A few years ago we had this question come up in a writing workshop. There was a discussion about Rilke and Letters to a Young Poet. The workshop leader directed our attention to this one bit of lovely writing:
“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 your 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.”
What comes after this is a lovely and very affecting bit of advice about dedication to the act of writing, and it’s right that Rilke should recommend that anyone who wants to do something should commit to it, heart and soul, and give it everything. But what actually came out of the workshop discussion was that everyone focused on the dying part. Would you die if you couldn’t write?
As I looked around the table in the workshop, everyone seemed to be nodding solemnly, occasionally shooting each other half-weak grins as if to say, ‘God help me, I would. I would indeed die.’ As I sat there looking at this, I got incredibly pissed off. For ages I couldn’t figure out why, and it’s taken me a long time to think clearly about it. Part of the reason is that I know in my head that I wouldn’t. I wouldn’t have to die if I was forbidden to write.
The ability to write is not some structurally-crucial, load-bearing part of myself, one that if you took it away my whole physical being would collapse. I would not instantly put a gun to my head if I was told I couldn’t write. I don’t know what would happen in the longer term, how I would direct my life and what my goals would be, but there are certainly other things in the world that I’m passionate about, that I could chase after in the long term.
Think of all the brilliant things in the world. Think of all the wonderful things you can do, and the many noble ways of living your life, ways that help others or ways that give you yourself satisfaction. There’s family. There’s love. Christ almighty there’s also dancing in the world. There’s so much dancing to be done. So no, I wouldn’t have to die if I couldn’t write. Certainly I’d miss it, certainly I wouldn’t know what to do with myself for a while, what to aim for, what to dream about, what to call myself. But I’d be okay in the long run.
I’ve squared that with myself, but I always just remember feeling really foolish and really, really fucking angry sitting in that writing workshop, looking round at everyone. I seemed to be the only person in the room kind of shrugging, and that made me feel guilty. Maybe I wasn’t cut out to be a writer. Maybe I just wasn’t as passionate about it as everyone else, maybe I lacked the true Artistic Spirit. Maybe I was just a fraud, someone who conned their way into a room of true artists, and would be swiftly found out. For a long time it bothered me, not only how I seemed to be the only person who had some doubt, but also of how it made me feel about the other people in the room. It got me all judgy and petty. When everyone in the room was nodding, I was pointing a little finger in my head at various people thinking, ‘YOU wouldn’t die. Nor would YOU. I KNOW you wouldn’t.’
That’s a big problem with writing. Writers to a large extent don’t just think of themselves as people who write. They are Writers. When I first started out in writing workshops, we were told ‘We give you permission to call yourselves Writers for the next year’. It was a very nice thing to say and something that gave people a lot of confidence, it certainly gave me a lot of confidence. That was when I started referring to myself as a writer. But I think calling yourself a Writer also gives people who write a very exalted view of themselves, of the importance of their craft and its superiority to other arts. Other people seem to have no problems calling themselves musicians, or sculptors or artists or photographers, yet there’s this hesitation in people who write to call themselves writers, especially if they’ve not published much or anything. I’ve felt this discomfort myself in the past. It usually goes like this:
‘What do you do?’
‘I’m a writer.’
‘Oh wonderful, what do you write?
‘I dunno…. Books and stuff… Scripts and things… I actually work at a cafe… I’m not really a writer, I just write things…’
There’s a hesitation to call yourself a Writer because it seems to be this lofty, mythical profession, a title that has to be earned, and it’s this attitude people have to it that does it no favours. What happens when people eventually do get a book published, and they’re one of the insiders, one of the select few? They might start to see themselves as higher up than everyone else. They might say, ‘If I couldn’t write I would DIE’.
It’s an attitude that makes writing out to be something other than an achievement of honest, hard work mixed with skill, empathy and craft. And it lets writers get away with all sorts of shite that people in other professions can’t. It People like Hemingway or Jack Kerouac told others how they could live like True People, how they as writers had some sort of handle on what truth and beauty and love and hardship was, how they knew more about it than ordinary people, because they could mess with words and syntax. And they got away with it. They acted like utter selfish bastards and the world loved them for it, at least for fifty years or so.
I have absolutely no doubt that writing has brought many people stability and good health and has given them meaning in their lives that they could not get elsewhere. I am absolutely not pissing about with that. I’m sure there are many people who would find their lives totally without meaning if they lost the ability to write, and that they would have to die. But I don’t think this is a question that is posed to people in other arts or professions. No one asks a musician would they die if they couldn’t Music or an artist Art or a sculptor Sculpt. No one says to a businessman, ‘Would you die if you couldn’t Business? No you wouldn’t die? Then you’re not a real Businessman’.
The way I view it is that I love to write. I really really love it. It’s what I’m best at in the world and most passionate about, and it’s certainly a dream that I could live the rest of my life making a living from it, or just even have the time and space to do it around some other job. But that doesn’t make me any different than any other person who just wants to work a job they love. The world is filled with people who don’t get to do what they would love to do. Does that means they don’t really care at all about their passion? Absolutely not. It just seems a waste of life to say you Write or you Die.