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On Alexander Chee's How to Write an Autobiographical Novel




14 August 2023


On How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee


Okay, so doing a thing here where I’m testing my own biases. I read an essay from Chee…shit it’s probably in this book…that was super hyper-political, and I hated it. It is in this book! It’s called “On Becoming an American Writer” and it's the last essay. But everyone always talks about Chee. Everyone. They all love him, but based on that one essay I could not comprehend why. Well, my MFA Workshop instructor, Jenny Shank, had us read another essay by Chee, one also extant in this book, “The Writing Life,” and although I rankled at Chee’s tone in it, yet again, this time I did find value. Well—this is not all entirely true; I found value in the American Writer essay, too…it was just Chee’s tone where it came to political issues that turned me off. In the Writing Life essay, it was his blasé tone of “oh yeah, I have writing skills,” that annoyed me. So it’s his tone surrounding certain subjects that got under my skin.


Bear with me. I promise this gets better.


Anyway, because I am not the kind of girl who permits my bias to sit idle unexamined, Chee’s was the first book I put on my list of eight books to evaluate this semester for my MFA. And since I determined that my project for this MFA should be an autobiographical/fictionalized account of mine, how could Chee’s book not be useful? Right? So here we are.


Bottom Line Up Front (my conclusion, before we begin):

This was a lot of essays with a lot of weight. I learned something critical from each, even if I did not include each essay here (below).


I’m not at all sure what to do with this book, now that I’ve read it. It doesn’t feel appropriate to shelve it. Part of me wants to rip out the pages and paste them to my walls around my writing desk so that the lessons I learned from Chee will not be lost, forgotten, overlooked as I write.


But the pages are printed double-sided and staring at them daily doesn’t write my book for me.


One truth I’ve learned from this assembly of essays by Chee is that there’s really no point in overthinking or over-researching the first draft. Nobody can write your story for you, and it won’t be perfect in its first iteration anyway. It may, much like Chee’s Edinburgh, take me seven years to get this story out. But to stare at Chee’s suggestions on the wall every day will only serve to paralyze me where I stand—at having written nil.


Chapter 1: “The Curse”

Well hell. It turns out I rather like Chee. He’s gay, half-white, half-Korean, and in this chapter he seems to have already come to terms with his sexuality, yet he’s pubescent, so he’s exploring it more outwardly. He’s seeing what others might share that sexuality, he’s uncertain with others, yet sure of himself. Fuck…if he isn’t adorably lovable.


But let’s talk about craft. This chapter serves the purpose of profiling his character/persona for the rest of the book, I presume. I say, “I presume” because I haven’t yet read further. But I needed to get some things down from this chapter before I move on, so that they’re not lost forever.


Chee’s personas illustrated in the chapter:

  1. OBSERVER: In this chapter, Chee provides snapshots of who he was as a person at adolescence. The takeaways I have are that he was an “observer.” He writes, “I wanted to see if I too could obtain these powers through observation” (3). He writes, “It was my greatest dream to live out this kind of story, of power gained through either inborn abilities or persistence, and though I couldn’t have said this at the time, this dream coming true would have meant all of my struggles wre worth it” (3-4). “The eye a perfect talisman for a boy who believed his watching booth hid him and gave him power.” What’s fantastic is that Chee shares his observations of others with us, as readers, as evidence to prove this point—and it is via his observations of others that we learn more about him.

  2. LINGUIST: One thing I loved about Chee’s persona is that he picked up Spanish very quickly, but then held a small sense of derision for those in his group who did not take to the language quite so readily: “…I felt a tiny contempt whenever I conceded and helped them” (7). This admission paints Chee in not such a great light—but that’s ok. We’re all human, and this admission of contempt at needing to help others proves to us that Chee’s self-portrayal is very real.

  3. SEXUALITY—GAY: In this chapter we also learn about Chee’s sexuality, that he’s still sorting it out, but that it’s atypical: developmentally pubescent—and gay.

