Richard Chiappone is the author of Water of an Undetermined Depth, a collection of short fiction published by Stackpole Books (2003), Opening Days, and a collection of short fiction and essays on outdoor sports (Barclay Creek Press, 2010). His next collection Liar's Code will be released in May of 2016.
The story "Raccoon" from the first 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, The Sun, Gray's Sporting Journal, and Sporting Classics; and in literary journals including Crescent Review, Missouri Review, South Dakota Review, New Virginia Review, and ZYZZYVA. He has taught at the University of Alaska Anchorage since 1995, 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 Kachemak Bay Campus of Kenai Peninsula College and in the Master of Fine Arts Writing program in Anchorage. A thirty-three year Alaskan, he lives with his wife in Homer.
After twenty years as a writing instructor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, 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 for 33 years, hard-working, self-employed, law-abiding citizen. Boring, boring, boring. But in a workshop I am 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.
For most of my adult life, I have been a professional (there's that word again) contractor in the daily world of physical 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 "product" not "process" is what's most important to me. I know that this is not a popular stance in some creative writing circles. But it molded me over the 40 years I strapped on a tool belt and went 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 do not hesitate to warn against those when I see them on the page.
I am not a very ambitious writer myself. I'll admit that. Three books in nearly thirty 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 close to thirty 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, most importantly 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.