Doug Bradley | The Write Stuff

14 12 2014

Norbert Blei

Doug Bradley | The Write Stuff – 05/14/2013

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.”

I did.

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.

Paula Kosin | On Losing a Teacher, Losing a Friend Norbert Blei (1935-2013)

13 12 2014

Stories at birth, before birth, every moment of our lives to the end. We breathe telling tales. And then what happened? The story ends? The story never ends. We are immortal. We are myth. We remember. — Norbert Blei (August 23, 1935 – April 23, 2013)

Your coop in the woods,
so like you,
stacked floor to ceiling
precious books
unfinished manuscripts
correspondence from friends
a million compelling projects.
You had a bucket list
decades long,
driven by intense urgency.
So many things to do,
to learn to write to teach
and, always, to challenge.
So many conversations to savor,
seasons to welcome,
seasons to weather
in your beloved Door.
You used to wish me:
Nazdar! Be well!
Now I pledge to you:
Na shledanou!
Until we see each other again.

I knew Norb through his articles in the Chicago Tribune during the late 60’s and early 70’s. I was in high school and college, and this man’s writing made that kind of impact on me. I had always wondered what happened to him, since his byline disappeared from the paper. (Of course, that’s when he moved up to Door County.) In 2003, in preparation for my first trip to the Door, I eventually came to The Clearing’s website. Scanning the list of classes, I clicked on Writing Workshop — and there was Norb! I immediately emailed him, asking if he was available to meet with me to discuss my possibility of attending his class that next summer. That weekend we met over a beer, and talked of both his class and of “the old neighborhood.” You see, my grandparents and parents – and large extended family – are from Cicero, Illinois, the ethnic Czech/Bohemian/Polish culture so beautifully captured in Norb’s Tribune articles and book, Neighborhood. Since then, I have had the opportunity to be in several of his classes and a couple of weekend workshops up on Washington Island. I knew from the minute I saw his picture on that Clearing website, I had been given a second chance. And I took it.

To leave this world with a perpetually unfinished long list of things you still want to do — and no unfinished business with the people in your life…well, I think that’s the way to go. — Paula Kosin


Warren Bluhm | The spirit of Norbert Blei remains in this place

12 12 2014
Norbert Blei

Ralph Rausch – Photo taken from the back cover “Adventures in an American’s Literature by Norbert Blei – The Ellis Press, 1982

They came to remember; they came to praise; they came to celebrate a man; they came to celebrate this place, and they came to remember the man who described what a special place it was as it was becoming what it is — often with alarm, always with love.

Saturday was a beautiful Door County day, the gardens at Peninsula Players Theatre were growing lush in the early summer sun, and the highways were comfortably filled with travelers on their way to a destination and friends coming here to pay tribute to Norbert Blei, who died April 23 at age 77.

As the Rev. Michael Brecke put it, Blei was a newspaperman, teacher, artist, poet, and critic, “calling us to task when we stopped loving the land and the water in this place,” and a writer.

“He wrote about the characters in this place and then became one,” said Brecke, who also noted Blei’s gravestone reads, “Find me in my books.”

And for an hour or so, they did: Each of the speakers who shared personal experiences about how he had moved their lives also read a bit from his books.

When Tim Stone first came to Door County, he was told by the locals that “if we ever had a prayer of being one of them, we had to read his books.”

And in Blei’s books they found wisdom — Robert Zoschke read “It’s good to pause now and then and see where the hell you were at” and advice not just for writers but all of us — “the important thing is to get the work done.”

They spoke of the man who would write in his converted chicken coop and teach about the writer’s passion at the Clearing and sit at the counter at Al Johnson’s with a cup of coffee, listening and talking.

“I know that there is a coffee table in heaven and I know that they may have a seat for Norb, but I’m sure he’ll elbow his way in and take over in a short time,” said Annika Johnson, who brought along one of the family’s goats named Beelzebub.

“I love his words, I love his voice, I love his mustache,” Julian Hagen said simply before launching into his song “Northern Light,” and Jeanne Kuhns sang “A Song for Norb,” and Pete Thelen and Jay Whitney led a rousing rendition of Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago” adopted to Door County.

