Featured Alumni: Rachel Corbett '07JRN

Alumni Artist

Featured Alumni: Rachel Corbett '07JRN

Author of new book You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin

As part of our blog series on Featured Alumni, we interviewed Rachel Corbett ‘07JRN, who is the author of You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin, a story about the unlikely pair of artists.

More about Rachel Corbett ‘07JRN

Rachel Corbett is the author of You Must Change Your Life: The Story of Rainer Maria Rilke and Auguste Rodin, which won the 2016 Marfield Prize, the National Award for Arts Writing. Translations are forthcoming in German, Czech, Turkish, Korean, Serbian and Russian. She has also written for the New Yorker, the New York Times, The Art Newspaper, the BBC, New York Magazine, and others. She graduated from Columbia University and the University of Iowa, and currently lives in Brooklyn, New York. Read below for the full interview.

What inspired you to write the book on Rodin and Rilke? Did Rodin’s The Thinker (a copy of the bronze can be found outside Philosophy Hall) spark your interest in the artist and his life?

I did walk by that Thinker hundreds of times while at Columbia! Maybe it had an unconscious effect. That work, which is by far his most famous, has come to symbolize Rodin himself in many ways. It certainly made an impression on Rilke, who once wrote that in Rodin’s rendering, the Thinker’s “whole body has become head and all the blood in his veins has become brain.” Rilke wrote that in his book about Rodin, which he started when he was just 26 years old, and which set in motion the friendship that I chronicle in my book. At the same time that Rilke was in Paris with Rodin, he began writing the letters that would become the collection Letters to a Young Poet and when I began this project I really wanted to find out how much Rodin influenced those writings. (Quite a bit, it turned out.)

Many of our readers are interested in career advice and career development. You got your start in art journalism as a freelance writer for ArtNews. When did you know that you wanted to specialize in this area of journalism? What was the best advice you received while you were starting out?

I graduated from Columbia’s journalism school in 2007, just as the economy started tanking and media companies were laying off journalists en masse. I would’ve taken a job covering any beat, but I got lucky because some of the publications covering “luxury” subjects seemed to be surviving when others weren’t. Advertisers still to some degree were supporting art, fashion, and high-end lifestyle magazines because their readerships tended to be wealthier and they were less affected by the economic downturn. So I got a job working at a lifestyle magazine, where I launched an arts column. Then I started freelancing on the side for art magazines, like ARTnews, and writing about art for the New York Observer.

How has your experience and education at Columbia helped you to get to where you are today?

When I was starting out I found that there was a need for writers who covered art in an accessible way. Learning to write simply is one of the first and most enduring lessons of journalism school. I wish art writers would practice this more often—a lot of what’s out there is so linguistically tangled that you wonder whether the writer even knows they’re saying. I’d love it if journalistic principles, like observing and describing, were applied more often to art criticism, where a lot of writers try to do the opposite and make artworks describe their ideas.

While you were pursuing your Master’s degree in Journalism, what were some of your favorite Columbia memories? Did you have a favorite writing spot on campus?

I lived in Brooklyn and my neighborhood beat as a student was Coney Island so I actually didn’t spend much time on campus. But when I did I loved working at Avery and Butler libraries—and I still do. One of the best things about attending Columbia is the alumni access to its libraries. I wrote most of my book on the sixth floor of Butler. 

Do you have plans for another book? What else are you working on?

I’m kicking around some ideas but don’t have anything set in stone just yet. There will be another one—eventually!

Rachel will be making appearances at the upcming events below:

March 10, Rilke program at Lorin Maazel's Castleton Festival in Virginia

April 28 Art Lovers Book Club Talk at the Attleboro Arts Museum in Massachusetts

May 13 Book World Prague for the release of the book's Czech translation

You can learn more about Rachel and her upcoming events here.