Is there any value we so underrate as patience? In our accelerated age of bullet trains and high speed internet, we demand instant gratification. The slightest delays trigger head-splitting frustration. If our friend is five minutes late for coffee or, god forbid, our web browser takes more than a split second, we feel an exasperation far out of proportion to the event. This need for speed doesn’t just apply to petty things like coffee dates and internet connections. We expect the big things— a fulfilling career, a loving, long-term relationship— to be delivered to our doorstep with the swiftness of a McDonald’s Happy Meal. When we have to devote more time and effort to our dreams than we originally anticipated, we get discouraged and want to give up. Why after an entire month of dating have we not met that special someone? We’ve sifted through countless lame pick-up lines on OkCupid, suffered hours of strained conversation over fettuccine and red wine…shouldn’t we have found the “one” by now? We forget that in the face of eternity a mere 3o days is laughably minuscule.
“Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time,” the wise Maria Popova once wrote. No one needs to be reminded of this more than artists. If we labor for years putting pen to paper and never win acclaim, we begin to wonder: why write at all? why dedicate endless hours to writing a book— or composing a poem or molding a sculpture— if we never publish our work or win a Pulitzer? What if we work and work and work and never win the recognition we so desperately desire? What if we die penniless in a gutter like Edgar Allan Poe or in shameful obscurity like Vincent Van Gogh?
As artists, we tend to measure our creativity by a clock. By 30, we resolve, we’ll have written the great American novel; by 40, we’ll have secured our place in literary history among giants like Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Our dreams sparkle with the grandiosity of youth. But when we get older and fail to realize these lovely— if unrealistic— ambitions, we want to throw away our notebooks. Why haven’t we landed on the New York Times’s bestseller list or won a Man Booker? Shouldn’t we be further along by now?
In his profoundly wise and tenderly beautiful Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke argues that if we want to be artists, we have to relinquish our need for reward. When budding young poet Franz Kappus writes to him seeking counsel, Rilke tells him to stop measuring his progress in earthly time. Rather than demand his life unfold according to some rigid timeline, he should be patient and have faith: all the days spent devotedly writing at his desk, all the hours spent pouring over other people’s poetry would one day add up to something. The artist doesn’t insist that he attain certain things by certain dates— he simply creates. As Rilke writes,
“In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing. Being an artist means: not numbering and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward summer may not come. It does come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and vast. I learn it every day of my life, learn it with pain I am grateful for: patience is everything!”
For more from Letters to a Young Poet, read Rilke on how to know you’re an artist. If you want more exquisitely written writing advice, revisit 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 more insight into the writing life, 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.