Sunday, December 7, 2014

Willa Cather on Writing



Willa Cather was born in 1873 and lived in Nebraska from the time she was nine years old until she left at twenty-three—fourteen very formative years. Three of her novels are set in Nebraska. The following quotes are from the 1949 book Willa Cather on Writing, except as noted.

Writing Style

Cather became discouraged later in life by critics saying her work was out of touch with current events and wished she used different writing techniques, like stream of consciousness. It's sad to wish a writer was more like other writers instead of celebrating her individual strengths.

William Curtin wrote:
She had formed and matured her ideas on art before she wrote a novel. She had no more reason to follow Gertrude Stein and James Joyce, whose work she respected, than they did to follow her. Her style solves the problems in which she was interested.*

She Wrote What She Knew

Her writing is grounded in her own life experiences.

In writing what she knew she worked within the constraints life gave her. If you think your life is boring and there is nothing to write about, consider what she was able to do with the people and setting of the Nebraska prairies.

Every artist knows that there is no such thing as “freedom” in art. The first thing an artist does when he begins a new work is to lay down the barriers and limitations; he decides upon a certain composition, a certain key, a certain relation of creatures or objects to each other. He is never free...

A contemporary writer, Sarah Orne Jewett, said in a letter to Cather:
I find this observation: “The thing that teases the mind over and over for years, and at last gets itself put down rightly on paper — whether little or great, it belongs to Literature.

Elsewhere Cather wrote:
The artist spends a lifetime in loving the things that haunt him, in having his mind “teased” by them...

Don't Say It

It's a rare gift to create a mood and tell a story by what you leave out.

...to present their scene by suggestion rather than by enumeration. The higher processes of art are all processes of simplification. The novelist must learn to write, and then he must unlearn it; just as the modern painter learns to draw, and then learns when utterly to disregard his accomplishment, when to subordinate it to a higher and truer effect. 
Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there — that, one might say, is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed, that gives high quality to the novel or the drama, as well as to poetry itself.
Art, it seems to me, should simplify. That, indeed, is very nearly the whole of the higher artistic process; finding what conventions of form and what detail one can do without and yet preserve the spirit of the whole — so that all that one has suppressed and cut away is there to the reader’s consciousness as much as if it were in type on the page.
No poet can write of love, hate, jealousy. He can only touch these things as they affect the people in his drama and his story.

Write Using Scenes

Cather gives great advice on developing scenes in the story process:
The “scene” in fiction is not a mere matter of construction, any more than it is in life. When we have a vivid experience in social intercourse, pleasant or unpleasant, it records itself in our memory in the form of a scene; and when it flashes back to us, all sorts of apparently unimportant details are flashed back with it. When a writer has a strong or revelatory experience with his characters, he unconsciously creates a scene; gets a depth of picture, and writes, as it were, in three dimensions instead of two. The absence of these warm and satisfying moments in any work of fiction is final proof of the author’s poverty of emotion and lack of imagination.

Writing that Lingers in the Reader's Mind

I wasn't sure I would like My √Āntonia. I wondered if there was enough in the bare Nebraska landscape to hold my attention for the length of a novel. But when I was a few pages from finishing I put it down for a few days. I didn't want it to end.

[Walter] Pater said that every truly great drama must, in the end, linger in the reader’s mind as a sort of ballad. Probably the same thing might be said of every great story. It must leave in the mind of the sensitive reader an intangible residuum of pleasure; a cadence, a quality of voice that is exclusively the writer’s own, individual, unique. A quality that one can remember without the volume at hand, can experience over and over again in the mind but can never absolutely define, as one can experience in memory a melody, or the summer perfume of a garden. The magnitude of the subject-matter is not of primary importance, seemingly.


*Curtin, William M. "Willa Cather: Individualism and Style". Colby Library Quarterly. June 1968, No. 2, p. 52.

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