Brain Pickings

Willa Cather on Writing Through Troubled Times: A Moving Letter to Her Younger Brother

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“The test of one’s decency is how much of a fight one can put up after one has stopped caring, and after one has found out that one can never please the people they wanted to please.”

How does one keep going when the going gets really, really tough? From The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (public library) — which also gave us Cather’s only surviving letter to her partner, the editor Edith Lewis — comes a magnificent letter 43-year-old Cather wrote to her younger brother on July 8, 1916. It was a trying time in Cather’s personal life — the heartbreaking end of an era: The great love of her life, the Pittsburgh socialite Isabelle McClung, had left her for a man she married, extinguishing the possibility of their companionship and romantic involvement that Cather so longed for. Judge McClung, Isabelle’s father, had just died, which only contributed to Cather’s anguishing sense of having lost a home. Meanwhile, she had grown increasingly disappointed with her own family’s crusade “to get mixed up with kings and move in the highest society,” while facing the force of their disapproval of her life as a writer and a queer woman.

In this single short missive, Cather condenses so many common struggles — for acceptance by our family, for acceptance of our family, for acceptance by others, for not letting sadness squeeze the creative impulse out of us, for overcoming self-doubt and dancing with the fear, and perhaps most of all for plowing ahead even when the internal engine loses steam.

Portrait of Willa Cather by Edward Steichen, 1926

Cather writes:

My Dear Douglass…

I shall always be sorry that I went home last summer, because I seemed to get in wrong at every turn. It seems not to be anything that I do, in particular, but my personality in general, what I am and think and like and dislike, that you all find exasperating after a little while. I’m not so well pleased with myself, my dear boy, as you sometimes seem to think. Only in my business one has to advertise a little or drop out—I surely do not advertise or talk about myself as much as most people who write for a living—or one has to drop out. I can’t see how it would help any of my family any if I lay down on my oars and quit that rough-and-tumble game. It would be easy enough to do that. I’ve had a very hard winter and have got no work done except two short stories — one very poor. Judge McClung’s death and Isabelle’s marriage have made a tremendous difference in my life. The loss of a home like that leaves one pretty lonely and miserable. I can fight it out, but I’ve not as much heart for anything as I had a year ago. I suppose the test of one’s decency is how much of a fight one can put up after one has stopped caring, and after one has found out that one can never please the people they wanted to please. I suppose it’s playing the game after that, that counts.

However, the truth is usually gloomy, and one doesn’t have to talk about it all the time, thank goodness… I know I’m “trying”. Most women who have been able to make over a hundred dollars a month in office work, have been spoiled by it in one way or another. It is bad for all of them and it was bad for me… I won’t sit around and weep. I can’t be hurt again as badly as I was last summer. After this I’ll be more philosophical; I won’t expect too much, and I mean to enjoy any goodwill or friendship I get from any of my family. I enjoy every single member of my family when they are half-way friendly toward me. I enjoy them a great deal more now than I did in my younger days when I kept trying to make everybody over. My first impulse, of course, is to think that my own way of seeing things is the right way. But my second thought is always to admit that this is wrong and that I have been often mistaken. I even think I’ve grown a good deal milder in the last year — I’ve had trouble enough and losses enough. Three friends died during the winter whom it seemed to me I could not get on without. And perhaps the disapproval I got at home last summer has been good for me. I am quite a meek proposition now, I can tell you. I think I’ve had my belting, and it has taken the fizz out of me all right — and I’ll tell you this, it’s positively shipwreck for work. I doubt whether I’ll ever write anything worth while again. To write well you have to be all wrapped up in your game and think it awfully worth while. I only hope I’m not so spiritless I won’t be able to make a living. I had two stories turned down this winter because they had no “pep” in them. The editors said they hadn’t and I knew they hadn’t…

Time is good for violent people.

Yours with much love

Willie

She did write something “worthwhile” again, of course — worthwhile enough to earn her the Pulitzer Prize in 1923 for her novel One of Ours.

Complement The Selected Letters of Willa Cather with a dive into the Brain Pickings letters archive.

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