How My Best Friend Willa Cather Helped Me Beat Stage Fright
On Breaking Into Giant Lecture Halls and Looking For Ghosts
I fell for Willa Cather in graduate school—fell so hard that I named my daughter after her. But 20 reading years later, I remembered her like a long-ago crush: something about a big girl, a big prairie, a big plow, and that’s about it.
Then, last summer, while browsing around a used bookstore near my home on the central coast of California, I picked up a wilted paperback: Willa Cather in Person: Interviews, Speeches, and Letters. My partner always takes longer in bookstores than I do, so I sat down in a dusty armchair by the window next to a fat cat snoozing on a bench. Flipping through the pages, I came upon a passage about a “wretched” lecture Cather had given at the University of Chicago in 1925 to a “capacity audience.” I felt a frisson that I could call interest, but would perhaps be more accurately described as sympathetic terror.
All summer, I’d been trying to quell these bursts of anxiety, having just agreed to teach my first large lecture class in the fall. I’d spent years leading 22-person seminars; now I was going to face 250 students and five TAs three times a week in a general education literature class. I had pre-stage fright.
I told anyone who would listen that I had nothing to say that would take up three and a half hours a week. I wasn’t an entertainer. I wasn’t a monologist. My teaching was based on conversation. I didn’t even believe in lecturing. When I was an undergrad I had only taken two lecture classes, and had either fallen asleep or stayed awake by whispering to my friends in both of them. I remember sitting in the back of an auditorium wearing earrings with little blue bells on them that jingled every time I moved my head to talk to the person next to me. The professor, who was so far away down there at the podium he almost seemed to be in another room or on a TV screen, prattling away about something or other, suddenly stopped lecturing. He cried out, disconcertingly breaking the fourth wall: “Am I crazy or am I hearing bells?” I kept my head very still for the rest of the lecture.
So, primarily motivated by anxiety, I read on. Before her talk, Cather had written to an old friend that she was “quite nervous,” and she asked the friend to come with her and hold her hand. I imagined how nice it would be to have someone hold my hand while I lectured. My designated hand holder just standing there by the podium full up with moral support; lacing fingers in a cool, unsweaty way; maybe giving a little friendly squeeze when I said something funny or made a good point. However, the editor of Willa Cather in Person reported that despite the hand holding, Cather felt the speech had not gone well because the hall was ugly. In fact, the ugliness of the hall had made her feel wretched and caused her to stutter. I immediately pictured how that friendly hand beside me would grow moist as I faltered, would pull away as I bombed. Cather added that her next speech went well because of the lovely colors and soft lighting.
Success or failure hinged on the décor for Cather? That didn’t seem like the plowing prairie girl Cather I thought I remembered. It was also one scenario I hadn’t even thought to worry about yet. I bought the book and made an appointment to meet a media technician at the hall where I was going to teach. While the patient techy showed me how to use the fully loaded podium—Internet, huge screen, hall lights, mic, etc.—I looked up at the vast, steeply tilted auditorium filled with rows of grey plastic seats. There were no windows, so the lighting certainly wasn’t lovely or soft, though the guy did show me how to use the dimmers. I imagined the anonymous hoards of bored students forced to fulfill a Gen Ed requirement: heavy lidded, heads drooping, checking their cell phones or smirking while I stood alone, my eyes darting around the ugly room, stammering wretchedly, maybe even hearing bells.
* * * *
As I whiled away the summer preparing my lectures, I took breaks to think about Willa Cather. Was she a plowing prairie girl or a skittish author who couldn’t abide ugly? Why had I loved her in the first place? I began to read The Selected Letters, watch documentaries about her, and stalk her on the Internet.
Willa Cather was the author of over a dozen books, but the ones I’d loved most were from her Prairie Trilogy, O Pioneers! (I remembered a doomed love story), Song of the Lark (a desert adventure and coming of age as an artist), and My Antonia. Like me, Willa Cather had grown up in the wilderness. Hers: Red Cloud, Nebraska, so empty it was claustrophobic; “the end of everything,” she’d told an interviewer, “an erasure of personality.” Mine: the Adirondacks, crowded with trees and black flies, and later, Vermont, crowded with cows and their manure. I began to remember that I had liked the way she was built: kind of short-ish and square-ish, box-like, a battering ram in a sailor suit. I liked her good-looking, intelligent face. In college she had been nervy, brash, worn men’s clothes and insisted on being called Willy. When I was in college people laughed at me when I claimed I was butch. I would think, Ok, maybe not that butch on the outside, maybe more Cyndi Lauper, with my ripped shirts, pink lipstick, and a whole dollar store of plastic in my ears—but on the inside I was a broad-shouldered battering ram like Willa Cather.
