The Willa Cather Primer for Writers

Much of Willa Cather’s whole existence was fiction. She scripted it herself. Don’t like life? Don’t like where it’s headed? Don’t like yourself? Don’t like the world around you? Change it. Revise it. Make it up to suit yourself. Willa Cather did it for the rest of her life.

Willa Cather on the cover of Time.

She was properly, officially, and legally named Wilella, but she hated it. She insisted on calling herself Willie instead. In time, she had herself baptized as William Cather, Jr. She was born in 1873. But for whatever reason, she decided that 1876 was a better year, so she spent the rest of her days three years younger than she really was. No one ever had a reason to question her. No one cared. Willa Cather did.

Her mother had every intention of raising Willie Cather as a proper and genteel young lady. But Willie cropped her hair short, wore men’s clothing, and did not get around to dressing like the woman she was until she was a junior in college.

She wrote her life, one day at a time, as she went along. And the life she led became the stuff of fiction. Every moment, every memory was ingrained in her senses, each sight and sound lodged in her brain. They would remain locked away until she needed them, and she needed them every time she sat down to write.

Though born in Virginia to a Southern family that had stayed steadfast and loyal to the Union during the Civil War, brought up on land that still bore the scars and bloodshed of war, scars festering with pain and emotions that were slow to heal, Willa Cather journeyed at a young age with her family to Red Cloud, Nebraska.

As a child, she had lived in the shadows of the mountains. Now, the plains stretched before. Empty. And barren. She was horrified. As Willa Cather would write in her brilliant novel, My Antonia, “I had never before looked up at the sky where there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the complete dome of heaven, all there was of it. Between that earth and that sky, I felt erased, blotted out.”

A stylish Willa Cather

As she would later say in an interview: “The land was open range, and there was almost no fencing. As we drove farther and farther out in the country, I felt a good deal as if we had come to the end of everything … I would not know how much a child’s life is bound up in the woods and hills and meadows around it if I had not been jerked away from all these and thrown out into a country as bare as a piece of sheet iron. I heard my father say you had to show grit in a new country.”

The new country would have a lasting influence on the dozen novels and numerous short stories that flowed from the mind of Willa Cather. Even she would say that the land was the hero of her novels, the land and the intriguing culture that evolved around her.

With nothing to do, she roamed the prairies on her pony and met an odd assortment of Bohemian immigrants who had settled the open country – the Germans, Swedish, and Norwegians. They spoke with different accents and brogues. They told different kinds of tales, and Willa Cather listened to them all, stockpiling the stories, and storing up all of the details that would one day spill out onto the pages of O Pioneers!, My Antonia, The Song of the Lark, and One of Ours, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Her life had been fiction. No one at the time wrote fiction with any more passion and emotion.

She was a stylist. Her rich prose rang with the strength and grace of a poet as she turned out such passages as The earth was warm under me, and warm as I crumbled it through my fingers … I kept as still as I could. Nothing happened. I did not expect anything to happen. I was something that lay under the sun and felt it, like the pumpkins, and I did not want to be anything more. I was entirely happy. Perhaps we feel like that when we die and become a part of something entire, whether it is sun and air, or good and knowledge. At ay rate, that is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great. When it comes to one, it comes as naturally as sleep.

Cather’s fiction created a personal intimacy between writer and reader. It was honest. It was authentic. It was genuine.

Her words, both written and spoken, left a wealth of good ideas for authors to stockpile and use in their own writing careers. Included were fragments of her own themes that can form the foundation for any novel.

I don’t want anyone reading my writing to think about style. I just want them to be in the story.

Most of the basic material writer works with is acquired before the age of fifteen.

Let your fiction grow out of the land beneath your feet.

Success is never so interesting as the struggle.

Artistic growth is, more than it is anything else, a refining of the sense of truthfulness. The stupid believe that to be truthful is easy; only the artist, the great artist, knows how difficult it is.

There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.

Every artist makes himself born. It is very much harder than the other time, and longer.

Give the people a new word, and they think they have a new fact.

Some memories are realities, and are better than anything that can ever happen to one again.

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.

To know an artist’s limitations is but to define his talent. A reporter can write equally well about everything that is presented to his view, but a creative writer can do his best only with what lies within the range and character of his deepest sympathies.

What was any art but a mould in which to imprison for a moment the shining elusive element which is life itself – life hurrying past us and running away, too strong to stop, too sweet to lose.

Writing ought either to be the manufacture of stories for which there is market demand – a business as safe and commendable as making soap or breakfast foods – or it should be an art, which is always in search for something for which there is no market demand, something new and untried, where the values are intrinsic and have nothing to do which standardized values.”

If a true artist were born in a pigpen an raised in a sty, he would still find plenty of inspiration for his work. The only need is the eye to see.

Her secret? It is every artist’s secret: passion. That is all. It is an open secret, and perfectly safe. Like heroism, it is inimitable to cheap materials.

There is often a good deal of the child left in people who have had to grow up too soon.

The history of every country begins in the heart of a man or a woman.

The dead might as well try to speak to the living as the old to the young.

Only solitary men know the full joys of friendship. Others have their family; but to a solitary and an exile, his friends are everything.

Where there is great love, there are always miracles.

People live through such pain only once. Pain comes again – but it finds a tougher surface.

There are some things you learn best in calm, and some in storm.

Nothing is far and nothing is near, if one desires. The world is little, people are little, human life is little. There is only one big thing: desire.

Nothing mattered … but writing books, and living the kind of life that made it possible to write them.

Willa Cather wrote a story, The Best Years, for her brother, Roscoe. As she was getting ready to send the story to him, she received a telegram telling her of his death. Willa Cather set the story aside and never wrote again. Her last novel, set in France, was never finished, and when she died, the manuscript was burned at her final request. She kept those last great words and stylistic passages to herself. They were spoken only by the flames.


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