Stone noted that when the Clearing was struggling for survival in 1985, Blei wrote an article for the Chicago Tribune, “Door County’s Clearing: A Secret School in the Woods for Adults,” the reservations began to come in and Jens Jensen’s amazing vision was secured for another generation. There was much talk about the iconic teacher who worked hard to prepare his classes and stayed late at the Clearing to give each aspiring writer personal attention.

But then Bridget Buff came up, and her voice struggled against the tears as she talked about the man who would read to her as she sat in his lap, and make enormous breakfasts and walk her to the bus stop, and mail letters to her even when they lived in the same house, and how “he loved winter and I did not.”

And that was when we remembered the legendary icon was also a man who loved his daughter and his son Christo. The poet who captured the soul and the people of Door County was also a daddy; in fact Norb Blei first came here in 1969 to give them a special place to grow up.

“His home, his heart and his spirit are here forever, and he wouldn’t have it any other way,” Bridget said.

Nor would we.

Warren Bluhm – Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Richard Purinton | NORBERT BLEI 1935-2013

12 12 2014
Detroit Harbor, Washington Island

Detroit Harbor, Washington Island

I’ve got things to do today, but I find it hard to start on any one of them before first getting this out of my system, if that is possible to do with a few words. But, it’s the best way, for now.

When word came that Norbert Blei passed away yesterday morning, an event many knew was only a matter of days, even hours in coming, a sense of peace came over me. He had struggled with life itself these past months and seemed frustrated at not having his energy back to do the many things he had started or mentally committed to doing.

Thinking back on what grabbed me most about Norb, it was his passion for taking on more than he should, or could do at one time, then quickly building enthusiasm for his next project. And sometimes it was “their” project, or my project, not necessarily his own. He was not a fence-rider or wall flower. He had both feet in, at once, and something about this rubbed off on me, his need to get on with what seems to reside deeply within in order to provide an avenue for expression.

He was both friend and teacher, not that he taught me in any formal sense, and not that we often got together to visit. But, when we did visit the conversation flowed easily and his eyes lit up over nearly any topic, and he became both teacher and friend. Even when his emotion was disgust or anger, his eyes brightened and his words flowed until the subject changed, then he started on the new topic. He was quiet, thoughtful and compassionate, too, but it was the way in which expressed passion for where he lived, and the people he came in contact with, the literature he was reading at the moment, that sticks with me.

As for teacher? I never received a critique from him, never any comment specific enough to make me want to start over or head in a new direction. A few questions from Norb seemed enough. In this unassuming way, he pointed me in new directions and gave me resolve to try harder and dig deeper.

I wouldn’t be writing this piece today – or any essay for that matter – if it weren’t for his silent encouragement, the idea that it is possible for me to write and publish. Write to make a difference, and write to give expression to ideas. There was that pair of dark eyes, and a soft voice muffled by mustache, over my shoulder then, as now. He became a comforting critic, a voice inside my head.

In recent years Norbert took photos and posted them. Some of his photos were excellent, others ordinary, but each showed he was on the job, still working, still an observer. These mostly arrived on my computer screen without words, other than his one-line description. A noticeable loss of energy was seen in those photos, but he still satisfied an urge to be out there, using all of his senses to connect with those he knew – and they were hundreds, if not thousands, in internet terms. On line, this teacher of poetry and literature had a huge audience.

On this day I choose a photo of hundreds of ducks along the shore of Detroit Harbor, remnants of ice still lingering here and there. I think it might look this way in Europe Lake today, too, near Norb’s home, or wherever he drove on his morning rounds when thinking about this place, the seasons and the cycles of life that take place in and around us.

My file photos of Norbert are from the past two years, a time when he was either sick or recovering from serious illness, and they won’t do justice to this man of vigor, energy and quickness. Instead, I’ll retain his image, a vital Norbert Blei with his quiet voice, in my head. – Dick Purinton, Wednesday, April 24, 2013

The Norbert Blei Literary Award

11 12 2014


The Norbert Blei Literary Award was created to honor the life and works of Norbert Blei, one of the Midwest’s leading authors and teachers of literature, who resided in Door County Wisconsin.   Norbert loved both short stories and poetry and this contest features categories in each of these genre.