  4. HERITAGE—MIXED: We learn, too, of Chee’s heritage, that he’s half Korean and half white, and being mestizo, could potentially pass as Mexican (8-9). “In Maine, my background—half white, half Korean—was constantly made to seem alien, or exotic, or somehow inhuman. In Mexico, I was only mestizo, ordinary at first glance. When people looked at me, they saw me, and they didn’t stare at me as if at an object, the way my fellow American classmates did, all of whom were white and from the same small town in Maine” (15).

  5. INTERIORITY: We are witness to his incredibly authentic interiority—and longing: “And, of course, what was he thinking about? Which was only a way of hoping he thought about me” (11). “It was a summer of wanting impossible things” (12).

  6. WRITER: Then, there is the aspect of Chee’s persona whereby he became a writer. We learn, “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 when left alone with nothing else to read, I began to tell myself the stories I wanted to read” (12-13).

  7. IMPOSTOR: Finally, there is Chee’s inherent sense of not belonging—of impostor syndrome: “This last evidence of my American constitution was a final reminder, not just that I was leaving, but that I was not from there” (16).

What’s to be taken from this? That I must do something similar in my own story. It’s critical to determine which of my traits/persona I wish to emphasize for my story, then choose adolescent/life events that best illustrate that persona.


Chapter 2: “The Querent”

This piece is all about Chee’s life/experience with Tarot. It follows this theme of the paranormal from the beginning, when he was young and in school, and Dr. Alex Tanous, a parapsychologist, came to his school to test students for psychic abilities (which, let’s be honest, we all wanted at that age—or am I just making a presumption because I wanted them as much as Chee? Who knows?). Of course, Chee wanted psychic ability, to be an X-Man, to be “…taken away, studied, for the protection of the town, as in my favorite Stephen King novel, Firestarter” (18).


In this essay, Chee baldly and repeatedly tells the reader all the things he wanted/wants/dreams. What I love about this is the tension between, “I wanted” and “What I didn’t know about what I wanted” throughout. Here, Chee openly reveals what he wanted at certain points in his life, then proves through illustration/evidence how he was wrong about wanting those things. Not that it was bad to want those things…because wanting those things (seeing into the future to avoid pain) is very human. But that it was not the right or most fulfilling/healthy approach to life (and by extension, writing).


Although Chee’s writing and longing for his writing to be published, sold, read, etc., is woven throughout this piece, that the piece is about his writing is only implied and seemingly tangential. Nevertheless, that is what it’s about…and we can know this at times only because it is an essay included in a book titled How to Write and Autobiographical Novel. Throughout the piece, we know that Chee is most concerned about the future of his writing because of his intermittent allusions to it; thus, we know that the sun salutations and the “What can you trust of what you can’t see?” is all about the future of his writing without foreseeing the future of his writing. This is remarkable to me because it means I don’t always have to tack a lesson onto the end of each piece—at least, not directly. It can be indirect and just as effective, as evidenced here.


Chapter 3: “The Writing Life”

Characterization of Annie: Annie Dillard’s characterization in this chapter is a writing lesson unto itself. We learn early that her class is highly coveted and that it’s difficult for students to get in—we know this because Chee’s introduction here is the verbatim application letter to her class. Chee seems to not want to care too much, and maybe that’s his point here: he wasn’t ever committed to the thing for which he was most talented. To me, it smacks of a fear of failure, self-sabotage: if I don’t want it too much, I won’t be hurt when I don’t get it (we get this again with the self-sabotage about the novella (45)). But Chee writes that he kicked the cigarette butt Dillard dragged from and “I feel virtuous as I kick it into the gutter” (47).


Okay but all this is still about Chee. Chee writes that Dillard had gotten herself hitched to a man before he realized what a smoker she was, so every day during class she’d drink from a thermos of coffee and eat one after another of Brach’s singly wrapped caramels…and as each class continued, it built “to a crescendo fueled by the sugar and caffeine” (50).


