How I got into a Fight with Carol Bly

PS3552.L89.M9.2000, author

Carol Bly. Image courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society.

For those of you not familiar with the literary scene in Minnesota, Carol Bly is a literary legend in the state who has passed on to the great beyond. She is best known for her nonfiction essays about rural life compiled into the book “Letters from the Country.” She was born in Duluth and lived not too far away for most of her life. She was divorced from poet Robert Bly and they had four children. Carol’s writing had a strong moralistic and socialist voice. In her later years, she started teaching writing.

That’s where I come in. In the 1990s, I was one of about a half-dozen local writers selected to take a workshop with Carol. At the time, I was working on my first novel, “Eye of the Wolf,” and I was looking for all the literary education I could get.

I entered the workshop with trepidation because I had heard how forthright and brutal Carol could be with her critiques. Little did I know that her feedback would turn me off from writing for two years and that we would have a literary argument that would even be reflected later in Carol’s relationship with one of her daughters.

Most of the several-day workshop was great. I enjoyed Carol’s quick wit and literary experience. We had group discussions and writing exercises, which culminated in a one-on-one review of our work by Carol. As you know, my work is fictional and romantic and Carol was a nonfiction writer. I expected some differences just based on our genres, but I didn’t expect the depth of those differences.

Through her critique, I became aware of how much more work I needed to do with my novel to better incorporate descriptions of the settings into the story. I could see how much more time that was going to require, which was depressing and overwhelming at that point because I felt like I’d already put so much time into the story.

Then came the comment that cut the most. She wrote on my manuscript that she was a “serious creative writing teacher, not a hack manuscript-assister.” She hoped I would take on a sincere personal narrative instead of the story I was writing.

Our resulting one-on-one discussion, which was as polite as two Minnesotans can be who disagree with each other, centered around whether one can reflect real-life issues in fiction (vs. nonfiction). Carol argued that it was impossible to address true-life themes in fiction, especially the clap-trap kind of fiction that is romance writing. I strongly begged to differ.

Creative differences aired, we left it at that.

After two years of being overwhelmed by the thought of all the rewriting I needed to do, I pulled up my big-girl coveralls and got to it. And I finished my gosh-darned novel, and I got it published. Take that, Carol! My ego felt better, and I’m sure my novel was better for the extra work I put into it.

Imagine how much more happy my fragile writer’s ego was when I discovered years later that one of Carol’s children was a published fiction author (Mary, who wrote under the pen name of Eloisa James). Even “worse,” she was a romance fiction writer! Carol was quoted in one news article I read saying she wished her daughter’s efforts were “focused more towards more literary works.” After my exchange with Carol over the value (or lack thereof) of romance writing, I could totally see why her daughter felt like she needed to write under a pseudonym.

Imagine that same vindication magnified by one-and-a-half when, a couple of more years later, I discovered that Carol’s last book (she was terminally ill) was to be a work of fiction (“Shelter Half”). I bought the book as soon as I had a chance. It was pretty good, I admit, and it reflected many of the social issues she addressed in her nonfiction works.

I had to wonder though, if her final work was an apology to her daughter. Did Carol have the same argument with her daughter that she had with me so many years ago? I have a sneaking suspicion that she did. I suspect she wrote her book in part as a consolation to her daughter, and maybe to all the other fiction writers to whom she caused angst.

It made me feel good that I stuck to my guns during our discussion about the value of fiction writing. And it made me feel good that I discovered the strength within myself to work on my book because I thought it had value, even if Carol wasn’t so sure.

Writers – remember this story. If you truly believe in your work and your talent, don’t let a teacher dissuade you. Learn from them, yes, but keep going if what you’re working on rings true to you. And then do your damndest to make sure your work gets shared with the world. Because if you find it of value, no doubt others will, too. Even if it is a smarmy romance novel.

14 thoughts on “How I got into a Fight with Carol Bly

  1. Good for you for believing in yourself. While Bly may have been a good writer, she failed on some human level. We are not all the same, nor do we all learn the same. I have learned so much about the human condition from reading fiction. Stories hold truth, and they appeal to those of us who are more concrete thinkers.

    > >

    • Yes, apparently it was very important to Carol to be considered a serious literary author. Me — not so much! Yes, we all learn differently, and sometimes the indirect approach of storytelling works best. I mean, there’s a reason our cave-dwelling ancestors gathered together and told stories in their free time.

  2. I constantly read non-fiction. One after another, and sometimes for years at a time. Feeling completely burned out, I finally turn to fiction, and it’s like opening the windows for the first time in Spring. So refreshing! Ironically, I think I grow more as a person by reading fiction. It reaches more deeply into the emotions, while stretching the neurons at the same time, and thus affecting more of the whole person. Anyhow, cheers!

    • Glad to hear that you are a fiction convert, Eddy. I think both varieties (fiction and nonfiction) are good. They highlight the full range of our humanity.But as you can tell from my story, it hurts me when somebody disses fiction.

  3. Wow, how terrible for a teacher to completely dismiss a student’s work like that. I think that “truth” can be conveyed in ALL genres of writing — no one genre has the market cornered on saying something meaningful. I’m biased, of course, but I’ve often found that speculative fiction can be especially profound because of its ability to use metaphor and other fantastical elements to make us think of the truths of our own lives in different ways.

    I can’t believe her daughter is Eloisa James! I have read one James’ book and was NOT impressed — it was about as smarmy-romance as you can get. Interesting to know the background it came out of — probably some major rebellion against Mom going on there!

