Kathleen Norris was born in Washington, D.C., and raised in South Dakota and Hawaii. She describes her early life as that of an outsider and a fish out of water. She was a voracious reader of books and a careful and quiet watcher of life around her, absorbed in school and white skinned in an area where most people were bronze skinned. She attended Bennington College in Vermont and, by her own account, was woefully unprepared for the 1960’s culture of drugs, sex, and political activism that she discovered in school. However, the college setting introduced her to poetry, and she determined to become a poet herself. After graduation, she became the arts administrator at the Academy of American Poets in New York City, where she was mentored by executive director Elizabeth Kray. Kray is credited by many with raising the visibility of poetry in the United States and in literary circles, and she was tireless in promoting public poetry readings in New York City. Norris also discovered the city’s burgeoning artistic social scene, and she befriended and encountered many influential writers and poets, including Stanley Kunitz, Gerard Malanga, Jim Carroll, Denise Levertov, Erica Jong, James Merrill, and James Wright. It was in New York City that she met and married the poet David Dwyer and published her first three books of poetry.
Raised a Protestant and always intrigued by God, faith, theology, and her struggle to believe, Norris often employed religious themes in her early poetry collections. One reviewer encouraged her to drop her constant references to angels, but she continued to weave religious and deeply spiritual themes throughout her poetry.
In the mid-1970’s, Norris and Dwyer moved to Lemmon, South Dakota, her grandparents’ hometown. Norris became very active in a small Methodist church on the plains of the Dakotas. Norris began to lead the congregation in worship, and encouraged by that community of faith, she sought to explore more deeply her call from God to preach, teach, think, and write. She also became an oblate at a Benedictine monastery. Oblates are laypeople who formally associate themselves with religious orders and commit to carrying out the community’s prayer practices in their daily lives. All these spiritual experiences led Norris to write the autobiographical Dakota. The book’s success launched Norris’s career as a popular speaker, thinker, and commentator on all things spiritual. After Dakota, she published several more works of nonfiction. Her husband died in 2003. She explores the depression she struggled with after his death in Acedia and Me.