UAA MFA for free (or at least little pieces of it)

Last week, I listened to two great author-lecture podcasts of about one hour each, thanks to UAA and the Northern Renaissance Arts & Science Series. Listening to them, I felt like I was getting a little piece of the grad-school experience without paying a cent or leaving the comfort of my kitchen. I devour craft books and author memoirs, but podcasts have the additional value of fitting into the hours when you can’t hold a book in front of your face. Plus, audio is easier to share. I listened to both these talks while cooking and eating, with my husband and two children gathered around the kitchen island, and some good conversations resulted.

The first podcast was Nancy Lord’s “Why I Write” lecture, which I mentioned in my interview with her. There is nothing like hearing a writer’s thoughts in her own voice. Recommended.

The second was a talk by Rich Chiappone, another Alaska favorite (he lives in Anchor Point) and the author of the 2002 short story collection WATER OF AN UNDETERMINED DEPTH. Chiappone’s characters tend to be working class. Several of his excellent stories revolve around angling or gambling or toilet repair (I had to mention that one), at least on the surface. Beneath the surface there is anxiety, infidelity, desperation — all of it told with deceptively plain, controlled language.

Like his characters, Chiappone is also a working-class guy, a wallpaper hanger for many years. He came to writing at midlife when he took his first UAA graduate school course, and his voice in the podcast speaks to that non-scholarly, no-nonsense, working class past — and to a sense of urgency. After all, he lost out on a few decades of leisurely reading, and as a result, he has had to learn to read with greater direction and purpose. (Of course, many of us feel that sense of urgency.)

In his talk, “Reading Like a Writer,” Chiappone discusses how to read for an understanding of craft and the mechanics of how a story works, rather than for social context or “meaning.” Likewise, when he writes, he doesn’t aim for “meaning” or “theme.” His first priority is language, structure, form — the solidly crafted, well-papered wall on which art can be hung, metaphorically speaking. (Chiappone extends this personal metaphor to humorous and worthwhile effect.) Additionally, he urges newer writers to avoid writing with a purpose (i.e. to persuade) and favors the nuts and bolts of letting a story unfold on its own more spontaneous terms.

Now, what does he mean by all that? Listening to the podcast, I kept pausing every few minutes so that I could talk some of the concepts through with my husband (can’t do that in an MFA classroom). What IS theme, how is it created and how is it revealed? What is “meaning?” How do short story writers and novelists operate differently? Do I agree or disagree with Chiappone about writing with a purpose? (I think I disagree — I think a writer can use all kinds of inspirational starting points, even the desire to make a specific point or change the world, as long as they are willing to cede control to the logic of narrative, once the story itself gets underway. But I still enjoyed hearing him make his case.)

I haven’t done justice to either of Lord’s or Chiappone’s talks, but I don’t want to give the best parts away, either. And there are many more writers (both Alaskan and non-Alaskan) on tap: Eva Saulitis, Oscar Kawagley, Judith Barrington, Zack Rogow, Derrick Burleson, John Straley, Sherry Simpson, Jo-Ann Mapson, Ernestine Hayes, and more.

To find them, follow the links above or go to the UAA home page, click on the podcasts “Quick Link” to the right, and then scroll through the offerings, which are listed chronologically.

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