Beyond a Book Review: The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris

In the weeks since the semester officially ended, I have needed something different to read and absorb. A break from plays and theatre 24/7. A break from just reading books about screenwriting, playwriting, and my craft. As my mentors have been saying, I’m “pregnant” with so many ideas right now and they need time to grow and develop before I can put them on the page. It’s frustrating because I desperately want to have a new play, a new screenplay, a new writing creation. I’ve been filled with creative energy this year from new experiences, good and bad, and I want to mold something from them. It’ll happen, but I have to keep reminding myself that it takes time.

That’s where Kathleen Norris’s book The Cloister Walk entered. A friend recommended it in March and I waited and waited for it to arrive on the holds shelf. When it finally did, I thought that I would devour it whole, the way I usually do with those first “fun” reads at the beginning of summer. Instead, I had an intensely emotional experience reading it on the streetcar and realized that I would have to slowly parse my way through its pages. It all started with quotes like this:

Scholars speak with authority, and they must, as they are trying to convince the reader that they have a worthwhile point of view. On the other hand, poets speak with no authority but that which the reader is willing to grant them. Our task is not to convince, but to suggest, evoke, explore. And to be a poet, which at its root means ‘maker,’ to be a maker of phenomena, speaking without reference to authority but simply because the words are given you, is not necessarily welcome in the academic world.

Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk, pg 37

Throughout this year, I’ve been the scholar. It’s what I came to Toronto to do: to get my master’s degree in Theatre and Performance Studies so I could fully comprehend that side of the industry. But after two busy semesters, I am now trying to tap into the poetic side of my self. This side is the one dying to create now, to breathe and work through the experiences and emotions of the year to understand the bits that can’t be put into words in an essay or even a blog post and translate them into the art that can capture more of that other, non-academic knowledge.


I also needed to be reminded of this part of the artistic life, too:

Writers become extremely vulnerable when a prolonged writing spell takes hold; sustaining such intensity has driven more than one poet to nervous breakdown, even suicide. But the powerful rhythms of Benedictine life gave me a balance, a routine.

Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk, pg. 37

It’s going to take time to rebuild my life, my routine, now that graduate school (this round at least) is coming to a close. It’s scary to be in this in-between phase where I can see busy activity through the summer and a big void where the end of August and September sit. I know what I want, but I know that it’s going to yet again take time for that void to come into focus. More importantly, as an artist, there will be many more of those voids to come. Norris reminded me that as a poet I will have to learn how to create a balance between routine and stability and embracing the unknown.

The book captured so much more than these two quotes, but I’m afraid if I keep adding more quotes in, I’ll never finish this review! So to wrap up, if you are looking for something to remind you of the beauty of everyday life; the pros of rigorously studying any text–religious, Biblical, or otherwise; the in’s and out’s of life in a Benedictine monastery; inspiration to slow down; or simply a view into the head of this amazing poet and Benedictine oblate, I’d suggest The Cloister Walk. It was the right way to clear my head and embrace the little beauties of Toronto’s spring and summer.


About austinausten88

Playwright in love with Classic films, afternoon tea, and Noel Coward. She recently graduated from Rice University. In the fall, she will be exchanging her English major undergraduate status for that of Theatre & Performance Studies graduate student.
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3 Responses to Beyond a Book Review: The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris

  1. Pingback: Beyond a Book Review: Gone With the Wind–Reading the Book | gladlybeyondaustinausten

  2. Pingback: Beyond a Book Review: Gone With the Wind–The Visit | gladlybeyondaustinausten

  3. Thom Hickey says:

    Thanks. Reading Norris is a very immersive experience if you have any sympathy with her moral and artistic outlook. Regards Thom.

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