How to Save Your Soul: Willa Cather on Productivity vs. Creativity, Selling Out, and the Life-Changing Advice That Made Her a Writer
“It’s so foolish to live (which is always trouble enough) and not to save your soul. It’s so foolish to lose your real pleasures for the supposed pleasures of the chase — or the stock exchange.”
By Maria Popova
Recently, in listening to a dear and brilliant friend rationalize her choice to stay at a soul-sucking corporate job under the seemingly sensible pretext that it would eventually grant her the financial freedom to be a full-time writer, I was reminded of how one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century struggled with, and eventually extracted herself from, a similar predicament.
In 1906, Willa Cather (December 7, 1873–April 24, 1947) left teaching and moved to New York City to join the staff of McClure’s Magazine — the most successful and prestigious periodical of the era, famous for its fierce investigative reporting and for publishing trailblazing fiction by writers like Jack London, Rudyard Kipling, and Robert Louis Stevenson.
But its success was also driven by brutally ambitious corporate management that saw journalism as a profitable business and writing as a marketable commodity that bordered on what might be called content-farming today. Cather was originally hired as a fiction editor, but when the majority of McClure’s staff — including the great Lincoln Steffens — left en masse over discontentment with the magazine’s corporate ruthlessness, she was tasked with the onerous work of an intense investigative project, which became a sensation and exploded the magazine’s circulation. “Mr. McClure tried three men at this disagreeable task, but none of them did it very well, so a month ago it was thrust upon me,” she wrote to a friend shortly before she was promoted to managing editor.
Cather was excellent at the job, enjoyed being called an “executive,” and couldn’t deny the gratifications of the attractive pay. But she eventually came to feel that the hamster wheel of journalistic productivity drained her creative capacity, steering her further from her calling as a literary writer. And yet she remained unable to tear herself away, for all the complex and conflicted reasons that any of us stay in situations, relationships, and jobs that contract rather than magnifying our spirit.
Everything changed on December 13, 1908, when Cather received a remarkable letter of advice from her friend and mentor, the writer Sarah Jewett. Found in The Selected Letters of Willa Cather (public library) — the marvelous tome that gave us Cather on writing through times of trouble and her only surviving letter to her partner, the editor Edith Lewis — the letter was at once a hard shake of the shoulders and a warm embrace. It provided precisely the kind of prod Cather needed in order to awaken from her trance of corporate productivity and revive her creative energies as a writer.
Your vivid, exciting companionship in the office must not be your audience, you must find your own quiet centre of life, and write from that to the world that holds offices, and all society, all Bohemia; the city, the country — in short, you must write to the human heart, the great consciousness that all humanity goes to make up. Otherwise what might be strength in a writer is only crudeness, and what might be insight is only observation; sentiment falls to sentimentality — you can write about life, but never write life itself. And to write and work on this level, we must live on it — we must at least recognize it and defer to it at every step. We must be ourselves, but we must be our best selves.
Cather was shaken, in the best possible way. Her reply to Jewett is masterwork of self-awareness and insight into a great many perennial perplexities of the human spirit:
My Dear, Dear Miss Jewett;
Such a kind and earnest and friendly letter as you sent me! I have read it over many times. I have been in deep perplexity these last few years, and troubles that concern only one’s habits of mind are such personal things that they are hard to talk about. You see I was not made to have to do with affairs — what Mr. McClure calls “men and measures.” If I get on at that kind of work it is by going at it with the sort of energy most people have to exert only on rare occasions. Consequently I live just about as much during the day as a trapeze performer does when he is on the bars — it’s catch the right bar at the right minute, or into the net you go. I feel all the time so dispossessed and bereft of myself. My mind is off doing trapeze work all day long and only comes back to me when it is dog tired and wants to creep into my body and sleep. I really do stand and look at it sometimes and threaten not to take it in at all — I get to hating it so for not being any more good to me. Then reading so much poorly written matter as I have to read has a kind of deadening effect on me somehow. I know that many great and wise people have been able to do that, but I am neither large enough nor wise enough to do it without getting a kind of dread of everything that is made out of words. I feel diluted and weakened by it all the time — relaxed, as if I had lived in a tepid bath until I shrink from either heat or cold.
