I Must Write
“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 of your night; must I write?
(Rilke – page 18-19)
Poetry saved my life on more than one occasion. I was a functioning depressive. Meaning, my depression wasn’t so debilitating that I couldn’t get out of bed, and yet it was consuming without an outlet. It was an infection. A disease I have carried with me since birth. The only way I could cope was to cry myself to sleep nearly every night or write.
Back in the day, I never thought anything of it. Writing poetry was my secret. It was my therapy. Better than drugs or alcohol. Though it didn’t lift my spirits, rather it squeezed the depression out through the ink of my pen and laid itself out on paper. I could see it. It was no longer a phantom living inside me. It became something tangible I could come face to face with.
This is when I met Rainer Mara Rilke and the book Letters to a Young Poet. I was in my early twenties. Rilke became a force that helped me see my truth and how to use writing, and poetry, to put back together the broken pieces inside. The pieces may not fit neatly like a puzzle, but from them I could create a beautiful mosaic of my inner suffering.
When Rilke asked me to go into myself, I thought, how much further do I need to go? I was alone all the time. My mind ran continuously like ticker-tape. I thought I was already the queen of reflection and introspection. I thought I had already hit my darkest bottom. But I was willing to take a leap of faith.
At the time, instead of considering solitude as a friend it felt more like an enemy. I didn’t differentiate between loneliness and solitude. They were one and the same. And I was deathly afraid of my loneliness. I didn’t feel like the other kids my age. I saw spirits in the corners of my room at night. And I had this strange ability to see individuals from the inside out. I saw their emotions and fears before I saw their aesthetic attributes. In any case, I felt more like an alien than human.
Even at a young age it was painfully obvious that those kids didn’t want me playing their games. I was quirky. Withdrawn. And criminally shy. Recognizing a contrast between yourself and your peers, in a very small town, is heartbreaking at any age. You are cast aside with no one other than yourself to keep you company. My loneliness was a painful reminder that I was different. And my unique difference was deep, dark, and painful. I wanted as much escape from myself as I could get. Even if the escape hurt worse-and it often did-than if I had sat home by myself writing my woes in a journal, I wanted whatever distraction I could get from myself.
“Only those sadnesses are dangerous and bad which
one carries about among people in order to drown
them out; like sicknesses that are superficially and
foolishly treated they simply withdraw and after a
little pause breaks out again the more dreadfully;
and accumulate within one…” (Rilke – Page 63)
But it wasn’t the shadowy grey casually lurking in my corners that concerned me. It was the tear-stained blinding darkness. This particular deep darkness had an empty, tinny echo that rings in my ears to this day. But I trusted Rilke. I trusted that he would see me through, and I would come out the other side with more clarity than when I sought understanding externally. All my answers were within me, if I only chose to believe in the process.
“…there is but one solitude, and that is great, and not easy to
bear, and to almost everybody come hours when we would
gladly exchange it for any sort of intercourse, however banal
and cheap, for the semblance of some slight accord with the
first comer, with the unworthiest . . . But perhaps those are
the very hours when solitude grows; for its growing is
painful…” (Rilke – page 45)
So, I went. I plunged into the abyss of myself. Spent hours with my darkest truths. Filled journal upon journal with verse. Expressed the inexpressible. The notion of diving into your darkest hours became real, and the process is never-ending. To this day it remains the only way for me to live authentically and live presently. “Letters to A Young Poet” became my gospel. And Rilke became my spiritual guide. What I’ve learned from him is invaluable. I must write, really is the only way for me to be.
“…describe your sorrows and desires, passing thoughts
and the belief in some sort of beauty—describe all
these with loving, quiet, humble sincerity, and use,
to express yourself, the things in your environment,
the images from your dreams, and the objects of your
memory.” (Rilke – page 19)
As Rilke and I became better-acquainted, I was deepening my understanding of the psychological benefits that writing and journaling can have on the human psyche. Subsequently, this is also the time I came to understand my disease. I was twenty-one, or so, and I had had an especially dark episode. It was the kind of episode where you are not sure you have the strength to climb out. My pale face was patterned with red and pink splotches from the incessant crying. My mother sat me down for a talk, and it was then that she told me about her mother.
