Reading Time: 3 minutes

In 1905, Franz Xaver Kappus wrote to the famous German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, asking him to look over his own poems.

Rilke responded with a letter that would begin a years-long correspondence. These letters were so significant, so important to Kappas, that he had ten of them published as a book. In the intervening years, that book has become one of the most important written works for the understanding of creativity and artistry. 

Rilke’s responses to Kappus’s poems changed the young man’s life, and his criticisms and advice shaped the man he became.

In my own writing life, I have received a number of criticisms and rejections from various publishers.

Below, I compare quotes from Rilke’s monumental work to the rejection letters that I have received over just the past few years from publishers, agents, and even teachers.

Can you figure out which is which?

On asking whether a piece is “good”

You ask whether your verses are good. You ask me. You have asked others before. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are disturbed when certain editors reject your efforts. Now (since you have allowed me to advise you) I beg you to give up all that. You are looking outward, and that above all you should not do now. Nobody can counsel and help you, nobody. There is only one single way. Go into yourself. Search for the reason that bids you write; find out whether it is spreading out its roots in the deepest places of your heart, acknowledge to yourself whether you would have to die if it were denied you to write.

Yeah, sure. I think it’s fine. I think people will read it.

On how to find an artistic voice

Out of this turning inward, out of this absorption into your own world verses come, then it will not occur to you to ask anyone whether they are good verses. Nor will you by to interest magazines in your poems: for you will see in them your fond natural possession, a fragment and a voice of your life.

The most important thing to remember, as a writer, is DON’T BE BORING. The truth, what really happened, what people really said, facts, and information, are very boring, in general.

On politely turning down your work

I thought there was an interesting idea here and I liked the ambition of the piece, but overall the story didn’t quite grab me and I’m going to have to pass.

The verses which you kindly entrusted to me I am returning at the same time. And I thank you once more for your great and sincere confidence, of which I have tried, through this honest answer given to the best of my knowledge, to make myself a little worthier than, as a stranger, I really am.

On how to develop one’s craft

Begin to find ways where subtlety and drama can be massaged for effectiveness.

Being an artist means, not reckoning and counting, but ripening like the tree which does not force its sap and stands confident in the storms of spring without the fear that after them may come no summer. It does come. But it comes only to the patient, who are there as though eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly still and wide. I learn it daily, learn it with pain to which I am grateful: patience is everything!

On responding to your query

Some ten days ago I left Paris, quite ill and tired, and journeyed into a great northerly plain whose breadth and stillness and sky are to make me well again. But I came into a long spell of rain that today for the first time shows signs of clearing a little over the restlessly wind-blown land; and I am using this first moment of brightness to greet you, dear sir.

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Casey Karaman is a writer, performer, improviser, and teacher who has worked with the Washington Improv Theater. He has performed in multiple theater productions, most recently in Second City's production...