Norbert Blei — writer, teacher, editor, publisher, and artist — died late last month in Door County, Wisconsin. It would take several blogs to do him justice, so I won’t even try. But I will try to explain his substantial impact on a fledgling writer he took pity on in the 1980s and 1990s.
“I am a storyteller. I am called to the page,” is how Norbert Blei once described his life. Amazingly, in that calling (he wrote 17 books), the former Chicagoan was often “called” to the pages of other writers as well, pages like mine.
I met Norbert Blei in July 1984 when he was writer-in-residence at the University of Wisconsin-Extension’s School of the Arts at Rhinelander. I was serving as a manuscript reader for another of the writing classes offered that week and was immediately drawn to Norb’s walrus mustache, ruffled clothes, and gruff demeanor. We quickly struck up a friendship, supported by our mutual fondness for writing, the outdoors, and Scotch-infused late night conversations.
Given this level of comfort, I was eager to have Norb look at one of the shorter pieces I was working on for what I’d decided would be a collection of short stories about the Vietnam War. As busy as he was that week, Norb not only read my story, but he went through it line by line, circling words he didn’t think worked and writing comments like “too much explaining here,” “be careful with this scene,” and “not sure about this” alongside “good” and “excellent scene.” That was enough for me to leave Rhinelander that summer inspired – and determined to finish my collection.
We exchanged letters a few weeks later, and Norb, as I’m sure was his fashion, took off the gloves. “You’ve got to want to do it (writing). Need to do it. Need to discover just how fucking hard it is out there (in here). To say what you want to say in a way that will satisfy yourself and others. There are no guarantees. And it’s mostly failure . . . “ Well, at least he closed by adding “I hope you’ll stay with the writing.”
Several months later, I sent three additional pieces to Norb, and he again replied with his usual directness: “I very much like what you’re doing,” he wrote, much to my delight, “I think it’s a book . .” and then came the BUT. Or rather two pages of them, critiquing just about everything I was doing wrong as a story teller, concluding with: “Consider my remarks either helpful or bullshit. I can live with both.”
The question was, could I live with any more of these broadsides from Blei?
Fast forward ten years and I’ve stumbled across an article about Norb and his CROSS+ROADS PRESS, a small publishing operation he’d established for “first chapbook publishing” of works by emerging poets, short story writers, novelists and artists. Maybe this was my chance at being published? Plus, I knew Norbert Blei! I quickly bundled what I thought were my three best stories off to Norb, only to receive a swift and resounding “no.” But again, in that unique Norbert Blei way — via a three-page rejection letter!
“These are good stories, but not ‘great stories'” he began. “I want great stories. These are stories with the potential of becoming great but I do not have the time to sit down with you and help you to shape them.” Then this advice — “You only get better by reading more, writing more, and looking deeper into your own life and measuring it against all the risks a writer must take to grow.”
He closed the letter by suggesting a new title for one of the stories I’d sent (“You Baby Ruth” was his recommendation, which I used) and by quoting George V. Higgins: “If you haven’t always been doing it, you haven’t always wanted to do it.”
I didn’t rip up Norb’s letter in a fit of anger. In fact, I took out the three stories, placed them alongside Norb’s excellent critique, and began to rewrite them, improve them, and take risks with them. It took me another 16 years to complete the collection, and I am convinced that DEROS Vietnam wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Norbert Blei.
I gave Norb a shout-out in the Acknowledgments when the book was published last November. And I intended to send him an autographed copy with my thanks, but never got around to it, much to my regret.
Fittingly, Norb died on April 23, Shakespeare’s birthday. Perhaps the bard was thinking of Norb when he penned these lines:
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.