Off My Bookshelf

How to write an autobiographical novel: essays by alexander chee

I interview people for a living — helping them discover and record their own stories — and so am easily enticed by personal narrative.  Favorites cram my office bookshelf, from Stephen King’s On Writing to Alexander Masters’ Stuart: A Life Lived Backwards. I recently added another to my stockpile: Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel.

How To Write An Autobiographical Novel: Essays by Alexander Chee

A collection of autobiographical essays, Chee takes the reader on a wild ride through a breadth of topics: his teenage adventures in Mexico, unearthing repressed memories of sexual assault, catering parties for William F. Buckley, and even a stint as a Tarot-card reader. Together, the stories elegantly reveal Chee’s journey as a writer. They also lay bare a few prized lessons about writing.

Some of the essays are pure memoir with Chee barely alluding to his writerly life. A mysterious chapter on the art of Tarot is among them. In others, he is unsparing about his struggles to launch a career as a writer and the hard work serious writing demands. “PhD, MFA, self-taught,” he writes. “ — 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.”

But it’s the essays where he dissects his writing, skillfully detailing the artistry of the craft that left me dazzled and longing for a redo of my student days. Two of the chapters, wryly arranged in lists, are bound to amuse and intrigue wannabe writers and old hands alike. In “The Writing Life,” which chronicles his literary nonfiction class with Annie Dillard at Wesleyan University, he unpacks the writing process explicitly:

The passive voice in particular was a crisis. “Was” told you only that something existed. That was not enough. And on that topic, I remember one of Annie’s fugues almost exactly: You want vivid writing. How do we get vivid writing? Verbs. Precise verbs … By the end of this moving collection, Chee has unified memoir and his chapters on writing in a deeply considered account of what drives an artist to create. In the final pages, Chee reflects, “…I needed to teach writing students to hold on — to themselves, to what matters to them, to the present, the past, the future.” He’s talking to young writers, but holding on to yourself — passing on your memories and stories — is a lifelong practice that gives all our lives meaning.

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