BY MICHAEL ARMSTRONG
A cat, a fly fisherman, a bear and a stinky dog walk into a college classroom, and the professor says, “What is this? Some kind of joke?”
Well, it could be if you’re taking “Uses of Humor in Writing,” a one-credit creative writing class taught by Homer writer Rich Chiappone. The class runs five sessions starting Monday at Kachemak Bay Campus. Space in the class is still available, and students can register through Friday at the college.
Chiappone has been writing fiction and essays from the silly to the sublime, but he didn’t start out funny. Well, not intentionally.
“I was almost 40 years old, no education, a failed marriage, a lot of regrets,” he said of when he started writing. “That was what my first 10 years of writing were about.”
Raised in Niagara Falls, N.Y., he came to writing later in life after a career in Alaska as a custom wallpaper hanger. That wallpaper in the Homer High School commons? Yeah, he and his wife Lin Hampson did that years ago, long before she became a counselor at Homer High School. Chiappone got his master of fine arts in creative writing from the University of Alaska Anchorage, where he now teaches in the low-residency writing program.
Chiappone has written essays and short stories for Gray’s Sporting Journal, the Anchorage Press, Alaska Quarterly Review and many literary journals. He also has two books out, a short story collection, “Water of Undetermined Depth,” and “Opening Days,” a collection of stories, essays and poems billed as “a fly fisherman writes.”
“In all those stories, I don’t think anyone catches a single fish,” Chiappone said.
That’s a running joke in more than 20 years of publishing in Gray’s and other outdoor magazines: nobody has caught anything or killed anything.
“My essays are mostly about me failing to catch fish,” he said.
But not cats. One essay, “The Winter Face,” is about Chiappone getting so eager for fishing season that he practices fly casting in the snow. His cats come outside and soon he’s teasing them with a practice fly. That essay is a good example of how a writer can take a different — and sometimes funny — approach to the usual.
“I think it’s the first fly fishing for cats essay they’ve had in Gray’s,” he said.
Chiappone got serious about humor when, well, life got serious after his daughter from his first marriage, Lori, died of cancer in 2004.
“Everything I wrote ended up with a dying girl in it,” he said. “That sounds funny now, but I was haunted about it. I started writing humor as a way to stop feeling sorry for myself.”
His stories were about things like a fisherman stuck in a remote tropical fishing camp with a vegan animal rights lawyer who wants nothing to do with the fish killer. One essay, “The Killing Season,” is ostensibly about clamming, but it’s really about loss. At one point in the essay Chiappone describes getting so torn up by his grief that he takes a razor clam back to the ocean.
“My own response to grief was quirky,” he said. “I had people say, ‘How can you make jokes about your daughter’s death?’ It wasn’t. It was my own reaction to that.”
In his class, Chiappone said he’ll look at how humor can be used in different genres, including poetry, fiction, essays and film.
“What is it doing for the writer? How is it being used? Why would you want to use it?” are questions about humor he said he will explore.
Humor can offset sentimentality, as in Billy Collins’ poem, “Lanyard,” a parody of sentimental poems. Humor also can come from seemingly normal events, as in an essay by John Updike about clipping the hedge and losing his American Academy of Arts and Letters hat.
Chiappone will use his own “What We Talk About When We Talk About Squirrels,” an attempt to evacuate squirrels from the roof of his Anchor Point home.
“I like to encourage them to think you don’t have to have an exciting or interesting life to write about things,” he said.
Humor needs conflict, too, Chiappone said.
“The squirrel thing isn’t just a conflict between me and the world,” he said. “it’s a conflict between me and my wife. She thinks the squirrels need to be evicted and I don’t.”
Even when a story is mostly serious, humor can have its place, Chiappone said.
“Humor can be the door into the serious for the writer,” he said. “You welcome the reader with a joke or a laugh and they’ll go in with you.”
They also will go to class. Unlike some serious writers whose readings can be soporific, Chiappone delights. His trick? Humor.
“Whenever I have an opportunity to read in public, I always pick the silliest thing I have,” he said.
His readings and lectures become stand-up comedy, with Chiappone ad-libbing.
“I like to make people laugh. It’s very satisfying in a way,” he said. “Once you start it, you become good at finding humor in the world.”
Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.