How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays
Chee is a celebrated novelist. His second book, The Queen of the Night (2016), appeared on eleven Best Book of the Year Lists in 2016. How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is his first collected work of nonfiction. In his essays, Chee writes about topics as varied as his hardships growing up as a Korean American, his sexuality, his activism for AIDS legislation in the late 1980s, the death of his father, the writing life, and more.
While many of these essays were previously published elsewhere, several were heavily edited for this book. Re-reading them here, especially as part of a whole, gives them new meaning. They are structured chronologically, and taken together the essays form a sort of autobiography themselves. Beginning with a high school summer trip to Mexico and ending just last November with the election of Donald Trump, as the book goes on, readers grow along with Chee. We watch his transformation from a quiet, self-doubting young man into a more confident, self-assured writer.
Chee leaves himself remarkably exposed in these pieces, and his prose is illustrative and disciplined. “There’s another Alexander Chee in my mind, the one who I would be if I’d only had access to regular dental care throughout my career, down to the number of teeth in my mouth,” he writes in “On Becoming An American Writer,” the last essay in the book. The use of dental plans to highlight the plight of American writers struggling to stay relevant in a culture that undervalues them is especially imaginative and wry. The collection is full of examples like this.
This is a writer’s book, written by a writer and for writers. Chee is also associate professor of English and creative writing at Dartmouth College. His essays are full of wisdom and insight, as if he’s always teaching how to write, even when not saying this expressly. While he never becomes pedantic, his one deficiency is that, at times, he tends to leave behind the practical and cross into the mystical, especially when discussing the novel. “A novel, like all written things, is a piece of music, the language demanding you make a sound as you read it. Writing one, then, is like remembering a song you’ve never heard before,” he writes in “100 Things About Writing a Novel.” This essay and the title piece the two most unhelpful in the book. Full of flowery language and inexplicable metaphors, they offer little practical help. If anything, they make writing a novel feel inaccessible.
Much more helpful is “The Writing Life,” in which Chee recalls studying under Annie Dillard as an undergrad at Wesleyan. The piece is both a profile of one of America’s greatest writers and a manual for how to improve your own prose. “Talent isn’t enough, she had told us. Writing is work. Anyone can do this, anyone can learn to do this,” he writes. Later, Chee repeats this advice to his own students. These are the moments when the book really shines, when Chee, like the teacher he is, is eager to pass on what he has learned.
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is a formative collection, sure to cement Chee as not only a preeminent novelist but a powerful essayist as well. In his work, Chee makes the writing life look both envious and easy. For anyone who’s ever tried it, that’s no small task.