Book Review: How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

After I had finished reading Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, it kind of felt like I’d woken up from a vivid dream, where I stayed up all night with him, desperately clinging on to his every last word.

In this dream, Chee knows that I too, am a writer, one who is just starting out. He knows what I’m going through, having been there himself, and because of this, he knowingly smiles at my futile attempts to de-code his secret formula for writerly success.

As Chee makes clear through his essays, success, like failure, is something that happens at two speeds: slow and then fast, like a tornado that swoops you up and drops you flat on your ass. The slow failure is the one I’m most familiar with: the months that have passed into years with nothing but an impressive list of form rejection letters from Submittable to show for your hard work.

Did you know Chee’s first novel manuscript won a prestigious post-graduate award for Iowa Writer’s Workshop grads, and accolades from a legendary Frank Conroy, and was still rejected twenty-four times?

I don’t know how to begin to explain how relieving this is to hear. For someone coming out of their first year in an MFA program, success feels like something that’s talked about way too much. Everyone has an opinion about what every writer needs to do to make it in this life. Cue the played-out mantra: read more, write more, be patient. What I wanted to know is what exactly does this patience entail? Do good writers (like Chee) ever experience failure? Thankfully, Chee scratches this intellectual itch.

In this book, Chee comes across like an empathetic older sibling who knows exactly how to talk to this peculiar anxiety. And his voice is deeply comforting. By stitching together first and second-person narration, his essays take on a conversational tone, disarming readers, and establishing an immediate rapport. Instead of tackling the impossible question of how to be successful, Chee instead, offers readers a view of his own life, and shares what he learned.

From his time in undergrad with Annie Dillard at Wesleyan, Chee learns to avoid adverbs and to incorporate more verbs on the page. In “My Parade,” he reveals how he learned to absorb workshop feedback (something I struggled with before reading this) by saying, “it is a rookie workshop mistake to go home and address everything your readers brought up directly.”

In every essay, Chee is unabashedly open and honest about his life, describing how he went from clerk at an LGBT bookstore in San Francisco and humble caterer in New York City to award winning novelist turned professor at the prestigious Wesleyan University. Along the way, he is confronted with unforeseen challenges. In “1989,” Chee witnesses his friend Mike get bloodied and knocked unconscious by riot police while protesting government inaction in San Francisco during the AIDS epidemic. In “After Peter,” he describes how he painfully came to discover how a former HIV-positive boyfriend of his had passed away unbeknownst to him. In “Mr. and Mrs. B,” Chee reveals (somewhat shockingly, especially given the sequencing of his essays—this essay follows “After Peter”) that he had worked for William F. Buckley in the eighties, as a caterer. And for those of you who do not know who Mr. Buckley was, or why this is shocking at all, Buckley was a man who actively advocated tattooing “people with AIDS on their buttocks and wrists.” Enough said.

The book is not necessarily a roller coaster ride of emotions. Although I will say that the book at times made me love and hate what Chee had to say (never once however, did I feel compelled to look away). This is mainly because of how Chee seemed to be so unaware of his own success. When Chee goes over how he won acceptance to the coveted Iowa Writer’s Workshop on his first try, and a full-ride to UMass Amherst, I couldn’t quite understand what was still fueling his own writerly paranoia. And that paranoia seemed to carry past his own winning of a NEA fellowship, and the publication of his award-winning novel Edinburgh. It wasn’t until I reached the end that I realized this was his point. If I’m anything like Chee, the paranoia I feel about my own writing, will always be there to follow me—even if I become “successful.”

Given its titling as a how to guide, this book may as well have been written for writers like me. Chee sure he knows how to connect with us, ignoring altogether the temptation to preach, telling us to do this or to do that. Instead he shares what he’s done in a way that’s easily understood (he even has a few essays resembling a literary take on the popular internet listicle: “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel,” and “100 Things About Writing”). Both essays are built around, you guessed it, lists.

As far as writing the autobiographical novel, Chee has this say: “The story of your life, described, will not describe how you came to think about your life or yourself, nor describe any of what you learned. This is what fiction can do—I think it is even what fiction is for.” A helpful way of looking at the task of writing one’s own autobiography. Whatever we write is always somewhat autobiographical.

Author: Will Schick

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