Have you ever written a letter to a complete stranger? Not an email inquiry or a request for a credit extension, but a truly personal letter that exposes part of yourself to someone you don’t know? Rainer Maria Rilke was the recipient of one such letter by a young aspiring poet, Franz Kappus, who was inclined to express his admiration for and inquire about the art Rilke had mastered. Rilke was touched by the confidence Kappus expressed in his opinion, as a total stranger and potential whack-job, saying,
I thank you again for the magnitude and cordiality of your trust; in this answer, given with sincerity and to the best of my knowledge, I have sought to make myself a little worthier of it than, as a stranger, I actually am.
Rilke and Kappus continued their correspondence for many years, resulting in a deep friendship and the compilation of Rilke’s letters by Kappus in Letters to a young poet, one of Rilke’s most famous works. I call Letters to a young poet ‘works’, and not the mere compilation of Rilke’s personal letters, as he always wrote with such care, claiming that his letters took a part of his creative genius. He treated these letters as he did his poetry: working the language, allowing it to express something natural and true, his art being something “grown out of necessity.”
My students today embarked on a similar endeavor as Franz Kappus: writing letters to a high school class across the world in California. They have never seen the subject of their letters, nor do they know the names of the students to whom they are writing, or even their gender. They have never visited the United States, let alone California. They know that the students speak a little French, but not much, and they have made it clear that they know a plethora of American stereotypes, but that is about all the information they have about this project—that, and their own interests and experiences. I am asking my students to tell complete strangers about themselves: what they like to do in their free time, what they study or want to study, the socio-political reasons they are learning English, which they themselves do not fully understand. One of my students spoke about his love for his brother and sister, something I am barely able to express to my friends, let alone to complete strangers. The group in general took well to the assignment, talking about subjects much more eloquent and heartfelt than they usually contribute to our conversations. Something inexplicable happened in my classroom that Kappus describes as the involuntary revelation of self: you cannot help what flows from your pen when you let it move without fear.
Today was the first day in four months that I have had complete silence in my classroom: the silence of seven sixteen-year-old boys working hard and searching deeply for the English words to express how they feel. My class demonstrates how writing to a stranger liberates social fears and limitations. A stranger presents no form of pressure, as he cannot possibly have any preconceived notions or expectations. Someone who has never visited your country cannot debate your description. In this way, writing to a stranger presents the opportunity for self-discovery: what is left of your person when you are stripped of social norms? In writing to a class across the world, my students suddenly forgot their favorite sentence, “I like sleeping and video games”, and were more interested in describing the specialties of their region, their family outings, and asking if they could please, please, please come visit a group of random strangers halfway across the world. Suddenly, my students have the opportunity to gain friends who understand their difficulties in learning a language, and who won’t pass judgment on their grammatical errors. The reservation I face in my classroom generally comes from the simple shame of adolescence: the fear of errors, the fear of being flawed. These fears are null in a letter to a stranger who cannot see you blush when improperly conjugating the imperfect, or when talking about your childhood fear of the dark.
Right now, this class to whom my students are writing are the image of American high school perfection. Soon, my students will learn that their pen pals eat vegetables instead of hamburgers, study more than they go to football games (hopefully), and have, in fact, experienced rain in California. Soon, cultural differences will start to expose themselves in this correspondence: my French students will find it weird that the Americans do not follow soccer. The Americans will respond with confusion to my students’ odd obsession with mustache jokes. My students will be disappointed that the Americans have already tasted French food and that American boys do not carry satchels, no matter how practical. There will be some Americans who like French cheese more than my students, and McDonalds less. My students will soon learn that most high schoolers who learn French in the United States are girls, and that they are, in fact, writing to a group of entirely girls who do not appreciate their fondness for cheerleaders. But, for now, there is a group of high schoolers in California who are interested in French culture, pass their afternoons eating hot dogs at sunny football games filled with pretty girls in crop tops, with the High School Musical soundtrack playing in the background. This is the high school my students have always dreamed about, and the possibility of accessing it has shut them up for an entire forty minutes. About halfway through the letter-writing assignment, I tried to play some Jack Johnson in the background to combat the awkward silence that I have never before experienced in class, only to be greeted by seven astonished faces that clearly said one thing: turn that hippy music off, we’re concentrating.
After reading the heartfelt correspondences between Rilke and Kappus, and those of my own students, I know that literature is something deeply private and hard to extract unless you liberate it of expectations and revert to pure form. Writing a letter to a stranger, or in my case, this blog, is actually just self reflection. Liberation from expectation is the genius that allows literature to flourish; it is, after all, just a longing for someone, anyone, who will want to listen, and understand, and add to the conversation.
In the spirit of Rilke and some humble sixteen-year-olds, I encourage you to sit down and write a letter of your own. Address it to anyone: a forty-year-old in Indonesia, a twelve-year-old in Uganda, a ninety-year-old in Germany, a neighbor you’ve never met, the butcher at Safeway. Choose someone you don’t know well, and ideally someone you don’t know at all. Tell them about yourself: the things you would like to do, achievements that make you proud, where you live. How do you define yourself? Is this how you would like to define yourself? My students could only express themselves with the little English vocabulary they have learned at an intermediate level, but you have the opportunity to go deeper. You can turn, “Can I visit you,” into “I have never travelled further than the neighboring states,” or “I have never flown in an airplane, and I think it is time.” It can be intimidating to talk about yourself to someone you know, but remember that strangers hold only curiosity for you. It’s a first date that can only be interesting, because there is no awkward eye contact, or lettuce in your teeth. Don’t worry—I’ll be joining you. I promise to post my letter to the public here in a few days, and I encourage you to do the same by commenting on this post.
If your everyday life seems poor to you, do not accuse it; accuse yourself, tell yourself you are not poet enough to summon up its riches. —Rainer Maria Rilke, First letter to a young poet
I also encourage you to check out this post on online pen pal websites. You never know whom you’ll meet, or what you’ll discover about yourself in the process. I cannot personally vouch for any of the sites, but I’ve greatly enjoyed writing to other students throughout the course my language learning, as well as here, on this blog that I present, raw, to you.