What Keeps the Writing Alive
An interview with Kathleen Norris
Kathleen Norris’s work draws richly on the life of the spirit, including time spent with Benedictine monks and nuns. Her most recent book, Acedia & me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life, explores the nature of a demon that ancient monks first named acedia (literally, “not to care”). Acedia is the weariness, restlessness, and apathy that can seep into any daily discipline. As Norris points out, it’s a struggle familiar to writers, artists, or anyone whose work is necessarily solitary and self-motivated.
“What does it mean,” she muses, “to have apprenticed myself to the discipline of writing, so that I now crave the desert journey of revision as much as the initial burst of creativity and flow of words?” It may seem strange to hear a much-lauded author refer to herself as an “apprentice.” But as she told the Bennington community in her recent lecture at the College, “the sheer, zany democracy of writing” means that all writers, no matter how experienced, must return to the blank page.
In Acedia & me, you write a lot about perseverance in writing and the spiritual life, especially when it seems futile.
The topic of acedia basically found me, which is how I think the best books get written. You almost feel called or led to write about something. When that happens, then there is this real impulse of saying, I need to see this through. I can’t just abandon it because it’s no longer fun or not going well.
Certainly, that’s the only thing that kept me going with Acedia & me. It wasn’t just the fact that I was writing about something very negative. Because of all the things that were going on in my life—my husband got so ill; we had lived in South Dakota for 25 years, and had to give that up; I became a caregiver, and then my father got ill—who can even write a postcard? There were often days when I thought, ‘There’s no way I’m going to do this, today I’m just going to sit and stew, or do something else.’ But eventually I knew I’d be returning to it.
You also write about “tedium with a purpose”—the notion that “repetition can be life-enhancing.” How do you find joy in routine, in doing something over and over again?
Well, you know, Elizabeth Barrett Browning said: “The earth is crammed with heaven.” The beauty is there, and there are going to be days when you can’t see it—but when you can, it’s just wonderful. I learned a lot about repetition from hanging out with Benedictine monks and nuns. Their life is so repetitive, and they often experience it as a very oppressive routine, but when they break past that, they are the most free people in the world.
Free in what way?
They understand that hospitality means accepting you as you are and not trying to make you like them. They have this incredible, receptive, generous, free spirit, and that’s there within their structured life. That’s not a message that people in twenty-first century America want to hear, that a disciplined life can turn out these marvelously open people. But it taught me that as human beings, we might need some structure, some discipline. Buddhists praying mantras—that’s true repetition. There’s something in it that liberates the spirit even if it seems dreary.
In your books you often take a passage from the Bible and almost luxuriate in it. That kind of pleasure might come as a surprise to many people.
Oh, yeah. The Bible gets a lot of bad press….In college, I thought, ‘Why go to church anymore? I’ve got poetry now.’ Poetry became my substitute for religion, and it worked for a long time. I think it works for a lot of artists, because art really does have a spiritual component.
But when I started hanging out with Benedictine monks and nuns, they’re simply reading the Bible out loud without much commentary. At morning, noon and evening prayer, you’re reciting the Psalms, which are poetry, and it’s pretty amazing stuff. Just letting these words wash over me, I began to really understand the Bible in a whole different way, a more organic way, I guess—as something that could be savored and experienced in a very non-fundamentalist, non-ideological way. Some of the Psalms date from the Iron Age. They’re ancient, but they still have the power to speak to us. They’re emotional, direct, they speak to human experience. And as an artist, I’m thinking, hey, I can appreciate this.
How would you advise college-age writers who want to pursue writing?
Writers develop a good instinct for what keeps the writing passion alive, and that’s really important. Often you have to find a job that will pay the bills, but you try to find work and play that don’t deaden the creative spirit. A friend of mine is a sculptor, and her first job out of college was working for a graphic design company. As soon as she could give it up, she did, but at least it was somewhat related to her field. It was engaging her eye.
Or it could be something totally unrelated to the art. The American poet May Swenson worked as a legal secretary on Wall Street, and most of the people she worked with never knew she was a poet until she started winning prizes. She figured out a way to use her time after work and on the weekends—and, by all accounts, was a very competent legal secretary.
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“My life as a writer really began at Bennington,” says Kathleen Norris ’69. Her first book of poems was published just two years after her graduation from the College, and in the four decades since, she has published eleven more books—poetry, essays, and other nonfiction—including four New York Times bestsellers.
[first published at www.bennington.edu]