I first encountered Alexander Chee’s writing in 2018 when I took an afternoon master class with Catapult’s writing program in Manhattan. The class was on how to write creative nonfiction. About halfway through the instructor pulled out a pamphlet of photocopies containing a few pages from Chee’s then yet-to-be-released How to a Write an Autobiographical Novel. I listened to her read, enraptured by the wonderful prose.
A couple of months later when I saw a list of upcoming events at one of my favorite New York City book stores, Books Are Magic, I noticed a familiar name. Alexander Chee’s pub date was coming up and my Catapult teacher would be interviewing Chee at his launch event. I hadn’t read either of his previous books, both novels, but I was gravitating more and more toward essays and memoir, and it seemed like this new book would be my way into his backlist. I was determined to go. I schlepped out to Brooklyn from my office on the Upper West Side and settled into a seat at the front row. As Chee read from his new book I was again totally rapt listening to his words. I knew I’d found another writer’s voice I’d forever admire.
It took me exactly two years to read, as I was too scared to either be disappointed (highly unlikely) or simply upset when I got to the end and had to admit it was over. At the start of the pandemic I picked it up, finally ready. And, combining both an audio and a print copy, I sunk fully, deliriously into the pages. The combination so perfectly enhanced Chee’s lyrical prose and I savored the experience, slowly making my way through the book one essay at a time.
Having just a few months before completed a year-long workshop–again with Catapult, drafting and redrafting a novel I’d had in progress for six years–settling back into the work of a writer’s writer during a break from editing my own novel, Chee’s words bred inspiration I desperately needed. My own relationship with writing is a fraught one. There are high highs interrupted by long periods of inaction which I tend to fill not with outlining or editing, but with reading. I wrapped myself up in the blanket of his words and started taking notes.
He mentions throughout how he was teased about how his style of writing is too "flowery" but I found it intoxicating—it's exactly the kind of writing I love most. The collection here is a great mix of writing guides and memoir. He has a way of sharing his POV so that he's really sharing it with you, the reader, allowing you to get as close to the events and his thoughts as he was when he experienced them. It's fascinating. I could study his words for years and never quite figure out how he's doing what he is.
Chee received an MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, something which may be evident because of how well he writes, a trait that can be seen in many well-hyped debut novels and award-winning titles, all of which share the Workshop as a jumping-off point for the authors of these works. Though, anyone could easily write just as well and be as or even more successful than the Iowa alumni without buying an MFA. In fact, two of his three undergraduate professors told him not to. He ended up listening to the one that was for it, and that was the renowned Annie Dillard. He says of the process:
“For years I had mocked the idea of applying to MFA programs, but after that lunch, I became interested in a way I wasn’t prepared to admit. I still made snide remarks about how no one was going to force me to write to a formula. I still said I didn’t want to write fiction that said nothing about the world for knowing nothing about the world, and so there I was, out in the world – wasn’t that better? I made a point of saying, whenever possible, but I refused to spend two years being made to imitate Raymond Carver…. Going to Iowa was one of the best things I ever did for my writing life. If the myth about the Workshop was that it tried to make us all the same, my experience was that it encouraged me to be a writer like no other before me. Whether I did that was up to me.”
Personally, I’ve gone back and forth on whether or not I need to get a Master’s degree, and if I did, if it should be an MFA, either in fine art or creative writing, or something “practical” but ultimately uninteresting to me and grueling to study. I’ve been more in-line with what Chee was thinking during the period just before he applied to and was accepted into Iowa, and I believed that it was more important for me to stay in the workforce and get more hands-on experience learning some lessons that an MBA, for example, couldn’t really teach me. When my best friend was accepted into a creative writing program I spoke with him at length about how my interests were reshaping. I wasn’t practicing photography, but I had just cobbled together a few chapters of a book and I realized that writing was something that I should be doing more often, something I might want to pursue officially, professionally. He told me what his workshops were like and he assured me I was more well-read than most of his classmates. I wondered aloud if I could make my own sort of lone MFA experience reading everything I could get my hands on, anything that remotely related to my book’s themes and anything that is lauded as Great Literature. He encouraged me to keep writing.
