Author of the Week: Jory Sherman and the Power of language

For a time, Jory Sherman lived in the belly of the beast and had no idea why he had been swallowed up by the darkness of a wayward and tormented mind that had lost its way and carried him far from the agricultural landscape of his South Dakota heritage.

Jory Sherman

At the age of twenty-two, he found himself in the VA hospital at Ft. Miley, outside of San Francisco. Doctors had decided that Jory Sherman was manic-depressive, and they exiled him to a special ward cursed by intensive occupational therapy. He hated every minute of it. He saw his life wasting slowly away, and there was nothing he could do about it. One day at a time. That’s all he had to live. One day at a time.

With his permission, Sherman’s psychiatrist began taping his sessions three times a week, and the hospital staff was astounded at the way he carefully described his complex feelings and thought processes.

Jory Sherman has only one alternative,” the staff said.

“What’s that?”

“He should become a writer.”

So they hauled Jory Sherman out of occupational therapy, led him to an office down he hall, gave him a typewriter and stack of paper and said, more or less, “Apply the seat of your pants to the seat of a chair, and write.”

He did.

Sherman remembers, “I began writing with no structure, no purpose, and no plan. I was doing little more than spreading words on paper as they came rushing out of my mind.”

The staff read the pages of the raw manuscript.

“He’s a genius,” some said.

“He’s got what it takes,” said others.

“To do what?”

“Be a poet.”

Some of the attending doctors only shook their heads sadly. A poet? Jory Sherman was just as well off when everybody thought it was crazy.

Writing saved his life and may have even saved his soul.

Sherman says, “After I left the hospital, I made a decision that I would just write and do any kind of work that allowed me the freedom to write. I studied and wrote and what emerged was poetry.”

He became one of the beat poets of the beat generation in San Francisco, running in the coffee house circles with good friend Charles Bukowski. But the years passed, and time left him a wiser man. Poetry wasn’t selling.  No matter how great the poetry may have been, the poet was still hungry and often living on the streets.

Jory Sherman took the raw power of his imagery, turned it into prose, and he became one of the most prolific authors of all time, writing more than a thousand articles, five hundred published short stories, and four hundred books in fifty years behind the pen, the typewriter, and then the computer.

Although he had published several novels and was quickly becoming a name to be reckoned with in America’s major publishing houses, his first important break came as he sat in the editor’s office at Major Books in North Hollywood.

The art director walked in with a book cover for Guns for Hire, a Western, and announced that the author was suffering from writer’s block and would not be able to finish the novel.

Sherman grinned and said, “I could write the book just by looking at the cover.”

Two weeks later, the editor mailed him the cover and asked him to write the book.

“When do you need it?” he asked.

“Two weeks,” she said.

Ten days later, he submitted the finished manuscript. Thus was born the Western writing career of Jory Sherman. He turned out novels as easily as some people turned out letters, and his writing – regardless of the genre – was the stuff of poetry.

Warren French, a professor of literature at the University of Florida, said, “Jory Sherman has a strange and powerful knowledge of language and an almost perfect ear.”

His Western novel, “Grass Kingdom,” launched the famed Forge imprint and beat formidable odds by being nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in literature the year that Annie Prouix won the award.

Jory Sherman has said, “I think the most enjoyment I get from writing is the feeling I get from using language, the English language, which is the richest in the world. I love seeing ideas take shape in my mind and then using language’s powerful symbols to convey those ideas. I have an almost mystical feeling about language and words, as if a sentence is a secret code that can unlock the mysteries of the human mind, can reveal ancient myths and stories that have lain buried in the human subconscious since man came into being on this earth. Language brought me to writing and sustains me even after more than fifty years of putting thoughts into words.”

The genre is not important to him.

He began as a poet.

He wrote Westerns.

He has written dozens of mainstream novels.

But they all have one thing in common – the strength and depth of the language that dwells within him.

As Jory Sherman once wrote in an essay of his mountain homeland: “And so these words, these ephemeral images so fleeting and yet so vivid once, stand as a kind of hymn to the Ozarks. That others might see the paintings, hear the songs being sung, listen to the symphonic music of nature, and have a personal talisman to touch and hold and keep and smell and taste long after I am gone from these hills and have put down my notebook and gone to sleep.

“If only the words remain, that is enough. They hold the images for all earthly time. Enough? The words, ultimately are everything, and are all that may be left to us and generations yet to come.”



  • Dusty Richards

    We all knew he could write, Thanks for telling us where he came from. No one will ever know his generosity to other writers except us. The many who received that blessing. So many of us who’d never seen a printed page of our own if it had not been for him. God bless you, Jory and thanks. Dusty Richards vp Western Writers of America

  • Anonymous

    For those who don’t know, Dusty Richards, who commented about Jory, is one of the country’s most talented and respected Western writers. He’ll do to ride the river with.

  • So nice to see where Jory first started. He is a magician with words, no doubt about it.

  • oscar case

    Thanks for the post. Mr. Sherman’s story is awe-inspiring and I have to read some of his books.

  • Jim

    Nice post, Caleb. I’ve heard the story from Jory, but it’s always inspiring to hear it again. It has to be encouraging to those who want to write – or for that matter, those who want to pursue their dream whatever it may be. Thanks for making this story available to thousands who are not familiar with the talented Jory Sherman.
    Jim Callan

  • Cheryl Pierson

    Very good post! I’m glad to learn more about my friend Jory. He truly IS a genius with words.

  • Troy Smith

    One of my favorite writers, and one of my favorite people. And I never knew he and I had so much in common: I had a similar experience in my twenties, and often felt as though the skin had been stripped from me leaving raw nerves to be assailed by every errant breeze- and at the same time, I believe, leaving me hypersensitive to the world around me in a way that I think eventually showed through in my work. The only cure really was to be a writer.

  • Les Williams

    NO ONE paints a picture with words better than Jory. And to continue to do so despite his diabilities is nothing short of inspirational. We can all lwarn something from Jory Sherman.

  • James R. (Jim) Callan

    I’ve heard the story, but it still amazes me. And, even on his eightieth birthday, Jory can
    still turn out the books. Another in the
    Baron series came out this year. (The
    Baron series was started by The Grass Kingdom.)
    It’s likely it will also be nominated for a Pulitzer. Impressive.
    Keep up the good work, Jory. You
    are an inspiration to all of us.

  • Tom RIzzo

    Fascinating insight into Jory Sherman’s back story, Caleb. Jory stands as the master conductor of the orchestra of language. His power at description, especially the technique of weaving the five senses into a story, is unparalleled. You just don’t “read” a Jory Sherman story; you get immersed.

    • Jory is not only one of my favorite writers, he is also one of my favorite people.

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