Chee writes, “She is dressed in pale colors, pearls at her neck and ears. She’s tall, athletic, vigorous. Her skin glows. She holds out her hand” (46). Via this description, we experience Dillard s no-nonsense, and her major lesson to Chee is this:

Talent isn’t enough, she had told us. Writing is work. Anyone can do this, anyone can learn to do this. It’s not rocket science; it’s habits of mind and habits of work. I started with people much more talented than me, she said, and they’re dead or in jail or not writing. The difference between me and them is that I’m writing.


Talent might give you nothing. Without work, talent is only talent—promise, not product. I wanted to learn how to go from being the accident-at-the-beginning to being a writer, and I learned from her (53).


Chapter 4: “1989”

I find it ironic or perhaps it’s intentional that this chapter follows the last on Annie Dillard. In her lessons about writing, Dillard tells her students to avoid describing crowd scenes. “1989” is a description of a peaceful protest turned violent. It’s definitely a crowd scene. Yet Chee succeeds in its telling for various reasons, despite Dillard’s recommendation because Chee does not set out to describe the crowd itself. Chee describes elements of the crowd, such as hands raised in the air. Chee describes particular aspects of the crowd, such as that there were two cops for every protestor and that twice, groups peeled off to sit in a circle at the center of an intersection. He describes particular aspects of groups of people and individual people, like the policemen’s latex gloves (an illustration of their ignorance) and the man on the motorcycle and woolly redheaded woman—and in each description, a single memorable specific detail parts individuals from the crowd. When describing the crowd, Chee describes them as though they were one entity, an octopus or gathering storm cloud; he never attempts to describe everyone individually, each their own actions, each their own person. In this, I think he accomplishes what Dillard advised against.


Dillard also advised against using emotional language, but at one point, Chee does exactly that in “1989.” He writes as he witnesses his friend fall, “I am afraid he will be trampled.” Of course, Chee could’ve illustrated this fear by describing how quickly he jumped down off the newspaper box…but Chee does so often what I’ve never before witnessed other authors do: he tells us exactly what he was thinking in the moment of an event. Throughout his pieces, we have this repetitive chant of “I wanted,” “I didn’t want,” “I wanted.” This feels no different. Yes, Chee is telling us he was afraid. But it works.


What does this story have to do with writing? What is this essay’s purpose in a novel titled How to Write an Autobiographical Novel? I think there are a lot of great answers for that. It’s an exercise in choosing what to describe in a scene/setting to help convey a message. Chee chooses details that underpin the point: that the world we live in is characterized by fear and derision toward the unknown. That within one second, our fragile society can regress to something utterly feral.


The piece places Chee firmly in the realm of political writers. He knows intimately the struggles of those with HIV in San Francisco in 1989. He was there, peacefully protesting with them. He’s seen how inflamed the issue could be on one side and how desperate/devastating it was on the other.


Perhaps the piece serves both purposes: an illustration in effective description and an illustration of ethos (credibility).


Chapter 5: “Girl”

This is my favorite piece of Chee’s so far. It carries messages of breaking binaries (woman/man, white/brown) and learning (via wearing a mask) how to love oneself as he is—and present himself with confidence in the world just as he is.


I noticed in this piece that we have a very close narrative distance with Chee because he’s chosen to write the piece in first person in present tense. I think this decision was very intentional because he wants to make the reader care about him as a person—specifically because he is about to write about his decision to cross-dress and what he learned from that experience. Chee had to know that far too many readers would balk at reading a story on this topic. The narrative distance, then, invites the reader deep into Chee’s psyche, his mind and his emotions, to engage their compassion/empathy for him and his identity frustrations.


Again, in this piece, Chee presents us with rich, vivid descriptive detail specific to suit. My favorite is the moment he describes putting on the lipstick: “I press my lips down against each other and feel the color spread anywhere it hasn’t gone yet” (60). This was the moment I became Chee in this story. And although he already had me on his side well before this, I could see this being the moment that some readers could step into his shoes for the first time.


