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.