In 1908, one of the world’s great writers hit a creative dead end. Willa Cather, a fledgling short story writer, helmed one of the largest literary magazines in
, McClure’s, yet she couldn’t write
a novel. Even her stories tended to be accomplished, yet derivative imitations
of the bestselling novels of the day—tales of high society romances and artists
suffering for art. As an editor she knew what sold, and knew—apparently—what
people wanted to read. However, when she wrote those very things, tailored to
audience expectations and critical approval, the result never caught fire. She
had written some excellent short stories (“A Wagner Matinee” being one of the
best), but she couldn’t extend the material; the situations and characters were
often second-hand, cribbed from Edith Wharton and Henry James, among others. It
bored her to even think of it! New York
Around the same time a letter arrived from a respected mentor, the short story writer Sarah Orne Jewett (The Country of the Pointed Firs). Jewett had made her name writing stories of rural life in
impressionistic sketches that seemed captured from life. Cather deeply admired
those stories, but she couldn’t write stories about Maine ...she was from Maine ! Who in the world
wanted to read stories about immigrant farmers eking out a tortuous existence
in places like Red Cloud or Hanover? Her audience couldn’t even find Nebraska on a map, and moreover,
were too educated to dirty their hands with rustic peasants in the corn belt.
Jewett, a member of this very audience, thought otherwise; she instructed
Cather not to lead with her audience, but write from her heart: Nebraska
You are older now than that book [her collection of short stories, The Troll Garden] in general—but if you don’t keep and guard and mature your force, and above all, have time and quiet to perfect your work, you will be writing things not much better than you did five years ago...Your vivid, exciting companionship in the office must not be your audience, you must find your own quiet center of life, , and write from that to...the human heart. Otherwise, what might be strength in a writer is only crudeness; sentiment falls to sentimentality—you can write about life, but never write life itself—To work in silence and with all one’s heart, that is the writer’s lot; he is the only artist who must be solitary, and yet needs the widest outlook on the world.
She must have read and re-read this letter a thousand times. Cather, from a small town in
, had worked her way
from Nebraska to Lincoln to Pittsburgh and found herself at
the very center of artistic New York . She ate sophistication
and drank culture, dizzy with drama. She wanted to write to please these
people, to win their praise and become the next “big thing.” In a simple, yet
honest letter, Jewett told her—“don’t bother.” If you keep writing the same
thing you’ve been writing, for the same people, for the same prize, then sure,
you might win the prize; you might win new readers and get contracts for new
books. But you’ll be writing the same old books...books you know deep in your
heart aren’t yours. And you’ll be writing those books forever. The
lot of an artist is to explore and take chances, and most importantly, have the
solitude to make mistakes. It’s hard to take a wrong turn in a car full of
back-seat drivers. But if you simply follow everyone else’s advice, you’ll only
arrive where they want you to go...and never find your own way. America
Jewett also warns her that even if she writes of real life, the life she writes will be false: “Otherwise, what might be strength in a writer is only crudeness; sentiment falls to sentimentality—you can write about life, but never write life itself.” A writer trying to ape someone else’s voice, however strong, will become a caricature. Writing about real passions in a feigned hand will seem pathetic, not passionate. And if you copy down life from a book you will write nothing from your heart-wrung existence. The irony of the writer is that he/she must find the solitude to write (meaning the ability to shut out criticism and advice, at least initially) yet still be open to the largest possible experience of the world. You have to see, read, and think everything—and take what you want.
If, however, you limit yourself to what your audience wants—or thinks it wants—you’ll have a very small pile of toys. It’s always more fun to build with Legos when you have a box full of multi-colored pieces from a dozen different sets. When, however, you open up a box and follow the instructions, only to realize a specific piece is missing...the model grinds to a halt. You can’t improvise with directions, and improvisation is the soul of art. Also, many of us as children built a specific set only to tear it apart moments later and start something new, something unplanned and original. I always loved my bizarre, misshapen vehicles much more than the picture on the front of the box. And I suspect many of you who call yourselves writers did, too.
In the end, Cather took Jewett’s advice and quit the magazine. She finished a novel she had started earlier—still in the fashion of her audience—and published it to modest acclaim. Then, silencing every critic and audience member she knew, she wrote a short story about the people she knew back home. Called “The Bohemian Girl,” it dove into the lives of Bohemian immigrants trying to make a new life in the Plains, and the conflicts of greed, prejudice, and tradition that stood in their path. When she finished, she timidly sent it to her good friend, Elisabeth Sergeant, who pronounced, “this is it!” Emboldened, she submitted it to her old magazine, where the new editor accepted it sight-unseen, offering her $750. Cather balked; their going rate for new stories was only $500! She initially said no, she couldn’t accept it, and anyway, who wants to read about Bohemian immigrants? The editor said—we do, actually, so take the money, and expect more for the next one.
She took it and went on to write and publish some of the great novels in American literature: O Pioneers! and My Ántonia. While what happened to her might resemble a fairy tale, and indeed, might never happen today, it does prove one important thing about writing: you can write to please others, or you can write to please yourself. Granted, what pleases you might not please others, and it certainly might not sell. But if you only write to please others, and you succeed on the grandest scale, you’re caught in a trap—writing becomes work, a mere job without the chance to discover the “human heart” in your writing. The audience is there, and you can’t pretend it doesn’t exist; but perhaps the best way to reach an audience is to find the stories within yourself. There will always be people ready to ape the most recent best seller—more than you can count! So why compete? Instead, work in silence and with all your own heart and see where it takes you. Even if it doesn’t come out right, and you have to spend the rest of your life fine-tuning it, it’s still yours—utterly and completely your own.
In the end, art shouldn’t be mass produced; it needs to find its own way, speak its own language, and be understood for what it is. As readers, we’re always hoping for the next Lord of the Rings or Dune or Harry Potter; but when we say that, we mean a book that excites us like those books did, that make us fall in love with reading all over again. Same feeling—different book. That’s the most accurate translation of ‘audience.’