01 March 2015

Letter to a Young Poet

One of the things I do (when I choose to do anything at all) is tutor or mentor or guide or coach young writers and poets, both in the classroom (my day job) and outside the classroom (my avocation). 

Recently one of my charges became so frustrated with events transpiring in her life that she asked the fundamental questions of existence that drive many writers to their craft--or from it. I could not answer in that moment with any suitable response but I did return later and typed out something approaching an answer. As I sat back, my fingers still sizzling with the electricity of creation, I was suddenly reminded of another such Q&A between Rainier Maria Rilke and a young poet who asked for his advice.

Not to put myself into that class, I nevertheless thought perhaps this Q&A might be of interest to others who write or mentor writers or those having an interest in existence and identity. (I must confess, I explored notions of identity in quite some seriousness while researching and writing a dissertation which remains hidden in a trunk in the basement.)

After polite small talk and responding to earlier issues related to an opportunity to go to what I cautioned her was a dangerous place now, she asks the following: 

You know what I'm thinking about? It seems that I cannot find myself. What I live for? Where is my place in this world? I cannot find peace...

You ask big questions that philosophers have struggled with for centuries. And me, too. What do we do now that we are here on Earth? Religious ideology has answers and many people follow those suggestions. Non-religious philosophies offer other suggestions. Most seem to come down to helping other people, creating things that will outlast you, or dreaming of a better world and working to make it change to that dream.
I think young people especially wonder about this question. We have school as our focal point for so many years that when we are free of school we have nothing to do. Most get jobs, meet someone and form a family. After that, life demands that they do many things at regular intervals in their lives. They watch their children grow up, they serve their boss at the job, they take vacations, and so on.
Others reject that traditional path and seek something more serious, more meaningful, more profound. That doubles back to the religious questions: Why am I here? What is my purpose? What should I do with my life? Nobody will have the same answers as you or me.
For me, I started as a music student because I loved music so much. However, I found it to be more difficult once I studied it in college. I got my degree and planned to be a music teacher but I never got that job. So I returned to college and studied Communications (TV, radio, film), which led to a job at a TV station in my city. That job was soon eliminated by staff reduction, so I got the first job I could find--which had nothing to do with my education or interests. Eventually I got the opportunity to travel, and live and work in foreign lands. Besides paying well, I learned a lot about myself, what I wanted to do--what interests me and what makes me happy when I'm doing it--and what I am good at doing.
So once again I returned to college and prepared to be an English teacher instead of a Music teacher. I've been on this path for many years now, of course. It is not perfect but it seems the best life I can find. It gives me something to do which makes me feel useful and helpful. It gives me time to do other things that interest me, such as writing novels. Most importantly, perhaps, it gives me an identity: I like being the person I am when I'm doing my job. I am a professor. I like being "a professor" in the eyes of society--even though I usually call myself a "teacher" when asked.
I think identity is very important in selecting a path or purpose in life. Who you want to be is as important as What you want to be or What you want to do. How do you want to see yourself in five years? How do you want people to think of you in five years? Then consider what your best skills are. How can you use those skills in a reasonable, realistic, helpful way? It is not an easy or quick process answering such questions. But careful consideration will result in a choice which enriches you and provides direction in your life, as well as give you a platform for helping others and changing the world in ways you think best.
Along the way, however, you must still stop and take time to be silly, frivolous, immature, unhelpful, and self-centered--at least briefly but at regular intervals. We all need to take a break from a path of purpose, I think. While hiking up to the mountaintop, it's good to pause and take a look around, see the valley below, see the trail you've made, and set your eyes again on that mountain peak.
Good luck! I'll always be here to advise you, for what it may be worth, and you are free to dismiss my advise. You are your own person and only you can walk the path you set yourself on.

Perhaps it is easy to ask questions. Thankfully asking the right question helps us get to the right answer, if it exists. I'm not usually a spiritual person but I have my moments. On that day, I did. Tomorrow I might have fumbled around and said nothing. The muses are forever fickle.
Enjoy your day. Enjoy your life. Help somebody if you have the time and inclination. Nobody is keeping count but it makes the world go round a little happier.

(C) Copyright 2010-2015 by Stephen M. Swartz. All Rights Reserved. No part of this blog, whether text or image, may be used without me giving you written permission, except for brief excerpts that are accompanied by a link to this entire blog. Violators shall be written into novels as characters who are killed off. Serious violators shall be identified and dealt with according to the laws of the United States of America.


  1. This is a moving, lovely post. You are a beautiful human being, and so is your young friend.

    1. It's probably the new haircut (and maybe the ascot) that makes me seem beautiful. Thanks!