The Grief of Writing

Becoming a writer was partly a matter of acquiring technique, but it was just as importantly a matter of the spirit and a habit of the mind. It was the willingness to sit in that chair for thousands of hours, receiving only occasional and minor recognition, enduring the grief of writing in the belief that somehow, despite my ignorance, something transformative was taking place. Viet Thanh Nguyen, winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, Los Angeles Times, April 14, 2017

 

Port Townsend Sunrise, Spring © Julie Christine Johnson 2017

I’ve been mulling over this essay, In praise of doubt and uselessness, by writer and professor Viet Thanh Nguyen. Rereading it. Pulling out phrases that fire me up and comfort me. In the most potent way that the personal is political, Nguyen tells the story of his evolution as a writer in the larger context of supporting the arts and humanities “for their privileging of the mystery and intuition that makes moments of revelation and innovation possible.”  The hope that the public will continue to value its artists and nurture them, to support their work despite lack of quantitative measurements of success—beyond awards received or units sold—is felt as keenly now as ever.

 

But it is Nguyen’s phrase, the grief of writing, that plays a soft and constant refrain in my mind.

 

A professional writer and editor asked me the other day what I liked to do. Well, beyond strapping a pack to my back and lacing up my boots for 20 kms on trails in southwest Ireland, I like to write. Even those tortured hours of feeling bound by the limitations of my skills, squeezing out 100 words after four hours of pounding work, yes, even that I like. This writer/editor regarded me skeptically, stating he found writing tortuous, the evil means to an end. He preferred editing others’ writing, work he could walk away from without worrying if it mattered to anyone else.

 

Hearing this, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s phrase came to mind. The grief of writing. Knowing that, even as we spill our souls on the page, it might not—it likely won’t ever—matter to anyone else.

 

For the past year, I’ve mourned the lack of writing in my life. Revising, promoting, promoting and revising some more, have taken precedence. But in recent weeks, I’ve come close to capturing my bliss. As I near the end of revising a novel, the first draft of which was complete nearly two years ago, I’ve written new scenes and reconnected with characters I love. The hours I’ve been able to carve out for this writing have brought so much peace and healing. Knowing that in a matter of weeks I will be able to start on something completely new, so new I’m not even certain yet what it is, fills me with joy.

 

I vaguely knew, but didn’t really understand, how much writing would demand from me, how much it would dismantle me as a professional, much to my own grief but ultimately for my own betterment as a writer and a scholar. Viet Thanh Nguyen

 

This past year has been a dismantling of a writer. Necessary, perhaps. Inevitable, according to so many of my mentors who walked the publishing road ahead of me. The grief of writing comes from realizing all that you do not know and accepting that not only are there no shortcuts to gaining that wisdom, but that no one is all that interested in your progress. It is, as Nguyen reminds us, an act of faith and “faith would not be faith if it was not hard, if it was not a test, if it was not an act of willful ignorance, of believing in something that can neither be predicted nor proved by any scientific metric.”

 

And so I come full circle, back to knowing that it is the writing itself that matters, not the outcome, over which I have so little control. The peace and release are their own rewards, and how I know, in the very meat and tendons and veins and blood of my soul, that I am a writer.

 

“We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Joan Didion

 

Atmospheric River

‘Atmospheric rivers are relatively long, narrow regions in the atmosphere – like rivers in the sky – that transport most of the water vapor outside of the tropics.’ National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

 

Atmospheric river . . . In less lovely terms, it’s pissing rain. You’d think, living in the western reaches of the Pacific Northwest, we’d be less disgruntled by the wet sheets tumbling from the sky. It’s not that we’re unaccustomed to moisture; rather, we’re offended by the torrents. Northwest rain is gentle and intermittent. But the seasons are in flux and with change comes a disturbance in the force. Those rivers in the sky now burst through the dams of clouds, and rush to drench us in something that feels almost like jubilation. This seemingly endless winter is dying at last.

