Surrounded by pit bulls, rattlesnakes, and mountain lions, the leather-jacketed renegades of the Austin Writing Workshop met to discuss the knife-blade vitality of art, literature, and philosophy, specifically the short story “Pet Milk” by Stuart Dybek and other kinds of narratives and forms.
After teaching for more than 30 years at Western Michigan University, where he remains an Adjunct Professor of English and a member of the permanent faculty of the Prague Summer Program, Stuart Dybek became the Distinguished Writer in Residence at Northwestern University where he teaches at the School of Professional Studies. Dybek’s two collections of poems are Brass Knuckles (1979) and Streets in Their Own Ink (2004). His fiction includes Childhood and Other Neighborhoods, The Coast of Chicago, I Sailed With Magellan, a novel-in-stories, Paper Lantern: Love Stories, and Ecstatic Cahoots: Fifty Short Stories. His work has been anthologized and has appeared in elite literary magazines such as Harper’s, The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, Poetry, Tin House, Ploughshares, and Triquarterly. His collection, The Coast of Chicago, was selected as a New York Times Notable Book and cited as an American Library Association Notable Book of 2005. A story from I Sailed With Magellan, titled “Breasts,” appears in the 2004 Best American Short Stories.
Specific topics included:
1) Lecture on Art vs. Pop, Stephen King, the effects of techniques, genre fiction, formulaic narratives, M. Night Shamalyan, What is Art?, Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, defining your terms, writing goals, society disappearing, just telling a story that interests people, Tao Lin, Harry Potter, going to an art museum, making an argument, visual art kissing the professor’s ass, poetry, comedy, sculpture, literature shmiterature, fundamental qualities, religion, genre fiction and philistines, postmodernism, themeless and meaningless forms having the MOST meaning of all, reality television as high art, religion as a system of ideas to get rid of arguments, because God said so, children’s literature, C.S. Lewis, Phillip Pullman, atheism, anti-Christianity, anti-organized religion, Jesus, humanism, Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged, 9 different accepted versions of the Bible, West Texas, To Kill a Mockingbird, the N-word, Mark Twain, Atticus Finch, and Go Set a Watchman.
2) Group debate about “Pet Milk” by Stuart Dybek, including the brevity of the story, not understanding why something is a story vs. a slice of life or other narrative format, plot summary, story not being deep, nostalgia, playing devil’s advocate, Chicago, readability, disproportionately weighted details not related to a theme, the El train or subway in Chi-town, Margaret Atwood, keys left by the bowl, having an eye for detail, opening up the details for the reader, mood and language, theme theme theme, details working together to form and work with the theme, alcohol, pet milk not being real milk, realist style, Ernest Hemingway, character sketch, resonance, the ending, Rock Springs by Richard Ford, remembering people who use pet milk, J.D. Salinger, Milan Kundera, modernism vs. postmodernism, plotlessness, thinking that the girl would die, poorly written sex scenes, understanding the space of a subway car, having sex on subway cars, too many details, a story about movement and transitions, making the character Jewish, Borges, trying to save the story, plot or theme, theme exploration, duality of waves and particles, the radio dial being where cultures are mixed, playing with time, King Alphonso XIII of Spain, movement and motion, Barth, Einstein, Newton, time is not set-time is relative, does the table end right here?, subjective perception, story simplicity, author intention, changing opinions, the joy and agony of nostalgia, traveling by subway, Risky Business, guessing the author, J.D. Salinger, Saul Bellow, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, Phillip Roth, Mark Twain, revealing the author as Stuart Dybek, University of Chicago, MFA Programs, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, The New Yorker Magazine, John Le Carr, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, Ann Rice.
3) Group discussion of literature and art in general.