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Alexander Chee's "On Becoming an American Writer"

28 July 2022

On “On Becoming an American Writer” by Alexander Chee

(find an excerpt of this essay at The Paris Review by clicking here)

**Random thought: How can I get what I want without losing a part of myself?

I think I don’t give any parts of myself away in the process, no matter what that might mean.**

Lapvona by Ottessa Moshfegh arrived for me in the mail today. It’s a novel one of my classmates just reviewed in my Intro to Creative Writing class for her Creative Nonfiction submission. I think. The truth is, her essay’s message was nondescript and unremarkable. I’m not at all sure, not even a little bit, how she felt about the novel, except that she was startled by its violence. She seems to think the author reveled in, what, perhaps, the absurd? A dearth of morality – or the uncertainty of it? The subjectivity of it? In any case, she made no notable connection between the novel and life, the novel and other literature, the novel and humanity/society, nor even between the novel and her own experience – except to say that she’d had a similar experience in her own life, when a stepbrother poured salt onto a snail. Obviously I cannot let that lie. I need to read the novel, to experience through it what my classmate did, and then it’s my obligation to draw out the purpose clearly, at least as it appears in my own mind.

Nevertheless, Lapvona arrived while I was in the middle of reading Alexander Chee’s “On Becoming an American Writer,” and since this piece is memoir, it must come first.

I set aside Lapvona and finished reading Chee. I’m glad I did.

Chee’s piece presents an apologetics of writing. Is that a thing, or does apologetics only exist for Christianity? I don’t know…I guess I’d need to look it up in the dictionary, but I’m going to use it here anyway: Chee is making the case for writing. As a novelist, poet, essayist, critic, and most importantly, as an instructor of writing himself, Chee wants to give his students (or any aspiring writer) the motivation and reason to write, and keep writing despite every extant (and relevant) reason to stop. It’s funny, you never meet a writer telling other writers, bah, it’s not worth it – except those seasoned writers who have been sort of butthurt by the process. Although he is one of those seasoned, butthurt writers, Chee’s essay claims that writing’s purpose is bigger than publication. His essay gives every reason he can muster not to stop.

In that sense, Chee’s piece echoes Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Woolf laments that women do not write because they are otherwise too occupied with the business of being women: kept, mothers, housekeepers, perpetually-silenced-ers – dependents upon the men of the world. Chee focuses more on the why bother? aspect of writing: who will even read it?

It’s interesting to me that both authors speak to me in different ways, on this point. For Woolf, it’s women have had so little voice, it’s your obligation (and privilege) to give us one. For Chee, it’s more of a – write as though your life depended upon it message. They’re both right. These are both reasons to write. Both also speak to the challenges of making a living as a writer. In Chee’s case, he literally did not receive the payments promised in royalties for his book:

“My publisher had gone into bankruptcy owing me what then amounted to a year’s pay, and then they had sold foreign rights to my first novel, and I would never see that money because of the way bankruptcy court works.”

He makes it clear that to write, he needed to work hard to make a living otherwise. He writes that he served “formal dinner on Park Avenue” and waited “tables at the steakhouse in midtown.” His belief was that if you were upper-middle to upper-class, you’d have to relinquish your right to that status to become a writer for no other reason than that it wouldn’t pay. Your only place as a writer was, at most, middle-class. It’s funny how that collides – weaves – intersects? – with Woolf’s premise that women must have a room of their own and a basic living in order to write. Her point was more women-centric: 1. Women’s lives are far too busy to write, thus uninterrupted space/time is needed, and 2. Women weren’t generally allowed to work for money, and therefore a stipend was necessary for writing (obviously, founded upon the assumption that it was a rare case, indeed, for a woman to get paid for her writing unless she sold a bit of herself (her true voice and unfiltered thoughts) in the process – an idea I’ve touched upon before in the unarguable connection between woman writer and prostitute). We’ve come a long way since then, but that Chee’s message echoes this tells me writers are still undervalued and underpaid for their service. And it is a service.

One thing that really perturbed me about Chee’s piece was his penchant to catastrophize – and my distaste for that is certainly biased. Chee’s essay, as indicated in the title, is really first and foremost about writing in the USA. Technically, he uses the word “American,” which I’d argue is imprecise, since anywhere outside of the USA, the term “American” refers to anyone living on this continent, the one at the equator, or the one even further south of that. But he means US writers. My point is that he focuses on writers living in the USA; therefore, at least half of his essay touches upon political issues such as “the election” and healthcare and debt and economy and global warming.

I hate politics. I hate it. I hate it because I think that there is literally no way to access it without the lens of bias – as a direct result of our misleading and painfully slanted media outlets. Chee’s depiction of politics struck me as so far left-wing that it left a bad taste in my mouth. That’s not to say that I believe in right-wing politics either, mind you. It’s only to say that often I think we let the media tell us what to believe – and we let the media tell us that what we are supposed to believe is far more worser than it really, really is. Because if it had nothing to sell, the media would die. Sell sell sell! Yes; stories are sales.

