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.
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
Alaska Anchorage

and served as a senior associate editor at
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

Campus of
Kenai Peninsula
He lives with his wife on the
Register now for his class on humor in writing, Sat. Feb. 16 from 9 am
4 pm


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