I finally remembered why I had loved Cather so much: I loved Cather because she loved strong women. She loved women, period.
Then I reread My Antonia. Had I ever been as romantic and earnest as My Antonia was? Many critics argued that Willa Cather had no sense of humor, but what energy in her prose! Her writing was like the prairie she described: “There was so much motion in it; the whole country seemed, somehow to be running.” And Antonia! A dynamo, cook, and prairie-tamer; rosy cheeked and resilient; close to nature, “heroic in size,” like the “saints and queens,” Cather admired. It was in a way, all about the plow. I finally remembered why I had loved Cather so much: I loved Cather because she loved strong women. She loved women, period. I realized that I had also conflated Cather and Antonia, had shared Cather’s ideal of a woman as tough and relentless as a plow, had wanted my daughter, her namesake, to turn out that way, too.
At the end of the book, Antonia has become a kind of middle-aged fertility goddess, running a farm overflowing with children and animals and crops. Like Cather, I admire this vision of the middle-aged fecund female, but neither of us had given our lives over to the land. We were both middle-aged women who lived in cities and were nervous about giving speeches; in fact, Cather was exactly my age when she gave her speech in Chicago. I kind of felt now that Cather and I were like old friends who had found each other again on Facebook. Kind of like Cather and Irene Miner Weisz, the woman Cather asked to hold her hand. Miner Weisz was an old friend from Red Cloud; Cather had even dedicated My Antonia to her. Seven years after Cather’s visit to Chicago and her wretched talk she had written to Irene:
You see you are the only person who reaches back into the very beginning who has kept on being a part of my life in the world.
* * * *
The exact letters to Irene Miner Weisz about Cather’s Chicago lecture weren’t in The Selected Letters. It turned out that Irene Miner Weisz had donated these letters from Willa Cather to the Newberry Library in downtown Chicago. A desire grew in me to read the actual letters, to see exactly what she had said about that lecture.
My sister lives in Chicago, so I asked her if she would go and take photos of the letters. Even though my sister is a single mother and a professor who teaches twice as many classes as I do, she went to the Newberry on her day off. We held hands virtually: she sent me photos of her whole library adventure, the glass front doors, the locker where she had to store her purse, the rows and rows of old fashioned card catalogs, the ornate railing and marble staircase down to the reading room, and then, finally, the photos of the actual letters. Her last text said: “Hope you can make it out. Trust me, they aren’t any easier to read in person.”
The first letter was, mercifully, typed, but the other three were in Cather’s famously difficult to read handwriting. In a documentary about the rediscovery of many of Cather’s letters, one of the book editors recounts that upon first looking at her handwriting, a graduate student asked, “What language is that?” Her handwriting reminded me of Hebrew: the way all the vowels seemed to be left out, kind of like a series of small waves. A rolling prairie? A complicated self-erasure? I’d read she hadn’t wanted anyone to publish her letters, had in fact burned many of them, and I wondered if she wrote like that on purpose, in a code that only the intimate she was writing to could read. Clever!
I reached out to a Cather expert to ask for help in decoding the letters, but she never got back to me. A friend suggested I start with the words I knew must be there. I found “wretched.” I wrote out wretched in purple pen below her wretched. I found “stutter,” wrote a purple stutter underneath. I began to make it out: “I will never speak in that ugly hall after this it made me wretched and I could only stutter.” Here was Willa Cather, in her intimate own words. In a letter about the successful talk she gave after Chicago, I deciphered, “the hall was lovely—done in a deep shade of blue with splendid soft light… erasure/rolling prairie… the lecture went along like a riffling stream.” She had actually written “riffling” above the original word, which I thought was “gurgling,” and she had put a little parenthetic mark (maybe to indicate both—the lecture had both gurgled and riffled along?) I wanted my lectures to go along like riffling streams. Even a gurgling lecture would be ok.
* * * *
In one of my online Cather searches, I read that Mandel Hall on the University of Chicago campus had been restored to it’s original décor, so that it looked very much like what Cather had seen in 1925. I had an inspiration—I would go visit my sister and see the wretched hall that had made my best friend Willa Cather so wretched.
