How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, by Alexander Chee

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2018

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I bought this book knowing I’d love it. A series of beautifully written autobiographical essays on writing and life? Sold. In retrospect I would’ve enjoyed it even more if I was familiar with Alexander Chee before reading it, but alternatively, I’ll probably enjoy reading his novels more now than I would have before, and I will definitely be reading them. Chee’s writing is wonderful and feels effortless, although he emphasizes that writing is never an effortless task. Any aspiring writer has been told some way or other that writing is hard work and requires extreme perseverance. Chee addresses this frequently in his essays but in a way that is more inspiring than daunting. If I was an aspiring fiction writer, which I am not, I would treasure these essays as a source of motivation. What I am, however, is an aspiring editor, and I found lessons in Chee’s essays for myself—both direct and indirect. On the last page of the essay titled The Autobiography of my Novel, Chee writes about the challenge of getting his first novel published and how, after getting rejected over and over again, the right editor changed everything.

Each essay varies in length and format. They don’t follow any timeline and aren’t centered around any one event. Instead they are organized the way memories are; the thread connecting one to the next isn’t always clear but is there, somewhere. As I progressed through the book, I had the feeling that the essays were building up to a climax of some sort, and then I read The Guardians. It is the third to last essay, and it is the heart of this book.  I started reading and lost myself in it immediately. The Guardians deals with Chee’s childhood trauma: the ways it has affected his life and how he’s processed it through different stages of his adulthood. It’s an essay that I imagine many people could connect with, feel understood by, or even use as a model to help process their own traumas.

In the final essay, On Becoming an American Writer, Chee asks, how do we create art after September 11? How do we create art in a Trump presidency? He is asking these questions to himself and attempting to come up with an answer for his students. In that essay is the following quote that is simple, and to me, entirely true: “But books were still to me as they had been when I found them: the only magic.”

Links: Goodreads | Alexander Chee | Buy it on Bookshop .org

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