“You can have talent, but if you cannot endure, if you cannot learn to work, and learn to work against your own worst tendencies and prejudices, then you will not become a writer. PhD, MFA, self-taught — the only things you must have to become a writer are the stamina to continue and a wily, cagey heart in the face of extremity, failure, and success.”
I started taking myself more seriously, trying to make edits in my free time. I watched all of my friends and acquaintances go back to school for one thing or another. I kept my day job. I tried not to feel less-than for not having a Master’s degree. Then I found the opportunity I knew was meant for me. Catapult was offering a 12-month course, the Novel Generator, structured around an ongoing workshop during which we’d each be critiqued three or four times as our works morphed and grew. It would meet at night, once a week, just a twenty-minute subway ride away from my work. I spoke with my friend about it, laying out the details of the cost and all that I’d hope to get out of it, the most important of which was to get eyes on my work. This time he encouraged me to apply. I got in.
I struggled mightily with maintaining enough self-esteem to keep submitting new pages every time it was my turn to do so. I was insecure about how the scenes I had weren’t fleshed out enough, or how the new scenes I’d liked were actually too pedantic to see the light of the classroom. When my peers ended up doling out prescriptive advice of what to do next instead of addressing what was already there in front of them on the page, I’d leave at the end of the night in a rush, seething so I wouldn’t burst into tears before getting on the train. I was a constant wreck. Before my penultimate submission, I wrote to my instructor saying I might not have anything to show that week. I didn’t think I’d be able to push through the fear of not being a good enough writer to write anything new. The night before they were due I managed to eke out about 50 fresh pages of a possible 150 I could have submitted. I included a note–because in workshop the authors are not allowed to speak until everyone else as doled out their comments–to say I had not cut everything they’d seen previously, I was merely feeling stuck and working on these separate scenes with the hope of fulfilling a number of previous critiques and plot holes. As you can imagine, it didn’t go well.
“I think disappointment, and the desire to revenge oneself on that disappointment, can be an enormous motivator.”
During a break, just before we were all going to submit our full drafts, I rewrote over half of the 70k words I had and added at least 10k new words, in a frenzy just a week ahead of our deadline. After some time away and enough debriefing with my friend, I realized, in not so many words, what Chee so aptly says in “My Parade” about the cruelty and self-debasement that goes along with writing for workshop. His lesson is that though you get to know these people intimately through their writing and sharing your own, your fellow writers are not necessarily your readers. Trying to implement every piece of advice won’t help you, but listening to how your work is perceived by a diverse group of readers is the best thing any writer can hope for because it represents what you’ll be facing if you ever try to sell and market your book down the line. Your work isn’t for everyone, your work is yours, and you have to make it so.
“The stories I was writing, which I did to entertain myself when I ran out of things to read, were their own kind of milestone, visible to me only much later: they were the first time I wrote for myself, for my own pleasure. There was something I wanted to feel, and I felt it only when I was writing. I think of this as one of the most important parts of my writer’s education—that even left alone with nothing else to read, I began to tell myself the stories I wanted to read.”
I could speak endlessly about how special this book is to me. I could share dozens more quotes, there are so many delectable ones, and so many serious themes to be seen here. I focused mostly on what Chee has to share about writing, and the kinship I felt in his words as he described feelings I’ve been hit with so many times, but he really doesn’t hold back about anything. Throughout he touches upon his father’s death and the inheritance it led to, past lovers, great apartments, tarot, Patricia and William Buckley, his first book deal, HIV/AIDS, his identity as a half-white, half-Korean kid from Maine, his identity as a gay man, activism, trauma, money.
“1989” is obviously an older story, we know that from the title alone, but as I reread it for the second time this year, heading into the end-of-summer heat and the high tensions surrounding systemic racism and election anxiety (again), I felt like I could have simply covered up the dates and assumed it had just taken place. His description then of a protest that escalated into a police riot, like many of Chee’s other essays and insights, is timeless:
“‘Put your hand on the ambulance,’ they tell me, ‘so the police won’t arrest you.’ And I do. I stand there, my hand on the ambulance, and the television news crew arrives and asks me to describe what I’ve seen. As I tell the story I keep my hand on the ambulance the entire time. After they leave, I think about how, up to now, I have thought that I lived in a different country from this. But this is the country I live in, I tell myself, feeling the metal against my fingers. This is the country I live in.”
