Monday, November 16, 2009

What Kathleen Norris Teaches Writers

Going to Mepkin Abbey always makes me ponder the long, strange, winding ways that brought me there. One of the main motivators was the books of Kathleen Norris, particularly The Cloister Walk. At my theological blog, I wrote a post about her books from the point of view of how they contributed to my spiritual life. But she also helped me think about what it means to be a writer.

I hadn't ever thought much about the emerging genre of creative nonfiction before I read her books. I hadn't ever read much in the field of the modern essay before I read her work. Her work included journal entries and meditations on the weather report. Her work explored her writing and her return to church and her return to small town life on the prairie. Some of her essays were long and structured. Some seemed more like snippets. I read her books and said, "You mean I can do this?"

Her works also made it clear that the modern writer did a variety of things, some for pay, and some for love. She traveled to be a poet in the public schools. She filled in as a preacher for one of her churches when the circuit rider preacher couldn't get there. Her husband, also a poet, served as a bartender, among other jobs. She helped mobilize her Plains community to deal with the fallout of the farm crisis of the 80's.

Her life and writing made it clear that a writer should be out in the world, to be part of the world--so unlike the model offered by an older generation of writers, who somehow managed to support themselves from their writing alone. I also liked the model of the author as magpie writer, exploring the topics which held current interest to the author. I liked the variety of forms that she embraced: poetry, memoir, journalism. These days, I like the fact that I can dip in and out of her books. There's an essay of any length for whatever amount of time I have.

I know I'm not the only frazzled reader who copes with having varying amounts of time (most of it much too short!) to read. I use Kathleen Norris as a model as I blog. On days when I can only muster a paragraph or two, I think of those readers who only have a gasp of time. I know that days will come when I can write more--and hopefully, when we all can read more.

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