Writing at White Heat
You feel exalted, you feel inspired, you feel possessed. If you are naturally depressive, this is what feeling manic must be like. An unstoppable force of nature wants to splay out through your hands.
Rainer Maria Rilke wrote The Sonnets to Orpheus at white heat, in February 1922, after a long poetic silence. He interrupted his completion of The Duino Elegies to write the Sonnets, completing both books very quickly. Rilke, in a letter after the writing, called it his "great giving." He felt he had been given all these poems, so quickly, and that he flowed with the process till it completed itself. Very few of the Sonnets or the Elegies needed any editorial correction, afterwards; they are available for us now as they arrived.
The deepest experience of the creator is feminine, for it is experience of receiving and bearing.
—Rainer Maria Rilke
An extraordinary and accurate statement. The creative act is often a receptive one. Not passive, but receptive. You have to listen for what's been given, and notate as it's given. There is no act of assertive will involved, unless it is merely to hold oneself open, to be vigilant antenna. That can take an effort.
Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels' hierarchies?
and even if one of them pressed me suddenly against his heart:
I would be consumed in that overwhelming existence.
For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
Every angel is terrifying. . . .
—Rainer Maria Rilke, the opening phrases of The First Duino Elegy (trans. by Stephen Mitchell)
Rilke felt exalted by the great giving, and he wrote letters to friends and lovers soon after about the experience. He wrote, in part, to the Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis-Hohenlohe on 11 February 1922:
All in a few days, it was an unspeakable storm, a tornado of the spirit (as in Duino), the very fibres and tissues cracked in me—there was never a thought of eating, God knows what nourished me.
But now it is done. Done.
So here is the triumph i was holding out for, through everything. Through everything. This was what I wanted. Just this and nothing more. . . .
When Jelalladin Rumi met Shams i Tabriz in the public square, Rumi had been a respected scholar, a book-reader and writer; he was known to be an intellectual power among scholars of Islam. When he met Shams, Rumi was knocked off his feet. One story tells of how he dropped all the books he was carrying into the fountain beside him, and swooned—drowning his books, as Prospero does at the end of The Tempest, an act symbolic of passing beyond book-learning into some larger universe. Rumi and Shams spent a great deal of time together, inseparable, aglow from within in each other's company. It was when Shams was taken from him that Rumi began his great outpouring of spontaneous song-poems, which were transcribed by his students as he composed them on the tongue, and later collected into books, notably the Masnavi.
O lovers, lovers it is time
to set out from the world.
I hear a drum in my soul's ear
coming from the depths of the stars.
Our camel driver is at work;
the caravan is being readied.
He asks that we forgive him
for the disturbance he has caused us,
He asks why we travelers are asleep.
Everywhere the murmur of departure;
the stars, like candles
thrust at us from behind blue veils,
and as if to make the invisible plain,
a wondrous people have come forth.
—Rumi, from the Divani Shams i Tabriz
For me, reading Rumi, even in translation, is like setting a moth next to a candle. I burn in his words. If I sit down and read Rumi for awhile, I almost always am moved to write a poem or two in response. I catch fire from his fire—is there a better definition of inspiration? Exaltation and ecstasy are meant to be shared, to explode outward, not to be private or locked up in cages.
laughing and crying
I throw myself from your cliff
into an abyss of dark fire
we go together to immolation
I give up nothing, having nothing to give up
you always held my hand
to come so close
and never marry you, wedding band that burns
timidness my failure
I’ve run from you for years
and never knew you so beautiful as you stand in flames—
yes yes and then forever burn me yes
I've written many others like this one; perhaps someday they'll be worth collecting into a book. They were all written at white heat. Some of them are just fragments, aphorisms, jottings; a few seem to be real poems. Nothing at all in the same league as Rumi, even if inspired by sitting next to him for awhile.
You can feel when you're in the zone, when it happens. You can feel yourself burning inside, all set to burn the paper and pens up. You get hunches with great big knobs on them. You know exactly where you're supposed to be, and what you're supposed to do. You become immersed in the flow.
You can also think of this as the intense creative period that often follows an extended fallow period. There is a natural cycle to the way the creative forces move in us; although there are many individual variations, in timing, amplitude, and noise out there in the modulation sidebands.
The secret to surviving the fire is a refusal to try to tame it, or channel it, but rather to run into its arms and be immolated. Go deeper into it, grab that flailing firehose and do your best to aim it where it's supposed to go. It will buck in your hands, and it will take all your strength, some days, just to hold on. But hold on anyway, even if it knocks you off your feet.
Not everything you write at white heat is going to survive the cool assessing eye of your inner critic, later. (And make sure it is later. Don't kill the fire by turning to your critic too soon.) Survival means holding on to the live wire, ride the bucking mustang, hold on as best you can, surf the edge of the wave—till the ride's over and you come down again. And you will always come down again.
What I have learned from becoming aware of the zone, the fire, over several years of paying attention to its tides, is that it always comes back. You won't always be able to predict when or why. The trick is notice that you're in the zone, get on the wave, and ride it again. Then just let the firehose of creative force splatter the waters of life all over the walls and floor. You can clean up later.
When I'm at white heat, I produce ridiculous amounts of new material. A lot of first drafts, at these times, need very little re-working to become completed. Some music goes direct to recording. Some poems and essays shape themselves as they emerge, needing little revision. When I'm at white heat, I feel like nothing can stop it, not even me; in fact trying to stop it could strain something vital, so best not to risk it. It can be demanding, requiring that I drop everything else and get to it. It's not always convenient. But following its lead is rewarding beyond what I can convey. It's worth every burn.