“Right in the difficult we must have our joys, our happiness, our dreams: there against the depth of this background, they stand out, there for the first time we see how beautiful they are.”
- Rainer Maria Rilke
I posted the above quote on my Facebook wall a couple of days ago because I was looking for some meaning in the middle of a difficult few weeks. First one of my beloved cats died in my arms, and then, just one week later, my father fell at home and had a serious health scare related to his ongoing battle with Parkinson’s Disease. Thankfully, my father is doing much better now; he wasn’t badly injured in the fall and he is recovering more of his strength than we thought would be possible at first. I live two hours away from the upstate New York town where my parents live, so it is difficult to balance my desire to be a loving, available daughter and my need to pursue a separate life and fulfill my responsibilities in Boston.
And in the midst of all of this, on top of my paying work, my house, my husband and my remaining three cats, is the writing. The writing is always hovering nearby, tugging on my sleeve, waiting for its turn to be the center of my attention. I can feel almost as guilty about missing writing time as I feel about not being more available to my parents. I am virtually dogged by the belief that successful writers don’t let anything (or at least much) get in the way of their commitment to write and their determination to succeed. I once had a friend who was a professional skier (he competed in the 1992 Olympics), and he told me that professional athletes have to be selfish in order to succeed. I understood what he meant; it takes a tremendous amount of focus to be successful at something on that level. But as we get older, life can get more and more complicated. Responsibilities mount. Tough times occur (that’s not to say that they don’t occur in the younger years for many people). It can get increasingly difficult to have the tunnel vision it takes to succeed. Dreams, joys, and moments of happiness tend to occur not in a vacuum, but “right in the difficult.” The work we love to do and any success we achieve comes as more of a relief “against the depth of this background.”
When I wrote the sentence above it occurred to me that creative endeavors often are pursued simultaneously with tough times, and do serve as a kind of “relief.” Consider the different meanings of “relief”: “The easing of a burden or distress, such as pain, anxiety, or oppression.” And “a. The projection of figures or forms from a flat background, as in sculpture, or the apparent projection of such shapes in a painting or drawing. b. A work of art featuring such projection.”
For me, writing can be both of these things, although each type of writing is different. This morning I wrote a journal entry during my writing time. The entry recounted what had happened with my father. The act of writing it gave me the space to vent many of the feelings I was having about the situation on the page. This type of writing fits one definition of relief: “the easing of a burden or distress.” And anyone can do it – get relief just by pouring his or her guts out on the page.
But this is a very separate thing from writing a personal essay. A personal essay can be thought of in terms of the second definition of relief: the “projection of figures or forms from a flat background;” and “a work of art featuring such a projection.” We pull personal essays, memoirs, and other creative nonfiction from the background of what is happening in our lives. This type of writing is not just a recreation of the messiness that happens in life, it is the work of art that can be pulled out of that messiness.
The rest of Rilke’s quote says: “…there against the depth of this background, they stand out, there for the first time we see how beautiful they are.” As we lie in bed feeling the pain of losing a pet, we cherish more deeply the one that is left to nuzzle our head on the pillow. After we watch an elderly father struggle with a debilitating disease, we go for a jog near a lake and remember to appreciate each step.
And when we pursue our dreams despite hard times we realize that these dreams do more than just drive us. They give us relief.