When my thoughts turn to writing, one of the first things to pop into my head is something that was written to an aspiring poet long ago. In a collection of letters rather aptly entitled “Letters to a Young Poet,” Rainer Maria Rilke doles out sharply critical yet nurturing advice to a young writer about what it is to write and what it is to need to write. A writer, according to Rilke, is not just someone who can write skillfully, but someone who has a need to write. One cannot be a truly great writer unless one finds it absolutely necessary to write because it is only through this necessity that one finds the inspiration to write works of true passion and emotional depth. I read this for the first time with a rather sharp pang of anxiety: am I really cut out to be a writer?
What does it mean to have a need to write? If it just meant that one finds it necessary to write because it is the best medium to express oneself, then I would already be subject to this need. But I think Rilke meant something more than that. I think Rilke was appealing more to the idea that a writer – or perhaps more generally, an artist – must have something that needs to be expressed, some inner turmoil that can only be resolved through the crafting of a work. It is through such works that an artist’s soul truly comes out to converse with a viewer, conveying an emotion with such piercing honesty that one cannot help but be party to it. If this is what he meant, then I am perhaps at a loss of such a need, or I at least perceive myself as such.
People often say that the best writers are those who have deep emotional pain, who have some unresolved emotional distress that they are constantly scratching at with their works but never truly easing. The pain of being at war, the pain of being a woman, the pain of having lost a child, the pain of unloving parents – it seems as if all good writers are struggling to bear some burden or nurse some deep emotional wound through writing. It’s that deep emotional sensitivity that really gets a writer going, that allows their audience to connect with them on a profound level. Lucky bastards.
What have I got going for me? The pain of living in the suburbs? The pain of being an Honors student? Am I condemned to being a mediocre writer until something woefully unfortunate comes along to make me all emotionally addled and deeply complex? Am I going to have to lose both my legs or watch my best friend shot down in a-war-we-never-wanted-to-fight before anyone can take me seriously? I like my best friends, almost as much as I like my legs, and I’d really not have to part with either of them before I’m ready to launch a successful writing career. But perhaps its the fearsome clarity that follows the realization of such fears through which people come to see the light. For the love of those I love and of my own bodily functions, I can’t ever hope that I take such an abyssal dive. But does that mean I will forever be in the dark? Does that mean that I am fated to emotional simplicity, and that I will never have the inspiration to write words that inspire others? I hope not.
I suppose I am writing today under the duress of some pain and fear, though perhaps not of the typical “scarring” variety that good writers seem to love to channel. My fear is that I will never be able to create anything meaningful. Not great or well received or award-winning – meaningful. My pain is that I have never lived a life that has exposed me to the sorts of experiences that writing thrives on, something that I can blame only on my own childish trepidations and adolescent naivetes.
I once shared the first couple of paragraphs of a piece of fiction that I was trying to write with my friend Sam. He appreciated my style and my colorful descriptions, yet noted that the main character doesn’t really do anything but observe. This hit me a lot harder than he had intended or I had expected: through his innocent remark I was suddenly starkly self-aware, cognizant of my own inadequacy and impotence. I was reminded of a question I once asked another of my friends: “Do you ever feel like you’re not the main character of your own story?” As paradoxical as it might sound, the feeling is quite real: I have not felt like the main character of my own story for quite some time. There is a story playing out before me, and while it is mine, it is a story which I have yet to really take part in the shaping of.
How much time have I wasted staring at the ceiling or the floor or the shower wall, having imaginary conversations and fantasizing about what I could have said to that pretty girl on the street, or to my parents when they yelled at me, or to those guys in suits who looked at me with such disdain? I’ve spent my entire life getting over and bottling up my emotions yet never truly dealing with them in any meaningful way, to the point where I’m not entirely sure that I know what it is to truly feel anymore. Until this day I’ve always been too afraid to act, to get hurt and to hurt others, smiling when I should have frowned, shrugging off blows that I should have returned, desiring but never asking or pursuing. Have I really lived my life, or have I just watched it pass me by in silence and fear?
Perhaps what I’m discovering now is that I do need to write. I need to write for all those times that I didn’t say anything. I need to write for all those times that I stopped myself. I need to write for all those moments I’ve lost and all those opportunities wasted. Twenty-one years, six months, and sixteen days I’ve spent as a victim to myself and to my circumstances, always watching and feeling, but never acting or dealing. The pain I have is the pain of having never lived, of never truly having wanted to live. All I want now is to feel a different sort of pain: the pain of living. It’s high time I get acquainted with myself and finally live a life that I chose rather than a life that was given to me. I want all the pain. I want all the pleasure. I want to blame. I want to be blamed. I want it, so long as it’s the product of my own choosing.
Here I go, one word at a time, into a future unknown. I can’t help the trembling of my knees as I step into this unknown territory, but I can’t let these fearful tremors stop me from planting my feet; too often has that stopped me from departing on my own hero’s journey. This is something I need to do, not for those I love nor for this world I so love, but for myself, the person who I have yet to love.