Creativity requires solitude
“Perhaps it will turn out that you were called to be an artist. If that is your fate, then accept it and deal with it, the highs and the lows, the burden and the greatness, without ever worrying about external rewards.” - Rainer Maria Rilke
Authenticity is the hallmark of a great artist, but it’s hard to be yourself when the outer world stifles your inner voice. The famous German-language poet, Rainer Maria Rilke, believed that solitude was the solution.
In the following dialogue, I talk to Rilke about creativity, solitude, and patience.
(This is a fictional but realistic dialogue with Rilke based on his “Letters to a Young Poet”. His responses are either direct quotes, or based on his writings. Citations are included so you can see the original context for each response.)
DKB: I’ve been working on this blog for a few months now, and I’d love to get your feedback. Your writing is a beautiful work of art, and I want mine to be the same.
Rilke: You’re asking me for feedback on your writing, as I’m sure you’ve asked many others. And you’ve probably spent countless hours re-reading all of the comments you get.
I have to ask you to let all of that go.1
You’re looking outside of yourself for the answers, and that’s the last place you’ll find them. The only way for you to move forward is to move inward.2
Ask yourself the most important question of all: why do you feel the need to write in the first place? Investigate whether your reason for writing is rooted in the deepest region of your heart.3
Ask yourself at the darkest hour of the night: must I write?
If your answer is yes, then you should redesign your life to align with this necessity.
Turn inwards and get in touch with your authentic self. If you’re able to write something in this state, it won’t even occur to you to ask anyone whether your writing is good or not. You won’t be focused on getting a positive reaction from the public, because in your writing you’ll see something that is authentically a piece of you – a reflection of your soul.4
So my only advice to you is to go into the depths of your inner world, and at the source you will find the answer to the question of whether you have to write.5
Perhaps it will turn out that you were called to be an artist. If that is your fate, then accept it and deal with it, the highs and the lows, the burden and the greatness, without ever worrying about external rewards.
DKB: That all sounded very poetic and beautiful, but to be honest, I have no idea what you’re trying to tell me.
Rilke: Inside you right now is a mix of the pressures of the external world, and your authentic self. If you want to create great art, then it has to be wholly you. The only way to untangle your true self from the sea of external influence is through solitude.
Solitude is what you need most, great inner loneliness.6
DKB: It’s hard to find the time and space for solitude…but even if I could go to a cabin in the woods and have total solitude, I feel like it would be very challenging and unproductive.
Rilke: I didn’t say living in solitude would be easy. There will definitely be times when you find your solitude hard to bear. Everyone has moments when they would happily exchange solitude for some kind of company, even the most trivial and superficial social interactions, just for the illusion of connection with people they don’t resonate with at all.7
But these are precisely the moments when solitude grows, for its growth is painful like the growth of boys, and sad like the beginning of spring.
You need to get back to the solitude that you knew as a child. Children haven’t been distorted by the forces of the external world yet. They see the world with eyes unclouded. They live in their own world, a world of pure authenticity.8
DKB: I see what you’re saying, but human beings are social animals. It’s normal for us to care about what other people say, and to want some kind of external validation.
I agree that art should be authentic, but we also want to make something that matters to other people. So I don’t know if solitude is really the answer.
Rilke: If you go deeply into solitude, it will grow clearer to you that it’s not something you choose to do or not to do. Humans are fundamentally solitary. That is our nature. It’s possible for you to deceive yourself and act like this isn’t the case, but it would be a lot better for you to accept what you are.9
If you take solitude as your starting point, it will be as if all the points that you are used to resting your eyes upon were taken away from you, and there was no longer anything close by, and everything was infinitely far away from you.
If you were transported from your room without warning to the top of a high mountain, you would feel something like it. You would be destroyed by an unparalleled sense of insecurity, and an exposure to something nameless.
DKB: That sounds pretty painful.
Rilke: It is, but like I said before, you shouldn’t let yourself be pulled out of your solitude just because something in you wants to escape from it.10
People are used to taking the easy path, like electrons flowing through a wire, we’re attracted to the path of least resistance. But it’s clear that we must hold to the difficult if we really want to make progress.
This is what all living things do. Everything in nature grows and defends itself as a distinct creature with its own authentic way of life. Each creature strives to be itself in the face of all resistance.
DKB: Solitude sounds like a good way to grow as a person, but I don’t really care about that right now.
To bring this back to my original question, all I wanted to know was how to be a successful writer. I can focus on finding myself after I succeed.
Solitude isn’t going to make my writing any better, or help grow my audience. And of course I care if other people like my work, because that’s the whole point of being a creator!
So do you have any practical advice on how I can be a successful writer or not?
