Sunday, April 15, 2012

The Loss of Lewis Nordan (1939-2012)


This winter we had to get the house ready to show. This entailed digging through boxes and drawers. While digging, I came across a stash of letters and old journals. In one, I wrote about meeting Lewis (Buddy) Nordan in April of 1993.

Let me be honest. I start the entry of April 3rd this way: "I've been wanting a lot of things. I've been competitive all inside of myself." This stirred competitiveness, ambition, desire to tell... I know exactly what I'm talking about -- a hive in the chest, a buzz in the head. The need for words and story... It hasn't gone away. The next line is, "Lewis 'Buddy' Nordan came here to read & do a workshop. He's a wonderful writer and teller of tales and a kind, funny man. He critiqued Ogden Stocker and the Sandman. 'Brilliant writing' and 'beautiful, beautiful story' -- Asked me later if I knew I was a really good writer & I said, 'Sometimes I do, but most of the time I don't.'"

I go on there to talk about how Jim Clark, the director, told me that Nordan talked about my story at dinner, mainly about the drunk cows ... and then I talk about a change this caused inside of me, a shift, the idea that my stories existed outside of my head and rode in the heads of others, my stories with lives of their own, and the importance of that for me. "And I feel like I'm doing what I do," I wrote.

Nordan's acknowledgment of me as a writer meant the world to me. He took me seriously. He was the first person -- upon meeting me and hearing my name -- to say, "Ah, Julianna Baggott, I've read your work."

That sentence alone changed my life.

The fact that my drunk cows lingered drunkenly in his head made me a writer.

Nordan's work had already had an incredible impact on me. He is a transcendent writer. His building of the world around Sugar Mecklin is dark and divine, rooted in swamplands and yet completely otherworldly and magical. He has said that all of his stories are the same -- I'll butcher this but it was something about his father -- wanting his father to love him.

I begin almost each workshop with a read aloud of Nordan's very short and exquisite and incredibly layered short story, "Owls." In it Nordan creates an astonishing hinge -- through which he moves from past to a more recent past -- in a colon. The hinge is embedded in that piece of sentence hardware -- the colon -- and suddenly a door swings wide and the story opens up and roams into new territory.

I've read that story aloud to classes of students many many times and still, it hits me, at the end. I have to steel myself so I don't cry -- on the first day of class.

And yet, Lewis Nordan wouldn't have cared if he'd cried.

The night he read back in 1993 -- he did, in fact, choke up. He had to stop and take a moment.

The image -- I can recall it now in that heavy-hearted stain of image -- snow, a teacher, someone struck on the head, a shovel? These were the elements and yet what I feel right now -- in my chest -- hive, buzz in head -- that's what's truly there. The deep sadness of that moment in the story -- and the ambition to create something with that kind of power.

In my journal I wrote, "Lewis Nordan after signing my book -- I said that just when the story got the most hilarious you turned it with a line and made it the most sad. He said that he hadn't read it in a long time and got choked up reading it. I love that," I wrote. "He's a very emotionally honest man who gets to this honesty through wild exaggeration. (He's interested in this perceived reality & documentable reality.) I'll try to jot down the stories he told when there's time..."

The next entry says that I've enclosed a copy of a letter -- handwritten twice -- but there is no letter. It must have slipped out. Instead the only loose letter is one I don't understand -- an apology to the Dubois family for a phone prank, signed Julie Dubois. I can only imagine that it's a letter from a character of mine...

And the stories he told? I hope someone jotted them because, sadly, I did not...

I did, in that April 3rd entry, state the kind of writer I wanted to be: the kind who shows "that life is beautiful, ridiculous, sad, amazing." In other words, I wanted to write like Lewis Nordan.

At the end I said, "He leaves tomorrow -- hugged him goodbye tonight. Can't wait to drop him a line."

In some ways, I've been dropping him lines every since -- aspiring, aspiring, aspiring.


[For more on Lewis Nordan, click here. You will find the short story "Owls" at the end of his brilliant collection/novel-in-stories Music of the Swamp.]