quality?
In the immortal words of Terkina the gorilla, who needs this aggravation?
Writers do. And even if you give up on writing, if you truly need to be a writer, it has a funny way of sneaking back up on you when you least expect it. I’m still marveling at the irony that the past twelve months, which began with my certainty that my dream of becoming a writer was well and truly dead, have somehow been the most fulfilling of my career thus far — insofar as my writing constitutes such a thing. I came to law school in no small part because I had given up on ever becoming a writer, and I started classes last fall thinking that my pursuit of a JD had locked me in a course arcing far away from the realm of writing, with the odd brief or law review article here and there the only testaments to who I might’ve been. Instead, I got paid more for my decidedly non-legal work this year than in the previous quarter-century combined. However positive or negative the feedback, I’ve been able to perceive more genuine engagement with my perspective than ever before. It’s nowhere near where I’d once hoped, or what I might have wanted. But in terms of what I need, it is more than enough.
Success in the written word can be difficult, and even dangerous. But if your answer to the question Rilke asked 90 years ago and I asked today is yes, you’ll soon realize the very frustration endemic in writing is sometimes what makes it worthwhile in the end.
So if you don’t need to be a writer, don’t! Do anything else with your life; preferably something that doesn’t accelerate the degradation of the polar ice caps, but whatever it is you do, do you.
But if you need to be a writer? Then choose your weapon, be it the pen, the keyboard or your smartphone, and write. Write. Write anything, about everything. Write reviews, essays, stories, poems, reflections, scripts. Search for the needle of truth in an ever-growing haystack of lies, and chart the course you took to find it for your readers to understand. Weather the storm of 4channy trolling to pull out the few worthwhile counterarguments, and truly measure them against your own words. Ask the questions that no one is asking, and have the answers ready for them when they finally do. Take the limited letters of whatever alphabet resonates within you most, and weave your threads into the tapestry of humanity’s narrative.
If you need to write, write. Please.
Because if you need to be a writer, then odds are, we need you to be too.
This article is part of a special series from WSN called “The Future of Journalism,” in which the Opinions Desk plans to explore the future of the journalism industry in the current political and social climate, as well as try to gain a better understanding of how we can prepare our future journalists for the field.
Opinions expressed on the editorial pages are not necessarily those of WSN, and our publication of opinions is not an endorsement of them.
Email Mickey Desruisseaux at [email protected]