“If the Angel deigns to come, it will be because you have convinced her, not by your tears, but by your humble resolve to be always beginning: to be a beginner.”
-Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet
Rilke’s letters are well worth reading: I’d share a link, but you should probably buy the thin little book. Links can be informative, they’re picks to gather some information from the internet, but it’s hard for me to make links into friends; books cross rivers with you, they wait patiently by your beside, they serve humbly as coasters and boldly as weapons against rabid squirrels, they whisper back as you rustle their pages, and they speak. I like ‘em.
So: Rilke. We often use “beginner” to mean someone who hasn’t learned too much yet, as opposed to an expert, who knows what’s what and how not to blow the laboratory sky high. A beginner’s a noob. You don’t want to be a noob. On the other hand, what are you good at? Really, really good at? Whenever I talk to anyone who actually has practiced something, they’ll say they still have a lot to learn. They do still have a lot to learn, because there is more in any discipline to learn than any of us will ever know. Perhaps, in reading Rilke, we can start reclaiming the word “beginner:” the truth is, that’s a pretty wonderful thing to be. When you’re a noob, a newbie, the world’s new, and when the world’s new there is still so much to explore and discover. So let’s be noobs together.
Of course, a “beginner” could also be “one who begins.” It would be wonderful to be that. You know how you’ve been wanting to learn to draw better? Begin. You know how you’ve always wanted to sing? Begin. You know how you’ve wondered if you and this person could be friends? Be a beginner. Start something with the world. (When life goes all Taxi Driver on you, and says, “You talking to me?” say, “Yeah!”).
A few days ago, a student came to me after completing an interesting short movie for our class. He’d done a great job: he has lots of talent, he was trying to use techniques he’d learned from Hitchcock and Iñárritu, and he was a beginner. He got a high grade, but not as high as he expects from himself, so he came to ask me, respectfully, how he’d lost points. I tried to tell him not to look at it that way. I tried to say that he was playing with interesting ideas, interesting techniques, but he was still starting. If I gave him a bow, he wouldn’t handle it very well the first time. That’s just how bows are. That’s just how skills are. And that’s not a bad thing. In fact, it would be sad if this movie (his fourth ever, completed when he was sixteen) contained his full understanding of movie making: that would mean either that cinematography is a shallow art, where there isn’t much to learn, or that he just isn’t capable of exploring the art’s nuances. And neither of those are true. I want to see more of the movies this beginner makes as he begins.
Perhaps it’s silly to expect to be a master at the start. Perhaps wisdom is to learn, to grow, to fumble, to act with love and attention and dedication–to be always beginning.