Skip to main content
Return to Interviews Table of Contents Source File: cat.bohlke.i.21.xml

from Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters

Selected and edited by L. Brent Bohlke

Lincoln & London: University of Nebraska Press, 1986

1925: NEW YORK

Willa Cather agreed to "teach" writing just once-in 1922 at the School of English at Breadloaf, the summer conference at Middlebury, Vermont. A correspondent from the Bookman visited the conference and wrote, "Willa Cather was there, and we would have given a good deal to hear her five lectures on writing. She was also working on a novelette, and they had given her a delightful cabin, with a view of the mountains, in which to write of a morning" (September 1922, 127). Later she refused many invitations to teach there again or to be a part of other writing conferences. In her correspondence with friends she indicated that she had accepted the invitation in 1922 during a weak moment and later regretted it. She makes plain her feeling about the indifference of such efforts to teach writing in this interview three years later. It is another well-known article and contains the famous quotation from Michelet, the French historian: "The end is nothing; the road is all." She goes on to talk about that "road" at considerable length and reveals that her original name for Neil in A Lost Lady was Duncan, giving the novel another Shakespearean connection besides the epigraph. She also rejects an overidentification with the Midwest, but in so doing she uses a most agricultural -- and midwestern -- analogy to explain her reasons.

Flora Merrill, the interviewer, was a native New Yorker and a free-lance journalist and author. She went on to write Flush of Wimpole Street and Broadway(1933) and Kippy of the Cavendish(1934), both books about dogs.

A SHORT STORY COURSE CAN ONLY DELAY, It Cannot Kill an Artist, Says Willa Cather

In Willa Cather's quick movements and rapidity of speech there is a faint suggestion of Minnie Maddern Fiske, a gentler, less vibrant Mrs. Fiske. And there is something of the actress's manner in the way she greets one at the door. It becomes a special moment, and one knows one is in her hands for good or bad.

Miss Cather lives in an old-fashioned apartment house in Greenwich Village. During an hour's conversation she sat in a low chair, her chin resting on one hand, and analyzed her own methods and writing in general in a comprehensive, original manner. Her replies came in paragraphs rather than single sentences, with a homely, informal quality. They were her opinions, and, whether one agreed with them or not, one found them provocative.

While of a seemingly positive nature, Miss Cather permits one to take her ideas or leave them. Your agreeing with her is a matter of indifference. One meets in the woman the same calm, intelligent, and worldly outlook evidenced in the manner in which she handles sex in her books. Partly because she avoids all womanish skimming of surfaces and writes realistically, her work had been characterized as having a manlike quality. One cannot imagine that she herself could be carried away by her own daring and frankness. Both in the written work and in person she evidences a quiet courage, sanity and balance of mind.

She wore a very lovely orange blouse embroidered in gold and had flung around her shoulders a bright green chiffon scarf, both of which were in contrast to the sidecombs in her hair. Beauty lies in her eyes and in her smile. She candidly admits she presents a problem to the caricaturist. Upon the assurance of one that he needed but half an hour in which to sketch her she suffered his presence for three afternoons. Another worked feverishly while she lunched at the Algonquin, but all the results, she insisted, looked like Gilbert K. Chesterton without his mustache. Consequently, photographs or nothing is her dictum.

The driving force behind Willa Cather's story-telling has not been the need of money, nor the thrill of seeing her words in print. Writing has been purely a source of pleasure to her. In earning a living she employed other methods. She writes because it is the most interesting activity of which she knows. Yet there have been long periods in her career, one lasting six years, when she did none. In fact, she devotes only five months of each year to creative work and spends the rest vacationing in Europe or the West.

"Writing does entail labor, certainly," she admitted, "but to me it has always been a joy, like golf or tennis. Playing tennis for one who loves it isn't work. A player's footwork may be bad and he may have been indifferently taught, but his joy in working a mediocre game into good tennis is a delight.

"I don't mean to say there isn't a struggle in writing, but it is an activity which stimulates you just as playing on a violin excites the violinist. There are always a lot of people who have a little vocation-I like that word better than talent- and then there are people with a very great vocation for the violin, such as Heifetz, whose career has meant a great power for work. The six years I spent on McClure's Magazine in an editorial capacity I call work. It meant responsibilities and duties. I did no writing then, but I was abroad much of the time meeting interesting English authors.