 

I feel my own Atmospheric River coursing inside, this rush of words building and tumbling into a cascade of stories. Phrases and memory-snatches leap into my awareness, like spawning silver salmon in a coastal stream, asking to be spun into stories. Hold that thought, I tell myself when a story idea flashes like sunlight through a river current, but I don’t worry. I know it is my heartbrainimagination awakening after a long winter, one that bore no resemblance to the calendar. A winter of the soul.

 

Other possibilities unfurl from small buds of hope, blossoming as they reach for warmth and light. By chance, I find The Crows of Beara listed on Goodreads and Amazon, in that stealth way the publishing Universe has of capturing data and populating virtual bookshelves. September, the novel’s official release month, suddenly looms very real and large. 

 

And my first love, In Another Life, has been nominated for a FOREWORD INDIES Book of the Year Award. Foreword Indies Awards, judged by librarians and booksellers, recognize books that are published outside the Big 5 New York publishing world. IAL was nominated in the Fantasy category, which thrills me to bits. I never quite understood the Historical Fiction attachment. I always feel as though I need to wave a disclaimer banner when someone labels it HF: YOU GUYS I MADE THIS UP  But the delight remains.

 

Revising my third novel (the first draft completed nearly two years ago, but oh all the things that have come between me and those subsequent drafts) means that I must put off chasing after those silver salmon ideabursts just a little while longer. But just as the rain heralds the change of seasons, my internal atmosphere forecasts a change of heart.

The Answers are Inside the Mountains

The Answers Are Inside the Mountains: Meditations on the Writing LifeThe Answers Are Inside the Mountains: Meditations on the Writing Life by William Stafford

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A Memorial
In Nagasaki they built a little room
dark and soundproof where you can
go in all alone and close the door and cry.

William Stafford, Poet Laureate of Oregon from 1975 until 1990, crafted over 20,000 poems during his time on Earth- a staggering output. A pacifist—soft-spoken, yet fierce—Stafford was a teacher, a mentor, a wide-eyed, gracious observer and recorder of life. His poems are clean, without guile or pretense and most often set in the natural world. He eschewed the rules of writing, rising above convention to state simply that showing up to the page was enough. That writing made one a writer, not publishing, not critical acclaim, not commercial success.

Find limits that have prevailed and break them; be more brutal, more revealing, more obscene, more violent. Press all limits.

The Answers are Inside the Mountains is one in a series of Poets on Poetry, a collection of interviews and conversations with a celebrated poet, as well as selected essays and poems. It includes a beautiful exchange between Stafford and his dear friend and fellow poet of the West, Richard Hugo. A slim volume rich and full of hope and light, compassion and encouragement The Answers are Inside the Mountains is one of the loveliest sources of inspiration this writer has read.

The earth says have a place, be what that place requires; hear the sound the birds imply and see as deep as ridges go behind each other.

I immediately lent it out to a writer friend and now I am bereft, trying to write this review without the treasured work beside me to flip through and reread. But I took notes in my journal, and took great comfort in reading that Stafford too kept journals, that they were the source of his creativity, one of the places he turned to in crafting his poems, where he worked out ideas and themes, from which he pulled his own material.

Save up little pieces that escape other people. Pick up the gleamings.

At this precarious time, when I struggle to find hope and beauty, I am reminded the answers are in the mountains, the mountains of art that surround me.

We drown in ugliness. Art helps teach us to swim.

I’m closing with a poem that wasn’t in the book, because in searching for another poem, I came across this. It’s been one of my favorites for years and reading it again opened up a river inside me. A river frozen over, now melted by Stafford’s words.

Ask Me
Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

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My Reading Year: The Best of 2016

The Year of the Fidgety Reader. That was my 2016. Releasing my own novel and editing a second and third cut into my precious reading time, energy and focus, and that frustrated the hell out of me- reading is as important to me as a writer as writing. But I did encounter the extraordinary, books that I look back on now with gratitude, for they have changed me as a writer and a human being.

