The Who Am I



My only advice for you is this. Go into yourself and probe the depths from which your life springs, and there at its source you’ll find the answer to the question of whether you must write. Accept this answer, just as you hear it, without hesitation. It may be revealed that you are called to be an artist. Then take this lot upon you and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without asking for any external reward. For the creative artist must be a world to himself – and find everything within himself – and in nature, to which he is devoted.

from Letters to a Young Poet by Ranier Maria Rilke, translated by Joanna Macy.

Actors ask themselves a series of questions when rehearsing a role. These questions are so standard we have placed a “the” in front of them. “What have you got for the where are we?”, we might ask, or “What are you working on for the what do I want?” One of the first questions we ask is the who am I.

In the hazy and sometimes treacherous terrain of the young actor’s psyche, this question can be vexing. It’s tricky to create a fictional who am I when the real one is unclear, or in a constant state of mutation. Ironically, it’s the fictional one that’s easier for many of us to create. This is one of the many ways in which acting teaches us how to be ourselves, by paradoxically giving us clear path towards being someone else. But for some of us, this process isn’t one of learning, but rather one of escaping. The real who am I question is too painful to contemplate, so we retreat into a a series of fictions, as long as we keep getting cast. This is an idea I develop in some detail in my book The Actor’s Way.

For me, one of the central problems was accepting that I was an actor at all. The very idea seemed ludicrous. Worse, it seemed profligate, given how much money was being spent on my Ivy League education. Then there was the ever looming sense of inadequacy, born from an on-going, grinding comparison I made between myself and absurd people like Tom Cruise and Ed Harris, and not so absurd people like other successful collegiate and grad school actors in my sphere.

How awesome it was then, to read Rilke’s words above, in a less elegant translation, in 1982 or 3. I understood instantly that he was writing for any artist, and substituting “must act” for “must write” was no problem for me. Awesome and worrisome, because he asks us to ask the question, and then accept the answer we hear. What if the answer is, well, you want to act, but must?

Franz Kappus

It’s a question meant for a young person to ask, and surely Rilke knew what he had on his hands with the young man whose unsolicited letter gave birth to Letters to a Young Poet: Franz Kappus. Franz was a romantic and creative young person who, like Rilke, had been sent to a military school. And as Rilke had, he was facing a deep crisis of identity: he was not at all what his family, his school, his culture expected him to be. The crisis had been so extreme for Rilke that he had a nervous breakdown at the military school and his parents removed him (thank God).  He was home-schooled in Prague until University. Franz’s situation was not so extreme, but he was surely feeling tormented in the way that many young artists do. He felt like a freak, a sissy and an outcast. He felt a lingering anger at the culture that dismissed his leadings. He felt lost, alone and misunderstood. And in an act of hubris only the young are good at, he wrote to his newly found idol, this mysterious new poet Rilke. It would have been the same for me if, for instance, I had written to John Malkovitch and asked him all my most private and searching questions about being an actor, and he had written me back the most gorgeous letters on creativity ever, and we had begun an on-going correspondence on acting, creativity, love, sex, faith and mortality.

Franz and I both heard the same answer to our question: it was, yes, you must. I’m not sure where Franz’s calling led him. Certainly not to fame. I can find nothing about him on the web except for his relationship to these letters. But part of what makes Rilke’s advice so bracing is its demand that we ask for nothing in return for our artistic lives. There’s a pragmatic part of me that finds this position elitist and naive. But my life so far has born out Rilke’s position. I am happiest as an artist when I divorce my creativity from some obligation on the world’s part to reward or acknowledge me for it.

I read these words now with a sense of nostalgia, but without a trace of disparagement. It is not who I am now. I am beyond musts, and I have had the absolutes beaten out of me. Middle age brings an appreciation of grays and ambiguities, of relativity and transformation. For me, the mutation of the who am I continues, but I welcome it now as a personal relationship to continuing revelation, whereas I used to fight it, trying to fix myself permanently in a romantic self-portrait I was destined to grow out of.

And even though I recognize that I am not attached to Rilke’s words in the way I once was, I still feel in my bones the answer to the question he urged on me:

Yes, I must write.