Few people have cleaner bathrooms than writers on deadlines, according to memoirist Kathleen Norris.
“There are times when you want to do anything but look at the blank page,” said Norris, an acclaimed essayist whose books — including “Dakota” and “The Cloister Walk — explore ideas of religious and spiritual faith.
Norris’ admission was shared with more than a dozen members of the Northeastern community in an intimate master class held Monday afternoon as part of Northeastern Humanities Center’s Artists and Practitioners in Residence Program.
The class marked the first event in a two-day series of lecturers and readings with Norris, including a lecture on Monday night at Trinity Church in Copley Square, a poetry reading in Concord Tuesday morning and a lecture at 5 p.m. Tuesday in Raytheon Amphitheatre.
Norris said the goal of writing a memoir is to ensure that even the most personal story speaks to the reader and illuminates something about his or her own life.
“My goal is to be more than merely personal, to have it start and end with me,” Norris said. “If it’s truly personal and reaching out to the world, you as a reader think, ‘Oh, I’ve experienced that but I’d never known what to call it. Now I know exactly what that means.’”
She added: “The reader completes the writing process by having it mean something important and be specific to their own lives.”
Norris spoke of a reading she did for a small but dedicated audience in Boston in 1997 — the day of the 100th running of the Boston Marathon,— in which a Hindu man said her book was the first that allowed him to understand the Christian faith without feeling forced to convert.
“I thought ‘Now, my book is complete,’” Norris said, “and he had given it back to me.”
The workshop drew a diverse group of attendees, including Earl Stafford, Northeastern’s Balfour Academy program coordinator who said he aspires to write a memoir in the vein of Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, and Tabitha Kenlon, a graduate-level English student who has begun writing her dissertation.
The event included an extended conversation of general writing and revision practices and a discussion of favorite memoirs.
Anna Higgins, who teaches creative writing in Boston, said that she purposefully did not finish neurologist Oliver Sacks’ “A Leg to Stand On,” a seemingly odd practice that happened to be shared by many attendees.
“I didn’t finish the last two pages,” Higgins said, describing the power and resonance of the book. “I had so little in common with Oliver Sacks, but I just didn’t want him out of my life.”
And that, said Norris, is the ultimate goal of a memoirist.
– by Matt Collette