 

The Breakdown: 76 read

Novels: 42

Poetry Collections: 6

Memoir: 6

Short Story Collections: 6

Writing Craft: 4

Creative Nonfiction: (social, political, historical): 11

Biography: 1

Authors:  68 women; 6 men; 2 multiple authors

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If there was any particular theme to my reading this year, it was survival. Diane Les Bequets’s stunning Breaking Wild and the novel that had my favorite opening paragraph of the year, William Giraldi’s Hold the Dark and the lovely, achingly sad Seal Woman by Solveig Eggerz are literary thrillers that shiver with cold and exquisite tension. Eowyn Ivey took me to The Bright Edge of the World in her novel about exploring the Alaskan frontier, while Midge Raymond, David Pablo Cohn, and Lily Brooks-Dalton transported me to Antarctica and the North Pole with their enthralling tales (My Last Continent, Heller’s Tale, and Good Morning Midnight).

 

War and its aftermath played out in Elizabeth Marro’s debut Casualties, Leila Aboulela’s The Kindness of Enemies, Salt to the Sea by Ruth Sepetys—a gorgeous are-you-sure-this-is-YA novel set in WWII Prussia, Martha Hall Kelly’s beautiful WWII epic Lilac Girlsand one from the master of soul-haunting novels, Edna O’Brien, The Little Red Chairs.

 

I had joined a wonderful virtual book club at the start of the year and intended to follow along with the plan to read a Virginia Woolf each month. I made it to March at any rate, reading A Haunted House and Other Short Stories and Mrs. Dalloway. This year I’ve added The Voyage Out to the roster.

 

Not enough poetry. But what there was, including W.S. Merwin, Sharon Olds, Louise Glück, Dorianne Laux, expanded my soul.

 

Here are a few books that took my breath away, books I wanted to press into everyone’s hands, saying, “Read this. You must.” Excerpted comments are from my Goodreads reviews, books presented in no particular order.

 

Thirteen Ways of Looking, Colum McCann (Fiction/Short Stories: 2015)

Colum McCann traces the shadows of tension and love, despair and tragedy in this collection of one novella and three short stories-pieces that held me transfixed with their poignancy and fierce energy.

 

Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert (Writing Craft/Inspiration: 2015)

There could not have been a better time to read Big Magic than in the fraught and anxious, giddy and surreal days before launching my first novel. Gilbert’s words soothed and grounded me, took me out of the uncomfortable, jangly headspace of self-promotion and back into the embrace of what it means to be a creative person, why I set forth on this path in the first place.

 

M Train, Patti Smith (Memoir: 2016)

Reading the lovely Proustian interlude that is M Train, I felt like a shadow-angel trailing Patti Smith, from Café ‘Ino down the block from her New York apartment to the far-flung places in her past and present that twirl like ribbons in her poetry, her songs, her art. M Train is a meditation on this artist’s life, more kaleidoscope than memoir, a shifting wonder that spills pieces of colored glass memories.

 

Baby’s On Fire, Liz Prato (Fiction/Short Stories: 2015)

I reckon many reading this review are not familiar with writer Liz Prato or this slim volume of twelve stories, her debut collection. I’m doing what I can here, and in the real world, to change that. Fortunately I live in the literary Utopia that is the Pacific Northwest, where astonishingly talented writers are nearly as numerous as coffee shops and the community lifts up, supports and loves its own. Liz is a literary lion here, but you should know her, you should read her work.

 

The Wolf Border, Sarah Hall (Fiction: 2015)

Freedom/captivity; wild/ tame; fertile/barren; desire/indifference . . . it’s rarely just one or the other in life, is it? We walk on the border between each, sometimes falling one way, sometimes another, ever in search of balance. In this extraordinary novel, Sarah Hall explores the borders nature creates, borders imposed by man, borders the heart transcends no matter how tightly we exert out control.

 

Constance Fenimore Woolson: Portrait of a Lady Novelist, Anne Boyd Rioux (Biography: 2016)

A well-constructed biography is a dance between feet-on-ground facts and limbs-in-air storytelling. Flesh and soul must be conveyed in the chronology of events, and a case must be created that this one life holds relevance to all readers. A biography is an act of scholarship and illumination. And so it is with Anne Boyd Rioux’s luminous biography of nearly-forgotten 19th century writer Constance Fenimore Woolson.

