Chasing Inspiration

I’ve always found that reading a favorite poet or novel can seriously help with lagging inspiration. I usually turn to Rilke or Tennyson for that little oomph I need. Reading Rilke’s poems, I came across one that I hadn’t read before, one that I loved and put me in the right mood for writing:

[Dove that ventured outside]

Dove that ventured outside,      flying far from the dovecote:
housed and protected again,      one with the day, the night,
knows what serenity is,      for she has felt her wings
pass through all distance and fear      in the course of her wanderings.

The doves that remained at home,      never exposed to loss,
innocent and secure,      cannot know tenderness;
only the won-back heart      can ever be satisfied: free,
through all it has given up,      to rejoice in its mastery.

Being arches itself      over the vast abyss.
Ah the ball that we dared,      that we hurled into infinite space,
doesn’t it fill our hands      differently with its return:
heavier by the weight      of where it has been.

I’ve also always loved the idea of pulling titles from poems that have inspired and informed your writing. As NaNoWriMo winds down (as does my word count), I find that I have to push myself and find ways to give myself energy. The initial excitement has dissipated, but little things can help prolong the energy. Rilke is always one of them.

Fashion: Heart of the Night

Everything is blooming most recklessly. If it were voices instead of colors, there would be an unbelievable shrieking into the heart of the night. –Rainer Maria Rilke

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floral cardigan from Forever 21, boots from DSW, top from Charade, riding pants from American Apparel

I wore this outfit to a Walk Off the Earth concert at the end of January. They put on an amazing show; they’re such musical innovators in the way they manipulate conventions and use unusual instruments like an electric toothbrush to create distinctive sounds! They also have a great stage presence and are so energetic and enthusiastic. It was the second time I’ve seen them but it certainly won’t be the last!

This floral kimono is quickly becoming one of my favorite items in my closet. Floral, red, and pink, this item screams me. Get it at Forever 21! They also have it in a mustard yellow/cream floral pattern I just may buy soon! I can’t get enough floral patterns to satisfy my obsession.

Rilke's Powerful Words For a Young Poet

For a long time, I have been a lover of Rilke’s poetry and prose. I started with The Duino Elegies, and it wasn’t long before I tumbled headfirst into his intense poetry, sparkling with romantic images and those glorious, indifferent angels. As I dove into his words, I found what has become a classic work of literature as well as a timeless book of advice for writers: Letters to a Young Poet.

Letters-to-a-Young-Poet-Translated-and-With-a-Foreword-by-Stephen-Mitchell-Hardcover-P9780679642329My edition features a foreword by Stephen Mitchell (who did the best translation of Rilke’s work, in my opinion). In it, he describes how this book was his first introduction to Rilke, and how he “felt, as many readers have felt, that the letters were written for [him].” (vi) It’s a universal feeling. The “young poet” of the title was a nineteen-year-old aspiring poet named Franz Xaver Kappus. When I first read this book I was also nineteen, a college student consumed with classes yet cherishing a desire to be a fully-fledged writer. I place myself within a chorus of like-minded individuals, Mitchell included, by feeling like this book was written for me.

As a person, I don’t really believe in self-help books. As an aspiring writer, I also don’t believe in how-to-write books. How can you tell anyone how to write, as if there were only one way to create art? Luckily, Letters to a Young Poet is a different beast altogether. Rilke speaks more to the soul of the writer than to the activity of writing itself. There is no “how-to.” At the risk of sounding like Yoda, Rilke seems to say, “do or do not.” He agrees that “no one can advise or help you–no one.” Just write. It’s that simple. And that difficult.

Rilke begins his book of “advice,” even though the content directly rejects that category, with a question posed directly to Kappus and to us:

Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of the night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. (6)

Seriously, I think I should start carrying around this little book the same way I carry my wallet and keys: it is a complete necessity. Rilke makes it clear that it is not criticism, constructive or not, that a writer needs to write well. There is no way of Rilke to determine whether Kappus’s work is “good” or not, as Kappus asks him. The only way Rilke can judge his work is if it had “arisen out of necessity,” out of the riches of his life. Artists are able to make art out of anything, even a seemingly boring life. To be an artist is a “calling,” says Rilke, a burden and a destiny.

