Have you ever doubted whether you had the talent to make it as a writer? Have you wondered whether your writing was good enough to be successful? Did you ever fear that your work would be dismissed as irrelevant?
Even the greatest writers have faced these doubts at one time or another. What is it that keeps them writing? How are they able to overcome these fears?
Perhaps it’s because they’ve discovered the most important question all successful writers need to answer first.
In the winter of 1903, 19-year-old aspiring poet Franz Xaver Kappus was confronted with this question. A student at the Theresian Military Academy in Austria, Kappus wrote poetry in his spare time while wrestling with uncertainty over his future career in the army.
He considered dropping out of school, but how could he be sure his writing dreams weren’t just a passing whim?
One day, Kappus found out that Rainer Maria Rilke, a famous poet he admired, had attended the same academy in the 1880s. Suffering from ill-health, Rilke had ultimately ended up abandoning a military career in favor of writing.
Kappus decided to write to Rilke with the hope that the poet could tell him if his poems showed any promise. To Kappus’s delight, Rilke replied. The poet posed a question that Kappus could answer to help him decide whether he should continue at the academy or pursue his writing dreams.
If you are struggling with self-doubt like Kappus did, read on for Rilke’s simple method for determining if you have what it takes to become a writer.
The Rilke Test: One Question Every Writer Should Answer
“I want to thank you for the great confidence you have placed in me,” Rilke wrote to Kappus in his letter dated February 17, 1903.
Hesitant to critique Kappus’s poems, Rilke made only a few observations and noted that Kappus was on the way to developing a unique style, “…may I just tell you that your verses have no style of their own, although they do have silent and hidden beginnings of something personal.”
However, he warned Kappus against looking for outside opinions of his work. That method would not help him overcome his self-doubt.
You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you – no one.
Instead, Rilke suggested that Kappus try the following test:
There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write?
Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple ‘I must’, then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.
Essentially, Rilke told Kappus that his success or failure as a writer depended on the reason why he wrote.
Are you chasing fame and fortune or do you write for the sheer joy of putting words on paper?
Rilke was ahead of his time at pinpointing the inexplicable, internal “I must” as the most powerful motivating force for achieving long-term goals.
Psychologists today label this internal desire an intrinsic motivation.
Why Do You Write? Intrinsic versus Extrinsic Motivations
In the field of psychology, motivations are generally divided into two categories: intrinsic (internal) and extrinsic (external).
This study offers this definition of intrinsic motivation:
Intrinsic motivation is defined as the doing of an activity for its inherent satisfaction rather than for some separable consequence. When intrinsically motivated, a person is moved to act for the fun or challenge entailed rather than because of external products, pressures, or rewards.
Contrast that to extrinsic motivation:
Extrinsic motivation is a construct that pertains whenever an activity is done in order to attain some separable outcome. Extrinsic motivation thus contrasts with intrinsic motivation, which refers to doing an activity simply for the enjoyment of the activity itself, rather than its instrumental value.
Extrinsic motivation is not as powerful as intrinsic motivation because while external rewards and pressures might motivate you for a time, they usually lose their force when obstacles arise and the going gets tough.
For example, imagine you decide to write a book because you think it will look good on your resume or you have heard that publishing an eBook is a quick way to make some extra cash.
These are extrinsic motivations because you are writing for the reward that you will receive, but not truly out of a love for the writing craft. In other words, if you took the extrinsic motivations away, you would probably have no desire to complete the project.
An intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is one that is within you. If you are intrinsically motivated, it means that you find pleasure in working towards your goal. Your passion drives you forward.
While extrinsic motivations can carry you through the short run, the intrinsic motivation is the steady motor that will help you power onward when you keep receiving rejection slips or someone leaves a harsh review of your work or the plot twists in your short stories keep falling flat.
When that happens and you feel like giving up, ask yourself if you love what you’re doing? If you gave up on writing, would you regret it for the rest of your life?
If you answer yes to those questions, then ignore the bitter words of self-doubt that rise up in your soul. Reevaluate your why. Don’t worry about chasing fame or fortune or the approval of others.
Write because you must.
What Happened to Kappus?
Towards the end of his letter, Rilke acknowledged that Kappus might discover he lacked the intrinsic motivation to become a writer,
But after this descent into yourself and into your solitude, perhaps you will have to renounce becoming a poet (if, as I have said, one feels one could live without writing, then one shouldn’t write at all). Nevertheless, even then, this self searching that I ask of you will not have been for nothing. Your life will still find its own paths from there, and that they may be good, rich, and wide is what I wish for you, more than I can say.
In the end, it seemed that Kappus decided the writing life was not for him. Though he continued corresponding with Rilke up until 1908, he ultimately chose to stay at the academy.
However, in 1929, he collected ten of Rilke’s letters in a volume called Letters to a Young Poet (affiliate link). The title of the book seems to suggest that though Kappus had chosen a career in the army, he still considered himself a poet. And indeed his youthful dream of becoming a writer continued to pursue him.
Though he served as an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army for fifteen years, after WWI he returned to writing. He worked as an editor at several newspapers, wrote a number of novels and short stories, and even adapted several of his novels as screenplays.
Unlike Rilke, who had once praised Mussolini, Kappus was strongly anti-fascist. Following WWII, he helped found the Free Democratic Party in Germany which promoted a classical liberal ideology and free-market policies. Kappus’s last written work explored aspects of the anti-fascist resistance.
Ultimately, Kappus could not outrun his intrinsic desire to be a writer. Though he tried to abandon it, it stayed with him all his life.
The next time you are struggling along on your writing journey, pause for a moment and consider Rilke’s question. It is the most important question for a writer to answer.
Do you write because you love it? Because you must?
Would you continue to write even if it was guaranteed that you would never receive fame or fortune or the approval of the world?
If you answer ‘yes’, then your passion will carry you forward.
You will put in the hours to edit your work and hone your skills even if there is no monetary reward.
You will have fun spinning stories and creating worlds and characters.
You will feel compelled to share the experiences you have lived.
And you will find fulfillment in the joy of getting your message down on paper and touching the hearts of others with your words.
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