I owe a lot of credit for my career path choices to Stuart Dybek. The only reason he doesn’t get all of the credit is because I wanted to be a writer before I met him, so at least some of all this was due to my own agency. But when he called my name, when he said that he liked my work and called it meaningful, that’s when I was sold. That’s when I was all the way in.
My sophomore year of high school I entered the first short story I ever wrote to my school’s fiction contest and I won. Stuart Dybek was judging the contest, and I’m not sure I realized the significance of that until the day Dybek came to my school and announced the winners, and I heard him read his work for the first time. That’s when I realized that he was the real deal. People in the literary world knew him. And he’d read my story.
The last day of high school, my creative writing teacher gave me a copy of Paper Lantern: Love Stories by Dybek that had been signed for me, most likely the day he had come to the school. I’d forgotten all about it. All summer it sat untouched on my bookshelves, but I brought it to college with me here in Iowa and now I never want to be apart from it. His stories stir up emotions that are lulled to sleep by everyday life, and his talent for making every action important is remarkable. And every time I look at the title page, signed in smudged blue ink, I remember that this man read my story and he liked it.
While his short story “Pet Milk” remains my favorite, “Seiche” from Paper Lantern: Love Stories comes in a very close second. It takes place in Chicago, as almost all of his stories do; like Carl Sandburg, he is a writer fully immersed in the city. Reading this collection of short stories always makes me hungry for my city, a literal taste in my mouth that makes me wish I was there right now, standing on a train platform waiting for the L to come. In “Seiche,” the narrator is named Jack, and the story focuses mainly on his relationship with Nisa, a fellow student at Loyola University from Beirut. Nisa is captivating: clearly smarter than Jack, well-versed in poetry, and resolved in her decision to go back to Beirut for her grandfather’s funeral. The title of the story, “Seiche,” is a reference to the tsunami-equivalent that large lakes like Lake Michigan occasionally suffer, and Nisa is the giant wave that Jack waits for but never arrives.
Dybek’s stories always seemed a little out of reach for me, a little too far-fetched. The lyricism and drama of his characters’ relationships to each other have always felt just a little impossible. That, to me, is a signifying marker of his work—you always feel just a little bit like you’ve come out of a dream when you’re done. It is a style I likely cannot reproduce, as the fine line he walks between the terribly mundane and the magical is so easily overstepped. More than being able to write like Dybek, however, I desire to live in one of his stories. In it, everything carries the mystical quality of meaning and emotional connection, and his characters live such colorful lives, full of mistakes and great loves and nostalgia and the best the world has to offer.