Doubt as Critical Thinking

It’s Friday! That brings us to the end of our week discussing Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke. Today we’re discussing doubt, not the movie, though that’s relevant too.

One question: If “the un-examined life is not worth living,” then how exactly do we examine our lives? Where do we begin?

As an educator, I’ve learned that critical thinking can be taught, guided, practiced, and sharpened. Rilke had his own input on this topic, which he refers to as doubt in his letters:

“And your doubt may become a good quality if you train it. It must become knowing, it must become critical. Ask it, whenever it wants to spoil something for you, why something is ugly, demand proofs from it, test it…. don’t give in, insist on arguments and act this way, watchful and consistent, every single time, and the day will arrive when… it will become one of your best workers–perhaps the cleverest of all that are building your life.”

See? Even a French writer from the early 1900’s agrees that this critical thinking is a skill that can be developed.

This is important not just for our general lives, but for our writing lives. We have to practice critically examining what we read to know and understand our tastes and standards, “why something is ugly” or appealing. We have to constantly evaluate our writing and demand excellence, “demand proofs from it, test it… insist on arguments.”

I try to teach these self-examining skills to my writing students. Writers don’t always have professors around to mark up their papers, or a workshop to critique the writing. We have to learn how to evaluate our own work. Even when we do receive feedback, we are still the ultimate judge.

Consistently “doubting” our writing the way Rilke explains serves to build it up, make it stronger.

A Writer’s Necessity for Solitude


To do any sort of creative work, a writer must embrace solitude. As a writer, you must spend hours alone, hours in your own head, hours reflecting on your thoughts and words.

This is what Rilke emphasizes in letter six:

“The necessary thing is after all but this: solitude, great inner solitude. Going-into-oneself and for hours meeting no one–this [you] must be able to attain.”

Of course family and friends are importantand there’s no need to be an extreme hermit. In fact, much of a public writer’s life involves interacting with readers, editors, agents, publishers, graphic designers, etc. However, writers must be comfortable with, perhaps even enjoy, the many hours alone in silence with their thoughts. Maybe an occasional visit from a muse won’t hurt though.

Click the link to get your own copy of Letters to a Young Poet.

Should I be a Writer?


Rilke writes letters to an aspiring writer much like yourself. I’m not a Magic 8 Ball, but I do have some insight from his book.

The book is compiled of letters Rilke writes in response to a young poet who asks for an opinion about his writing. Apparently the young poet has asked others for their opinions on his writing, and is generally over concerned about what people think of his poems. Rilke tells the poet:

“You compare [your poems] with other poems, and you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts. . . . I beg you to give up all that. You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. . . . 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 hour of your night:  must I write? Delve into yourself for a deep answer. And if  this should be affirmative, if you 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.”

That’s a big chunk, I know, but isn’t it a tasty bit of truth to chew on?

If you’re wondering whether or not you should be a writer, perhaps the question you should ask instead is, Am I Writing?

Even writers with demanding day jobs find the time to write  something. If writing is in you like tree roots in a ground, to borrow from Rilke’s analogy, than nothing will stop you from writing. This need has actually lead several writers, like me, to leave their day jobs and pursue their passion full-time.

If you aren’t writing anything at all, maybe your answer is Not yet. If the answer were just a flat out NO, you probably wouldn’t have even asked the question. But since you are asking, maybe you should become a writer once writing has taken root in you–when you’re too busy writing to stop and wonder if you should be doing it.

Click the link to get your own copy of the book.

Letters to a Young Poet: Why I’m not doing Book Reviews

Whoopi Goldberg introduced me to the French writer, Rainer Maria Rilke and his book Letters to a Young PoetOr was it Sister Mary Clarence? I’m not sure, but while watching the movie Sister Act 2, I heard about Letters to a Young Poet.  I read it years ago, and now I’m rereading it as my first book feature on writing, but I’m not doing any book reviews.

After talking with a colleague, I decided to dedicate this virtual space to blogging about books on writingTo begin I pulled all of the books I currently own that are written for writers. From that stack, I chose Rilke’s letters to be my first featured book, mainly because it’s extremely short, but also because it speaks to the writer’s soul–the starting place for all of life including writing.

So I opened the book to letter one, and in the first paragraph was this:

“With nothing can one approach a work of art so little as with critical words: they always come down to more or less happy misunderstandings. Things are not all so comprehensible and expressible as one would mostly have us believe; most events are inexpressible, taking place in a realm which no word has ever entered, and more inexpressible than all else are works of art, mysterious existences, the life of which, while ours passes away, endures. ” (Translated by M. D. Herter Norton)

Not that I don’t appreciate a good book review or critical analysis and interpretation, but after learning that introductory lesson from Rilke’s letter, I’ve chosen to blog about the wisdom acquired from each book I read. Unlike the usual book review, I will not explain why a book fits a certain audience, or suggest that you shouldn’t waste your time buying it, or evaluate whether it’s worthy of being a #1 best seller. If I can’t glean any wisdom from a book, you won’t hear about it. My focus here is to share the life lessons and writing lessons that can be taken away from various books On Writing!

Click the link to purchase your own copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet translated by M. D. Herter Norton.