 

The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness, Rebecca Solnit (Essays/Social Science: 2014)

This collection of 29 essays, previously published in a variety of literary venues, demonstrates Rebecca Solnit’s virtuosity as an compassionate intellectual, a keen and critical observer of the human condition, and a preeminent force in American letters.

 

The Book of Disquiet, Fernando Pessoa (Essays/Philosophy: 1982)

The four months it took me to read Fernando Pessoa’s posthumously-published collection of thought fragments have been some of the most fraught and chrysalis-splitting days of my adult life. This book will forever be synonymous with transition and grief, exploration and longing. I could read only bits at a time, for Pessoa’s struggle to understand the world and his place in it mirrored my own and my many gasps of recognition left me breathless.

 

Rising Strong, Brené Brown (Non-fiction/Motivational: 2015)

There are books that meet you at just the right time, when you most need and are open to their messages. I can well imagine encountering the warm Texan embrace of Brené Brown’s brand of social psychology at other times of my life and being turned off by its fierceness, volume and confidence. I may have looked askance at the cult of Brené Brown, with legions of devotees who discovered her through her TED talk gone viral, read her previous works, taken her Oprah-endorsed self-actualization workshops, or listened to her CD series on vulnerability and shame. Rising Strong is in fact my first encounter with Brené Brown’s work.

 

Good Morning, Midnight, Lily Brooks-Dalton (Fiction: 2016)

A lyrical and poignant elegy for Earth, imbued with irrepressible hope, Good Morning, Midnight is one of the loveliest books I’ve read in such a very long time. Lily Brooks-Dalton’s keen and delightful imagination, paired with a natural compassion and her gorgeous, lucid prose, made this a book I thought of in the hours when I had to leave it behind.

A Word of Resolution for 2017

ra·di·ate verb ˈrādēˌāt/
  1. emit (energy, especially light or heat) in the form of rays or waves. To shine brightly.
  2. diverge or spread from or as if from a central point.

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you may recall that in lieu of making resolutions to ring in the New Year, I’ve selected a word to center myself for the months to come. Here’s a look back at 2015 and 2016. I haven’t mustered the courage to reread these posts, but I’m not certain it matters. The intention is the journey, no? Looking back to see if you’ve made it to the point, the self, the outcome you’d imagined just seems an exercise in disappointment and regret.

 

But I do see that I chose “embrace” to define 2016. Had I known what the Universe had in store for the year, I may well have chosen “reject”, instead.

 

This year. This achingly difficult, beautiful, complicated, change-ridden year.  A year when life turned itself inside-out. When the world stopped making sense for so many on a bewildering November night. Yet, as much as I welcome an end to 2016, I know that it defines much of what is to come.

 

I ran into a friend in a pub the other night. A new friend, a writer, whom I met at a joyous occasion a few weeks ago, something I’ll tell you more about in a moment. He complimented me on my author website and mentioned reading the page where I cross-post this blog. He expressed admiration for how I lay it all out here, how vulnerable and real I allow myself to be. How ironic, given that I’ve kept so much on the down low these past months, hinting at but never revealing the divergent path I’ve been stumbling down, seeking, but never quite finding secure footing. As a writer. As a woman.

 

My first novel launched on February 2. A novel about grief, rebirth, reincarnation and the muddled line between history and the past, debuting on the day we shrink from shadows, and from a mindless repetition of the mundane. An extraordinary day for me, to be sure. And as the weeks and months unfolded in a celebration of this joyous accomplishment, behind the scenes a twenty-five year marriage was coming to an end. Quietly. With great sadness and bewilderment. More than half my life, defined by partnership with another. And suddenly that which I took for granted, a word, wife, was no longer mine.

 

But other words remained. Woman. Writer.

Local Authors' Night, The Writers' Workshoppe & Imprint Books, Port Townsend, WA, December 3, 2016. Photo Courtesy of Anna & Peter Quinn, Owners.
Local Author’s Night, The Writers’ Workshoppe & Imprint Books, Port Townsend, WA, December 3, 2016. Photo Courtesy of Anna & Peter Quinn, Owners.