  1. Please submit a cover letter with the author’s name, mailing address, phone number, e-mail and a 50- to 100-word biography.
  2. Include on the cover page whether you are entering in the SHORT STORY or POETRY category.
  3. Short stories should be double spaced in simple 12-point font and not more than 5,000 words.   The author’s name should NOT appear on each page as the judges use a blind judging process.
  4. Poetry submissions should include three poems with one poem per page, preferably in Microsoft Word.   The author’s name should NOT appear on the pages of the poems as the judges use a blind judging process.
  5. No previously published work will be considered.
  6. Submit entries digitally to by July 1, 2015.  Please include a check for $15 made out to the Trueblood Performing Art Center and mail it to P.O. Box 136, Washington Island, WI 54246.
  7. Please note that winners are required to attend the festival and read from their work.

Entries will not be returned.   The first-place winners will be notified by mail and e-mail approximately one month before the 2015 Washington Island Literary Festival.   First-place awards in each of the two categories –SHORT STORY and POETRY — include a cash prize of $250 as well as lodging, meals and admission fees for the 2015 festival.    Winners are requested to read their entry at the festival or to designate a reader for the festival.   Winning entries remain the property of the author and may be submitted for publication by literary journals by the festival committee upon permission of the author.    The judges also may choose to designate honorable mentions.


Judith Barisonzi - Norbert Blei Writing Contest Award - Washington Island Literary FestivalJudith Barisonzi of Rice Lake, will judge the Short Story submissions. Now retired from a career as Associate Professor of English, Judith graduated from Radcliffe College, earned her MA and Ph.D at UW-Madison, then taught at Madison Business College, UW Oshkosh and UW Colleges, 1971 – 2005. She has been a traveling lecturer for the WI Humanities Council, is published in a variety of academic reviews and scholarly publications as well as fiction and poetry, and has received awards for her work in both poetry and fiction from the Wisconsin Academy Review and the Muse prize from the WI Fellowship of Poets.


Jean Feraca - Norman Blei Writing Contest Judge - Washingto Island Literary FestivalJean Feraca studied poetry with Donald Hall while earning her M.A. at the University of Michigan where she won two Hopwood awards and began publishing her work in national magazines. Declared “the most promising poet of her generation,” Jean won the Discovery Award in 1975.  Author of three books of poetry, Crossing the Great Divide was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Wisconsin Arts Board and won the August Derleth Non-fiction award from the Council for Wisconsin Writers for her memoir, I Hear Voices.  Jean is well known to public radio listeners, now retired after many years hosting her own program on Wisconsin Public Radio.

Norb Blei Speaks on “The Courage to Create” with Transcript by Stephen Kastner

10 12 2014


Sunday, September 30, 2012, Norb Blei was the last of four individuals to address the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Door County in Ephraim, Wisconsin on “The Courage to Create.” — by Stephen Kastner

The event was comprised of four speakers presenting their thoughts on the creative process as personally experienced by a writer, an artist, a musician and a theologian. They respectively included: Norbert Blei, Chick Peterson, Katie Dahl and Phil Sweet. In essence, Norb Blei presented a recounting of the story of his life. Little did I know, this would be the last time I would ever hear him speak. Norbert Blei (August 23, 1935 – April 23, 2013) wrote 17 books of non-fiction, fiction, poetry and essays. In 1994, he established Cross+Roads Press, dedicated to the publication of first chapbooks by poets, short story writers, novelists and artists. The following is a transcript of the video recording included below:

I guess I’m in a clean-up spot here. Huh? I know some of you are asleep. Stay that way please! I don’t want to try to bother you.

Phil would probably understand, I have a bit of a problem with today’s theme. So, please excuse me for my occasional contrariness, not to mention, off-subject departures at times, trying to wend my way from what we’re supposed to be talking about and all the stuff floating around in this scattered old mind of mine.

Throw an old dog like me a bone called courage, or creativity, or both… and I’ll gnaw it to nothingness in a matter of hours or days. They didn’t used to call me the county curmudgeon or worse for nothing, you know.

I can already hear Phil murmuring to himself, ‘Oh no! But what else could I expect inviting this guy to my party?’

Then, excuse me please if I uh… take Rollo May the author of the “Courage to Create,” somewhat to task and as you see, I have my old dollar-ninety-five cent paperback from nineteen seventy-five which I discovered in my book shelf just days ago, entire passages underlined heavily in black, felt-tipped pen.

