The Need to Write

You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you — no one. There is only one thing you should do. 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 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 wild life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse. […] A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it.

— Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke

It has been a long time since I’ve written a blog post. In actuality, I’ve written many, almost three, half-written things, and I was afraid to share it—they were nonsensical essays about “writing,” or, really not about writing but the writing world, or, not the writing world but the writing industry, and in that case, not particularly about writing at all—it was just a rumination of the capitalistic machinations of it, of how writing and its process and productions function in an American context. Really, I wrote different versions of an angry blog post against Boudinot’s lambasting and elitist article in The Stranger. What I wrote was a rant, and regardless of my critiques, and even Boudinot’s own rant, it was a distraction. So I didn’t make any of them public. I didn’t feel the need to; many were already having lengthy and illuminating discussions on the article’s essential quips, and one of the better responses to Boudinot was (synchronically) written by one of his own students: “I was the Student who Made Boudinot Cry.”

But I am writing in my blog tonight, on a night where the moon is but a sliver in the sky and my partner is actually home—he’s been gone so much that he’s become a ghost, works every day and leaves for 24 hours every third day. As he desperately works to learn what is hidden in his materials science book, I am slowly, after these past, tenuous eight months, returning to writing, and writing for fun, for play, for necessity, for love. I realized lately that when I write, I feel less alone, and maybe this is what my answer is to Rilke’s deep invocation of the self, the excavating question of why must you write. Mine is simply this: I must write to feel less alone. I can say it is something I have always done, and in a way I have. But in a context of blogging, of writing for pure mirth, or rather attention, for an unknown audience, readership, I remember when I was eleven years old, writing in my numerous and decorated composition journals until I was 18, which is when I burned all my diaries in sadistic achievement of adulthood (I was and still am an overwrought person); then, I remember my first blog on LiveJournal, then Xanga, then my notes on Myspace, Facebook, and et al., and my will to “burn everything after reading”; I’ve since deleted each online repository and have kept one, this one, as a safe haven for my elementary thoughts, my nonsensical rants, my useless ramblings, and it is a joy, I find, that I’ve cultivated this “artless” place for so many years with so much bad writing. It is a place where I play, and for that, I’m thankful.

So, I am here again. And to me, it is a triumph. I have had a rough eight months, an awkward and terrible eight months, a time of deep self-hatred, self-doubt, and much self-flogging (mentally), and I feel as if I am slowly crawling out of this dark place and into another state of being that is much closer to who I was when I was eleven, so fresh-faced and deliberately loving. I am caring less of the harsh and judgmental things people, especially my family, have said and do say (or not say) about me; I am overcoming my tendencies of overwrought jealousy, anxiety; I am slowly remembering my love for wordsmithing, for narrative, for imagination. For once, I do not feel this immense and destructive pressure to rush, to be something I am not, to write something that is false, unsure, and needy. Though I am sure this will change, that I feel this paralyzing pressure again, but at least I can say, for now, I have a method to deal with it.

