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.