Despite receiving a MacArthur Genius Grant and being featured in 2004’s Best American Short Stories, current Kestnbaum Writer-in-Residence Stuart Dybek has not let his notability get to his head. With works such as The Coast of Chicago, Dybek is known for his ability to capture the essence of the city he was born and raised in. This Tuesday, he will read some of his most famous short stories. On Wednesday, he will lecture on his experience as a writer and will explain some of his works in greater detail. I had the privilege of talking with him while he was on break from teaching Creative Writing at Northwestern, and he was more than willing to discuss everything from his childhood to advice for future writers.
Chicago Maroon: I've read that you wrote the majority of your first collection of short stories Childhood and Other Neighborhoods while listening to Eastern European classical music. What role does music play in your writing?
Stuart Dybek: Besides writing, music is the art form that I feel closest to. I think of it as emotional thinking that is done nonverbally. There is a paradox about writing that music can help explain because there are many aspects of writing that are nonverbal. This translates into emotional thinking in terms of silence and from all the emotions music is able to elicit. You can imitate music in a way that you could never imitate another writer, and it often serves as a stimulus to mood. If I would have had the choice between the two art forms, I would have chosen music.
CM: Have you always thought you would become a writer?
SD: When I was younger, I had dreams of becoming a short stop for the Chicago Cubs. I also thought of becoming a smoke jumper. I was interested in psychiatry when I first entered college and started out as a pre-med before switching to English. After college, I entered a Ph.D. English education program with plans to eventually own my own inner city private school some day. I have considered many things over my lifetime.
CM: You’ve written many short stories, but which was the most challenging for you to write and why?
SD: If you ask most writers that question they will most likely tell you that it is the one that they are currently working on. Honestly, and this seems to be the case with most writers, one usually forgets the process of writing a story, especially after you have written many.
CM: Many of your short stories take place in the southwest side of Chicago. Do you consider this area to be your muse?
SD: Music is more of my muse. The southwest side is a microcosm of universal themes: assimilation, class, race—the contradictions at the heart of a society. I enjoy writing about place [itself]. A writer can approach more [with] place, and they can write about it in the concrete and in the immediate.
CM: Growing up, what were some of your favorite books?
SD: I really enjoyed Mysterious Island by Jules Verne, Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe’s stories and poetry, Ray Bradbury’s Illustrated Man, anything having to do with Greek mythology, Call of the Wild and Sea Wolf by Jack London, and King Arthur, just to name a few. As a child, I was also fascinated by insects. I was a butterfly collector, and I loved to study entomology.
CM: As a supporter of philosopher John Dewey's idea that education is a great democratizing force, how does this idea apply to your teaching career?
SD: The reason I love teaching creative writing is because you can’t give a test. One of Dewey’s most famous quotes is that “school is not preparation for life, school is life,” and I firmly believe this. When I teach a subject that can’t be tested and the measure of success is growth and the art that is produced, it seems much closer to that axiom.
CM: You’ve become well-known for the lyricism in some of your works, in particular “We Didn’t.” As a writer of both fiction and poetry, do you feel that your poetic side tends to naturally blend into your fiction?
SD: I hope so. This is definitely not unique to me. There are different modes that one writes in. We think of fiction as a different genre, and each genre has their own signature mode. The signature mode of fiction is narrative, while the signature mode of poetry is lyrical. When I am writing, I tend to work with both and even use them vice versa. The counterpoint and the interaction are in various modes that a writer works in. It is not unusual for a writer to write in more than one mode.
CM: I know that you don’t like to discuss your current projects, but do you plan on releasing any new stories any time soon?
SD: Well, you are right about that one. I do have a “no disclosure” policy when it comes to my current projects. But yes, I do plan on releasing some new fiction very soon. I currently have three completed manuscripts that are very close to completion. Several stories from my current projects have appeared in and will continue to appear in magazines across the world.
CM: What advice would you give to an aspiring writer?
SD: My initial response is to keep reading. My second answer is, if you haven’t already, make yourself a note keeper. Keep a writing notebook and get in the habit of using it to record everything from daily observations to your dreams. Make yourself aware that your art form is [one] that has as much to be learned as any other art form like sculpture, painting, and photography. Learning to use [these] tools is ... important.