This book carries with it a strange mystique, a sense that it is alive, and it always manages to inspire creative energy within me. After reading it I always feel a bit calmer, a bit happier, a little more confident in my ability to write. After reading, I manage to shed a bit of my outer life and exist more wholly within, in a place where the desire to write takes over, and it becomes easier. Maybe it’s the fear of failing that Rilke’s words dissipate. In any case, Letters to a Young Poet is, as I’ve said, a complete necessity for any artist, not exclusively writers.

Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love. 

Apart from Rilke’s words to Kappus and to all writers, this book is a treasure because it offers glimpses into Rilke’s life and trials, in such a way that makes me feel a little closer to one of my favorite poets. He describes in 1905 how he has been afflicted with influenza, and how he sought respite from his illness in southern Italy. I love reading about these small instances of Rilke’s physical being in the world, dated as they are. Letters are incredibly personal. It feels timeless, as if Rilke is still operating after his death. Yeah, it’s weird, but I love it. It’s the same feeling that he somehow is still speaking to writers, to anyone who cracks open the cover of this slim collection.

References

Rilke, R.M. and Stephen Mitchell. Letters to a Young Poet. 1984. New York, NY: Random House.

My Ideal Bookshelf

I recently read this great blog post and decided to compile ten of my favorite books of all time. The original post didn’t give a limit but I liked the idea of a “Top 10 Favorite Books” category and the exercise really made me stop and think about the books I’d read both recently and in the past that have influenced me and changed my life. In no particular order:

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Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, the book I read again and again: This novel is my favorite of JK Rowling’s magical oeuvre, and I read it so often that my copy is well-worn by now. It still reminds me of being eleven years old and making my mother drive me to Waldenbooks first thing in the morning so I could pick up the book on the release date. It also conjures memories of growing up with Harry Potter and how the novels instilled in me not just a love of reading, but also the desire to become a writer.

Pride and Prejudice, the one I love the most: This one is a no-brainer. I love everything about it, from the sarcastic way Lizzy’s father treats the women in his family, to the absolutely abhorrent Mr Collins and how much I love laughing at him, to the perfect story arcs of Elizabeth and Darcy. So many people adore the love story but this book is about so much more. Not only does Austen indict the social strata that make Elizabeth and Darcy’s ultimate union difficult, but she also weaves into the narrative arguments about the tension between conservative and liberal politics and allows the reader to form an opinion without even realizing they’ve done it. Austen takes a normal subject—love—and manipulates the story in such many layered ways that there is something new to learn each time.

Wuthering Heights, my favorite book: This book gets me every time. Love the characters or hate the characters, no one can deny the charisma of Heathcliff, the beauty of the moors, the overwhelming atmosphere of mystery and danger, the way you kind of want to shake Catherine and tell her to stop screaming but you root for her anyway, and the way you kind of hate the Lintons for no reason. The love of Catherine and Heathcliff forms the basis of every obsessive love story ever told and ever hated, but this love isn’t supposed to be healthy: it’s supposed to consume, overpower, even poison you. Wuthering Heights is the ultimate catharsis and it’s always a pleasure.

Angel, the book that changed my life: This novel is a forgotten little gem by the less famous Elizabeth Taylor. It tells the story of a young romance writer in the early 1900s, Angel Deverell, whose arrogance and dissociation from reality result in her ruin and isolation. The character of Angel is meant to be an allegory for those authors of Taylor’s time whose florid prose and shallow plotlines made instant bestsellers but whose books were vacuous and insipid. Angel thinks she’s the best writer to have ever lived and is completely blind to criticism, insisting all others are jealous of her wit and brilliance. Taylor is fierce and unapologetic in her harsh treatment of Angel, and the book reads like a sharp and insightful social commentary. I’d say Elizabeth Taylor read a lot of Austen and took good notes.

