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Northwestern University

Dual Honors for Stuart Dybek Mean Freedom to Dive Into What He Loves


Stuart Dybek, Northwestern’s first Distinguished Writer in Residence, has recently received back-to-back honors: the MacArthur “genius grant” and the Rea Award for the Short Story. He says the $500,000 fellowship from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the $30,000 Rea prize will give him more time to do what he loves: writing, teaching writing at Northwestern, maybe even some free diving off the Florida Keys.

Dybek, poet and master of the short story, is the living writer most closely associated with Chicago, having grown up in the Pilsen neighborhood in the ’50s and ’60s. He writes in a way that illuminates and elevates even the city’s grittiness—the echo under the viaducts where children play, the pooling of fluids in the old Public Library’s cracked terrazzo restroom, the eerie light from the diner in Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” at the Art Institute. His settings serve as a portal through which seemingly ordinary characters can step into a sometimes magical experience. The "Coast of Chicago", a collection of stories, was the 2004 selection for “One Book, One Chicago” and "I Sailed with Magellan", a novel told in stories, was a New York Times and American Library Association notable book of the year. He has also written two collections of poetry.

“The act of writing is part of being human,” he muses. “But while students may be familiar with writing essays, creating the logic of an essay is not the same as, say, creating an image.” The latter requires metaphorical thinking, which can be taught, he says, through the use of technique and craft.

College students may be short on life experience, but they still can rely on imagination. To stimulate their imaginations, Dybek often introduces a trope, a narrative image with a metaphorical, resonant quality. One recent trope was ghosts. Ghost stories have basic, visceral storytelling qualities that we all have within us, he explains, and he shows how good writers use sophisticated literary techniques to expand upon those qualities.

The class has been successful, he feels, “when, by studying a single trope, students realize the compressed power in all tropes, whether it be ghosts or animals or mad doctors.”

He says he loves teaching at Northwestern, where the English department has a youthful enthusiasm and the commitment to undergraduate education is manifest in its traditionally strong writing major.

He is enthusiastic too about anything to do with water, “the balancing dimension” of his life. The awards will allow him a bit more time in the Florida Keys, perhaps with friend and fellow author Tracy Kidder.

“We write seven days a week,” he says of the seemingly idyllic working vacations. “We critique each other’s work. Then every afternoon, weather permitting, we fish, or sometimes spearfish, in the Gulf Stream.”

Free diving, to him, is a bit like writing poetry or a good short story. Compression is involved in both. There is little time or space to get it right. There is no scuba equipment, you just hold your breath and dive. “It creates a real sensation of flight,” he says. “You have one and a half minutes, but in that space you’re living a lifetime.”

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