Yet, it often felt as though I’d lost sight of even those. The fundamentals of who I am, my place in the world. But looking back on these months, I realize I have never lived more fully as a woman, as a writer, than I have in 2016.

 

Betwixt and between the mind-blowing joy of launching a novel into the world was the agony of divorce. The stress of being a very public “author” vs. the solace and creative growth of being a writer; the delight in sharing my book with readers coming up against the inability to step away to nurture my muse; the heart-quickening embrace of new love meeting the reality of stepping into a traditional “day” job to support myself, thereby letting go of precious writing time… it’s all been so much. So glorious. So painful.

 

In early December, my LBS (aka Local BookStore, you know, those beloved indies that have survived and thrived by connecting dedicated readers with beautiful works of art, one book at a time), hosted a Local Author’s Night. For the first time in months, I was surrounded by readers and authors alike, friends I hadn’t seen in far too long, others I had never met, such as the new friend I mentioned above, who lives across the street, as it so happens. It was a celebration, a coming together of a beloved community, a return to my heart and intellect, a precious reminder of who I am and what I am meant to do.

 

It was also a reminder in this time of political turmoil—as many of us mourn what has been lost and fear what is to come—what role artists play in lifting up, exposing, bringing together, voicing, and providing moments of escape, connection, entertainment, joy, and compassion to our communities. How very important it is to engage and contribute, to be present, not only in one’s own life, but in the world.

 

And so I choose for 2017 the word Radiate. For I am determined that in this new year, which will see the release of my second novel, The Crows of Beara, my work, my words will emit light and energy, will spread from a central point—my soul—to serve a greater purpose.

 

New Year’s Eve day I came across these lines by one of my favorite poets, W.S. Merwin. Here’s an excerpt:

 

“… so this is the sound of you
here and now whether or not
anyone hears it this is
where we have come with our age
our knowledge such as it is
and our hopes such as they are
invisible before us
untouched and still possible.”

From ‘To the New Year’

 

Isn’t that extraordinary?

 

Love and hope to everyone for a blessed 2017. Let’s please just do this, all of it, better.

Wait, For Now

Early morning. Hours yet before there is light enough for me to see the full extent of damage to my car.

 

Returning home last night from work, after a stop at the grocery store (oh, if only I’d gone back for the bundle of kindling, which was the reason I’d stopped in the first place, but I was so tired.), eggs and wine and something to stir fry in a sack pressed snug against my laptop bag and the rinsed-out remains of my lunch. I’m traveling the speed limit. I note this for you, because the stretch of road that drops into my village from the hill overlooking two bays is a notorious speed trap. It’s all too easy—when you’re so close to home, when, in the daylight, you’re distracted by the sunglints and sailboats on the water and the mountains beyond—to let the car cruise past thirty, flirt with forty.

 

But I am careful. I drive this stretch a dozen times a week, at least. I know just the right amount of pressure on the gas to keep the speedometer hovering at the limit.

 

On this night, last night, as I dip down into town, glowering headlights consume my rearview mirror. Dodge Ram crawls up my ass, past the diner, past the Safeway, through the intersection and all along the stretch that borders the shipyards. Must not be a local. I let it go, lost in my end of a long workday, rambling, footsore thoughts of dinner, copyedits. I ignore the menacing glare of light behind me; so close to home, one of us is bound to make a turn soon.

 

I’m certainly not thinking about getting sideswiped. I’m not prepared for the driver behind me to decide, suddenly, that he will take the same left turn I’m making, but that he’ll make it first, and in trying to get ahead of me, he runs into me.

 

The driver tells me in the parking lot where we end up, two sets of hazard lights flashing, that he “got tired of waiting for me.” The molding of my side mirror wobbles on the hood of my car, my hands shake as I search in my purse for my insurance card.

2015-08-07-08-44-14-1
Collision Course

 

Awakened by anger in the wee, lonely hours. Dismayed. Hurt. In my mind’s playback loop I keep hearing, “I got tired of waiting for you.”

 

What happened to me last night feels like a metaphor for this long, bitter night of election season. We’re all just so very tired of waiting for each other. And so we ram our own way forward, regardless of anyone else’s safety or well-being. To hell with common sense or what is legal, moral or ethical. We’ve lost our compassion, our empathy, our sense of a greater good. We’ve lost our way.

