One of my other favorite quotes on the subject is from the great
Montana writer, intellectual, and cowboy, Tom
McGuane, who is supposed to have said: “I’ve done a lot of things I ain’t proud
of. But I never taught no creative writing class.”
I must confess that I, on the other hand, have taught many. Shame about that notwithstanding, I’d like to believe I helped make the learning curve a little less steep for one or two people along the way—just as my mentors and teachers shortened the process for me. Of course, it’s hard to say who gets credit for a student’s success in any field. And when it comes to writing, some folks are just naturally talented thieves. Still, even the Artful Dodger benefited from Fagin’s advice on which toffs to rub up against, which handkerchiefs were worth lifting, and in which pocket they were tucked.
If there is one thing that can most definitely be taught it’s reading like a writer. I believe that how you read is more important than what you read. For years, in the classes I’ve taught in
Anchorage or Homer, I’ve used a fiction writing
textbook simply enough titled WritingFiction, by Janet Burroway and Elizabeth Stuckey-French. At the end of each
chapter in it there are two or three short stories containing easy to identify
examples of whatever aspect of fiction writing the authors have discussed in
that chapter. After more than fifteen years and five or six editions of the
textbook, I still find the discussions cogent and fascinating. But I know it’s
the combination of the analytical examination and the story-reading experience
itself that holds the secret to learning to write fiction. Without those
stories to mine for gems useful to your own work, the value of the intellectual
discussions would be questionable; knowing how a nuclear reactor works is not
the same thing as being able to build one. By the same token, poking around Three Mile Island on your own probably won’t do it for you
either. A guide can be a great help.
Although some accomplished writers claim that a new writer should avoid classes and writing teachers like chlamydia (Ernest Hemingway, most famously), many of them got a little coaching along the way too (Old Hem had both Sherwin Anderson and Gertrude Stein in his corner.) Again, sometimes it helps to have someone point to the pockets with the really good handkerchiefs in them.
In mid February, I’m conducting a 49 Writers day-long workshop in Anchorage called “Bring in the Clowns: The Uses of Humor in Writing.” Am I teaching people how to be humorous? Of course not. To paraphrase McGuane: I’ve said a lot of stupid things in my life. But I never claimed to make nobody funny.
Nonetheless, there is much to be stolen from humor writers, if you know what to look for and where to look. We’ll be looking at gradations of humor in several genres: from the wry poetry of Billy Collins and Garison Keilor, to the witty (and sometimes insane) essay writing of Ian Frazier, David Sedaris and Elizabeth Gilbert, and the almost endless possibilities for smiles in the fictions of Ron Carlson, Richard Bausch, and Alaska’s own Nancy Lord. Plus others in all three genres. The class may or may not make you funnier, but it will make you laugh.
Still not sure how edifying it will be to spend a Saturday reading and talking about ridiculous stories, limericks, essays, sonnets, screenplays etc; studying sarcasm, irony, parody, satire, impertinence, vulgarity and all encompassing foolishness? Ok, let’s set the pickpocket metaphor aside and trot out a whole new analogy: if you wanted to take a cooking class, which would you rather spend eight hours preparing and sampling? Twenty-seven varieties of brownies? Or all lima bean recipes?
Rich Chiappone is the author of Water of an Undetermined Depth, a collection of short fiction published by Stackpole Books (2003). The story "Raccoon" from this collection was made into a short film and featured at international film festivals. Opening Days, a new collection of short fiction and essays on outdoor sports, was published in 2010. Richard has taught at the
and served as a senior associate editor at University
of Alaska Anchorage
Quarterly Review. His work has recently been featured on the BBC Radio 3
literary show "The Verb." He currently serves as an associate faculty
member in fiction for the UAA Creative Writing & Literary Arts program and
also teaches at the Alaska
Campus of Kachemak
He lives with his wife on the Kenai Peninsula
College . Register now for his class on humor in writing, Sat. Feb. 16 from
to . Anchor