I especially adore the analogy to be had in “The Rosary,” where Chee described the massive task he undertook in planting a garden full of roses behind his NYC apartment. It became an obsession. He tracked the light his backyard receives on any day before deciding which bulbs would be able to survive, he killed beetles that threaten the sustainability of the plant life, he carefully tended to the flowers, putting so much of himself into the effort, even dreaming of the garden. It’s much like how artists throw all of themselves into their work:
“During the first winter, at night, I sometimes feel as I imagine they do, as if the part of me that is exposed is plain, stripped of all ornament, and the part that isn’t seen is growing, spreading. Roots cast like a net through an ocean of salt. I now know this is also what it feels like to write a novel. Which is exactly what I was doing.”
One can learn so much from his intuitive observation which is so clearly and expertly woven into the essays that show his personal history. In “The Curse” he goes as far as referring to his teenage self as a camera and it’s hard not to see him as such even as he ages:
“I felt sometimes like a camera, shocked when people noticed me. I was a little in love with him and his friends, young men of 16 or 17, a year or two older than me, all beauties, and I wanted to know everything I could, as it is, per the Dune novels, all of this detail making for some greater mastery over the object of my desire. There was a code to it all, it seemed, something underneath the smooth rhythm of the day and night, and that was what I wanted to crack.”
It seems he succeeded. That’s because it’s true, he is very much like a camera. I’m envious of the way he can so adeptly articulate such detail to create an atmosphere and pinpoint an event that is decades behind him.
I adore memoirs and I adored how these essays add up to an intensely personal memoir of Chee’s life thus far. “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel,” for which the collection is titled, is like a rapid, stream of consciousness monologue that I think of often. He speaks about the “price” of writing what you want, sharing your truth, and paying with your life. One of his former professors, Deborah Eisenberg, discusses, in an interview with the Atlantic a similar idea inspired by one of her fiction writer friends, how using the license that goes with dubbing one’s work a “fake autobiography” can be one way to free yourself from the burden of concern that goes along with shining a light on an event you lived through with other people who may read your story and recognize it and themselves, and the fear of discovering how they may feel about your story. Chee needed this approach in order to embrace writing the story in his first novel which allowed himself some distance from real experiences.
The idea of writing about myself and calling it a novel appeals to me greatly. I consider often throwing out all rules of decorum so I might ruthlessly write whatever I want about whoever I want to, no matter what it reveals about me or anyone else, but I also think that I am not quite ready for that yet, despite trying to utilize Eisenberg’s and Chee’s best guidance. The stories within me have a few more years of meandering around my memory banks before I can do the work required to nail them. As it is now, my fiction often reflects that meandering which, like Chee’s early work, hasn’t yet found a purpose:
“My stories and early novel starts were often criticized for their lack of plot. I was imitating the plotless fiction of the 1980s but also, it seems, lost in a landscape where I was unthinkingly reenacting the traumas of my youth. All of my stories lacked action or ended in inaction because that was what my imagination had always done to protect me for my own life....I needed to learn how plot and causality could be expressed in story – not one I read, but when I wrote. Stories about the most difficult things need to provide catharsis, or the reader will stop reading, or go mad.”
As I will likely refer to most of these essays over and over throughout the rest of my writing life, I will also continue to chip away on what writing means to me and why I remain interested in what I am, parsing through what I mean to say. I don’t have an MFA or the precious time and space to write which goes along with it, but I hope that I can retain the stamina to keep going, even when either the subjects or the criticism/rejection of the writing life feel too great to tackle. If I’ve learned anything here it’s that perseverance is the only way to thrive as an artist.
Shortly after completing a read-through of the collection for a second time, I was struck by the advice he says he’d received from a teacher and went on to share with his own students. With his words in mind I found myself at a bookstore. I ambled between the shelves in the fiction section until I found the place that marked where my own name could, would, one day sit. I made a small space between the other books there and marked the spot with my finger. In that moment I made a promise to myself and to the universe, one I would hold myself to even if it takes another six months or six years to get my perennial work-in-progress to where I think it should be. No matter what, I will publish. Surrounding myself with books like Chee’s will get me there.
“You write the novel because you have to write it. You do it because it is easier to do than to not do. You can’t read the novel you don’t have to write.”
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel
By Alexander Chee
297 pages. 2018.