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Letters to a Young Writer Prologue

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Dear Writer,

In writing a series of letters and titling it “Letters to a Young (Noun),” one necessarily tips one’s hat to the poet Rilke. The tip I gave my hat was to not bother reading Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet until the hat is at least twenty-five. His main poetic advice to a nineteen-year-old was to get away from life to write. His advice was to ignore the critics and criticism. His advice was to look deep within to find if the need to write is there. With the exception of the first bit, that’s not bad advice, for a mature poet. But, how mature a poet is a nineteen year old? Science has now proven that the brain doesn’t stop developing until the late twenties.

Now, there might be several caveats to this. First, Rilke lived in a different age, and students might have been taught considerably more at a younger age then. People lived faster, in general. The average life expectancy for a man was only in the thirties, so a poet could hardly wait to mature before following good advice for a mature poet. Rilke barely made his 51st birthday. A third factor was that Rilke himself was only twenty-seven years old when writing the first letter. Perhaps he looked back when he was aged 50 and smiled at his younger self for the advice he had given the young man?

So, I tip my hat to Rilke, but I find that my advice is often at variance to his, especially for a young or relatively unstudied poet or writer. Again, this may be a matter of living in a very different age. There is so much more to know and see and do and be than there was in 1875 when Rilke was born. But even ceding his age an early maturity of its writers, I still have some bones to pick with the philosophy evident in his letters, work, and life. So, I must bring my own advice to bear, and enjoin my readers to find truth in both my work and Rilke’s, as it speaks to them.

It is inevitable that a young writer will think that he or she has already lived through a lot and gained considerable knowledge and experience. After all, do we not now dedicate most of the first twenty-two years of our lives to learning? But the depth and breadth of the experience gained in those first twenty years while shielded in schools is as nothing to the next twenty in the world of adult life. And the knowledge gained in schools tends to be wide, but not deep about writing, at least to the baccalaureate level. But, no matter how extraordinary the student at twenty or twenty-two, the experience and knowledge they bear is light compared to what they will have in another generation. They have sipped at sorrow, but not yet drunk deeply. They have tasted the flavors of love, but have yet to experience Aphrodite’s gourmet meal. They have felt the quickening of Spirit’s waters, but have yet to face the torrent of the dam of Spirit having burst upon them. They have heard the quiet hum of words coming through them, but have yet to be deafened by the insistent heavenly chorus commanding what they write. Most of all, at that tender age, they have had their moments of epiphany where surety comes with the insight as they walk around the edges of their soul, but they have yet to stand in the center of their being and proclaim themselves solidly as who they are.

This isn’t to claim the young have nothing to say, or that they have nothing to say to their elders. The young have produced many extraordinary works. But the advice that I would give to the young or inexperienced writer is different than I might give ten years on or twenty years on. A master mason would give different advice to an apprentice than to a journeyman, and different advice still to another, perhaps younger, master. And so it is with writing and poetry. Thus, I start on this new endeavor to encapsulate all of the advice I have given in the past into this series of letters to a young writer.

This writing was spurred by and is dedicated to two extraordinary young ladies, Tarryn and Jess. I can only hope that my advice in these coming missives will serve them and other readers well as they trek off into the wildernesses of life and imagination to chronicle these strange, new lands.


The Gnostic Poet

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