Chicagoan Named NU’s First Distinguished Writer In Residence

Shana Sager

By Shana SagerContributing Writer

When Stuart Dybek was a student at the University of Iowa and writing was just becoming his “secret companion,” he didn’t see it becoming his profession.

Today, Dybek is not only a published author; he’s also teaching Northwestern students about his craft as the university’s first “distinguished writer in residence.”

Dybek taught as a writer in residence at NU’s Center for the Writing Arts during spring of 2001 and 2002. As the only distinguished writer in residence, Dybek will teach at NU for up to 10 years, as opposed to the one-quarter appointments given to writers in residence.

Dybek teaches an advanced writing workshop and an undergraduate literature course this quarter.

Reginald Gibbons, the director of the Center for the Writing Arts, said the department created the position for Dybek, author of the short fiction collection “The Coast of Chicago,” because he is the living American writer most associated with Chicago.

“He is one of the best fiction writers of our time,” Gibbons said. “His work is very Chicago in the best sense. It’s about neighborhoods, ordinary people and qualities of the city – the lake, the weather, just everything.”

Dybek’s 2003 book “I Sailed with Magellan” received recognition as The New York Times’ Notable Book of the Year and a Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year. He has been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly and The Paris Review.

Dybek’s other works include “Childhood and Other Neighborhoods,” another short fiction collection, and two volumes of poetry titled “Streets in Their Own Ink” and “Brass Knuckles.”

While Dybek does not have his students read his own work, his interests in storytelling shape the coursework for his classes. He structured his undergraduate literature course, “Ghost Stories in Literature and Fiction,” around a personal desire to write ghost stories.

“I’ll frequently pick a subject that I wouldn’t mind giving myself a course on,” Dybek said. “At the same time, I wanted to find a subject that would be a launching pad into some really sophisticated literary and philosophical ideas.”

In the course, students study the context of ghosts in short stories and films and extend those symbols to discussions of Sigmund Freud, Karl Marx, the gothic and theories of hauntology.

Alissa Anderson, a Weinberg junior, said the class did not just center on close readings of books and films but also incorporated material from other fields to give context to readings.

For instance, a neuroscientist will speak to the class later this quarter about explanations for seeing ghosts.

In “Theory and Practice of Fiction,” an upper-level writing workshop, Dybek focuses on teaching 15 students how to craft fictional writing. He returns to the basics in the class by helping students master the use of dialogue, imagery, sentence rhythm and scene construction.

For Dybek, setting is not merely a writing tool but an essential element to his stories. His childhood in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago inspired many of his future stories about class, ethnicity and children.

“There’s a very magical connection between a writer and his hometown, and Chicago is my version of that,” he said.

Before coming to NU, Dybek was a professor of English at Western Michigan University. In spring, he will return to NU to give a reading of his work and to receive special recognition as the school’s first and only distinguished writer in residence.

Reach Shana Sager at [email protected]