My Grandmother committed suicide when my own mother was sixteen years old. It was believed that she had had manic-depressive disorder, now known as bipolar disorder. It was October 19, 1965. My mother said that they had fought before she left for school that morning and by midday her mother was gone. I think my mother recognized similar patterns of highs and lows within me as she did her mother. Though neither my highs nor my lows were quite as dramatic as my grandmother’s, still I think my mother wanted me to understand my ancestral past. A genetic disposition for depression, suicide, and mood disorders.
All the emotional pain I was suffering finally made a bit more sense. No one in my family, or so I thought, had depression or was afflicted with agonizing moods. I was the only one with the internal torment this disorder can often serve an individual. To know that another family member struggled with mood swings and inner turmoil offered me a sense of solace. It also gave me another tangible marker to help me peel back the layers of my melancholy.
“…no experience has been too slight, and the least
incident unfolds like a destiny, and fate itself is like a
wonderful, wide web in which each thread is guided
by an infinitely tender hand and laid alongside another
and held and borne up by a hundred others.” (Rilke – Pages 27-28)
But there was, and still is, a stigma attached to having a mental health disorder. A stigma not only attached to depression, and other diseases of the psyche, but also from being labeled a poet. There is a long-standing stereotype that poets are a brooding bunch. Riddled with angst and some may even say there is a bit of madness inside us. According to Linda Wasmer Andrews, from Psychology Today, research shows that there is some truth to the madness. It is common for artistic types to have some mental health issues especially, but not limited to, depressive disorders.
Professor of psychiatry, Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, wrote the book Touched with Fire: manic-depressive illness and the artistic temperament. Jamison emphasized that “within artistic circles madness is somehow normal.” (Jamison Page 4) She wanted to “understand the relationship between moods and imagination, of the nature of moods—their variety, their contrary and oppositional qualities, their flux, their extremes…” (Jamison Page 5) What Jamison found was a true correlation between depressive disorders and artists. Especially with writers. And there is a belief, in these circles, that the benefits to melancholy are in beautifully scripted verse. The melody that comes from a string of words derived from sadness and grief, or even extreme euphoria, needs no music in its background. The carefully chosen words and the way they play together is music enough.
“To let each impression and each germ of a feeling
come to completion wholly in itself, in the dark
in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach
of one’s own intelligence, and await with deep humility
and patience the birth hour of a new clarity: that alone
is living the artist’s life: in understanding as in creating.”
(Rilke – Page 29-30)
Few would understand that there are benefits to being touched with melancholy. Of sadness. Or of solitude. And suffice it to say, no one understood these benefits better than Rilke. I can’t imagine my life now without my blanket of solitude. Without a friend in melancholy. Where I once was afraid of my loneliness, I now welcome any opportunity of solitude. I owe the courage of inward-thinking to Rilke. He taught me what it means to “go into” myself, and to meet sadness and grief and the inexplicable face to face. To find beauty in the nuances of life, and to listen attentively to the whispers of nature. And to simply write it all. Write everything you feel, see and hear. Write everything.
“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.”
(Rilke – Page 19)
I can’t possibly imagine a life without creativity. Or a life without writing. My heart belongs to the crafting of words put together into pearls on a string. It pains me to no end that there was a brief time when I denied I was a writer. Going deep within became too much to bear, and I sought out other ways to fill my time. In that brief time apart, I lost myself a little bit. I lost that thing that made me special. Now, as I strive to regain that spark, and as I reacquaint myself with my dear friend, Rainer Maria Rilke, I see that it was all part of the process. I needed to understand what it was like to be without “writing” to find my truth within writing. There is no other way for me. I must write.
I’ll leave you with these parting words:
“And if there is one thing more that I must say to you,
it is this: Do not believe that he who seeks to comfort
you live untroubled among the simple and quiet words
that sometimes do you good. His life has much difficulty
and sadness and remains far behind yours. Were it
otherwise he would never have been able to find those
words.” (Rilke – Page 72)
Andrews, Linda Wasmer. “Will a Poem a Day Keep the Doctor Away?” Psychology
today.com. 16 Jan. 2011. Web. July 2018.
Jamison, Kay Redfield. Touched with Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic
Temperment. New York: Free Press Paperbacks, 1993. Print.
Rilke, Rainer Maria. Letters to a Young Poet. New York: W. W. Norton & Company. 1993.