Another part of this story that I found engaging was Chee’s self-characterization. He’s so feisty! I just love it. Here’s just one moment of this:


“Jesus Mother of God,” he says. “Girl, you’re beautiful. I don’t believe it.”

“Believe it,” I say, looking into his eyes. (61)


There is so much personality in this story, so much effortless effort to show our readers: who is Alexander Chee? There is much to be learned here about how to self-characterize or how to develop a persona in memoir.


Here’s another excellent example of Chee’s interiority in this piece that puts us squarely on his side: “I have never had this effect on a man, never transfixed him so thoroughly, and I wonder what I might be able to make him do now that I could not before” (61).


After this, we get the repeated “I wants” (62) that tell us why Chee is doing what he’s doing in this essay. I love that. Beautiful. I’m going to steal it because I want to be as effective as Chee.


Throughout, we get this sense that Chee is shapeshifting as a way to chase after himself (71). Since he never was white, never full Korean, and never felt like 100% a (cis?)man, he’s playing with those identities, trying on their opposites, and in doing so, coming closer to his sense of self than he’d ever been before. Perhaps his identity lies in betraying all identities. Love this.


This sense of never belonging matters to my own story. My whole adolescence and early twenties, I tried so hard to belong instead of embracing what made me different—as a superpower. “Sometimes you don’t know who you are until you put on a mask” (72).


Chapter 7: “My Parade”

Of all the chapter in this book so far, this most closely aligns with my own essay, “What It Takes to Hum.” It is an analysis of Chee’s writing career path, specifically focused on whether or not it was valuable for him to attain his MFA in Creative Writing from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.


Chapter 10: “The Rosary”

I was wrong. This essay, this essay, is most like “What It Takes to Hum.” In this essay, Chee uses his rose garden as a metaphor for—something. A gift “given before it existed at all” (148). Perhaps it is a story of manifestation just like mine. Of the manifestation of a writer, which all these essays seem to be. Chee writes, “I have a dream of a garden…” (151).


I love this metaphor: “…all rosarians, I think, find their own garden to be not just a wonder, but a messenger, from a place of secrets that other rosarians cannot know” (153). In this, a message about life, about story, about writing a novel.


He writes, “The more they are cut back, the faster they grow and the stronger they are. My role models at last, I think, when I read this” (156).


More:

During the fist 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 silt.

I know now this is also what it feels like to write a novel. Which is exactly what I was doing. (161)


It seems Chee is using the rosary as a metaphor for writing his novel, for coming further and further into his own truth, his own self, his own identity—which he has prohibited himself from realizing far too long.


Chee’s essay incorporates history, information, etc., about rose gardens and rose species, much as “Hum” does. It was originally 8750 words long (it appears in full in this book) but cut down to about 4000 for its publication in The New Yorker.


All of this became informative for me. I chose to re-write “What It Takes to Hum” with Chee’s “The Rosary” as inspiration. I pared down the message to one of finding my self, finding my way…deleted every segment about mom. Then, per my instructor’s recommendation, I rearranged the story so that the hummingbirds became a backbone, chronologically. In fact, both braids are chronological, but they start at different times in my life, then converge at the end.


Per Shank’s instruction in class, I reworked the ending of the essay, too, to flash back and then forward in the penultimate paragraph. I even wove in a reference to Chee’s essay, “The Rosary.”


I can’t get past how formative it was to read Chee’s “The Rosary” for my own essay’s benefit.


Chapter 13: “The Autobiography of My Novel”

This essay changed my life. Changed my writing vision for this semester. Because of this essay, I’ve ditched my idea for this semester’s focus and shifted back, with intensity, to fiction.


Chee’s “The Autobiography of My Novel” describes the process he used to write his fiction novel, Edinburgh, which is a retelling of his own story of sexual abuse at the hands of a choir director when he was in his early teens.


