Monday, February 4, 2013

Rich Chiappone: Picking Pockets

Of all the statements I’ve read or heard regarding creative writing, one of the truest is this: Writing cannot be taught, but it can be learned.  I know that sounds like one of those manipulative and infuriating quips you get from know-it-all Zen masters or really old, control-freak relatives intent on exuding wisdom, but it really does make sense. The best way to learn to write is to steal everything you can from writers you admire. So what do you need workshops and writing instructors for? The answer is: knowing what to steal is half the work, and becoming an adept thief is the other half. So, it’s handy to get a little help from someone who has already studied authors whose work is loaded with things worth stealing, and who has stolen enough from writers to publish his or her own works. That’s a person who can share some tools you might be able to use to steal your own useful things from the writers you love—or at least envy.

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 University of Alaska Anchorage and served as a senior associate editor at Alaska 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 Kachemak Bay Campus of Kenai Peninsula College. He lives with his wife on the Anchor RiverRegister now for his class on humor in writing, Sat. Feb. 16 from 9 am to 4 pm.


1 comment:

Lynn Lovegreen said...

looking forward to the class!