True Purpose, Real Passion
My site has been malfunctioning for two days. My reaction would lead you to think the world ended. In the moment, that’s sort of what it felt like. This corner of the digital universe I staked as my own vanished—poof!
I fretted about, making calls and troubleshooting the problem. The site went on a 24 hour “case lock-up.” I was checking incessantly through the day to see if the problem were fixed.
And then I started writing.
Writing, not posting or publicizing, makes me happy. When I sat down to my computer with no website to worry about, I started to really write again.
A friend gave me Rainier Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet for my 7-week cross-country drive when I had one year clean. The first letter of the collection holds words I’ve never forgotten:
“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.” (16)
When I have a good day, a miserable day, a ho-hum doldrum day, an exhausting day, or even a leisure day: I must write. Publishing fills me with anxiety; writing fills me with wonder, awe, and enchantment. I know I’m on to something good when I surprise myself with new thoughts—when the words start writing me.
It may not be writing for you, but I believe we all have the capacity to do what passionately sustains our soul. You know it when you’re in it. The universe shrinks to fit in your hands, and all concern, worry, and trepidation vanishes like rising mist. You feel whole, useful; if you were to pause, you would feel the heat emanating from your heart.
But we don’t live in that place. We create, but we live in a manufactured world. And in between those moments when we passionately pursue what we love, are some dismal and boring intervals.
Rilke believed that writers live in a constant state of ingestion. Everything we read, see, hear, touch, and smell are absorbed. We translate all we ingest into what we write. But our nature is to devour, not ingest. We want more. We want easy. And when we consume too fast, we take antacids.
In 2009, Joshua Bell donned street clothes to play in a DC metro station during the morning commute. It was a Washington Post experiment, to see what happens when you put a virtuoso performer who commands $1,000 a minute for his talent in a mundane scenario. For forty-three minutes, he was almost entirely ignored, only a handful of people stopped to hear more.
I wouldn’t have stopped. I would have been on my phone checking twitter, thinking that nice violin music was pumped through some speaker. Or maybe I would have seen Bell in his Nationals Baseball hat, think “He’s good,” and go back about my day, with it’s fastidious schedule, its totable touch-screens, and its craving to devour.
Who are we if not a people who hunger for beauty and love and enchantment. I don’t find those things publishing, or publicizing. I don’t find them when I see who’s liking what I write, or commenting on it. I find them on the open page, the canvas; when that black cursor blinks eagerly on a white empty page.
The site is up and running again it seems. But it will break down again, and I’ll get frustrated and check it incessantly and likely walk right past something remarkable. But just for today, I am able to reconnect to who I am as a writer. If all those frustrations hadn’t occurred, I would not have been reminded of Rilke’s advice, of why I write, and what I live for.