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Posts Tagged ‘Letters to a Young Poet’

Just Sitting, Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos, New Mexico,photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.

Just Sitting, Mabel Dodge Luhan House, Taos New Mexico, February 2007, photo © 2007 by QuoinMonkey. All rights reserved.


I’ve been in a daze since I got back from the trip. Tired, unfocused, full. Obsessed with flashes of detail, and snippets of conversation. I’m getting closer to laying down my stories.

I want to write memoir. And the recent trip to the South, researching history, family, and roots, ignited a fire in me. The coals are still glowing. They infuse and invigorate my desire to write.

But it’s one thing to dig up details and memories, and write them down in practice. And another to risk the exposure of mothers, sisters, brothers, friends, fathers, lovers – and me. Every detail I write reveals more about me.

Detail, truth, and honesty – how are they related to writing and art? Every time I post a piece on red Ravine, or write a draft of a story I want to publish, I’m faced with exposing my truth.

Who might it harm? How will they take it? What if my truth isn’t their truth? Will the photograph or drawing I post be offensive? Will I alienate my friends, my family, my writing or art communities?

All good questions. And some need to be quietly and ethically considered in an immediate and public venue like the Internet. And in regard to the space where we work to uphold red Ravine’s mission and vision to foster community.

But in my personal and creative writing, the work I plan to pitch to the publisher, what is okay? And what’s not? If I go for the jugular, what do I have to lose? And what part of my dignity will I sacrifice if I don’t?

The teachers I have studied with, in both writing and art, have told me that it’s okay to go for the jugular, to ask the hard questions. But don’t worry about the answers. Not until I’m ready to publish. It will squash my creativity.

Rainer Maria Rilke addressed the same questions in 1934, in Letters to a Young Poet:

…be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and 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. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.

Live the questions now. Part of the living is asking. While at the same time, being willing to get your hands dirty: pulling up waterlogged, granite rocks, exposing wriggling bits of ant egg, smelling ancient, earthworm underbellies.

I try to listen for the answers, ragged, tenacious blades of grass that poke through cracked cement to reclaim the ground around them. Skeletal fragments of dead frogs, dried up into compost.

I see by the conversations and comments on recent posts (this post, and this post) that writers are at different stages of coming to terms with telling their truth. It’s a process I, too, must go through if I want my work to be public and published.

After travelling and interviews and meeting with long lost family in the South, I have all this memoir material I didn’t have a month ago. I know more than I did before. How do I be authentic and credible, while maintaining personal integrity?

I have a responsibility to tell the truth as I understand it; and an equal responsibility to take time to reflect on the questions. To live the questions.

In the meantime, I keep writing. And practicing. And reading other writers. What do those who have walked before me have to say about truth?

I pulled out Anne Lamott. And I’ll end with this excerpt from Bird by Bird, Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Part Five: The Last Class:

Becoming a writer is about becoming conscious. When you’re conscious and writing from a place of insight and simplicity and real caring about the truth, you have the ability to throw the lights on for your reader. He or she will recognize his or her life and truth in what you say, in the pictures you have painted, and this decreases the terrible sense of isolation that we have all had too much of.

Try to write in a directly emotional way, instead of being too subtle or oblique. Don’t be afraid of your material or your past. Be afraid of wasting any more time obsessing about how you look and how people see you. Be afraid of not getting your writing done.

If something inside you is real, we will probably find it interesting, and it will probably be universal. So you must risk placing real emotion at the center of your work. Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Don’t worry about appearing sentimental. Worry about being unavailable; worry about being absent or fraudulent. Risk being unliked. Tell the truth as you understand it. If you’re a writer, you have a moral obligation to do this. And it is a revolutionary act – truth is always subversive.

Friday, June 29th, 2007

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