“To write is to sell a ticket to escape, not from the truth, but into it,” writes Alexander Chee in an essay called “On Becoming an American Writer.” If this sounds lofty for a quote from a debut essay collection, then keep in mind that Chee’s stunning new book has been twenty years in the making. The author of an electrifying debut novel, Edinburgh, and an operatic followup, The Queen of the Night, Chee has also been writing about writing — and thereby writing about his personal experiences and his place in the world — throughout his career. His broad range is evident when you look at where he’s published: in a variety of different literary journals, national magazines, newspapers, and websites big and small. Taken as a whole his essays form a cohesive narrative of a writer not only finding his voice, but considering the power of using such a voice.
In the age of internet hate-reads, when the most intimate of horror stories or partially-baked ideas turn into clickbait, personal essays have taken a lot of heat. At worst, they’re embarrassing, meant to be memorialized in a journal (and perhaps then burnt) rather than for public consumption. But at their best, personal essays set out in quest of a wider truth, the sort that can only be found through sifting the experiences of a singular life. That Chee is the person to illuminate his truth is a gift. As an artist exploring his craft, he explores the technical, but he also does not shy away from asking the questions that haunt anyone who dreams of leaving their mark on the world: Can I write, should I write, who will I be if I don’t write? What’s worth writing about? Chee’s metaphor for one’s life is a forest, and the writer’s job is to take an axe to their past in order to get to the good stuff: the political, the personal, the truth. To cut away the noise, even if the noise happens to be beautiful.
In How To Write an Autobiographical Novel, Chee lingers over many of the familiar turns on the path to becoming an accomplished writer: there are workshops and an MFA program, grants and artists’ colony stays, advice from illustrious writing teachers like Annie Dillard and Frank Conroy. But there is also Chee himself, who must carve a space for his nonwhite, gay identity within these environs. “I am taking this parade down the middle of the road,” Chee wrote to a friend upon his arrival at the Iowa Writers Workshop. “A parade is a test of a community… I’d been accepted to Iowa, but I still didn’t know if Iowa was going to accept me, a gay Korean American writer.” His status as an outsidery-insider allows his critical eye a perspective few writers can access.
More important than his schooling are Chee’s own experiences, his natural curiosity and desire to learn–all of which give the writer, already so well-equipped with his tools, a more than usually wide field in which to work. Chee addresses the traumas that have shaped him–his abuse as a child (which he wove into Edinburgh‘s heartbreaking pages), his father’s untimely death, his time as an AIDS activist in late 1980s San Francisco when he saw devastating violence at protests and ultimately lost many friends to the disease. But there are also moments of levity that have their own subtle power to illuminate. He details how reading tarot made him a better storyteller, how he found hope in tending to a rose garden, and how the act of dressing in drag opened his eyes: “Sometimes you don’t know who you are until you put on a mask.” Given the space Chee devotes to writing about technique, it’s hard not to scrutinize his form and delight in his biggest ideas and these lovely fragments of wisdom.
Like the best writers’ memoirs, How To Write an Autobiographical Novel is more of a show-by-example than a how-to, but it’s a wonderful guide nonetheless. That Chee has spent so much of his life writing and teaching and nurturing new talent comes through on every page of this book — but anyone who wants to see how a great writer champions other writers should follow Chee on social media. His generosity and lack of pretension make this collection inspirational for anyone pursuing a creative endeavor–and I promise I don’t mean this in a cheesy way. In the latter pages of the book, he uncovers perhaps the most profound truth, both in craft and in the political sphere and in life: “I discovered I needed to teach not just how to write, but how to keep writing. How to face up to who you think is listening.” May he — and we — continue to do so.