Solitude seems central as a prerequisite for creative mastery, especially for some of the greatest minds in the world. When the insanely talented Russian filmmaker, Andrei Tarkovsky, was asked for a piece of advice for young people, he said that they should learn to cherish solitude and enjoy their own company. He said, “…people who grow bored in their company seem to me in danger, from a self-esteem point of view.” Besides Tarkovsky, Charles Dickens lived a significant portion of his life in active solitude–a state that enabled him to produce his everlasting books. During ideation, he would take three-hour walks every afternoon alone, and what he observed during those walks would give ideas for his writing.
Another writer who had tasted the sweetness of solitude for his creativity was a poet named Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). In one of his letters that was published in a book called Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke wrote back a letter to an amateur poet and an avid fan of his named Franz Xaver Kappus in response to a request for poetry advice and of course, life advice.
Franz Xaver Kappus, showing through the many descriptions that Rilke drew in this letter, was a restless but a passionate aspiring poet. He had sent his poems to magazines and only to find them terribly rejected. Feeling shattered about his shaky future of becoming a poet, he knew that only his idol, Rilke, was the only person capable of elevating his broken spirit and giving constructive feedback for his poems. Rilke wrote back to Kappus urging him to create “a moment of stillness” to answer some of the most pressing issues in his life, especially whether he should become a poet. This letter was not only a letter of encouragement and kindness, but it’s a work of art filled with strong metaphors and poetic sensibilities.
“You ask whether your verses are good. You ask me. You have asked others before. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts. Now (since you have allowed me to advise you) I beg you to give up all that. You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write. This above all—ask yourself in the stillest hour of your night: must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if this should be affirmative, if you may meet this earnest question with a strong and simple “I must,” then build your life according to this necessity; your life even into its most indifferent and slightest hour must be a sign of this urge and a testimony to it. Then draw near to Nature. Then try, like some first human being, to say what you see and experience and love and lose.”
It’s easy to think of solitude as being alone. However, Rilke doesn’t define solitude as merely just being alone, but solitude to his mind is concentrating to what one feels, in oneself, and in the midst of the crowd. It’s also being unafraid to slow down and ask ourselves what are the things that matter and don’t.
“Therefore, my dear sir, I know no advice for you save this: to go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise; at its source you will find the answer to the question whether you must create. Accept it, just as it sounds, without inquiring into it. Perhaps it will turn out that you are called to be an artist. Then take that destiny upon yourself and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what recompense might come from outside.”
He re-emphasizes the value of “going into oneself” in the last few paragraphs of the letter:
“After all I do only want to advise you to keep growing quietly and seriously throughout your whole development; you cannot disturb it more rudely than by looking outward and expecting from outside replies to questions that only your inmost feeling in your most hushed hour can perhaps answer.”
There are other more soul-stirring letters in this book. Letter to a Young Poet is truly one of the most spectacular books I have read so far.