Sherry Simpson died Wednesday morning. There. I put the words down on paper. I tried to think up a more clever way of writing it. Something flowery and poetic that somehow captures the essence of a human being, and her passing, and what she meant to those who knew and loved her. Something — I don’t know — more appropriate for the death of someone so important to sending me on my way as a writer. But it’s all I’ve got.
I don’t think she’d have minded me writing about her death in this way. She was like that, wasn’t she? Still is, I suppose, in all of our heads and hearts. You know exactly what I’m talking about: that irreverent-but-also-tender-but-don’t-forget-to-watch-out-for-that-wicked-sense-of-humor-when-you-least-expect-it thing I came to call “Simpsonesque.” That’s how I’ll always see her, anyway. Not afraid to shut shit down in a workshop if things got sideways, but also free with her empathy (and maybe a kleenex). And god, what a wit.
I met Sherry in 2014, when I joined UAA’s MFA program. And I have to say, that from the moment we met at the opening night of the summer residency, I had a big fat writer’s crush on her that I don’t think will ever leave me. She was here, and then she was there, never a lanyard away from the camera that captured our two-week residency and all its exhilarating highs, and second-week exhausted lows. All the while, leading workshops, craft talks, and exercises. Somehow balancing it all and yet still finding the time to mind all of her delicate writers and the existential soap operas we presented her with on what must have been an hourly basis. What is a practicum? Do I really have to read twelve books this semester? Am I really going to have to send you no-shit “mailings” on a monthly basis?
It must have been exhausting. In fact I know it was, because every summer I’d come off the Residency like an addict off a hit: manic with creative energy that needed guidance. And it never failed that Sherry would refuse to answer my self-indulgent emails until at least early August. Okay, maybethat’s a bit of a stretch. She answered. Especially my first and last year, when she was my appointed mentor. But close on the heels of the UAA Residency, she attended another residency as a faculty member. That residency, she always pointed out, was basically a vacation compared to UAA’s because all she had to do “was show up.” I like to picture her there. For some reason, she’s wearing a hat, which makes no sense because everybody knows the weather in the Pacific Northwest is dogshit, and if she ever wore a hat, it probably would have been something made by Grunden’s because it never stops raining there as far as I know. Nevertheless, there she is in my head: smiling in a sunhat beneath redwoods (again, I don’t fact-check day-dreams) and as her phone cackles with yet another panicked email from another panicked UAA MFA student whose dog has eaten all the books that should have read that month, she simply switches the phone to silent with a smile, and sips at a gin and tonic.
The reality is that Sherry Simpson always had time for us. “For me” is what I should say, since I’m writing solely from my experience. My first residency was cut short by a military deployment, and instead of sitting through my last workshops — and program director David Stevenson’s always baffling last day movie viewing selection — a military cargo aircraft flew me to East Africa. The base had a coffee shop with garbage internet. But I went there every day to read, and write, but mostly I went there hoping that if the internet actually worked, that maybe when I opened my email, I’d find a response from Sherry. In fact, I just went back and looked at my email. Sherry emailed me dozens of times during my months overseas, sometimes a couple times a day.
The writing and reading I did over that deployment was heady, formative. But more to the point, she is etched indelibly into my memory of that time. Together, we whipped two essays into shape, both of which were not only published, but would go on to be anthologized more than once. And I’d be hard-pressed to point out a recommendation by Sherry that I didn’t follow. Those initial successes bred follow-ons that continue to this day, as one of the essays she helped me write is just now going to press in an anthology by Brevity. So you will excuse me if I go on believing that without Sherry, there is no version of reality in which Matt Komatsu writes much of anything at all. And it occurs to me, as I scroll through pages of emails from my time in the MFA program, how much I miss her. Right in the goddamn, heartbroken here and now.
Everyone knows that once you die, you have at least a 50/50 shot of your work being elevated by a wider world. It’s some kind of undiagnosed defect of the human condition that makes people appreciate art more when the artist is gone. But we all knew that Sherry was a brilliant writer while she was still with us. Woe to those who never had the opportunity to watch her step from behind that beloved (or was it accursed?) camera at the last faculty reading night, when she would share her literary prowess. Sherry had that ability, that innate sense of timing we commonly associate with world class athletes who must plant the foot just so. She could break your heart in one moment, only to topple you from your seat with laughter the next. The Accidental Explorer (Sasquatch, 2008) is a master class for any writer who needs learn that a story in and of itself is nothing without the unique perspective of the writer. And The Dominion of Bears (which she called “the goddamn bear book” or something along those lines) took the perfection of her essay “Killing Wolves” (Creative Nonfiction #7) and trod that narrow line of capturing complexity so well that it received the 2015 Burroughs Medal. That’s right: Sherry Simpson’s name as a nature writer should come out of the same mouths that utter the names Peter Mathiessen, Barry Lopez, Rachel Carson, and John McPhee. And last year, that essay about gambling that had me doubled over a couple summers ago? It earned her a coveted spot in Best American Essays.
I know that she was proud of me, I do. Mostly because she told me, but also because her friends and loved ones are reminding me even now, in the midst of their own loss. But I am filled with regret. In the years since I graduated, our emails grew sparse. I know that’s how it is between teacher and student, that we all have to fly once we leave the nest. But I wish I’d have been a better human and kept in touch. I wish I’d worked harder to get a book out in the world, just so I could type the name “Sherry Simpson” in the acknowledgments and send her a signed copy. But that’s just selfish bullshit — she didn’t need me. She lived a full life in New Mexico with her husband Scott, and the hummingbirds, and — I’ll never forget this because I loved the photo of her in her turnout kit on Facebook — her volunteer firefighting. And of course, she continued to share her wisdom with new generations of nonfiction writers, which was where I saw her last summer when I was invited to read at the opening night of the UAA Residency. Still attached to the camera, capturing All The Moments. Still effervescent and eclectic and just plain amazing. Still making me feel, for the brief minutes we had together, like I was someone special. And I refuse to believe I was the only who experienced her this way.
Sherry Simpson is gone. My wife and I were just telling our boy (Sherry used to tell me that we won the “cute kid lottery”) that despite death, no one ever really leaves the world. Your physical body becomes the earth. You live on in the memory of those who loved you. But we didn’t tell him that knowing those facts doesn’t make it easy for those left behind. My heart is broken, and my world is lesser for her passing. But we hold on to what remains. So, here’s one last small thing before I go: in one of my first book responses back in that summer of 2014, I wrote to Sherry about overcoming the nagging doubt that I didn’t have a story worth writing. A devil on my shoulder, and all that. “Way to kick the demon’s ass!” she responded. I smiled when I found that email because it was so Sherry, who was no stranger to kicking a demon’s ass herself.
I think it would be nice to keep this going. It doesn’t look like we’ll be able to meet up at the Blue Fox and drink to Sherry’s memory any time soon. So, if you have a memory of Sherry, please share it. Just scan back to the top of this post and click on “Leave a Comment.”
(Photographs accompanying this piece were supplied by Matt, Erin Hollowell, and Carol Swartz).