Rilke: I wish there was some secret shortcut, but I can’t give you what you want, only what you seem to need. Your style needs to have a quiet and untroubled development. This kind of progress must come from deep within, and cannot be forced or accelerated.11
Everything must be carried to term before it is born. Let every impression and feeling come to completion inside you, in the dark and unseen unconscious, in what is unattainable to your own intellect. Wait in deep humility and patience for the moment when a new clarity is delivered to you.
That alone is to live like an artist.
Your artistic journey cannot be measured in time. No year matters, and ten years are nothing. To be an artist means: not to calculate and count, but to grow and ripen like the tree which does not hurry the flow of its sap, and stands at ease in the storms of spring without fearing that after there may come no summer. It does come. But it comes only to the patient, who are simply there in their vast, quiet tranquility, as if eternity lay before them. It is a lesson I learn every day, amid the hardships I am grateful for. Patience is everything.12
You are so young. You have your whole life still ahead of you, so I have to ask you to be patient towards all that is unresolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms, like books written in a foreign language.13
Do not strive to uncover all of the answers right now. The answers can’t be given to you because you haven’t been able to live with them. What matters is to live everything. So live the questions for now. Perhaps then you will gradually, without noticing it, live your way into the answers, one distant day in the future.
DKB: I’m really sorry for that outburst.
There’s so much pressure to succeed as fast as possible these days. It’s all about getting quick results, not spending years figuring yourself out and making authentic art.
I guess I was asking the wrong questions.
I’m so caught up in external rewards: likes, upvotes, and subscribers. Maybe I do need some of that solitude after all, so I can stop focusing so much on appearing successful to other people.
Anyway, we’ve been talking for a while, and you’ve already given me a lot to think about, so I’ll end it here. Do you have anything else you wanted to add before we go?
Rilke: We shouldn’t forget those ancient myths found at the beginning of all peoples. The myths about the dragons who at the last moment turn into princesses.14
Perhaps all of the dragons in our lives are princesses, only waiting for the day they will see us handsome and brave. Perhaps everything terrifying is deep down a helpless thing that needs our help.
I don’t think there’s much more for me to say about your issues. I hope you can find enough patience in you to endure. I hope that you can gain more trust in what is hard, and in your own loneliness among other people.15
Other than that, I hope you let life take its course. Life is always right, whatever happens.
May the year to come maintain and strengthen you.
All the best, my dear friend.
You're stuck in the never-ending now.
Most of the stuff you read is recent thinking and ideas that simply won't stand the test of time.
This blog can help you escape the recency bias.
Learn directly from the original thinkers in philosophy, economics, political science, and more, through this accessible conversation format.
Join 1000+ curious minds and get a new post bi-weekly.
"You ask whether your verses are good. You ask me that. You have asked others, before. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you worry when certain editors turn your efforts down. Now (since you have allowed me to offer you advice) let me ask you to give up all that." ↩
"You are looking to the outside, and that above all you should not be doing now. Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody. There is only one way. Go into yourself." ↩
"Examine the reason that bids you to write; check whether it reaches its roots into the deepest region of your heart, admit to yourself whether you would die if it should be denied you to write. This above all: ask yourself in your night’s quietest hour: must I write? Dig down into yourself for a deep answer. And if it should be affirmative, if it is given to you to respond to this serious question with a loud and simple ‘I must’, then construct your life according to this necessity; your life right into its most inconsequential and slightest hour must become a sign and witness of this urge." ↩
"And if from this turn inwards, from this submersion in your own world, there come verses, then it will not occur to you to ask anyone whether they are good verses. Nor will you attempt to interest magazines in these bits of work: for in them you will see your beloved natural possessions, a piece, and a voice, of your life. A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. The verdict on it lies in this nature of its origin: there is no other." ↩
"For this reason, my dear Sir, the only advice I have is this: to go into yourself and to examine the depths from which your life springs; at its source you will find the answer to the question of whether you have to write. Accept this answer as it is, without seeking to interpret it. Perhaps it will turn out that you are called to be an artist. Then assume this fate and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking after the rewards that may come from outside. For he who creates must be a world of his own and find everything within himself and in the natural world that he has elected to follow." ↩
"What is needed is this, and this alone: solitude, great inner loneliness. Going into oneself and not meeting anyone for hours – that is what one must arrive at." ↩
"There is only one solitude, and it is vast and not easy to bear and almost everyone has moments when they would happily exchange it for some form of company, be it ever so banal or trivial, for the illusion of some slight correspondence with whoever one happens to come across, however unworthy … But perhaps those are precisely the hours when solitude grows, for its growth is painful like the growth of boys and sad like the beginning of spring. But that must not put you off." ↩
