Cather, Willa

Willa Cather

Willa Cather (1873-1947) created a body of work that represented consummate craftsmanship of the written word. She first worked as a journalist, starting with a position at the Nebraska State Journal while still a college student in the 1890’s and after graduating she started at McClure’s magazine in New York City; making it to a managing editor position. Cather felt that working in the fast pace of newspaper and magazine production helped her to work off her flood of exaggerated, novice writings.

Her novels, known for their stark beauty and spare language, reflect her philosophy that writing is an art as well as a craft (and a skill) that can be honed and polished. She advised aspiring writers to spill out all their overwrought, adjective-laden prose,allowing clearer focus and language to come through in one’s writing.Cather’s considerable wisdom has been fully preserved, especially in the numerous interviews she granted despite her professed disdain for the press and with fame in general.

From the 1953 edition of The Professor’s House (Borzoi/Alfred A. Knopf):

“Willa Cather was born near Winchester, VA, where her father and ancestors for several generations farmed the land. When she was eight years old, her father bought a ranch in Nebraska, and the family moved from the tranquil, ordered life of an old Virginia society, with its conservative traditions, to the wild, free, adventurous scene of the Western prairies, then thinly populated with foreign settlers — Norwegians, Swedes, Bohemians, Germans. Her Willa Cather spend most of her time riding about on her pony, visiting these foreign-born neighbors, whose struggles to master the soil in the face of droughts and blizzards, hailstorms and prairie-fires, gave its first great awakening to her imagination — deeply coloring her later life and work.

The family moved afterward to the town of Red Cloud, where Willa Cather entered high school — she had never gone to school before, but had read many of the English classics with her two grandmothers, and had learned Latin. At nineteen she graduated from the University of Nebraska. She spent the next few years in Pittsburgh doing newspaper work and teaching.

It was during those years that she wrote the brilliantly original short stories that came under the eye of S.S. McClure, who telegraphed her to come to New York and offered her a position on his magazine. Six years later she resigned her editorship of McClure’s to give time to her original work.

Willa Cather’s first novel, Alexander’s Bridge, was published in 1912. It was followed by the distinguished list of works. With each new book, recognition of Willa Cather, both in the United States and abroad, as an artist of supreme distinction and creative genius has steadily grown. Her novels have been translated into French, German, Italian, Spanish, Czech, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Finnish, and Dutch.”

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The young Willa Cather

Willa Cather Quotes

“Desire is creation, is the magical element in that process. If there were an instrument by which to measure desire, one could foretell achievement.”

“It does not matter much whom we live with in this world, but it matters a great deal whom we dream of.”

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

“The fact that I was a girl never damaged my ambitions to be a pope or an emperor.”

“In this country a writer has to hide and lie and almost steal in order to get time to work—and peace of mind to work with.”

“To note 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.”

“The business of writing is a personal problem and must be worked out in an individual way. A great many people, ambitious to write, fall by the wayside, but if they are the discourageable kind it is better that they drop out. No beginner knows what [she] has to go through with or [she] would never begin.” (From an interview with the Lincoln Daily Star, 1915)

“When I was in college and immediately after graduation, I did newspaper work. I found that newspaper writing did a great deal of good for me in working off the purple flurry of my early writing. Every young writer has to work off the “fine writing” stage. It was a painful period in which I overcame my florid, exaggerated, foamy-at-the-mouth, adjective-spree period. I knew even then it was a crime to write like I did, but I had to get the adjectives and the youthful fervor worked off. I believe every young writer must write whole books of extravagant language to get it out. It is agony to be smothered in your own florescence, and to be forced to dump great cartloads if your posies out in the road before you find that one pony that will fit in the right place…” (From an interview with the Lincoln Daily Star, 1915)

Willa Cather1“What I write results from a personal explosional experience. All of a sudden, the idea for a story is in my head. It is in the ink bottle when I start to write. But I don’t start until the idea has found its own pattern and fixed its proper tone. And it does that; some of the things that I first consider important fade into insignificance, while others that I first glimpse as minor things, grow until they show that they are the important things. It seems a natural purpose…a novel should be like a symphony, developed from one theme, one dominating tone.” (Interview, San Francisco Chronicle, 1931)

“Imagination, which is a quality writers must have, does not mean the ability to weave pretty stories out of nothing. In the right sense, imagination is a response to what is going on — a sensitiveness to which outside things appeal. It is a composition of sympathy and observation.”
(Interview, Lincoln Daily Star, 1915)

“In Alexander’s Bridge I was still more preoccupied with trying to write well than with anything else. A painter or writer must learn to distinguish what is [her] own from what [she] admires. I never abandoned trying to compromise between the kinds of matter which my experience had given me, and the kind of writing I admired, until I began my second novel, O Pioneers!.” (Interview, The New Yorker, 1931)

“All students imitate, and I began by imitating Henry James. He was the most interesting American who was writing at the time, and I strove laboriously to pattern after him…it is a perfectly right form of education. It takes a long time to get out from under the traditions which hamper a young writer. It is a recognized fact that young painters should imitate the work of the great masters, but people oerlook the fact that it is equally dangerous , however, to try to be “original” too early.” (Interview, New York World, 1925)

“The young writer must learn to deal with subjects [she] really knows about. No matter how commonplace a subject may be, if it is one with which the author is thoroughly familiar it makes a much better story than the purely imaginational.” (Interview, Lincoln Daily Star, 1915)

 

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