| Don’t Write Alone
Free Write Remember, You Are in Conversation
When I’m feeling stuck and lonely, I try to remember that I’m in conversation with the world—that I am alive in it and it is alive through me.
Someone I love is reading Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet , which means that I, in turn, am considering Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet.
Franz Kappus first wrote to Rainer Maria Rilke, eight years his senior, in 1902, at the age of nineteen, asking for a critique of his poetry. The critique was never actually given, but instead, over the next six years, the two formed a correspondence, in which Rilke counseled the young poet on matters of the heart, truth, religion, and art-making. In 1929, three years after Rilke’s death, Kappus compiled the ten letters into a collection, sharing his mentor’s side of their epistolary relationship.
It’s incredible how soundly Rilke’s advice lands, over a hundred years after his correspondence with Kappus. His tone is warm, wise, occasionally philosophical, his topics of conversation wide-ranging. In a letter from 1903, he writes to the young Kappus: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms and like books that are written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now.”
How could I not read that and feel instantly at peace in my own confusion, a confusion that makes up the very mess of life? Though Rilke isn’t writing to me, I feel in conversation with him, a hundred years later. It’s a reminder that things can speak to us, even from eons of time and miles away.
I feel my writing life is at its worst when I write in isolation. So much of writing is lonely—you vs. language, you vs. your own mind. So often does it feel that we’re writing into a void, and it’s true that sometimes the act of creation calls for that kind of narrow focus. But it’s helpful to remember we’re always in conversation—with the past, with ourselves, with the things around us. Even when these artifacts don’t necessarily speak out loud, they can still speak to us. When I’m feeling stuck and lonely, I try to remember that I’m in conversation with the world—that I am alive in it and it is alive through me.
Aside from reading Rilke’s Letters , here are three prompts to remember you’re in conversation.
Write in dialogue with a poem.
This is a prompt I like to give early on in a workshop—it’s a way to open a window. Find a poem (or, perhaps, a paragraph, but the mix of structure and language in poetry feels helpful here) you’re drawn to. Doesn’t have to be for a specific reason—you’ll find out while writing. Type it out and right below it, even on the same page, write a text in response. Perhaps it’s something about its construction you want to try out for yourself, or maybe it’s a theme or a rhetorical device in use. Listen closely to how the poem is functioning. Write next to it—cite it, speak to it; let it speak to you.
Write in dialogue with a piece of art.
I always love an ekphrasis. It’s an imaginative act: It means to tell out, to riff on what you see and what you feel. Be in dialogue with a piece of art you love. Describe it—really get in there, use adjectives, use verbs . See what that description brings out. What’s happening in a painting, a photograph, a sculpture? What characters live there? What emotions does it evoke? From there, the writing can spin all sorts of places—what does writing about this remind you of in your own life? What questions does it provoke—theoretical, practical, historical?
Another mode of doing this exercise is to write a scene based on a concrete object or objects. Observe it like you would observe a piece of art, and from there, begin to ask questions and create a story about it.
Write in dialogue with your own memory.
Write a memory down. Take a step back and examine it. Was this how it happened? Why did you write it this way? What words did you use in the telling, and why? Then take another step back: Write about the writing of the memory, and the recalling of the memory itself. Our memories aren’t fixed in place—they have texture, they have slippages. We remember not only the events of our lives, but after some time, we recall the remembering itself. When we probe these moments, sometimes interesting things fall out.
Each of these prompts is intended as a stepping-off point—a way to remind yourself you’re in constant conversation with the world around you, and even with yourself. Your imagination is limitless, but inspiration doesn’t just have to come from within your own head. Think of these prompts as ways to orient yourself, however briefly, toward the world. You are opening a window. The breeze is blowing in. You can see out into the world, and the world sees you back.