Friday, March 2, 2018

Stuart Dybek=Lights!

I recently got a chance to hear Stuart Dybek (The Coast of Chicago) talk at OCWW, Off Campus Writers Workshop, the oldest continuing writer’s workshop in the US. The topic of discussion was re-visioning our revisions. I know, not sexy.

It was incredible to look at a marked-up copy of “Pet Milk”, The New Yorker, August 13, 1984. Can you imagine the highs and lows. A story accepted by The New Yorker! They need a few clarifications and copy edits, no problem! Only what Dybek gets back in the mail looks like algebra. Oh my God, he thinks—is it this bad. The copy he hands out to us is insightful—the editor asked Dybek to go deeper, re-imagining his story.

I’ve written here in a much earlier post about “Pet Milk” and how it is a story launched from a flash memory. Dybek more than substantiated that theory in the class. Of course it was and wasn’t him, more who he wished he were. “The author thinks back to a time when he was sixteen . . . .” We can imagine ourselves on that EL platform witnessing first love in its youthful formation, the sudden embrace of a couple on a passing CTA train. I live in Chicago and see all kinds of stuff on the train.

When I first read “Pet Milk” I fell in love with that story and the image of the couple has stayed with me to this day.

I got a chance to chat with Dybek after the class. I told him I’d also always love the short short “Lights”, a 125-word gem. Stuart’s face lit up. That’s the story I was talking about how we know when something is done. I read it over the radio and when I heard it aloud I knew it was done. That’s all there was to it.

LIGHTS by Stuart Dybek
In summer, waiting for night, we’d pose against the afterglow on corners, watching traffic cruise through the neighborhood. Sometimes, a car would go by without its headlights on and we’d all yell, “Lights!”

“Lights!” we’d keep yelling until the beams flashed on. It was usually immediate—the driver honking back thanks, or flinching embarrassed behind the steering wheel, or gunning past, and we’d see his red taillights blink on.

But there were times—who knows why?—when drunk or high, stubborn, or simply lost in that glide to somewhere else, the driver just kept driving in the dark, and all down the block we’d hear yelling from doorways and storefronts, front steps, and other corners, voices winking on like fireflies: “Lights! Your lights! Hey, lights!”
Stuart Dybek photo
Stuart Dybek, raised in Chicago’s Little Village and Pilsen neighborhoods in the 1950s and early 1960s.

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