It was the end of July: a humid, hot Saturday in Chicago. My sister parked her car a few blocks from Mandel Hall, and I climbed out of the air-conditioning into what felt like a hot tub but was just the Midwest in summer. The campus was lushly landscaped. It looked like Oz after drought-ridden California. My thighs began sliding together and my heels rubbed against my sandals in the steamy heat. I could feel blisters coming on. We walked up to the front door of Mandel Hall and pulled on the big double doors.
I had an inspiration—I would go visit my sister and see the wretched hall that had made my best friend Willa Cather so wretched.
We looked up the hours on our phones: closed on weekends during the summer. I’d done all that reading and hadn’t thought to check the hours of the hall. I’d come all this way. Wretched, wretched me.
“Let’s check the other doors,” my sister said cheerfully. We began to circle the building—there were lots of doors. We yanked on them, one by one. All locked. At the back of the building I walked across the lawn and down some rickety stairs to try a little iron basement door wreathed in cobwebs, but that too was locked. We peered in windows, hoping to see someone who would let us in, but no one was there. We moved from the back of the building to the far right side. Nothing.
Defeated by the heat, longing for air conditioning, I thought, Who gives a fuck about this hall anyway? “Let’s go,” I said.
“Let’s just try these last two doors,” my sister suggested. She took one, and I took the other: giant wood and iron church-like double doors crowned with ivy. I pulled on one with my sweaty hands.
“It’s open!” I whispered loudly. My sister ran over and we slipped in.
It was silent, dark, and cool in there. My sister switched on all the lights like she owned the place. We were alone in the 800-seat auditorium where Willa Cather had spoken to a “capacity” audience 90 years before.
We walked down the red carpet, past red velvet covered seats and up to a wooden stage with a wooden podium. We looked up at the dark, intricately carved wood of the balcony, at the little lights in rows across the cathedral ceiling. Light also emanated softly from the gothic arched stained glass windows and the rows of sconces down below. The wallpaper was light blue with dark blue designs that matched the three glowing globes of each sconce.
It was gorgeous.
My sister sat in one of the velvet chairs and checked her phone. I took off my painful yellow sandals and did a little jig on the stage. But then I stopped jigging and looked around me again. Yes, it was gorgeous, but it was also massive. I could feel expectation in the air. At some point, Irene Miner Weisz was no longer holding Willa Cather’s hand, and Willa Cather had been here, right here at this podium, facing 800 strangers alone. I could see now how the hall might feel cavernous and kind of somber, with its dark wood and dark red velvet—even haunted house-ish with the gothic windows. The wallpaper pattern did remind me a little of three claws in the eery glow from the sconces. How ugly it could look in a certain light.
* * * *
With September came my first lecture. I fiddled around with the computer, swigged water, looked for the tenth time at my watch and not at the students; it was officially time, so I began. After I droned on about requirements for a while, I finally made myself look out at the audience. My heart was shimmying. There were students on their phones; even a couple of the TAs in the front row were on their phones. And some people were talking or sleeping. But they didn’t look like strangers. They looked a lot like the students I’d been teaching for years, only multiplied. My heart quieted a little. I came out from behind the podium. I asked a question. There was a silence. I waited. Some hands cautiously went up, and we began a conversation.
Midway through the quarter, when I’d gotten more comfortable with the whole lecturing thing, I asked the students to fill out an evaluation for the course. They were mostly very positive, though there was this one that said, “This isn’t her fault, but her voice really bothers me. It makes it hard to listen.” So much for sounding like a saint or a queen. I wondered if my voice were deeper, more man-like—if in fact if I were a man, I might be easier to listen to.
Another student wrote: “Could you be more theatrical?”
Why, yes, I thought, I could.
At the beginning of the next lecture, I told them about this request. I wrapped myself in white lights, then tucked the battery in my pocket and switched it on. The lights began to flash. I added a furry pink tiara and turned on its blinking lights, too. They laughed.
“Is this theatrical enough for you?” I shouted in my chirpy way.
And then I gave a lecture on my beloved James Baldwin. I told the students again what I’d been telling them all quarter—that literature was a conversation, and that they were all invited to join.
Writing this now I’m reminded of what it says on Willa Cather’s tombstone, a quote from My Antonia: “That is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.” I wanted my students to understand that—to get what it feels like to hold hands with someone across time and space, like a long daisy chain of writers and readers.