 

I don’t really know what to do now. I’m not of a mind to forgive. Not today. It’s hard to muster the energy to be an activist, a writer, an engaged human being when merely driving down the road puts you at risk of someone else’s thwarted sense of entitlement.

 

I’m too tired to do much else today but move forward. I have to leave for work again soon. I have to, like everyone else around me, pick up and continue, despite the anger, the despair, the bewilderment. I have to find hope.

 

Wait.
Don’t go too early.
You’re tired. But everyone’s tired.
But no one is tired enough.
Only wait a little and listen:
music of hair,
music of pain,
music of looms weaving our loves again.
Be there to hear it, it will be the only time,
most of all to hear your whole existence,
rehearsed by the sorrows, play itself into total exhaustion.

~ from Wait by Galway Kinnell (1927-2014)

Loving the Questions

I settled into Virasana, tailbone sinking to the earth between my feet, wrists loose on folded thighs, spine straight, chest taking in more air than I’d breathed all day. I’d arrived to class several minutes early, unrolling my yoga mat in my favorite place before the west-facing window. After a long weekend of torrential rains and gusting winds, the day had been mild–warm really–for mid-October, and the early evening sun was an orb of burnished gold.

 

Suspended light wavered and caught hold of a web just outside the window, illuminating a gloriously fat spider at its center, her world shifting and shimmering in the soft breeze. She glided from the web’s bullseye to make slight adjustments to her woven marvel, returning to the center like a queen to her throne. For the next ninety minutes, as I rose and folded in salutation to the setting sun, I glanced at Spider when I could, until darkness descended in a blue curtain and I lost her to the night.

 

Spider’s commitment to her task, the faith she has in her own strength and purpose, the beauty and rightness of her creation, however temporary, moves me to my core.

 

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My life is in flux, with strands as shivery and delicate as Spider’s web, but no less connected to the Universe and just as strong for the determination and resolve with which they were spun. Massive changes of heart and mind, changes I have not yet shared here for they are too raw and new, complicated and bittersweet, private and yet rippling with aftershocks into lives tied to my own.

 

At the heart of it, at the heart of me, are my words. I’ve turned inward these past months, writing very little for public viewing. Publishing and then promoting a novel sucked me dry and I’ve had little desire to offer more beyond what’s already out there, or the energy to do more than hone and polish the next novel to meet the next deadlines. But I’ve filled pages and notebooks with private thoughts, all in preparation for  . . . and I cannot complete this sentence. Or perhaps it is already complete. All in preparation. 

 

One of those notebooks, nearly full, ripe and bursting with hope and sorrow and wordswordswords, was tucked in the front pocket of a suitcase, a suitcase that was stolen from a train on one of the many stops between Marseille and Nice a month ago. As maddening as it was to lose everything but the clothes on my back at the start of a three-week journey, the things were all replaceable (and if one is going to lose all her clothing, one should be happy one is in France. Shopping.).

 

My words, however, are not. I mourn the loss of my journal. All that work, gone in an instant, like a cruel hand or a gust of wind ripping apart the strands of Spider’s web. How frustrated she must feel to see her handiwork, her livelihood, torn asunder. But she never fails to start anew. It’s what she does. Spin or die.

 

The occasion of the loss of those words led directly to writing retreat during which I wrote more than I have in a year, since the months leading up to and following the publication of In Another Life and the preparation of The Crows of Beara for its upcoming launch. And every word I wrote was shared with a group of magnificent writers. The writing, the sharing, brought me back to my writer, my storyteller, the center of my web.

 

In his turn-of-the-20th-century Letters to a Young Poet, Rilke implores his friend to stop searching for the answers, to love instead the questions. I realize, as I let go of my losses and look ahead to what I have left and what I have gained, that writing through my private thoughts is a search for the answers. Telling stories is a celebration of the questions. I’ll always dance between the two, but I think I’m ready to live the questions now. And living means writing.

 

I beg you, to have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.

Rainier Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet