This week I had the pleasure of taking a three-day writing workshop with Kathleen Norris at the beautiful Transfiguration Spirituality Center north of Cincinnati. Thirty women writers came to hear from the author of The Cloister Walk and Dakota about the nitty-gritty of writing (“The details of how writing happens, like the details of sausage-making, are often better left unsaid,” was one of her many tweetable asides).
I got to interview Norris between sessions about a thread she kept returning to: that there are monastic, and specifically Benedictine, values that good writers must employ. Norris has been an oblate for over twenty years and is obviously deeply influenced by the Rule of Saint Benedict.
I hope she will someday do a writing guide that expands upon these ideas. When I floated the possibility of a book about writing as a Benedictine practice, she seemed to like the idea but said there were already too many Benedictine books on the market. (“Well, whose fault is that?” I laughed. “Yes, I have a lot to answer for!” she replied. She has an engaging sense of humor.) –JKR*
Hospitality is primary. Our goal as a writer is to invite the reader in, and without a lot of fanfare and fuss, to make them feel welcome. Be almost like a guide through the work so that they will want to keep reading. You want to give them something to chew on. Then give them an ending, an experience where they can leave.
That all sounds wonderful, but it requires a lot of work—revisions, self-editing, critiquing. Being hospitable to the reader often means killing my darlings and letting go of phrases that are very dear to me. You have to kill these things that seem so wonderful when you first thought of them or wrote them, but that don’t belong. I have a phrase that I first thought of in 1970, and I am still looking for a place to put it.
Then humility comes in because writers are not notoriously humble. It does take some self-confidence and even nerve to write anything. But then the writing process itself humbles you. When you get up in the morning and look at something that you thought was so wonderful the night before, you humble yourself. And if you’re working with editors, it’s humbling to realize that your writing needs so much improvement. And then the reader in a way humbles you too, because the reader might find something that you didn’t even know was there.
Then we have the virtue of discernment. That’s not specifically Benedictine, but Benedictines talk about this a lot. In writing that means figuring out the repetitions, bad phrasings, and things that can be improved. And sometimes it’s major! Sometimes you realize you’re on the wrong tack and you need to be writing about something else. So, learning to be self-critical—but in a positive way—is really hard. Most of us are blind to our faults. That’s just who we are.
Pare it down. Get to the simplest way to say something without extraneous stuff. Doing that is Benedictine too. Basically a monk can’t get attached to possessions; he only has what he needs and no more. That’s not a bad way to look at writing. An essay or piece needs only so many words.
You have to think of the work as something in itself, so you become obedient to it. The words themselves are what you have to obey. You may think you want to write one kind of story, but you sometimes you have to let the words and the story guide you. You may end up with something you never expected because you allowed the words to guide you and were obedient to the story. That obedience can lead to great rewards.
“Listen” is the first word in the Rule. Listening is related to obedience. They come from the same word. That’s kind of what Benedict is trying to say: that if you’re really listening, then you’re obeying. You’re going to follow where the word—in his case, the Word of Christ—wants to lead you.
You need some silence to do that. Listening well is a big part of getting to mature spirituality and also of learning how to be a writer.
* This Q&A contains material from Norris’s interview and is fleshed out by several additional sentences from her lectures.