Boston College welcomed author and poet Stuart Dybek to campus last night in Gasson 100 for the third installment of the Lowell Humanities Series, during which Dybek explored the art of short story writing in his new collection, entitled Ecstatic Cahoots.
Dybek occupies a unique place in the literary world, having published and been recognized not only for his two volumes of poetry, Brass Knuckles and Streets In Their Own Ink, but also his fiction, with his books Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, The Coast of Chicago, I Sailed with Magellan, Ecstatic Cahoots, and Paper Lantern. His work has been featured in both Best American Poetry and Best American Fiction, and he is the holder of numerous awards, including the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant; Rea Award for the Short Story; PEN/Bernard Malamud Prize for “distinguished achievement in the short story”; the Lannan Award; the Academy Institute Award in Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters; a Guggenheim Fellowship; a Whiting Writer’s Award; two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts; and four O. Henry Prizes.
Dybek currently serves as a Distinguished Writer in Residence at Northwestern University while pursuing his career as a writer. His two most recent fiction works, Ecstatic Cahoots and Paper Lantern, debuted together in June to wide acclaim, with New York Times Sunday Book Review writer Darin Strauss observing, “Possessed of a ‘delicate,’ ‘wistful’ ‘sensitivity’—to give a little spray of typical (and typically wrong) Dybek reviews—he’s a poet, and writer of ‘plotless’ stories. Not a guy you would regard as especially au courant. But this septuagenarian’s two new collections establish him as not only our most relevant writer, but maybe our best.”
During his visit to BC, Dybek focused primarily on his fiction, specifically, Ecstatic Cahoots and Paper Lantern, reading selected stories from his works. Given the briefness of many of the works—the shortest, a story entitled “Misterioso,” comprises only two lines of dialogue, 12 words in total—he emphasized endings, or more particularly, the effect of a piece.
“When I put these books together, it was like cramming together many different kinds of pieces, and they operate in different ways,” he said. “Some operate like prose poems. Some of them operate like one-line jokes. Some operate like more conventional stories, but when you think about stories, stories operate in different ways. One of the ways I can sort out the way a story operates is by its ending.”
He then categorized the types of endings, from the traditional tale in which evil is punished, good rewarded, and the world saved, to the realization endings pioneered by Anton Chekhov to the “frisson,” the French word for “shiver,” that characterizes the feeling one experiences at a story’s conclusion.
“If you can change the ending, if you can change the way the reader feels the story actually ends, you change literature,” Dybek said.
Although Dybek largely rejects either the designations “prose poetry” or “flash fiction,” many of the pieces, particularly the shorter ones, had the feel of verse, and he acknowledged the connection between these types of writing.
“What you hope as you’re writing is that you’re accumulating these lyric lines, like a poem, that are going to play off of that ending,” he said.
As a teacher of creative writing, Dybek also shared insights concerning the craft of writing. “Most writing programs take place in English departments,” he explained. “If you look at most other arts, they’re housed in fine arts departments, which sends a very strong message that we’re here to learn the craft of our art.
“You can tell people by their tools,” he noted. “So, if you see someone walking around with tripod, or a camera, she must be a photographer. If you see someone with oil paints and canvas, he’s a painter … Because we use writing, we use language for such a huge variety of things that don’t have anything to do with the art of writing stories or poems or theatre.”
Still, he maintained that writing can be taught, at least to a certain extent.
“You can’t teach imagination, but you can teach the craft,” Dybek said. “It can be a challenge, because the tools of writing are just as abstract as the medium.”
Featured Image by Arthur Bailin / Heights Staff