"What is needed is this, and this alone: solitude, great inner loneliness. Going into oneself and not meeting anyone for hours – that is what one must arrive at. Loneliness of the kind one knew as a child, when the grown-ups went back and forth bound up in things which seemed grave and weighty because they looked so busy, and because one had no idea what they were up to. And when one day you realize that their preoccupations are meagre, their professions barren and no longer connected to life, why not continue to look on them like a child, as if on something alien, drawing on the depths of your own world, on the expanse of your own solitude, which itself is work and achievement and a vocation? Why wish to exchange a child’s wise incomprehension for rejection and contempt, when incomprehension is solitude, whereas rejection and contempt are ways of participating in what, by precisely these means, you want to sever yourself from?" ↩
"And if we come back to solitude, it grows ever clearer that fundamentally it is not something that one can take or leave. We are solitary. It is possible to deceive yourself and act as if it were not the case. That is all. How much better though, to see and accept that that is what we are, and even to take it as our starting-point. If we do, the effect is admittedly one of giddiness; for all the points on which we are accustomed to rest our eyes are taken away from us, there is no longer anything close by, and everything remote is infinitely so. Someone transported from his room, almost without warning and interval, onto the top of a high mountain would feel something like it: he would be virtually destroyed by an unparalleled sense of insecurity, by an exposure to something nameless. He would think he was falling or believe himself to be hurtling out into space or shattered into a thousand pieces: what a monstrous lie his brain would have to invent to rein in and clarify the state of his senses. In the same way all distances, all measurements, alter for the one who becomes solitary; many such changes suddenly take place at once and, as with the man on the mountaintop, unusual imaginings and curious sensations occur which seem to take on dimensions greater than can be tolerated. But it is necessary for us to experience this too. We must accept our existence in as wide a sense as can be; everything, even the unheard-of, must be possible within it. That, when you come down to it, is the only kind of courage that is demanded of us: the courage for the oddest, the most unexpected, the most inexplicable things that we may encounter." ↩
"And you must not let yourself be diverted out of your solitude by the fact that something in you wants to escape from it. Precisely this desire, if you use it calmly and judiciously, as a kind of tool, will help you to extend your solitude over a greater expanse of ground. People have tended (with the help of conventions) to resolve everything in the direction of easiness, of the light, and on the lightest side of the light; but it is clear that we must hold to the heavy, the difficult. All living things do this, everything in nature grows and defends itself according to its kind and is a distinct creature from out of its own resources, strives to be so at any cost and in the face of all resistance. We know little, but that we must hold fast to what is difficult is a certainty that will never forsake us. It is good to be alone, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult should be one more reason to do it." ↩
"With regard to any such disquisition, review or introduction, trust yourself and your instincts; even if you go wrong in your judgement, the natural growth of your inner life will gradually, over time, lead you to other insights. Allow your verdicts their own quiet untroubled development which like all progress must come from deep within and cannot be forced or accelerated. Everything must be carried to term before it is born. To let every impression and the germ of every feeling come to completion inside, in the dark, in the unsayable, the unconscious, in what is unattainable to one’s own intellect, and to wait with deep humility and patience for the hour when a new clarity is delivered: that alone is to live as an artist, in the understanding and in one’s creative work." ↩
"These things cannot be measured by time, a year has no meaning, and ten years are nothing. To be an artist means: not to calculate and count; to grow and ripen like a tree which does not hurry the flow of its sap and stands at ease in the spring gales without fearing that no summer may follow. It will come. But it comes only to those who are patient, who are simply there in their vast, quiet tranquillity, as if eternity lay before them. It is a lesson I learn every day amid hardships I am thankful for: patience is all!" ↩
"You are so young, all still lies ahead of you, and I should like to ask you, as best I can, dear Sir, to be patient towards all that is unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves like locked rooms, like books written in a foreign tongue. Do not now strive to uncover answers: they cannot be given you because you have not been able to live them. And what matters is to live everything. Live the questions for now. Perhaps then you will gradually, without noticing it, live your way into the answer, one distant day in the future. Perhaps you do carry within yourself the possibility of forming and creating, as a particularly happy and pure way of living." ↩
"We have no reason to be mistrustful of our world, for it is not against us. If it holds terrors they are our terrors, if it has its abysses these abysses belong to us, if there are dangers then we must try to love them. And if we only organize our life according to the principle which teaches us always to hold to what is difficult, then what now still appears most foreign will become our most intimate and most reliable experience. How can we forget those ancient myths found at the beginnings of all peoples? The myths about the dragons who at the last moment turn into princesses? Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses, only waiting for the day when they will see us handsome and brave? Perhaps everything terrifying is deep down a helpless thing that needs our help." ↩
"There’s not perhaps much purpose in my dealing with the detail of what you wrote, for what I might be able to say about your tendency towards self-doubt or your inability to reconcile your inner and outer life, or about anything else that assails you – it all comes down to what I have said before: the same desire that you might find enough patience in you to endure, and simplicity enough to have faith; that you might gain more and more trust in what is hard and in your own loneliness among other people. And otherwise let life take its course. Believe me: life is right, whatever happens." ↩