Negative Capability: A Guest-post by Rich Chiappone — and a call for 2012 Featured Authors

We’re turning the corner into deep winter, and that means it’s time to be thankful for our wonderful audience and time to schedule our 2012 featured authors. Is it your turn to share thoughts about writing, reading, and Alaska life with our varied audience of fellow readers, writers, booksellers, and random web-surfers? Featured authors post once a week for an assigned month (posts of about 800 words or less, submitted four times). Each year we ask for volunteers and generally get a few more than we need– but don’t let that discourage you. In fact, we are eager to widen our reach and whether you’ve guest-posted in the past or have never left a single comment, please apply. Our call will be out until December 9. Just drop a line to Andromeda at indicating your genre or background (in brief) and whether you’re requesting a specific month or are flexible. On the page links above, you can see our list of featured authors from the last two years, and you can also see general blogging tips.

This holiday season, we’ll also be recycling a few favorite posts from the past. Rich Chiappone’s post below originally ran on May 25, 2010. It combines literary thoughts with a personal, candid approach — just the sort of thing we like to see from both featured authors and occasional guest-posters.

One recent restless night, set upon by a familiar coven of worries and regrets, I –having a wife who gets up and goes to work early every morning— wandered down to the spare bedroom and tried to get my mind under control by reading an old book of poems: Stanely Kuntiz’s Passing Through. In spite of the grim implications of that title (admittedly not the sort of thing for “dark night of the soul” browsing), I found there, on the first page of his introduction, a little encouragement. Kunitz says, “The poetic imagination lives by its contradictions and disdains any form of oppression, including the oppression of the mind by a single idea.” Wow. I must have one of those poetic imaginations, I thought, and knocked off to sleep in the guest bed, smugly reassured.

I needed to believe that just then. Last week, I finished correcting the proofs of my second collection, Opening Days. Having read it beginning to end for the first time, I have been a little horrified by the obvious fact that there is no single unifying idea in the book. Actually, I don’t seem too sure about any of the ones I’m trying on for size either. Contradictions? I’m all over the place.

There’s nothing like publishing a compilation of stories or essays written over a number of years to make a writer take a look in the mirror. I mean, you could argue that a single novel does not necessarily capture an author’s world view –written as novels are with a (more or less) unified thematic arc. But almost twenty pieces, written individually under the constantly changing circumstances of daily life is a little harder to deny. And the only constant in this collection of essays, stories and poems is that I’m constantly unsure about everything. So are my fictional characters –with the noticeable exception of one story that is peopled with adamant absolutists. You guessed: it’s a parody.

In the opening essay I start out whining about how much I hate winter (although I’ve lived in Alaska for nearly thirty years and have no intention of moving), and by the end of the same essay croon lovingly about this wonderful place. I talk about how I practically live for my annual tropical fishing trip, and then confess that I have never, in fact, even hooked the one specie I am mostly in pursuit of in those waters. I’m clearly ambivalent about my meat eating ethics (or lack of), but I poke vegetarians gleefully. I’m mostly certain that “catch-and-release” fishing is cruel and pointless, yet can’t wait to get back to it each summer. And so forth.

In TV shows, the police always get the truth out of suspects by peppering them with seemingly unrelated questions over a long period of time, sometimes letting an inquiry hang there a while (“Never mind,” the clever detective says to the criminal, “we’ll come back to that later.”) and always eventually trapping the fool in his own contradictions. Go ahead, compile a couple hundred pages written as autonomous pieces over six or eight years and see what happens to you.

Looking for validation for my uncertainties, I turn once again to a term coined by good old John Keats. (maybe that’s good “ode” Keats? Hah! I crack myself up, I swear.) He said (and, yes, I did have to look this up again) that a man should be able to be in a condition of uncertainty and doubt “without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

As you would expect from a capital “R” Romantic, Keats finds reason and logic to be liabilities for the artist and poet. Ironically perhaps, some of us in the arts today find ourselves aligning now with hard science in various areas, particularly the evolution argument. One of my favorite thoughts from Nancy Lord’s Rock Water Wild comes from an essay in which she describes the frustration of a science-minded individual arguing with creationist critics; it goes something like this: You can not use reason to persuade a person to give up a belief he didn’t come to by way of reason.

I sort of like that fact that, once again, I want to have it both ways: hard science for the hard stuff like fossils, and sheer whimsy for all the rest. In any case, I know that I am happiest when I avoid people who know what they know is right. Personally, they scare me a little. I’ll put it this way: you have to be absolutely certain of your ideas to strap a bomb to yourself to make your point. Talk about “the oppression of the mind by a single idea”.

That much I know for sure. Maybe.

2 thoughts on “Negative Capability: A Guest-post by Rich Chiappone — and a call for 2012 Featured Authors”

  1. Enjoyed your comments immensely…framing it as you did with Keat's idea of negative capability – a concept that has stuck with me for many years – one that has always framed my perspective in terms of not reaching after fact and reason – for these do not define human character. (as you point out). I look forward to reading your essays. Rudy

  2. …an additional comment from fellow flyfisherman: your comments also remind me of Kundera's words – 'noisy foolishness of human certainty'

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