Ever since I read “Neighbor Rosicky,” the first Willa Cather story to come my way, she’s been one of my all-time favorite writers. Over the years, I’ve read many more of her masterful short stories along with just about every novel she’s ever written. From time to time, I’ve pondered what I love about her writing, which is a great exercise to engage in — it really helps isolate qualities that you yourself may want to develop and deepen.
On the Willa front, there are several dimensions to her masterful writing that really speak to me. First, there’s her deep humanity and compassion. She treats her characters with tremendous dignity and tenderness. She never judges them, she only seeks to understand them.
Second, our gal Willa is fearless: She also isn’t afraid to tackle the weightiest aspects of the human condition: life and death, love and betrayal, yearning and disappointment, fear and frailty. “Go big or go home” — that’s what they say at Microsoft and Cather always goes big — even in her shorter fiction.
Third, there’s her intense belief that art and beauty matter — that they enrich us all, whether we are farmers or musicians or opera singers or ranchers. No matter what our calling or where in the world we find ourselves, Willa believes that beauty is something we all need — it’s like the air or water. Her devotion to this idea shines through in all her writing.
Fourth, there’s her seemingly effortless prose. Her language is so simple — no, not simple, elemental. It never calls attention to itself, yet it is artful and pure. And she seems able to use both words and the silence between words to convey intense emotion. I’m not sure how she does this, but her writing is able to express deep feeling without being melodramatic. Every word is carefully, artfully chosen — and yet her work seems artless and natural. There’s never a sense that she’s straining after an effect or wanting to call attention to herself. It’s all about her characters and the lives they lead and choices they make. What a gift!