Carol Manley is one of the best writers in Illinois today, but you can’t buy a book with her name on the cover — yet. She is a contributing editor to the “People’s Poetry” column in Illinois Times and occasionally contributes an article, so you may have gotten a sense of her talent.
This year, Manley won a $7,000 Illinois Arts Council fellowship to help her write her stories. Also this year, she was awarded first and third place and seven honorable mentions for her contributions in the categories of literary/mainstream short fiction and nonrhyming poetry to a contest sponsored by Writer’s Digest.
What is remarkable about this is that there were nearly 18,000 submissions in 10 categories, and the short-fiction and nonrhyming-poetry categories got most of the 18,000 submissions. Manley won first and third two years ago, too.
Manley is 52 years old, one of seven children, a programmer analyst for the Illinois Department of Human Services, a mother, a grandmother, and, against all odds, a writer. Manley grew up with a love of books and poetry, and she grew up writing, mostly poetry, too. None of her childhood writing remains. At some point, she says, she sensed that writing just wasn’t a legitimate thing to do with a life. A life had to be supported with a “real” job.
She graduated from high school in 1972. The day before school was to resume after the Christmas holiday of her senior year, her father died.
Carol wanted to be an artist. She was accepted to the American Academy of Art in Chicago, but, as a girl from a working-class family whose breadwinner had just died, she didn’t know how to fund an education. She says, “It was much easier to fall into having children instead of pursuing my own life.”
During high school, she worked as a pea inspector for Green Giant and was laid off; then she put wheels on lawnmowers and was laid off; and then she wrapped big red coils of telephone cable on giant spools. That’s when she met James, a man, she says, “who got me pregnant three times when I wasn’t paying attention.” She went on welfare, went to college, and brought up her children.
Manley lived in the Chicago area, where she earned her bachelor’s degree in computer science from North Park College, for many years. Finally she got a job with the Illinois Department of Public Health, in the Chicago office.
But her youngest child had an educational disability and her older children began hanging out with the wrong crowd. A position in the Springfield office of the Illinois Department of Public Health came open; she took it.
After the kids got a bit older and more independent, she realized what she had sacrificed: “For years, it was more important that everyone had clean socks than leaving any sort of legacy.”
Manley went back to school in the early ’90s at Sangamon State University, now the University of Illinois at Springfield. Sangamon State was special then because people of all ages and from all walks of life went to school, often to put the pieces of their lives back together. Sangamon State was a place where misfit mothers raising children on their own could finally find themselves.
She took a class, taught by Jacqueline Jackson, called “Writing a Woman’s Life.” The class was demanding because it required lots of writing and lots of soul-searching. The writing was horrible and dreary, and the students competed for “most difficult life” status. But, Jackson insisted, this “stuff” — the misery and pain of living — was important and should be written.
Borne of that experience and her life since then is a series of short stories Manley calls her “Welfare Stories,” which are fictional but based on her own experiences.
Her stories will have you in fits of laughter, longing, and lust. She gets it. Maybe because she herself was once an underdog — a single mother on welfare trying to beat the odds of the inner city, trying to lead her children down a different path than the one she took — she is able to view life from the vulnerable underbelly of her subject.
What I like most about her writing is that she shows us, amid what is wrong with us, what is right. She makes available our humanity — our blackness and whiteness, our richness and impoverishment, our triumphs and our failures. We identify and empathize with it all not just because of the stories but also because of how she tells them.
Carol Manley is an artist in every sense of the word — and she lives and works right here in Springfield. Keep your eye out for her.
Amy Karhliker wrote “Unkindest cut” in the Oct. 12 edition of Illinois Times.