How Jory Sherman changed my life

Jory Sherman in his element
Jory Sherman in his element with writers at a conference


I learned of Jory Sherman’s death Sunday via an early morning email from Caleb Pirtle.

Some of you may not be familiar with Jory Sherman.  I wasn’t until about ten years ago when I first attended the NETWO (Northeast Texas Writers’ Conference) annual program on the shore of Lake Bob Sandlin near Pittsburg, Texas.

In one of the first sessions the emcee introduced Jory, who stood at the back of the room, and the crowd gave him a round of applause.

Who is this guy I wondered.

I did my research.  Jory was a Pulitzer-nominated novelist for The Grass Kingdom, a beat poet from San Francisco in the 1950s, a running buddy of Charles Bukowski. He was a prolific author, who had spent his entire life making a living putting words on paper.

Wonderful, beautiful words.

About two weeks ago, I received an email from Paul Paris, the outgoing president of NETWO.  It said simply that Jory wasn’t doing well.

Let me back up a minute.

After I did my research and learned what a remarkable writer Jory was, I made a decision.  It was my second one having to do with writing.  The first one was that I would finish a novel, a life-long goal. I had dabbled with writing since I was in my twenties.  Now I was serious about it.

My second writing-related decision was to hire Jory Sherman as my writing coach.

He was sitting on a wooden bench perched on a concrete slab open to the woods and the sounds of the wind and the waves driven against the sea wall.

I had not spoken to him before.

I sat down next to him.

He half-way looked at me.

“Jory, I’m Steve Woodfin.  I’d like to hire you as my writing coach.”

I handed him a check that would cover a few sessions.

He thanked me and asked what I was working on.

“It’s probably too ambitious a work for a a first novel,” I said.

I laid it out for him.

“Why do you think it’s too ambitious?” he said.

I tried to explain how  that I was attempting to tell the story of a contemporary Christ figure, something like  Dostoevsky had done in The Idiot.

“I understand the concept,”  he said. He leaned back against the wooden bench slats. He didn’t question me about the concept, try to divert me to something else.

“Send me what you’ve written, and we’ll get started,” he said.

So began a couple of years of work with Jory.

About once a month, I would drive up to Pittsburg and meet with him in his writing cabin, a small stand-alone structure where he stored his books, worked at his keyboard, fed his pet raccoons.

I know now having  spoken with many people who entered the world of Jory’s private critique sessions, that I should have entered his private realm with fear and trembling, prepared to leave with sheaves of my words tucked under my arm, my head hung in shame.

That was not my experience.

Jory could be tough all right.

But, I loved those sessions.

He never dissected what I had sent him line by line.

Instead he counseled me about the craft of writing.

“You can do better than that,” he would say as he referred to a specific scene.

His teaching about writing focused on one simple topic.

“What you need to write your book is already within you,”  he said to me many times.

He had given me permission to write.

It was the greatest gift any author could receive from a writing coach.

By the time I finished my tutelage with Jory (and Charlotte his beloved wife), I had written three novels, about 225,000 words.

I had sat at the feet of the master, listened, gleaned what I could.

Before long life’s  journey would take Jory back to his beloved Ozarks. Not much later, he would frequent VA hospitals,

Although I thought of him often, I had not been good at keeping up with him.  Paul’s note made me realize it was time to correct that error.

I dialed the number included in the email, and Charlotte answered.  We spoke a second, then she said, “Hold on a minute, Steve. They’re bringing him in now. I’ll put him on the phone.”

And then, as if by magic, Jory and I reconnected.  Time was gone.  There was nothing but the moment, that brief intersection of our two souls, so distant, so near.

“Caleb is out of town this week, but maybe when he gets back, he and I can drive up to see you,” I said.

“I would love that.  I have some ideas I’d like to discuss with you,” he said.

And I knew he did have some ideas, things only Jory could imagine.

Things I will never know because he is gone now, before we could talk.

That’s the way it always was when I left Jory.  I always felt as if I had walked away from the only well of cool water in a parched land, a well that ran forever and would never run dry.

Or so I thought.

Oh, how I will miss him.





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