howard sherpe | across the fence: norbert blei – find me in my books

17 10 2013

People often ask me, “How do you come up with ideas for a story every week?” I begin this story as I begin almost every column I write – a blank sheet of yellow notebook paper, no outline, notes – nothing – just a head full of ideas, images, and memories. I’ll let the story tell itself, be its own story, find its own way, until the words and ideas begin to fill up a page. Eventually the words will begin to weave a story together. But the art of writing is in the rewriting – that’s where the story begins to take shape and find its voice.

Picasso said, “Not every painting needs to be a masterpiece.” The same is true with writing. Sometimes you hit a home run and sometimes you strike out. But, whether you’re playing a game, working, doing artwork, or writing, the main thing is to give 100% and try and do your best every time you take the field, or sit down with pen in hand and a blank piece of paper before you. Those are some things I learned from writer Norbert Blei.

We recently returned from three days spent in Door County, Wisconsin. I needed some quiet, down time after a very hectic couple of months. We’ve spent time there almost every year since our kids were young. This time it was different. There was no visit with Norbert Blei to talk about life and writing. Norb died on April 23, 2013, after a two-year fight against cancer. He was 77. He had become a friend and I considered him one of my writing mentors. Norb was not one to offer praise unless he meant it. That’s why it meant a lot to me that he liked my writing and even wrote reviews about my column and cover statements for my books.

Norbert Blei was certainly one of a kind. In 1969 he moved from urban Chicago to the country near Ellison Bay, near the tip of Door County. He lived beside a quiet, tree-lined road that led to a small lake, far from the hustle and bustle of Chicago, where he was born, raised, and was once an English teacher. He later worked as a reporter at the City News Bureau in Chicago with Pulitzer Prize winner Mike Royko and Studs Terkel, who became his close friends.

After moving to Door County, he worked for over 40 years out of a converted chicken coop on his property that was nestled in the woods near his house. It was the perfect location for a writer – secluded and quiet. Norb authored 17 books of non-fiction, fiction, poetry, and essays. He was also a painter, teacher, and journalist. For over 30 years he was writer-in-residence and taught a week-long writing course at The Clearing in Door County. He was a popular speaker and a frequent guest on Wisconsin Public Radio.

Norb painted images with words that captured the beauty and character of Door County and the people who lived there. He was once asked if his writing was prose or poetry. He answered, “Does it matter?” I like to call his writing “poetic prose.” He wasn’t afraid to take a stand and lash out in print against those who he felt were destroying the unspoiled natural beauty and serenity of the countryside. We were both on the same side of the fence on that topic.

I’d like to share with you a sample of his writing from “Meditations On A Small Lake.” This is from Down To the Lake – Epilogue.

“He walks down the same road toward the same small lake as he has done for years…usually uncertain of the season, the mind busy shuffling images, thoughts, conversations, passages from books, poems… memories of other days walking the same road…the night before, yesterday morning, last week, years ago… his two small children pulling a wooden wagon filled with buckets of bright cherries picked from there across the road, where once an orchard grew … summers in a red rowboat drifting on the small lake, the bobber centered in ripples, the circles widening to infinity, to nothing but smooth water…fishing for bass and perch near the old boathouse, when the old boathouse and the dock were still there to lend a primitive spirit to all the lake touched along its shores …when the lake was mostly unknown, unmarked, hard to find, and quiet but for the wind singing over the water, inside the trees…when the lake took you by surprise in winter, snow-blinded you, held your footprints on ice, encompassed you in an immensity of white merging into the horizon … memories of small, ancient-like bonfires on a winter’s night, townspeople gathering to skate… times of pink prairie rose in bloom along the road in spring… autumns of wild apples and northern lights…

“It’s still early, still almost dark but growing lighter the closer he moves down to the lake… Nobody’s about. No one on the road. Nobody on the lake. No light in the few farmhouses he could see – remembering those early years he found himself alone among distant neighbors. He longs to get back to that. A time that occasionally visits him on days like this, early morning. Winter. The land the way it used to be.”

There it is… poetic prose, painting a picture with words. His writing still lives on… His tombstone says “Find me in my books.” — Howard Sherpe – October 02, 2013