Working with Rainer Maria Rilke’s Advice

by Sheila Bender

The real topic of any piece of writing, the part that provides the emotional growth for both the writer and the reader, the part that holds everyone’s attention and lingers with them after reading, is the part that portrays the author’s search for an answer to some persistent question. It may be a question that is an obsession of the writer’s such as, “How will I live now that what I believed as a child seems wrong?” and it can occur for years after the precipitating event. The question might be, “If I don’t feel like a good parent, can I be any good at all?” or “Why do elephants always make me laugh?” It might be “If the city I live in is so polluted and crowded and violent, how come I haven’t given up on it?” or “Will I ever believe that I am a master?” or “What is my calling?”

The poet Rilke addressed the need for questions in an author in his famous Letters to a Young Poet:

Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves…Do not 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. Perhaps then you will gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.

Here is a writing practice to help you learn how living the questions facilitates writing:

Fill a piece of paper with questions. Write any question that comes to you. Allow yourself to mix silly questions with esoteric ones, mundane questions with ethereal questions, questions that might have a simple answer with questions that undoubtedly have complex answers. This mix will free your unconscious to suggest questions that might lead you to writing well:

Why do I like Rice Chex more than Raisin Bran?

Why is blue my favorite color?

What is the hardest thing to talk about as a woman?

What is it about housework that draws me away from writing?

What is the most important thing in life to me?

Keep writing questions and then choose a question that interests you. Draw a balloon on a piece of paper and print that question inside of it; draw a string on the balloon. Just like when you were a kid and you let helium-filled balloons go once you were inside your house knowing they would reach the ceiling and stay inside, imagine your question balloon floating aloft yet remaining in your eyesight. Let this question balloon keep you company like those magical balloons of our childhood.

Over a few days or a week, write down the specifics of where you are and what is happening when you remember the question you “left hanging in the balloon.” Describe where you are, what you see and what you feel, taste, touch and smell in the moment the question occurs to you, whether that is on city streets, a hiking trail, caring for grandchildren or standing by the stove where you are cooking oatmeal. Write about what you are thinking and doing when the question flashes in your mind and you see, taste, touch, hear and smell the world in which your question lives.

You might be groping in the dark for a light switch when you think about your question, and you can write about that — the feel of the carpet beneath your feet, the sound of the switch going on, the way the furniture looks as soon as the bright light comes.

Collect many such moments on the page. And after you have collected them, set about writing a longer piece from the notes you have kept. You might entitle it, “A Question” and repeat the question like a refrain, followed by sketch after sketch of the moments your question attracted to you.

One response to “Working with Rainer Maria Rilke’s Advice

  1. Sheila – I love this idea! I just got done thinking I need to set myself an exercise for tomorrow morning’s writing session. I’m going to do this! Thank you.

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