A writer at home in places of solitude
ARANCHER IN SOUTH DAKOTA ONCE told author Kathleen Norris that he had read only two books he couldn’t put down: a Tom Clancy novel and Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, Norris’s lyrical, bestselling 1993 evocation of Great Plains life. “So,” says Norris, “I’m in pretty hot company.”
And she may be there to stay. Earlier this year, Norris’s The Cloister Walk, a chronicle of her time behind the walls of a Benedictine monastery, spent eight weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. “It knocked off the list a book of reminiscences by Hollywood prostitutes called You’ll Never Make Love in This Town Again,” says Norris, 49, with amusement. “Since my book is about celibates, I could have called it You’ll Never Make Love in This Town—Ever!”
No such breathless billing was necessary. Her books, quiet though they are, address “the biggest subject matter possible: how one ought to live a life,” the eminent social observer Robert Coles declared in a review of The Cloister Walk. Baby boomers in particular, Norris believes, have “an enormous hunger for spiritual grounding”—but she never believed she might satisfy that need. “I never thought I’d have a bestseller,” she says.
What Norris thought she would be doing when she left Manhattan for Lemmon, S.Dak. (pop. 1,600), 22 years ago was writing poetry—and not staying long. She and the esteemed poet David Dwyer came to the prairie town to settle her recently deceased grandmother’s affairs. “We thought it would be for a year or so,” says Norris, but both she and Dwyer, now 50, whom she married in 1977, found beauty in the desolate landscape and comfort in the rhythms of small-town life. “South Dakota gave me the space I needed to develop as a person and a writer,” says Norris. Several years after the move, Dwyer became ill and fought severe depression, which “brought us closer,” she says, and “made the commitment stronger.”
Along the way, Norris began visiting Benedictine abbeys, drawn by the poetry of their daily readings and by the monks’ philosophy of, as she puts it, “taking the love you find in the world and reflecting it back daily to the people you see.” Raised as a Presbyterian, she became a Benedictine oblate—pledging to live, as much as possible, by the 1,500-year-old order’s rule emphasizing love, forgiveness and community. In 1991 she started Dakota during the first of two nine-month stints at St. John’s Abbey and University in Collegeville, Minn. While Dwyer supported them with a Bush Foundation grant and wrote poetry in their campus quarters, she sang in the choir, prayed with the 220 monks and developed close friendships with several of them. She even felt herself “approaching the rocky shoals of infatuation,” she writes, but appreciated that celibates offer deeper personal relationships because they are not sexually engaged. “Poets and monks have a lot in common,” she says. “We’re both sort of peripheral to the world.”
That sense of detachment is not new. One of four children born to a Navy bandmaster and his wife, a teacher, Norris grew up in Honolulu and attended Bennington College in Vermont during the ’60s. “I never quite fit in there,” she says. “Everyone was more sophisticated—sexually, socially.” Poems, which she began writing seriously in college, were a refuge, but faith, at that point, was not.
These days, Norris and Dwyer, who are childless (“I love children, but never felt that having them was my calling,” she says), spend much of their time writing, he in their white-frame house, she in her backyard studio amongst family photos, religious icons and, incongruously, a poster of Dolly Parton (“I’m a fan,” she shrugs). She preaches often at the local Presbyterian church and follows, in her own way, Benedictine rituals: “I meditate. I sing a hymn in the shower. I do something for someone that I don’t want to do.”
Success has changed their lives, to be sure—”It gives us more time to write,” says Dwyer—and they recently bought their first new car, a Dodge. As often as she can, Norris returns to the Benedictines. “I miss monastic spirituality when I’m away,” she says. “For me, it’s a high.”
MARGARET NELSON in Lemmon