Major takeaways:

  1. First Draft Woes: “When I look at the first manuscript, I can see again how the plot was, well, not a plot—it was only a list of things that had happened” (206). You’re not going to get it right on the first attempt.

  2. Events vs Plot: Plot implies causality. (211)

  3. On Autobiography: Tell your story’s situations, but not the events. (209)

  4. On Character: “He would be a little more unhinged, a little less afraid, a little more angry” (209). Take yourself as character, then spin the character to make it more engaging, bolder, brighter.

  5. On Climax or Catharsis: “Stories about the most difficult things need to provide catharsis, or the reader will stop reading, or go mad” (211). Chee writes further, “Forbidden desire, acted upon, resulting in transformation, paralysis, and then catharsis” (211). I can map all of this onto my story so incredibly well/easily. “Plots like these contained events so shocking or implausible that the reader sympathized with the emotions instead, the recognizable humanity there: loss, forbidden love, treachery” (212).

  6. Action: “Memorable action is always more important to a story—action can even operate the way rhyme and meter do, as a mnemonic device. You remember a story for what people did” (213). “Pity and fear and grand action. And purification. This was what I was after. I had reached for the right instructions” (214). “A single grand action unifies a story more than a single person” (214). So I’ve been asking the great creator for a grand action for my story. I still need this. Chee thinks of plot as “a chain of consequences, made from the mix of free will and fate that only one’s own moral character creates” (214).

  7. On What Did Happen vs What Would Happen: Chee quotes Aristotle here: “From what has been said it is clear that the poet’s job is not relating what actually happened, but rather the kind of thing that would happen—that is to say, what is possible in terms of probability and necessity…the difference is that the one relates what actually happened, and the other the kinds of events that would happen” (215). Chee contemplates this: “The plot I needed would have to work in this other way, out of a sense of what would happen to someone like me in this situation, not what did happen or had happened to me” (215).

  8. Making the Real NOT Real: “I made a world I knew, not the world I knew, and began again there” (217).


Chapter 14: “The Guardians”

This essay helped me to remember the value of a stereoscopic narrative. I couldn’t help but remember how at first Stephanie Meyer released Twilight in the PoV of Bella Swan, but then afterward, a few chapters leaked of the same story from Edward Cullen’s perspective—and how this new perspective did strangely baked things to my insides. Like a lava cake, it turned my insides all liquidy.


Chee’s “The Guardians” is unremarkable to me except it taught me I must write my novel as a stereoscopic narrative—two perspectives, two sides of the situation.


One last thing, here. Chee’s purpose in this essay, it seems, was to unearth shit that hadn’t to that point been unearthed in therapy. I think there is some value in this; I can learn from it that my story must go all the way down. It’s going to be a psychological realism deep and intense like that of Crime and Punishment. Because of that it’ll be quite dark, and that’s okay…because that’s me.


Chapter 16: “On Becoming an American Writer”

This is the essay of Chee’s that I read two years ago, the essay that I felt was too political, the essay that turned me off to Chee.


It’s mindboggling to me how my perspective has changed on this essay because I’ve now read more of Chee’s work, now know more about Chee’s persona, and now see that his purpose in this essay was not politicization for politicization’s sake. His purpose in tying in politics was timely, for sure, since he wrote it during the 2016 election—and was tying this idea of “why bother to write?” with everyone’s this-is-too-big end-of-times feelings. The whole message is to keep writing, because even if it all feels moot and worthless, it’s ultimately writers, artists, and poets who change the world.


It helps that I’m a different person now than I was when I first read this in 2021. I’m less attached to Facebook, less reactive to news media, more self-assured and calmer. I’m less likely, today, to fly off the handle over political issues…and that changed the way I could read this essay. I’m not sure this essay deserved the ultimate location in Chee’s book. I think that should’ve been reserved for “The Autobiography of My Novel.” But it belongs in this book, nonetheless. And I’m glad I took the time to reread it.

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