Finish every day and be done with it. You have done what you could; some blunders and absurdities no doubt crept in; forget them as soon as you can. Tomorrow is a new day; you shall begin it serenely and with too high a spirit to be encumbered with your old nonsense. — Ralph Waldo Emerson
I do enjoy reading the occasional spat between authors. Often they’ll make perfectly good arguments for diametrically opposed propositions. In this case we have Rilke chastising the writer who is unable to extract a few grains of ore from the “riches” of everyday life. On the other hand, Emerson urges us to let our “blunders” pass and forget them ASAP.
Every human being has setbacks and disappointments. Perhaps artists experience more than their fair share—or is it possible that their share of failure is rightly due? So many of them are trying to squeeze more out of life than those who accept the limitations of mortality. And if you squeeze too hard, sometimes you draw blood.
Rilke was fond of
dispensing advice to young writers. A few years ago I
re-read the collection of Letters to a Young
Poet, which was originally addressed to Franz
Kappus, a 19-year-old student enrolled in a military
academy in Vienna. The advice is sound overall and
most writers could embrace some of Rilke’s wisdom and
adapt it to their daily practice. Or perhaps I should
say, adapt it to their daily
attitude—because so much of Rilke is about
an approach to writing, and a way of living as a
Ralph Waldo Emerson, seems so much more practical in
his advice. While Rilke is the European idealist
searching to connect humanity to the eternal through
art, Emerson is the pragmatic American: a craftsman
at work on a great labor who acknowledges human
frailty—and admits that when it emerges on a page of
writing, it is simple enough to tear out the page and
Is it possible to adapt any of this to our current, post-modern circumstances? I think so. In my own case, I can describe two benefits of writing on a computer, each corresponding in different ways to Rilke and Emerson. Let’s start with the latter.
The blank computer screen is infinitely malleable. Sentences, paragraphs, and entire chapters can be switched, transposed, adapted or excised in a few keystrokes. If I’ve had a truly bad day of writing, I often cut the entire piece of writing and dump it into a wasteland I call “File 13.” Occasionally I’ll wade through the weeds of this mess and find a scrap or two worth resuscitating—but usually it’s a land of no return. However, there’s something bracing about this ability to simultaneously discard and restore, to both create and destroy—an approach to writing I doubt neither Emerson or Rilke could have imagined.
The second pleasure of writing on a computer—that related to Rilke—is the way that it provides direct contact with the inner world of the emerging imagination—the flood of characters and dialogue that flows onto the screen as if it’s being dictated. It’s an near-spiritual experience that I’ve mentioned elsewhere on the blog, something that flows through me unmediated except for the words themselves. And because I don’t have to worry about spelling, grammar, syntax, word spacing, and all the related imperfections of typing a manuscript, I can simply let the words pour onto the screen. Later I’ll sort out the nouns and verbs and put them into an orderly sequence.
So let Rilke and Emerson fight it out, I say. Meanwhile, I’ll extract whatever wisdom I can use—from both of them, simultaneously.