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If you read Jennifer Holberg’s entry last week you know that Jennifer and I were privileged to spend Saturday, January 26th at the Buechner Institute in Tennessee in the company of the writer Kathleen Norris. I could wax eloquently for a long time about the day, but I want you to read this so I will be brief and only share a few things – two nuggets of wisdom about writing, two more about words, and one poem.
Nugget one about writing: She was asked how she physically writes – if she uses pen and paper or a computer. She said she uses pen and paper and recommends the same for two reasons. First, using pen and paper slows you down enough to consider the weight and importance of each particular word. Second, it helps you self-edit and shorten what you write. Computers make it too easy to write too much. I could go on about this, but that would only prove her point.
Nugget two about writing: She was asked about editing and she said, “Anyone who thinks his or her writing doesn’t need editing is an amateur.”
Nugget one about words: If you’ve read books of hers like Dakota or The Cloister Walk you may recall that she specializes in etymology. Her love of word origins helps make her writing unique, and I asked her about the etymology of several different words, including “gossip.” The origin of that word is in the word Godparent. A Godparent was originally a gossip. How words change over time. But she reflected on the devolution of this once holy word and said, “Perhaps church prayer chains are a way to recover the sacred use of gossip.”
Nugget two about words: In her most recent book Acedia and Me (which you really ought to read), she uses the word “demon” often. I looked in vain throughout the book for an explanation of what she meant when she used this word. Not finding one, I asked her. She said, “I don’t know.” That was not the most satisfying answer, but one full of wisdom. How I wish there were more latitude for saying “I don’t know.”
She gave a fascinating lecture on faith and culture and talked about how the publishing world has changed over the past few decades to be much more open to Christian content. As evidence of this, she read several poems, all with overtly Christian messages, which were first published in secular publications. Apparently, she reads poetry at every event she does. She is on a one-woman crusade to preserve poetry. (There are worse crusades to be on.) One of the poems she read was one of her own named Imperatives that simply lists a number of commands from the Bible. I’m reprinting it here, and I would invite you to capture the full meaning by reading it slowly and aloud.
by Kathleen Norris
Look at the birds
Consider the lilies
Drink ye all of it
Enter by the narrow gate
Do not be anxious
Judge not; do not give dogs what is holy
Go: be it done for you
Do not be afraid
Young man, I say, arise
Stretch out your hand
Stand up, be still
Rise, let us be going…