I don’t normally get so negative with my critiques of these essays; this one really hit a nerve. First, it hit a nerve because during the COVID pandemic, I lost my tolerance for the media. Something in my gut told me that I was being conned – and that was reinforced by the opposing media’s story, which was literally 180 degrees out. How could both stories be true? We were being fed lies, and my stress levels were far too high to accept it. I turned off the news and have not yet turned it back on – it’s been over two years. The calmest, most blissful two years of my life. I have no interest in bringing that chaos back into my life even though I know it makes me an ill-informed citizen. I don’t care what you think on that point. I have faith that my purpose – my outlet – for changing the world is elsewhere, anyway. On the home front.

But then, I read the essay “Vicious Cycles” by Greg Jackson in Best American Essays 2021, and everything in that essay – everything – reinforced this niggling feeling I had that I was getting duped by the media! I bought Jackson’s theory about “pseudo-events” and “catastrophizing” for money. I tell you what, when something sounds right to me, I just know it in my bones. And Jackson’s theory is right.

Thus, reading all of the politics in Chee’s essay was distasteful to me. I know that there are so many varying perspectives on all the issues he presented, and too often he did not give space for those – which annoyed me.

That said, when I think about the catastrophizing he did surrounding “the election,” which I assume to be the election between Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump, I have to admit that my husband and I were terrified as well during that time. It was the first time in years that we didn’t live on a USAF installation; we didn’t have any security for our home. We lived just off the Pentagon Bus lot at the intersection of the Fairfax County Parkway and Gambrill Rd – too close to DC for comfort. The nation was in a frenzy, and we had no way to protect ourselves in case something crazy happened. Brian’s close friend had been whispering in his ear terrifying possibilities of attacks on our Nation’s Capitol’s power grid – attacks by whom, I didn’t know. Democrats? Republicans? Terrorist extremists? Far right-wing or left-wing radicals? Who knew? But the possibility was there, and my dreams were blowing those fears way out of proportion. I dreamt at night of zombie raids upon our home – a home with no defenses, no weapons – and I dreamt that my husband was too blasé about it all to bother protecting his family.

It was a scary time. It was. It affected me, too.

…and the pursuant four years were not a whole lot better. It was the least settled I’ve ever seen our nation in my life.

But the thing is, despite a lot of venom (and resultant violence) rooted in hate for our nation’s leader, nothing in my life really changed. Nobody attacked DC’s power grids. My husband’s career trajectory was unaltered. My job prospects – likewise unaltered. My kids were still eating the same goddamn organic mac-n-cheese, and my dog still needed a dental cleaning. Life carried on at the micro level.

Don’t get me wrong. I do see that there are echoes – long-term ramifications – playing out in real time today from the politics of those four years. I see that. And they are, in fact, fucking awful. Nevertheless, Chee’s catastrophizing of “the election” startled me and drained me of a little bit of the ethos I’d given him – in good faith – as I began reading his essay. Why be so hard persuaded by your media outlet, Chee? Take a breather. Have one of my sertraline pills. Nobody gets anywhere safely in a state of panic.

Perhaps that’s unfair, but I don’t really care. I’m so done with politics. I just can’t right now.

The way I see it – and this may be an aside to my critique of Chee’s essay – the best I can do for the world is to create of my little ones people who have the ethics and love to carry light into that world. Let me move on to that now, then, since I’m already on it.

Chee’s purpose in writing this essay is to encourage writers. His words of encouragement are these: “I needed to teach writing students to hold on – to themselves, to what matters to them, to the present, the past, the future. And to the country. And to do so with what they write. We won’t know when the world will end. If it ever does, we will be better served when it does by having done this work we can do.” He also calls his students to “Speak to your dead. Write for your dead. Tell them a story. What are you doing with this life? Let them hold you accountable. Let them make you bolder or more modest or louder or more loving, whatever it is, but ask them in, listen, and then write.”

These are powerful reasons to write. Perhaps they’re more powerful than Woolf’s, who was only asking that women record their lives for posterity. Or perhaps not. The limitation of Chee’s essay, in my mind, is its focus on “America,” as he calls it. It strikes me as contradictory that he is so devoted to this nation, considering his political leanings. The truth is, I disagree. I do love the USA, don’t get me wrong. And I do appreciate being a US citizen; that said, I also love other nations, and to tie writing to nationalism – it really bugs me! I do know, however, that he was finishing up writing this essay during “the election,” and therefore probably felt a dramatic pull toward that theme.

Nevertheless, I disagree with Chee – and maybe also Woolf. Sure, I’d agree it’s important to use our writing to record our lives. But I think it’s even more important to build writers because we need to better thinkers in this world, people who will not be blindly swayed by the media – or by any other input. And a person cannot be a thinker without writing. It’s more than just recording experiences for posterity; it’s also recording what those experiences mean. When students walk through the door into my classroom, my goal is that they take ownership of their ideas and then articulate those ideas effectively. It has literally nothing whatsoever to do with the salvation of our nation except that it has absolutely everything to do with the salvation of our nation.

My faith lies at the micro level – in my limited scope. I cannot change the world, but I can change myself. In changing myself, I can change my children’s future – and likewise, I might be able to change my students’ futures. In changing those, the effect ripples out with no bounds. I don’t care one whit about saving the USA. I’m only here to teach one student at a time critical thinking, love and empathy, and self-expression through writing, then pray that impacts the world. If the USA is changed through that effort, great. I hope it’s changed for the better.

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