The secret life of Sue Monk Kidd
How a '70 nursing grad became a best-selling author.
By Saedra Pinkerton
Life-changing events often arrive when we least expect them. For the best-selling author of The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd '70, one such moment came as she browsed the shelves at her local pharmacy, secretly checking up on her teenage daughter who was stocking toothpaste on the store shelves.
"There are these moments when you make quantum leaps in your life. One of these for me was seeing my daughter on her knees stocking toothpaste," Kidd remembers. "I observed an experience of such blatant sexism with my daughter as a target that it upended my life. Two men came along the aisle, and one said, 'Now that's how I like to see a woman: on her knees.'
"Seeing the humiliation on my daughter's face -- the experience was so vivid that it helped me change course and ask questions I had never asked before."
Those questions led Kidd to re-evaluate everything about her suburban life as a Christian (Baptist) columnist. This introspective account of her journey into feminism and religion culminated in her first book, the non-fiction Dance of the Dissident Daughter. She received high praise and went on to become an acclaimed fiction author. The Secret Life of Bees was a The New York Times best-seller and book club favorite across the country.
Kidd reflects fondly on a TCU experience that initially led her down a vastly different career path -- nursing.
"I thought I'd do that forever," she said. "Looking back, I received a fabulous education. I loved the nursing program and went on to work nearby at St. Joseph's."
But the seeds of inspiration for a writing career had been sewn.
"One of my literature professors said something like, 'For the love of God, what are you doing in nursing? You should be a writer.' I thought about his words for years. The moment that comment was made, I almost switched majors, which I really wanted to do, and yet I had invested all this time and there was all this expectation.
"It was really a failure of courage on my part -- not being able to go with the impulse of your heart but to stay with something safer, more practical."
It took Kidd 10 years before she found the wisdom to admit that she needed to heed the writer's impulse. Though she regrets her lack of self-confidence to pursue writing in her 20s, she acknowledges that life experience was critical in developing her distinctive style.
"I'm not sure I had a whole lot to say at 30, but I had to dive in at some point. As writers, we must have something to say; by that I mean not just parroting what's around us -- really being able to articulate something that comes uniquely from ourselves with some wisdom. That doesn't necessarily come just with age, but age certainly helped. I had to do a kind of maturing to tap the place where I could find my true voice with wisdom, measure and depth."
Kidd's non-fiction work is mostly autobiographical, detailing personal awakenings and challenges, and her fiction weaves these same threads. Intensely spiritual and staunchly feminist, her stories exude a quirky mix of Deep South religion and Eastern philosophy and admittedly aim at expanding readers' horizons but without manipulation.
"I don't see my writing as particularly political," she said. "I don't have an agenda. Feminism flows in but it is so organic. I don't set an agenda and write to it. But I think as writers we are speaking to our culture, to our generation and hopefully to younger people."
While some do set out to change the world through politics or social activism, Kidd sees creativity as a largely untapped resource in American society.
"Imagination is so important and powerful in our culture. If we want to transform, one way to do it is to shift the mythology and introduce new myths and stories instead of political agendas. When we can offer culture stories that are born out of the imagination, we have the ability to really change people's minds and hearts.
"The best way to reach the human heart is through a story. That is one reason I love to write -- I believe in what I'm doing and take it very seriously."
Kidd draws inspiration from contemporary revolutionaries.
"I think of Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. -- all those who gave from their imagination," she said. "We have to imagine new ways of being human, of being American, of relating to one another. We need to honor bold new ideas. We have to honor imagination and believe in it so everyone can offer a vision about being in the world.
"I see it as offering my story, my vision, that can help us understand what it is to be a human, a woman, how to relate, what matters -- all these large questions."
With so much energy poured into imagination and transformation, Kidd no longer has time for the housewife role she once occupied so easily. Her children are grown and have children of their own. And Grandma is a famous author -- traveling the country to sign books and speak to fans.
"The success of Secret Life of Bees was such an unexpected thing for me. The only response is to be grateful, and I certainly am. But there's always an adjustment. Sometimes the response is so amazing -- it takes me aback that people know me and respond to my work in such a powerful way. The only thing to do was just step up and let it be a part of my life. It's a little intimidating, but it's all relative."
Kidd loves the attention but says she gets the biggest thrill in life out of Ben and Roxie, her grandchildren. Her quiet island life near Charleston, S.C., with husband Sandy and Lily the labrador retriever help keep her grounded.
The writing and the success that followed are "part of who I am, but I have a deeper, larger life than that. Not to say I don't love this experience -- I love to write and to have so many people read with such exuberance. It's not just astonishing, it's what I longed for."
Kidd has a special trick to keep the fame and adoration from going to her head.
"Sometimes I have to step aside and remember who I am," she says. "I'm Ben and Roxie's grandmother."
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