Getting Rilke with Susannah Felts

We all want someone to talk to, who understands us, and maybe that’s why generations of writers, readers and searching souls have responded so strongly to Rainer-Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. We’ve asked some of the brightest stars today to either answer questions drawn from the text or write a letter to their teenage selves. Today, we have Susannah Felts, whose affecting debut This Will Go Down On Your Permanent Record is perfect story about a girl’s life over the course of the summer and fall. It captures exactly that sense of coming into your own and that dizzy thing when you’re a teenager, those close, too-close enraptured friendships that start with suspicious envy and progress through borderless adulation, and then you drift apart, on bad terms or none at all. And sitting in the park doing nothing really. And it’s out on Featherproof Books, which offers an oh-so-cool excerpt that you can print out and make into a free mini-book with the help of your computer and your two hands. Here’s Susannah’s letter to her teenage self.

Dear Susannah,

This brown lake that laps at your itchy toes—the gray ribbons of interstate, Cracker Barrels and Waffle Houses, outparcels and swaths of scrubby Southern land where maybe even soldiers once tromped—land waiting to be covered by even more outparcels? A world sliced and diced into something known as outparcel? Don’t dismiss those things, not entirely. This world—you can own it.

You can own a lot of what you’ve got, you know. Don’t give it away, cast it off. No, hold it up to the light and stare it down until it’s something almost altogether new, unrecognizable to you.

You will leave, and you will be right to leave. But don’t stop noticing what it is that defines your turf. Wherever you lay claim to a turf.

You’re behind a closed door, safe and uninhibited in that big, light-splashed room of yours, writing in front of the picture window, gazing into that dense forest beyond the house. A forest behind your house! A room big enough to cartwheel in!—you will someday marvel over this. And wonder what, in years ahead, will become of the land, the house.

Go hug your mom and dad. Right now. Go ask them about what they were like when they were young. Then write it down.

Making up stories is still an act of pure leisure, no inner critic clawing away at the page. It’ll only get harder to indulge in the act of writing, to see it as playtime, as escape. Right now, home from freshman year at college, you still have all the time in the world: to take a long hot shower, to sprawl across your bed under the cool breeze of the ceiling fan and just write in your journal, because the words need out. Years from now, having earned the cred of an MFA, you will wonder why you stopped keeping a journal. The old volumes will huddle in the darkness of a closet, waiting for that slow time you anticipate—winter days with nothing to do but pore over old words. A time that you’ll begin to suspect may never come.

You know what I’m getting at, here. I hate to do it to you. Young people are always being cheerfully browbeaten by this sort of thing. But it never stops being worthy advice (and I’m you, babe, so I have, like, carte blanche to shake a finger): Appreciate the present. It never grows less relevant, really. You’ll be challenged every day: to love what you’ve got, as the world furiously beseeches you, loudly and softly, relentless as your heartbeat, to want something different, something more. Love your body, your family, your choices, your strange and daydreamy trains of thought, your acts of intelligence and your many mistakes.

Hang on to the essays and stories you write—all of them, on paper, because that little Smith-Corona gadget you write on is trotting swiftly down the lane to Obsolesence Town. Go ahead, embrace your packrattty side. Like the journals, you’ll want those papers, even if they spend most of their lives in the dark.

Books will never be a waste of your time (I know, you know this; I don’t really need to say it). But hey, you could stand to be more wary of, or spend less time with, any folks who are not as crazy about books as you are. Steal away and read as much as you can, take notes—and when you get to college, go ahead and do that double major, add English to the American Studies, even if it means sticking around another year. Don’t avoid Shakespeare and Milton because you think those seem kinda like drags, and an independent study on the Simpsons and hyperreality would be way more interesting. (Do them both, is what I’m saying.) What you don’t know is that you’ve got that precious commodity of time now, and you won’t always.

Work harder at befriending your professors.

And for god’s sake, go study in France while you have the chance.

Look in the mirror and, instead of worrying over the zit that has erupted on the side of your right nostril, notice the absence of lines around your mouth, between your brows, under your eyes when you smile. The glowing smooth surfaces of your cheeks. It’s hard to see what’s not there, yeah—even harder to appreciate it. But think about this: There are 30- and 40something women, young mother types, that you can’t even see (they’re invisible to you right now, as they should be), looking at you, wishing they didn’t have what you don’t have.

I am deeply conflicted, but I will not tell you to avoid the older men, in all their pathetic allure. I will not tell you to avoid the hipster pizza joint in favor of a bookstore job when you move to Atlanta. I will not tell you to be a fundamentally different girl than you are. Because you know what? You’re OK. More OK than you realize.

(I don’t mean to be a killjoy, but the whole sticky mess of living really will get more difficult before it gets easier. And it will never be less complicated.)

I think I’m supposed to be dishing some wisdom here, but the thing is, I mainly have questions I’d like to ask of you. I want to plow back into the you that I was and know exactly how that person thought and felt, and what the texture of her life was. So many of the details are worn away. My recollection of your life is a book of generalities, vast blank spaces… Sadly, that is no way for a writer to be.

So I am often struggling to call you up, channel you, rediscover things that have seemingly slipped away. How badly I want to inhabit your head again, and can’t! So I’ll ask you to do this for me: Just write every little last thing down, ‘k? You’ll start keeping a journal in earnest in 11th grade, but could you maybe fill it with even more quotidian stuff (that means ‘everyday,’ and you’ll come to love that fancypants word), more observations of your teachers and your parents and just whatever random thoughts go through your head, and what you and your friends do when you hang out on weekends, and who says what to whom? Because it feels like I’ve lost a whole lot of that, and it makes me sad.

You can do that? For me? Good.

Find Susannah on Twitter @hannasusj.

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