How can you know you’re an artist? In the most literal sense, an artist is one who has artistic talent. Those gifted with the ability to write and paint and draw are obviously artists. But do all artists share a common psychological makeup? Do they possess something the rest of us don’t— receptive minds, attentive eyes, and sensitive hearts? Is there any truth to the myth that to create is to suffer? must artists undergo a lifetime of agony for their art? Is the artist always a tragic, tormented figure? a Plath with her head in the oven or an alcoholic Fitzgerald?
No one is more tortured by this question than those who aspire to make art. In what is perhaps the loveliest book ever written about writing, Letters to a Young Poet, budding young poet Franz Kappus seeks the counsel of the great Rainer Maria Rilke. How, he wondered, could he know he was meant to be a writer? Like many aspiring artists, Kappus wanted validation: validation of his work, validation of his talent. Though over the course of their decade-long correspondence Rilke never confirmed his protege was an “artist” (I doubt the always humble German poet would imagine himself qualified to either grant or deny someone such a title), he did challenge Kappus to uncover answers for himself. How could Kappus know he was meant to put pen to paper? In a passage of elevating beauty and emboldening encouragement, Rilke asserts a writer is simply someone who must write:
“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 strong, 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.”
In our carrots-and-sticks culture, we’re driven by rewards: we work hard because we want to climb the corporate ladder and one day have a corner office; we diligently study Keats and Shelley— not because we genuinely care about Romantic poetry— but because we want an “A” in our survey literature course. But such extrinsic motivation has no place in art. Being an artist isn’t a job or career— it’s a calling, a fate bestowed upon us by the universe. If we find, as Kappus did, that we must create, we have an obligation to honor our gifts— even if our book never makes the New York Times bestseller list. “No one becomes an artist unless they have to,” the beautiful but murderous poet Ingrid reminds her daughter in the haunting White Oleander. Or as Rilke would say, being an artist is a cross a select few must bear:
“Perhaps you will discover that you are called to be an artist. Then take that destiny upon yourself, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what reward might come from the outside.”
Letters to a Young Poet has inspired generations of artists and will continue to inspire generations more. If you want more stirring words to set your soul alight, delight in the free-spirited Brenda Ueland on art as infection, why Van Gogh painted irises and night skies, the qualities of good writing, the importance of idleness to creativity, and the imagination as the glorious gateway to the divine. If you want advice from more modern literary lights, read The Paris Review Interviews: Women Writers at Work, a compendium of invaluable conversations with writers as esteemed as Anne Sexton, Maya Angelou and Joyce Carol Oates. Long to add still more tools to your warehouse of writing wisdom? Visit Ernest Hemingway on the secret of seduction, John Hersey on the impact of understatement, and Sylvia Plath on the unifying power of a recurring image.