Richard 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. His stories and essays have appeared in national magazines, including Alaska Magazine, Playboy, and Gray's Sporting Journal, and in literary journals including Crescent Review, Missouri Review, and ZYZZYVA. He 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 now teaches at the Kachemak Bay Campus of Kenai Peninsula College and lives with his wife on the Anchor River. Opening Days, a new collection of short fiction and essays on outdoor sports was published in 2010.
After a dozen years and twenty-some semesters as an adjunct instructor in the University of Alaska system, my evaluations must speak for themselves by now: I simply cannot fool that many people that many times. But I also know that I am not for every student. So, before I blow my own horn here, let me confess a thing or two.
My life is boring to recount: married to the same fine woman now 25 years, hard-working, self-employed, law-abiding citizen. Boring, boring, boring. But in a workshop I am a dervish, hell on wheels, a tornado of enthusiasm. I am loud, silly and opinionated–a little vulgar, a little untamed, true. My classes are chaotic, I'll admit. But art does not come out of order; art is simply chaos cloaked in beauty. I might not always be appreciated by the well-bred student, the literalist, the absolutist. But, all modesty aside, I do not have a mean bone in my body, and I truly want my students to succeed. So let me tell you what I believe. You can decide whether it is a plus or a minus for this program.
I believe that a graduate program should graduate professionals—even in an artistic subject area, such as ours. I believe that a person with a Master of Fine Arts should be a master of his or her art. Period. Because that's what the words say, and I believe in words above all else. A writer can hardly live otherwise.
I'm a professional (there's that word again) contractor in the daily world of work. That means I get paid, not for my time, but for what I produce; my customers don't care how I felt while finishing their building, or what it meant to me. So I am a product person. I know that this is not a popular stance in some creative writing circles. But it has molded me over the 35 years I have strapped on a tool belt and gone to work each morning, and I am unlikely to change now. So I believe that what matters are the words on the manuscript, not how much I like the person behind them, not how much that person risked to write them, or how strongly that writer felt about those words.
What I am saying is, I believe in craft, first and foremost. I also believe that heart and authenticity and good intent on the writer's part are absolutely essential; no good writing exists without them. But what I know, beyond belief, is that those intangibles are not teachable: all we can really teach is craft. This does not mean I have no regard for the importance of encouragement. It means that I think nothing is as encouraging for a new writer than to see the words on the page coming together in a satisfying way. Because in art nothing succeeds like success, and what succeeds, time and time again, is good writing. Professional product.
So, obviously I believe there is such thing as good writing, and that you can tell it from not so good writing. I believe that there are identifiable patterns in good writing that can be pointed out to new writers as something to consider, something to emulate, and something to be encouraged by. I also believe that there are dead ends and unwise strategies that can burn up a student's precious time.
I am not a very ambitious writer myself. I'll admit that. One book of stories in twenty years is hardly a monument to industriousness. But I am an excellent reader and editor. I spent 15 years reading unsolicited manuscripts at a major literary magazine, and another twelve years or so reading student writing in workshops. I love working with new writers. I was lucky enough to have great professional editors in my life when I was very new: Howard Junker at ZYZZYVA, Alice Turner at Playboy, Ron Spatz here at UAA. And I hurl myself into student manuscripts, hoping to honor those wonderful editors and replicate the encouragement and good advice they gave me.