I realize too that I never did finish the book but I… (laughter) I can always tell when the last part is free of pen.

I’ll uh just underline passages in heavy black-tipped pen. I’m sure… I swallowed whole every word as a young writer trying to justify his own life unaware of all the years ahead that it would take to actually become a writer, living those years now some fifty years later, still expecting every morning, with little courage, to be born again the instant that I pick up the pen or the pencil or begin to click the keyboard with the hope of magic appearing on the screen keeping in mind as ever, Hemingway’s sound advice, quote “that every writer needs a built-in shit detector to face the world,” reminded as well of Rilke’s sacred words almost carved into the desk where I am staring out the window:

“The purpose of life” said Rilke, “is to be defeated by a greater and greater things.”

Courage? Did you say courage? You want courage? Don’t look to this sorry creative soul. Look instead into the heart of a thirteen-year-old boy, Bo Johnson, who stared death in the eyes every day and was more concerned about making it easier for others knowing that his own time was passing without ever experiencing all the wonder of all the years most of us are granted. Now, that’s courage.

Let me suggest that it doesn’t take courage to create as as much as it does take stupidity, with more than a dash of curiosity, perseverance and what at times becomes mindless compulsion, a certain helplessness, something you can’t do a thing about but eventually accept it for what it is. This is what you do, all you can do. This is who you are and why you were put here. In my case,to write.

So there deal with that. Do what you can with it. See where it takes you. Success, isn’t even a factor. Remember, the purpose of life is to be defeated by a greater and greater things. Begin with whatever words given you at the moment and make them say what you want them to say or need them to say and just try to get better at the job every day.

At this point, I come to you by way of notes, notes and more notes, the writer’s way, nothing, everything ever quite finished to satisfaction the way most unprepared, perplexed writers find themselves caught in the midst of a subject greater than they can handle given the rush of time and for me overwrought, overburdened, overworked, overextended, lost in a floating mindscape waiting for the restoration of one’s senses, one’s self, one’s energy after a serious bout of bad health two years ago but still trying to put those words together.

So, I note. I scribble. I say to myself, to whoever is listening, or reading, that there is a double life to be content with; the life others expect you to live – friends, family, spouses, neighbors – and the life you have little control living, doing what you want and must do to create if you will. Not always easy, always open to conflict and criticism, being true to yourself.

Do I detect an element of courage there? Well, possibly.

Note: Creativity and chaos how they go hand in hand.
Every day the serious writer tries to establish some kind of order out of chaos. Does that take courage? I’m not sure. I know that the challenge of making something out of nothing but words, words, words and shaping that chaos day after day ’til… Well, there! Everything finds some kind of place. Fini, the end. Not too bad.

Note: One’s personal history in finding his way to the freedom to write and this would take hours, years to deal with. It would take a novel, a memoir, something huge, the message being, without freedom you cannot create. And it takes a little courage to break whatever bonds that keep you from who you are and what you must do.

But back to the stupidity factor I mentioned in the beginning. Stupidity, was leaving a secure job teaching Honors English on a high school level and later literature in a junior college, a contract, a comfortable enough salary, a great pension plan, respect in the family, the neighborhood, among the friends, students who loved what your ability to encourage, to teach on your own terms and was all about? But no! You wanted to write.

So, you threw all that overboard after less than ten years, without the safe money stashed away in your pension fund, traveled throughout Europe for months and months living in Paris awhile, was a rite of passage for every real writer you had ever read. Throwing all that away, come home. No real job. Nothing in mind but the stupid and growing desire to live a writer’s life.

Now, few people would call that courage. That’s not what my parents called it, not what my in-laws called it, and my mostly blue-collared boyhood friends with a future, all on the way to a house and family in the suburbs 0 earning good bucks for what they did with their hands, banking on retirement and social security.

Did it take courage for me to finally get a job delivering mail door-to-door for the US Postal Service? and occasionally filling in as a substitute teacher? …while all the while wanting to write? The explanation of the joke was, whenever some someone asked my in-laws, or my wife, “What’s …he doing?” And their pert reply was, “Oh, he’s thinking.” or “Oh, he’s trying to find himself.” …as I slowly did, beginning to publish my first short stories for little-known, little read, underground literary magazines of little payment but copies, and then beginning to publish major features in all the major magazines and newspapers from Chicago that paid real money.