    One thing I learned from BEING in writing classes and also teaching/critiquing is that the important thing is helping the writer better say what SHE wants to say, not helping her say what YOU want her to say. Sounds like Bly didn’t quite have that down.

    • Right on Lacey! I especially agree with your point about critiquing — the teacher should work to help the student better say what they are trying to convey rather than what the teacher thinks they should be saying.

      I have not read any of Elosia James’s books yet, but I might have to, just to round out my education on this issue.

      I hope you have a wonderful Christmas Lacey.

  4. Dear Marie,
    I loved this article. It ties in with one of my male-midlife- crises. Back in the 80’s or so when Omni magazine was still around, I came across a letter to the editor accusing Robert By of “charismatically leading confused men astray into a morass of self-perpetuating misogyny”. My first thought was: “WOW ! Very articulate.” My second thought was: “Sounds like a divorce and a fairly recent one” (based on my mother’s five angry divorces and one annulment). I had read some of Robert Bly’s work and found no traces of misogyny from my viewpoint in the “morass”. (At that time my sister was reading Robert’s interpretations of Norwegian poetry.)
    Enough about me…. I think Carol’s reaction to you came out of her feeling a need, in her anger, to oppose how strongly Robert felt about the necessity of mythological fictions in our lives. He believed, as I do, that those fictions are a tool in our quest for survival inside our families, cultures and the world. They give us lessons that go into our subconscious, that come back to help us as intuition when we need them. They also show up in our creative writings.
    Keep up the good work my friend.

      • Dear mariezhuikov, companion pilgrim in the search for the virtues of paradox and confusion,

        My aforementioned sister just sent me Carol’s “Letters….” which inspired this second reply. I just read Carol’s first article in the book: “The Lost Swede Towns”. This and her Omni letter are the only writings of Carol’s that I have read and I’m not sure if I will read anymore. Letting in her anger is too much like resurrecting our (9 siblings) moldering mother who I divorced a couple years before her discention.

        Also, judging by the “Lost Swede…” article, her castigations aren’t limited to writer, husband/wife/daughter whole family, but includes all those who get in her way. including the Scandinavians.

        Carol is probably the most articulate American writer I have read in over seventy years of truth seeking. But, being articulate, (like husband Robert’s charisma) doesn’t mean she is right. Her take on the cold, under-spoken Scandinavians doesn’t take into consideration the massive culture changes that even just the Norwegians had to endure. The plague was so massive, starting about 1349, that with the death of over 60% of the Norwegian population, they not only lost most of their humans, they were unable to populate their government and lost control of their own country. A similar culture shock happened almost overnight when the Germans took over Norway in 1940 which caused large scale starvation before the war ended. For god’s sake Carol, they are still grieving. Your pen is not only mightier than the sword, it is a weapon of mass ridicule shouting at a funeral.

        The Scandinavian coldness is not about a lack of love. It has to do with survivors doing what has to be done to stay alive and help others stay alive without being blinded by tears that can end lives. The crying comes later,… in a wood shed or a closet. The love is cleverly disguised as loaves of bread, shelter, clothing and crops. A hug, kind word or hand-held is frosting on the cake.

        Duane (all truths have an ambiguous margarine of error) Pagenkopf

      • Wow, Duane, I wasn’t aware of the Norwegian history that you mention. Maybe Carol wasn’t, either. I just heard recently that there were false rumors of Robert Bly’s death, but he is still very much alive! Thanks for your comments.

    • Dear Marie………I see my brother’s first comment was more than two years ago. Interesting. Duane and I had never discussed Robert Bly’s ex-wife Carol, but we had conversations about Robert Bly. My husband was reading “Iron Man John”. Then we saw a program on PBS with Robert Bly. Eventually, I put two and two together and realized he was the same Robert Bly who had interpreted “Twenty Poems” by the Norwegian poet, Rolf Jacobsen.

      I have been collecting translated Norwegian literature and Norwegian-American works/authors for over fifty years. Some years ago, I came across Carol Bly’s publication, “Letters from the Country.” I don’t know what I expected, but I found her writing to be full of anger and her solutions out of touch with the reality of the ordinary person. In fact, after reading the first few chapters, I put the book on the shelf. Recently, in my downsizing fervor, I decided to finish reading it and then donate it to a book sale. But instead I sent it to Bror Duane to get his impression. After receiving it, Duane sent me an e-mail to check your site, and I see he added another comment below that explains what he thinks.

      He also mentioned to me your family, the Ackers. When they were having a well drilled by our step-father of that time, my mother packed up us Kids and headed north. We had a holiday at your parents’ cabins. The nature was beautiful and the setting idyllic, but our mother was a voracious reader and I know we each had books along. Ironic to make this connection almost sixty years later………Best regards, Donna.

      • Hello Donna. Thanks for being the impetus for all this conversation! Yes, Carol did seem very angry and very articulate about it. It would be interesting to know more about what was behind her anger. There are so many things that can happen to shape a person that others will never fully understand.

        There must be a misunderstanding about who my parents are. My maiden name is not Acker. Sorry that I am not part of your good memories! Thanks for commenting.

  5. Interesting…this obviously was a deeply personal issue for her and sorry she responded to you this way but that you remained true to yourself.

    I’ve always gravitated toward writing nonfiction and beat myself up because I feel I “should” give fiction a try – which I have but never get very far because it feels too personal.

    Thank you for keeping our teachers in perspective… they are just like us….flawed humans writing.

    • Thank you, Liz, for visiting my blog. Yes, fiction isn’t for everyone. I don’t think you need to feel bad that it doesn’t work for you. The world needs nonfiction writers, too!

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