So what am I trying to say? Not particularly anything, to be honest. I am just writing because I felt the urge to write and say something authentic, something of gratitude, something of peace. I had a breakdown last week, about whether or not I am a “promising” artist, whether or not I am “good” at it, whether I am throwing my life away at this consuming practice, always in need or in want of something more—another thing that will tell me that I am “good” at this—and is it not always in the form of some prize, fellowship, journal acceptance, or compliment from a writer friend that we think we desperately need to solidify how “good” we are? I am sure I will have this breakdown again, sometime soon or distant, and it will hurt as much as it did that one day. But what I did to overcome it was this: I watched art. I watched an art film. I watched Agnès Varda’s Cléo from 5 to 7 and wept like a child. I don’t particularly know what got to me: maybe it was the music, maybe it was how spoiled and vain Cléo was—and how she reflected and mirrored my childishness and vanity—or maybe it was her desperation, her need to know what will happen to her, it was her honest anxiety, her acute awareness of her morality, her fascist need to be in control, her exposed understanding that she was indeed controlled by others, controlled like a beautiful doll, a doll with no whims or fantastical impulses toward happiness. Cléo was me and not me. She was needy, desperate, anxious, a child. She is, I think, what others see in me when they dislike me from afar, when they only know me by my social media persona, or when they think, particularly my family, that I ought to stop trying to tell the world that I exist, that I am talented, that I have a place within it; they want me to stay within the boundaries they’ve already set before me, as a woman who is married and should rear children. It was purging to become Cléo for 90 minutes, to weep and cry like an insolent child for wanting the world to notice her, to love her. Then my partner came home, and asked me what was wrong. I told him everything. I was reminded at how silly I was being, how needy, but it was good, it was good to let these irrepressible feelings come and have them leave. Is this not what art should do? Aristotle said that art was catharsis. It is and it isn’t. It can be whatever it wants to be, whatever it needs to be, and that is its power, that is what compels me to it. It is like what Varda said in her illuminating interview in Angela Ismailos’s Great Directors documentary: “Sometimes, you feel like a failure. You’d rather watch other people’s great films, read other people’s great art, and just submerge yourself into other things. Then, the impulse will return to you, like a lightning bolt. You will be compelled to create. This is how you know you are an artist: after a period of un-creation, you are compelled to create. That is what makes great artists—that unrelenting need to make art.”

I read a wonderful article in The New Yorker the other day that relates to Varda’s promise: that after a period of doubt, you will be called to create again. It was called, “The Middle of Things: Advice to Young Writers,” and I read it very late in the night, when the moon was bright and full and in need of something. I could not sleep; I was restless; I was depressed; I was afraid of night terrors; I was alone. My partner was away at work. It’s become my nightly tradition, I think, to read these powerful essays to young writers by giants of lore, and I am always amazed at how sincere they are, how giving, how truly loving a master writer can be with his/her/their words. This is what led me to Rilke and his wisdom, to his book of essays, Letters to a Young Poet. I’ve since started reading Rilke alongside the other books I am reading: Gun Dealer’s Daughter, Claudia at School, Boyhood, and Those who Stay, Those who Leave. I don’t usually cheat on my books; I am usually a monogamous reader, someone who devotes her entire time to one singular affection. But this multiplicity opened the wound that was within me for so long, it revealed my desperate desire for attention, my long familial history of receiving the extreme states of love and negligence. I am a strong believer that sometimes, the books that come to you arrive when you most need them, and the thematic linkage between these five books reminded me of this, that I believed if I can just be “good” at something, then that will bring me love. It is a lie, an illusion, and a untruth; it erases my natural inclination and natural love for writing, my answer to why must you write: I write to feel less alone; I must write because it makes me happy. That is the truth, a truth that has never been bent by time. It is better said by Rilke:

To be an artist means: not to calculate and count; to grow and ripen like a tree which does not hurry the flow of its sap and stands at ease in the spring gales without fearing that no summer may follow. It will come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are simply there in their vast, quiet tranquility, as if eternity lay before them.

It is why, when I read Rilke’s words to another young poet, his revelation that to be an artist is to look toward eternity, to what Micheline Marcom once told me: “Think of timelessness,” I am brought to a place of acceptance. I’ve journeyed far to return to the young girl I once was, a girl who wrote because it brought her happiness, because it reminded her that she was not alone, and it is why it is a blessing to undergo these purging moments, these descents into cathartic self-doubt and self-hate. I am reminded that these growing periods are painful, they are awkward, they are desperate and needy and uncoiling, but they are unraveling like the light, like when you are once unseen and now seen. They will come again, these desperate and painful growing periods, and they bring us closer to an ethereal state, an eternal peace, an understanding that it is okay to want, but it is a want that is unfounded, and that want is rooted in a place that can only be found within, within a well-lighted place that only the self can build and make a home.

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