But was the writer in me satisfied? No. Of course not. Did it take courage to leave all this behind and… I do mean all, especially work …courage to pull up stakes, leave all that behind for the peace and quiet of the backwoods of Door County because everything, the city especially was getting too loud? I couldn’t concentrate on the serious stuff. Everybody wanted to be a writer but nobody was writing.

For ten years, I survived as what was known in the trade as a freelancer. In other words, a gun for hire, living on the road back-and-forth, Door County to Chicago, going down there to look up the stories, take the notes bring ‘em back, write the story and wait for the check. Back-and-forth writing to put food on the table and… writing serious short stories, and essays, and novels, attempting to get at both the art and the matter, which is pretty much where I find myself to this very day, though I have chucked the freelancing for the most part and devote most of my time to honing the art of writing.

Note: Well there’s so much more…
But you people have been sitting here long enough already and I don’t have the time or space and I have no doubt that I have already worried the subject to death and wore out my welcome and I didn’t even get to the serious hazards of …this trade, of any artistic persuasion. By that I mean alcoholism. Because, when you get right down to it, what’s it really all about, Alfie? Nothing.

I have a lost less-than-courageous friends through everything that I have described thus far, writer friends, painter friends, photographer friends, all going down in one way or another.

You want depression? Here’s Joseph Conrad’s wife describing her experience living with one of the world’s great writers:

“The novel is finished but the penalty has to be paid. Months of nervous strain have ended in a complete nervous breakdown. 30 Poor Conrad is very ill and Doctor Hackney says it will be a long time before he is fit for anything 0 requiring mental exertion. I know both you and dear Mrs. Melgram will feel every sympathy with him. There is the manuscript, complete but uncorrected and his fierce refusal to let even I touch it. It lays on a table at the foot of his bed and he lives mixed up in the scenes and he holds and converses with the characters. I have been up with him night and day since Sunday week and he who wish usually so depressed by illness, maintains he is not ill and accuses the doctor and I of trying to put him away into an asylum.”

Here’s another thing in Conrad’s life that often leads to depression, a life that often drives many serious writers a little crazy writing stuff you don’t want to write, but have to write, to survive, writing pot-boilers. I wasn’t aware that this was true even of… uh… Conrad’s life ’til I picked up this biography of him recently. Conrad led with exhausting vitality from his actual roles as husband and father.

There’s a famous anecdote Illustrating a quite literal and domestic instance of that quality of appearing aloof and apart which Virginia Wolf noted in his genius. He would allow Jesse and the boys to travel with him in a train compartment but only if they pretended not to be with him and was once most annoyed when the evidently sorely tired Jesse needed him to help with the luggage.

One biographer has compared Conrad’s literary career and his financially insecure but artistically flourishing period to that of the hero of Henry James’ short story “The Next Time.” Pressurized by his family commitments, the writer then tries even harder to write in the popular manner he feels will provide a money-spinning bestseller only to find that every “next time,” he produces a work more brilliant and unsaleable than the last.

Final note: Where is the joy?
Well, you’re gonna have to ask me back another time to talk about that. But, let me leave you with this, that uh… It’s all joy. That uh… every stupid and courageous minute of it is really pure joy. I have lived an impoverished life, richer than anyone could ever imagine, and to hear just one person say, “You know, what you wrote, changed my life.” end of quote… is the only social security payment that matters.

Thank you.

The “Courage to Create” is a four part speaking engagement featuring thoughts from a writer, an artist, a musician and a theologian. They respectively include: Norbert Blei, Chick Peterson, Katie Dahl and Phil Sweet.

Norb was the last of four individuals to address the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Door County in Ephraim, Wisconsin on Sunday, September 30, 2012. In essence, Blei is recounting the story of his life.

“The creative impulse is hardwired into everybody; it is not reserved for creative types like inventors and artists. Every moment the brain is connecting something known to something unknown, every moment holds a surprise.”

“Creativity,” Einstein said, “is the residue of time wasted.”

Production Credits:
DesignWise Studios, Sturgeon Bay, WI
Stephen Kastner, Video-journalist
Alastair Cameron, Music
Sheila Saperstein, Unitarian Universalist Fellowship Recording Engineer