How Good Writers Become Great Writers

by Nancie Carmichael


Lately I’ve been pulling some of my old favorite books from my shelves and I re-discovered the great writing of Willa Cather. She wrote hauntingly of the early settlers of Nebraska in books such as O Pioneers! and My Antonia; and my personal favorite, The Song of the Lark.

How did she become a great writer? And make no mistake, it was a process of becoming. She started out with some okay books, but her greatness came later in her life when she began writing out of her Nebraska childhood.

Willa Cather left home, went to college and worked as a teacher. She spent time in Europe. She became a magazine editor. And then she made a pivotal choice that I believe took her writing to another level. Author Sarah Orne Jewett advised Willa to abandon journalism if she wished to be a serious writer. Jewett told her, “If you don’t keep and guard and mature your force, and above all, have time and quiet to perfect your work, you will be writing things not much better than you did five years ago.”
She went on to caution her younger friend, “…you must find your own quiet center of life, and write from that to the world.”

“Find your own quiet center of life, and write from that to the world.” It sounds easy, but in our day of Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, it’s hard to turn off the world in order to create. Very few writers can afford to devote their whole lives to writing as work and family compete for time. And yet Jewett’s words of advice given to a fledgling writer over 100 years ago are still true. We make choices how we spend our time. There are things that clutter our lives that we must let go if we take our writing seriously.

Great writing doesn’t just happen. It’s a craft that demands attention. Yes, we must live; feed the muse. Read other writers. Go to conferences. But there are no short-cuts. As Jewett told Cather, “The thing that teases the mind over and over for years, and at last gets itself put down rightly on paper—whether little or great, it belongs to Literature.”
That is the pursuit of every serious writer and it comes only through dedication and humility.

I’m inspired by Willa Cather’s choice to let go and focus her life in order to tell the stories well. Each writer’s life and story is different. Each writer must decide how to persist in order to create the time and place to tell the stories that are begging to be written. And re-written…

Nancie Carmichael
Deep River Books