At the heart of Cather’s lament is the acute sense of the tradeoff between productivity and creativity, calling to mind Parker Palmer’s incisive observation that “the tighter we cling to the norm of effectiveness the smaller the tasks we’ll take on.”
She writes to Jewett:
Your mind becomes a card-catalogue of notes that are meaningless except as related to their proper subject.
[Mr. McClure] wants me to write articles on popular science, so called, (and other things) for half of each week, and attend to the office work in the other half. That combination would be quite possible — and, I fear perfectly deadening. He wants, above all things, good, clear-cut journalism. The which I do not despise, but I get nothing to breathe out of it and no satisfaction.
McClure, for his part, was a deft manipulator of the interior conditions that kept his staff from hopping off the corporate hamster wheel, feeding their confidence at the specific productivity he needed and fueling their self-doubt about larger creative pursuits. Cather writes:
Mr. McClure tells me that he does not think I will ever be able to do much at writing stories, that I am a good executive and I had better let it go at that. I sometimes, indeed I very often think that he is right. If I have been going forward at all in the last five years, it has been progress of the head and not of the hand. At thirty-four, one ought to have some sureness in their pen point and some facility in turning out a story.
And yet Cather remained awake to the tradeoff, animated by unshakable restlessness about the sacrifice she was making in buying into this particular model of success at the expense of her creative satisfaction:
The question of work aside, one has a right to live and reflect and feel a little. When I was teaching I did. I learned more or less all the time. But now I have the feeling of standing still except for a certain kind of facility in getting the sort of material Mr. McClure wants. It’s stiff mental exercise, but it is about as much food to live by as elaborate mental arithmetic would be. — Of course there are interesting people and interesting things in the day’s work, but it’s all like going round the world in a railway train and never getting off to see anything closer. I have not a reportorial mind — I can’t get things in fleeting glimpses and I can’t get any pleasure out of them. And the excitement of it doesn’t stimulate me, it only wears me out.
Now the kind of life that makes one feel empty and shallow and superficial, that makes one dread to read and dread to think, can’t be good for one, can it? It can’t be the kind of life one was meant to live. I do think that kind of excitement does to my brain exactly what I have seen alcohol do to men’s. It seems to spread one’s very brain cells apart so that they don’t touch. Everything leaks out as the power does in a broken circuit. So whether or not the chief is right about my never doing much writing, I think one’s immortal soul is to be considered a little. He thrives on this perpetual debauch, but five years more of it will make me a fat, sour, ill-tempered lady — and fussy, worst of all! And assertive; all people who do feats on the flying trapeze and never think are as cocky as terriers after rats, you know.
Her mind then performs the same acrobatics of rationalization we all engage in when we justify tolerating circumstances that don’t serve us in the grand scheme of a life:
I have to lend a hand at home now and then, and a good salary is a good thing. Still, if I stopped working next summer I would have money enough to live very simply for three or four years. That would give me time to pull myself together. I doubt whether I would ever write very much — though that is hard to tell about for sure; since I was fifteen I have not had a patch of leisure six months long. When I was on a newspaper I had one month vacation a year, and when I was teaching I had two. Still, I don’t think that my pen would ever travel very fast, even along smooth roads. But I would write a little — “and save the soul besides [from Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book].” It’s so foolish to live (which is always trouble enough) and not to save your soul. It’s so foolish to lose your real pleasures for the supposed pleasures of the chase — or of the stock exchange.
Cather began working on her first novel shortly thereafter. Although it took her another three years to finally leave McClure’s — by that point, she was one of the most powerful women in journalism — once she did, she never looked back. Her debut novel was published that year to critical acclaim and was followed by thirteen books over the next three decades, which earned Cather the Pulitzer Prize and established her as one of the finest writers of the twentieth century.
Complement The Selected Letters of Willa Cather with Cather on happiness, then revisit William James on choosing purpose over profit, Parker Palmer on how to let your life speak, and Charles Bukowski’s beautiful letter of gratitude to the man who helped him quit his soul-draining day job to become a full-time writer.