“The emotion is bigger than style”: Willa Cather on style and ideas in writing

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 Ántonia 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.”

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

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3 thoughts on ““The emotion is bigger than style”: Willa Cather on style and ideas in writing

    • Mr. Daradics: Because you’re undertaking a writing project at the moment, I’m curious – in light of Willa Cather’s remarks – to know specifically which emotions do you want to pass on? What form or design would be most appropriate to those emotions? Be patient with the process. Cather says, “It may tease him for years until he gets the right form for the emotion.” Don’t you just love how she describes writing as the incarnation of the ghosts in our brain? Which ghosts are haunting you?

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