In addition to being a wise and skilled fisherman, poet, novelist, and short story writer, Rich Chiapponne has helped a lot of MFA students learn how to craft their words. The University of Alaska Anchorage is shutting down his program.That hadn’t stop Rich from sharing out at least one more little writing lesson before turning off the lights.
First of all let me say the reasons I write, and have written for the past thirty-five years have changed over time.
When I was kid in the 1950s we young boys used to sit at the feet of our fathers or the other grown men in the neighborhood and listen to their stories—mostly about how good the fishing used to be in the nearby Niagara River back in the halcyon years before WWII. That is to say, back before the graphite and chemical plants and papermills they all worked in poisoned the river until nothing much was left alive for my generation but eels and carp and bullheads.
In spite of the dire conditions, my friends and I were all fishermen from an early age, and naturally we were also tellers of fish stories. Basically, I grew up in a tribe of pathological liars—not a bad thing for a future fiction writer.
Initially then, I told stories because everyone around me told stories. Well, all the males. My sister and her friends seemed to talk about school work, or where to go, what to wear, and who liked whom. That’s not a slight: those are certainly more firmly grounded and useful matters than our always exaggerated and often blatantly apocryphal fish tales. Maybe that’s why women make such fine non-fiction writers.
Anyway, I told stories very early, but it never occurred to me to write them.
I’m frequently amazed to hear authors say they always wanted to be writers—you know, the people who say they wrote their first stories in pre-school, their first trilogy of novels in kindergarten, their first collection of linked villanelles in junior high—people apparently determined to be read since the day they were born.
I wrote my first short story in 1986 when I was 38 years old, after my wife noticed an announcement in the Anchorage Daily News about their annual statewide writing contest. By way of encouragement, said to me, “Hey you could be a writer! You’re full of shit.” Unable to argue with that, I sent a story.
A couple months later, I got a glossy certificate in the mail declaring I had won an honorable mention, and I was thrilled. I had dropped out of college in the 60s, and I was thrilled that somebody in a position of authority with the credentials to make such judgments thought that after twenty years of manual labor, I had created something artistic. Thrilled.
I’ve been chasing that thrill ever since. In other words, I started to write because I’m hopelessly neurotic and in need for constant approbation. And to some extent, that is still why I write.
But why do I write what I write?
That has changed over the years too.
For the first eight years or so of my writing life, I wrote fictions about young men who got married and had children very young. Men who had no education, and worked dirty physical and precarious jobs to put food on the table. Men who had made bad decisions and had gotten buried by responsibility. Men very much like me. Yes, I was groveling for more approval and attention, but I was also exorcising some demons. It was cheap therapy.
Then, in the summer of 1994, graduating from the MFA program here at UAA, I wrote a story about a woman who gets into a poker game with a bunch of construction workers, a story that was “based on real events” as the TV movies claim to be. But this time, I wrote it from the woman’s point of view. It was the first time I’d ever gotten outside myself and my problems, and I’ve never gone back.
Today, I’m writing stories about people living lives not at all like mine. My upcoming novel includes an ex-CIA assassin, a home builder, and a divorced cocktail waitress. I have never shot anything bigger than a squirrel. I have never built houses for money. And while I have been divorced, I swear I’ve never worked as a cocktail waitress. Never.
So, yes, I’m still seeking the attention of editors and publishers and most of all readers. But now I’m pretty much done with the self-administered therapy. Now, I write because I like to see stories come to life on the page in front of me, not because I need to. And, if you know me, I’m sure you have noticed that I’m a picture of enviable mental health.
All of this brings up the question of why I became a novelist now, in my dotage after three decades of short story writing.
Well, one of the reasons I wrote short stories instead of novels all those years was because (hundreds of rejections notwithstanding) I could get the approval I needed relatively quickly by publishing in magazines, often two or three times in a single year. This was especially why I began writing short personal essays during that time: non-fiction is so much easier to place than fiction because so much more of it is published every year. And non-fictions don’t take nearly as long to write either. A novel can take years, and during that whole long lonely process there’s nobody telling you that you’re okay. That requires a lot of self-confidence—some would say, delusion.
Also, after years of story writing, I felt obliged to grow up and write a novel. It seems like there is some expectation that eventually every short story writer will quit screwing around and write something long. So, maybe I replaced my neurotic need for approval with an equally neurotic guilt complex. I wouldn’t put it past me.
This is all a little embarrassing.
I mean, do I have no idealistic reasons for writing? None at all?
Ok, maybe one or two.
Being an outdoorsman all my life, I support environmental organizations and other non-profits. However, I will never be an activist writer, chronicling my own battles against the enemies of nature. I mean, I’m happy that writers are out there doing the good work of writing environmental “propaganda” as Rick Bass calls his own activist non-fiction. And I understand that such writing may move some people to action and that’s a very good thing. I just don’t think it’s only way to do some good.
I think that fiction, literary fiction can make the world a better place too. I’m not the first one to say this, but I think character-driven serious fiction encourages good behavior. I believe that when readers come to really care about a fictional character—not just hoping that the character will escape the approaching zombies or the interplanetary death ray or the psycho killer—but caring how that character thinks and feels, then they, the readers, will be more likely to have empathy for real human beings around them. I’m not the first to say that reading this kind of fiction is exercise for empathy, calisthenics for compassion.
Now that is another reason why I write, and why I write what I write.