Therapy in words

Very dear Mr. Kappus: I have left a letter from you long unanswered, not that I had forgotten it — on the contrary: it was of the sort that one reads again, when one finds them among one’s correspondence, and I recognized you in it as though you had been close at hand.

It was the letter of May 2nd, and you surely remember it. When I read it, as now, in the great quiet of these distances, I am touched by your beautiful concern about life, more even than I had felt in Paris, where everything resounds and dies away differently because of the too great noise that makes things vibrate.

Here, where an immense country lies about me, over which the winds pass coming from the seas, here I feel that no human being anywhere can answer for you those questions and feelings that deep within them have a life of their own…

You are so young, so before all beginning, and I want to beg you, as much as I can, dear sir, to 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 to you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.


Today is my birthday, which I spent most of at a local cafe, reading some of my favorite self-improvement books. One of these is “Letters to a Young Poet” by the brilliant Rainer Maria Rilke, translated from German by M.D. Herter Norton. Rilke wrote these letters to encourage his recipient — “a sensitive observer in a harsh world” — and instruct him about the creative process.

As I grow older, I also grow restless to better myself as a writer, to know more and to know myself, to find my niche in publishing. I’m restless for answers. In this excerpt of his letter, it is as though Rilke is imploring his young protégé to be content with not knowing, with remaining curious. He is reassuring him: You’ll get there in time.

I return to the wisdom of this short book every year. I reread it to remind myself of everything I have yet to learn in this craft, but also because it speaks to me so personally. Rilke advocates a “turning inward,” a solitude that is inherent to writing well but can also be a deeply lonely experience. The struggles of depression, anxiety, and self-doubt are familiar to me, and while writing is a kind of isolation, Rilke’s advice reminds me that we who live to create are not alone in this — a beautiful contradiction.

Words like these help me see a sense of purpose to my writing and myself. No matter what you’ve chosen to pursue in life, it’s important to take time to reflect on that choice, to revisit the reasons that compelled you to make it.

And you’re never too young, or too old, to do that.


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