There’s so much we can learn from the great masters about craft that we can apply in some mysterious but valuable way to our own work. That’s why I was so thrilled when I came across a five-page essay by one of my favorite writers, Willa Cather, at the end of a book of her short stories. The essay is called “The Novel De’meuble’,” (“The Unfurnished Novel”). In it, Willa laments the rise of what she describes as “over-furnished” novels — works of fiction in which material objects and a kind of artificial realism hold center stage vs. works of art which express timeless universal truths.
In Willa’s view, over-furnished novels rely on “enumeration” rather than “suggestion” — on exhaustively detailed descriptions rather than on emotionally evoked responses within readers. This distinction is subtle, but it’s worth thinking about when it comes to our own work. Here are a few more nuggets from this wonderful essay to ponder:
“If the novel is a form of imaginative art, it cannot be at the same time a vivid and brilliant form of journalism. Out of the teaming, gleaming stream of the present it must select the eternal material of art.”
“The higher processes of art are all processes of simplification. The novelist must learn to write, and then he must unlearn it; just as the modern painter learns to draw, and then learns when utterly to disregard his accomplishment, when to subordinate it to a higher and truer effect.”
“Whatever is felt upon the page without being specifically named there — that, one might say, is created. It is the inexplicable presence of the thing not named, of the overtone divined by the ear but not heard by it, the verbal mood, the emotional aura of the fact or the thing or the deed, that gives high quality to the novel or the drama, as well as to poetry itself.”
“The verbal mood, the emotional aura” — I love Willa’s way of describing that intangible something that is “felt on the page” by the reader. Isn’t this ultimately what we’re striving for when we write dangerously? And what about that fabulous line, “The higher processes of art are all processes of simplification” — what gold lies in that simple sentence. If you have a moment, Google “The Novel De’meuble'” — you’ll find this short, but punchy essay in the Willa Cather Archive. It’s well worth a read. Write on!