The Crimson Petal and the White, the best book I’ve ever read: I’ve mentioned before how much I love this book. I love Faber’s direct address to the reader, his bold and brave descriptions of prostitutes and dirt and death, his four-dimensional depiction of late Victorian London, and most of all, his unbelievable, believable characters. Sugar, a fiercely intelligent young prostitute with a reputation for granting any wish or desire, is one of the most indomitable characters I’ve ever met, and one of the most emotionally complex. William Rackham, an easily cowed man with unearned pride, is at times both pitiful and fearsome. Agnes, Rackham’s wife, will make you want to go back in time and give every Victorian woman some feminist literature. There are so many more characters who make this book live and breathe every time I crack open the cover.

East, the book that made me who I am: East isn’t your typical YA novel. Based on the story East of the Sun and West of the Moon, East also borrows from Beauty and the Beast: it tells the story of a Norwegian girl whose faith in her family fails after she learns her superstitious mother has lied to her all her life about her “birth direction.” Birth direction is a spiritual belief that the direction in which one is facing at birth determines his or her fate. Furious with her family, Rose takes the opportunity to leave when an enchanted bear offers her family riches in return for kidnapping Rose. The character of Rose and the northern setting instilled in me a love of the North that has not abated since my early teen years. It has also inspired me to learn about Norse mythology, which has indelibly affected my writing and my interests.

Ahead of All Parting: The Selected Poetry and Prose of Rainer Maria Rilke: Rilke is my favorite poet, save perhaps for Tennyson. This collection houses all of his major works, from The Duino Elegies to selections from his novel, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge. This book has so many tabs sticking out of it from my years of reading and marking my favorite passages and lines that nearly every page is marked by now, and as an added bonus, this is the best translation of his work I’ve ever read.

I Capture the Castle, the book that makes me cry every time: Dodie Smith also must have read Austen. The plot mirrors Pride and Prejudice in subtle ways but with deliberate differences: two sisters meet two brothers (whereas P&P features close friends) and the ensuing love triangles and unrequited loves form the backdrop of a larger narrative of one girl’s coming-of-age. Cassandra Mortmain, the protagonist, is the younger sister of a close-knit, eccentric British family living in an old castle in the late 1940s. Cassandra is a charming and naïve narrator, yet she shows a strength and courage that are inspiring. During the novel, she grows in ways that are familiar to any woman who has experienced the joy and despair of falling in love for the first time.

The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn: The nearly definitive Anne Boleyn Bible. Eric Ives is a meticulous biographer and holds no [discernible] bias for or against Anne, but lets the facts speak for themselves. From his book, not only do I have an in-depth account of Anne’s major life events and a rough sketch of her complicated personality, but I also know exactly how much she spent on clothing, what the toddler Elizabeth I wore, and what her wardrobe expenditures would have totalled had she reigned for a lifetime rather than for her three short years. This book is a testament to the strong, intellectual force Anne truly was and does the best job in dispelling the “femme fatale” persona that Anne Boleyn has fallen victim to repeatedly.

A Room With A View, my favorite book: My favorite books seem to be populated with strong female characters, albeit the character of Lucy was not always so in my favorite Forster novel. Really, this book is a romp. The British Lucy Honeychurch and her stodgy old chaperone visit Italy intending to enjoy a prim, proper, tour-guided vacation and instead stumble upon a thoroughly uncouth George Emerson and his absolutely appalling father. George falls in love with Lucy and kisses her most inappropriately; Lucy, upon her return to England, finds it impossible to forget the dashing yet shy George Emerson and finds that Emerson has kindled desire within her. Just thinking about this book is enough to make me sound like the author of a comedy of manners, but that’s what this book is. It’s a book about stodgy old England and how Italy makes us lustful. And it’s a novel about defying societal expectations and following your heart.

Runners-up: Ella Enchantedwhich I read when I was nine years old; Inkheart, also a YA I read as a teen with a great protagonist and a lot of bookpornThe Virgin Suicides, which still haunts me every day; and Lolita, enough said.

So what’s your ideal bookshelf? Give it a try, and you can post a link to your own ideal bookshelf below.