"I quit editorial work because it afforded me no time in which to write. The more you pursue your hobby, the more the other things drop out. The reason I didn't like my newspaper experience as telegraph editor and dramatic critic on the Pittsburgh Daily Leader was because it gave me so little time for the things I wanted to do; while teaching English at Allegheny High School gave me work I liked, I wasn't much older than some of the students, so we studied together.

"When I was in college," she reminisced, "I admired certain writers and read the masters of style, who gave me great pleasure. Those ideas have changed. All students imitate, and I began by imitating Henry James. He was the most interesting American who was writing at that time, and I strove laboriously to pattern after him. All students began imitating those they admire, and 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 great masters, but people overlook the fact that it is an equally good plan for young writers. Later you find your own style. It is dangerous, however, to try to be 'original' too early.

"I can't remember a time when I particularly wanted to get into print," she continued. "My early newspaper work soon took away that thrill. When I am in New York I work nearly every day, writing first in longhand and typing the second and third copies. Then the manuscript goes to my typist, and on her sheets I make the last corrections before it is sent to the publisher. When people ask me if it has been a hard or easy road I always answer with the quotation, 'The end is nothing, the road is all.'

"The cups mean nothing to the tennis champions," said Miss Cather.

"I keep referring to tennis because it is the most sportsmanlike sport we have. It is the one game you can't play for money. That is what I mean when I say my writing has been a pleasure. I have never faced the typewriter with the thought that one more chore had to be done.

"Next to writing I love best to prowl around the Western country, seeing little towns and how the people live in them. To me, the real West begins with the Missouri. Colorado, Nebraska, Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada do not seem like separate states to me, but are linked together in my mind like one big country.

"In my writing, however, I do not want to become too identified with that region. There is little of the West in The Professor's House, the book I am working on now. Using one setting all the time is very like planting a field with corn season after season. I believe in rotation of crops. If the public ties me down to the cornfield too much I'm afraid I'll leave that scene entirely. However, I suppose I'd sneak back, perhaps under a different name. I love the West so much."

Concerning schools and courses of short-story writing, Miss Cather had this to say:

"They can only teach those patterns which have proved successful. If one is going to do new business the patterns cannot help, though one does not deliberately go out to do that. My Ántonia, for instance, is just the other side of the rug, the pattern that is supposed not to count in a story. In it there is no love affair, no courtship, no marriage, no broken heart, no struggle for success. I knew I'd ruin my material if I put it in the usual fictional pattern. I just used it the way I thought absolutely true. A Lost Lady was a woman I loved very much in my childhood. Now the problem was to get her, not like a standardized heroine in fiction, but as she really was, and not to care about anything else in the story except that one character. And there is nothing but that portrait. Everything else is subordinate.

"I didn't try to make a character study, but just a portrait like a thin miniature painted on ivory. A character study of Mrs. Forrester would have been very, very different. I wasn't interested in her character when I was little, but in her lovely hair and her laugh which made me happy clear down to my toes. Neither is 'Niel' a character study. In fact, he isn't a character at all; he is just a peephole into that world. I am amused when people tell me he is a lovely character, when in reality he is only a point of view.

"A Lost Lady was written in five months, but I worked with some fervor. I discarded ever so many drafts, and in the beginning wrote it in the first person, speaking as by the boy himself. The question was, by what medium could I present her the most vividly, and that, of course, meant the most truly. There was no fun in it unless I could get her just as I remembered her and produce the effect she had on me and the many others who knew her. I had to succeed in this. Otherwise, I would have been cheating, and there would have been no more fun in that than there is in cheating at solitaire.

"Your memories are like the colors in paints, but you must arrange them, and it is a hard job to do a portrait in ink without getting too much description. I am amazed that I was as successful as I was in making people who knew the actual model for Mrs. Forrester feel that it was very like her.

"Oh, yes, the real character died. It never occurred to me to write the story until she had, and there are no children who could be hurt.

"In that book I again tried the indirect method. I had to have something for Marian Forrester's charm to work on, and so I created Duncan-I mean 'Niel. I called the boy Duncan in the beginning. You can't talk about beauty for pages and pages. You have to have something for it to hit, and the boy answered that purpose. Now, a youngster beginning to write would get too fussed up over the story. He would have to have a certain love theme, and in his telling the bank failure in Denver would be made a great deal of, and so it would end in being a conventional novel.

