By DAVID CRUMM
Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine
Kent Nerburn is known around the world as a spiritual guide.
Throughout 2019, for example, his storytelling will be celebrated by readers across the state of South Dakota, because his classic Neither Wolf nor Dog was chosen as the focus for the 2019 One Book South Dakota statewide reading program. As a part of that big announcement, Kent told his South Dakota audience: “I am humbled to have my unique literary child, Neither Wolf nor Dog, chosen as the One Book South Dakota selection for 2019. A Native elder once counseled me: ‘You should always teach by story, because stories lodge deep in the heart.’ ”
Now, in his new book, Dancing with the Gods: Reflections on Life and Art, Kent offers all of us a guided tour through the challenges and joys of a storytelling life.
“My way of writing has always been an invitation to readers to walk with me through the world. Then, as we walk together, I try to extract what meaning I can from what we encounter,” Kent said in an interview about his new book. “That’s always been my purpose as a writer. I try to show the sacred in the ordinary—but not by standing up on a stage and lecturing about it, no—I always invite readers to be my fellow travelers.
“In this book in particular, I hope that readers will learn from me in this way—as fellow learners. My years of work with Native people really produced this whole approach to writing. Readers might open this new book and think that it’s a departure from my earlier books—but it’s not. I’m trying to describe here the creative life and, to do that, I’ve tried to look at this as the seasons of life. I think that this new book really is a continuation of my path with readers.”
Kent continued, “I’m 72 and I’ve reached the season in life of the elder who takes time to teach others. This book was born because I asked myself: ‘What am I able to teach? What do I know?’ And one thing I certainly know is the world of the arts. I earned a doctorate in theology and the arts. I worked for years with artists in many different genres and disciplines. I spent 20 years as a sculptor and 30 years working as a writer. This is a life’s work I know—this pathway through life—and hopefully I can offer some wisdom, now, to others.”
FAMOUS FOR HIS LETTERS
Thousands of readers have interacted with Kent over the years. Some have attended his talks, readings, classes and other public presentations. (For more information on that, visit Kent’s “Speaking” page on his home website.)
Many others have sent letters to his previous home in Minnesota or now to his residence in Portland, Oregon. His openness in responding to letters from serious readers and writers is well known. (Scroll down to the “Care to Read More?” section at the end of this column for stories about my own brief travels with Kent some years ago, accompanying him in my role as Editor of this online magazine.)
“It takes time, but if someone writes to me in a thoughtful way, I always try to respond,” Kent said in our interview. “I can’t carry on an extended correspondence—but I do make an effort to answer at least a first letter from someone. I feel I owe that to others, because it was the exchange of letters with Norman Mailer many years ago that really helped me through a very difficult time in my life. He took the time to answer me. Now, I feel a responsibility to write to others in that same way.
“In the opening of this new book,” Kent continued, “I describe how these exchanges of letters really expanded into the writing of this new book. One way to think about this book is as a letter to the world, describing what I’ve learned about this life I lead.”
In fact, the opening sentence of his book refers to that exchange of letters. On his first page, Kent writes: “Recently I received a note from a young woman named Jennifer who was questioning her decision to pursue a life in the arts.” That letter from Jennifer “touched me—it mirrored the doubts and yearnings of my own youth.”
Then, Kent shares the letter he sent back to Jennifer. And that includes the story of his own agonizing doubts about a career in the arts while he was a graduate student at Stanford. He sent a letter to the best-selling author and celebrity Norman Mailer, asking for help. Kent was stunned when Mailer actually responded.
Mailer’s advice was the sage wisdom of a veteran writer: To become a writer, you have to start writing! Only by actually writing will you begin to discover the unique voice you can share with the world. As you write, you’re searching, Mailer wrote, for “what you can say that no one else particularly can say.”
‘AN AUTHENTIC HUMAN’
As Kent describes the years-long arc of a life in the creative arts—specifically in writing—he does not shy away from “The Hard Places” and “Secrets.”
“All of us have a public self, a private self and then a secret self,” Kent said. “Hardly anyone ever sees the secret self. But, as a writer, we do try our best to say to people: This is who I am. I have stumbled and made incredible mistakes in my life. I have experienced great joy. As you read my stories, you may not like what I have to say—in fact, you may not like me at all. But, after all these years as a writer, I do hope that what I am saying to the world is truly authentic. I say to readers: Perhaps you can find some help in your own journey from what I have learned. And, that’s really what motivated me as I wrote this book.”
What is so powerful about Kent’s voice—in this book and others—is that he is part of the life-affirming chorus of creative voices that includes such great talents as Robert Frost and Frederick Beuchner. None of these three offer cheap reassurance of any particular outcome in life, certainly no promise of success. All three write about what Kent calls, in his new book, “Dark Nights and Waterless Places.” But all three writers also affirm that our shared stories somehow connect us in a greater spiritual community.
As Beuchner put it, at one point, “My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it anything like right, the chances are you will recognize that in many ways it is also yours.”
At the end of his new book, Kent writes:
“To affirm, to articulate, to console, to inspire—these are the great gifts of the arts. They let the light shine through the confusion of life and remind us that there is something more—a mystery that can only be touched but never understood. But above all, they provide the greatest gift that any experience can offer. They tell us that we are part of the human family.”
Toward the end of our interview, I asked Kent, “What do you hope readers will carry away from your new book, when they finish reading it?”
He paused for a moment, then said, “I want readers to come away from this saying: ‘I guess I can make it through this life, too. I can live as an authentic person even in the face of this whole bramble of life I have to struggle through.’
“Ultimately, this book is saying to readers: You are not alone.”
Care to read more?
WALK WITH KEN, AS WE DID—In 2010, as Editor of ReadTheSpirit magazine, I traveled with my son Benjamin around North America and, for one week, we put ourselves in Kent’s hands in rural Minnesota. We published three of the many stories Kent guided us toward during that visit.