"I like best of my books the one that all the high-brow critics knock," Miss Cather confessed. "In my opinion, One of Ours has more of value in it than any one of the others. I don't think it has as few faults perhaps as My Ántonia or A Lost Lady, but any story of youth, struggle, and defeat can't be as smooth in outline and perfect in form as just a portrait. When you have an inarticulate young man butting his way through the world you can't pay that much attention to form.

"Sometimes the discords and errors in drawing are necessary for the important effect. You must have the thing that is most precious to you even if you have saved it at the cost of a number of conventional things. You can't get a delicate face laughing at you out of a miniature, which I hope I got in A Lost Lady, and also have a lot of Western atmosphere and a dramatic bank failure. I like a book where you do one thing.

"You must work out your own fashion," she mused, "work it out from under the old patterns. Without doubt the schools develop good mechanical writers, and if a born artist happens to take the course it won't do him any harm. In my opinion, you can't kill an artist any more than you can make one. Take, for instance, the talented violinists who have played in cabarets. While the experience may delay a career, it does not necessarily destroy talent.

"Such commonplace things as health and character are essential for a successful career. By health I mean a stamina and vitality which permits one to sense and feel life. The most talented youth won't get on very well if he tries to eat all the dinners people give him and drink all the cocktails that he doesn't have to pay for. I knew the writer about whom Mr. Dreiser wrote in Twelve Men who dies from prolonging the wining and dining system to the bitter end. If a young man is beginning to write pretty well and a lot of people want to dine, wine, and lunch him and he eats and drinks himself to death, he lacks character."

Regarding the respective importance of style and ideas in writing, Miss Cather had this to say:

"Style is how you write, and you write well when you are interested. A writer's own interest in a story is the essential thing. If there is a flash of warmth in him it is repeated in the reader. The emotion is bigger than style.

"I don't think there is anything in ideas. When a young writer tells you he has an idea for a story he means he has had an emotion that he wants to pass on. An artist has an emotion, and the first thing that he wants to do with it is to find some form to put it in, a design. It reacts on him exactly as food makes a hungry person want to eat. It may tease him for years until he gets the right form for the emotion.

"Now the writer of little talent is all the time on the lookout for what he calls an idea, a situation and combination which will enable him to produce a story that will interest the reader. I am not speaking disparagingly of this kind of writing, for even the elder Dumas employed this method. The situation counts greatly for the writer who makes his stories out of the ideas he picks up, but very little for the one who writes from his personal experience and emotions.

"The type of writer we have been talking about has a brain like Limbo, full of ghosts, for which he has always tried to find bodies. A Lost Lady was a beautiful ghost in my mind for twenty years before it came together as a possible subject for presentation. All the lovely emotions that one has had some day appear with bodies, and it isn't as if one found ideas suddenly. Before this the memories of these experiences and emotions have been like perfumes. It is the difference between a remembered face and having that friend one day come in through the door. She is really no more yours then than she has been right along in your memory.

"Of course, there are mechanical difficulties for all writers. Every presentation has its own obstacles. To me, the one important thing is never to kill the figure that you care for for the sake of atmosphere, well balanced structure, or neat presentation. If you gave me a thousand dollars for every structural fault in My Antonia you'd make me very rich. I know they are there, and made them knowingly, but that was the way I could best get my squint at her. With those faults I did better than if I had brought them together into a more perfect structure. Sometimes too much symmetry kills things."

When asked whether in her opinion the tremendous influx of writers was a help to culture, or detrimental to it, Miss Cather said:

"I like horses better than automobiles, and I think fewer and better books would be a great improvement. I think it a great misfortune for every one to have the chance to write-to have a chance to read, for that matter: A little culture makes lazy handiwork, and handiwork is a beautiful education in itself, and something real. Good carpentry, good weaving, all the handicrafts were much sounder forms of education than what the people are getting now.

"One sad feature of modem education is that the hand is so little trained among the people who have to earn their daily bread, and the head so superficially and poorly educated. The one education which amounts to anything is learning how to do something well, whether it is to make a bookcase or write a book. If I could get a carpenter to make me some good bookcases I would have as much respect for him as I have for the people whose books I want to put on them. Making something well is the principal end of education. I wish we could go back, but I am afraid we are only going to become more and more mechanical."

New York World, 19 April 1925, sec. 3, pp. 1, 6, cols. 1-5, 4-5. Reprinted in Nebraska State Journal, 25 April 1925, p. 11, cols. 1- 5.