Thursday, September 23, 2021
Book reviews Essays LGBTQIA+ Nonfiction

On ‘How to Write an Autobiographical Novel’ by Alexander Chee and Reading With Your Heart

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee

Mariner (HMH), 2018

(light spoilers)


Your imagination needs to be broken in, I think, to become anywhere near as weird as the world.


I have a lot of books to read. (Said every bookish person ever). I have books to read by deadlines. I have stacks of unread books — on my shelves, desk and erstwhile kitchen table — which I find both comforting and burdensome. I love reading, but I get overwhelmed with the sheer amount of it. I’m not a fast reader, which makes those book mountains all the more daunting to scale.

But there’s something to be said for closing your eyes to all of it, and finding the next book with your heart.

It sounds cheesy, but that’s what I decided to do this month. December is so weird; it’s both stressful and joyful, two things that create a lot of tension between each other. So it’s extra important to me to read what my bruised December heart tells me to. Which brings me to Alexander Chee.

This is my first time reading Alexander Chee, and before I even finished this book I got myself a copy of Edinburgh, so that tells you something. How to Write an Autobiographical Novel got a lot of praise this year, universally it seemed, so I had it on my TBR, but when I saw Chee read from the essay Girl (which is in this collection) at the PDX Book Fest this fall, I cried, so naturally my heart was calling out to it for more.

Literally every essay in this collection spoke to me. As a writer who struggles to consistently write (I know I’m not alone out here), I deeply appreciated his essays about his own writing life and the craft and process of writing. In particular, his recounting of his time in Annie Dillard’s writing class (in “Writing Life”) is riveting. He paints a picture of a figure above the fray, a chaotic and genius and razor-sharp figure with all the alchemy of wisdom and passion a student could hope for a teacher to have. “I was someone who didn’t know how to find the path he was on, under his feet,” Chee writes. “This, it seems to me, is why we have teachers.” This passage reminded me to be grateful for the just as amazing writing teachers I’ve been lucky enough to work with, namely my college short story professor Candice Stover and beautiful soul writer-teacher Anne Liu Kellor at Hugo House.

In “100 Things About Writing a Novel,” the list-essay (a form which can come off as gimmicky sometimes but works so well here) includes these:

  1. Once you have finished a draft, revising it turns something like laundry into something like Christmas.
  2. The first draft is a scaffolding, torn down to discover what grows underneath it.
  3. The first draft is a chrysalis of guesses.

I mean !!! It’s so earnest and beautiful. I’m so here for it.

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel christmas read

Chee also brings the reader on journeys through tarot, rose gardening (“The Rosary” is one of my favorite essays I’ve ever read, right up there with the titular “Abandon Me” by Melissa Febos), drag, ACT UP and Queer Nation activism in 1980s/90s San Francisco during the AIDS epidemic, sexual abuse, gay/queer identity, the maisonette (a new word for me) of William F. Buckley, and the 2016 election, among other things.

This writing is curious and insightful. It is vulnerable and prismatic. It’s spare when it needs to be and unfurls into the poetic to engage the heart. As an aside, in “The Autobiography of my Novel,” Chee includes such a perfect vignette of a Maine childhood that I cried for the 40th time while reading this. (I’m from Maine, so).


Another thing that made these essays resonate so much with me is how much I felt like I was not only reading Alexander Chee; I was being read by him. Who among us can’t relate to “The Rosary’s” the metaphor of the rose garden:

Perhaps all of it is true. The rose as love gift, stained by the god or the giver, the first secret of them all.

In any case, the lesson we can take, I think, is: Plant a rose, wait for a message. Be it earthly or divine.

The more they are cut back, the faster they grow and the stronger they are. My role models at last.

You can lose more than you thought possible and still grow back, stronger than anyone imagined.


Or this insight about healing from trauma from “The Guardians”:

I was proud of it. I had endured, I told myself. I was so strong. But this is not strength. It is only endurance.

You imagine the worst thing is that someone would know. The attention you need to heal you have been taught will end you. And it will — it will end the pain you have mistaken for yourself. The worst thing is not that someone would know. The worst thing is that you might lay waste to your whole life by hiding.


Or, if you’ve ever thought about gender at all (and I hope you have), this passage from “Girl” that originally made me cry in that sweaty room of plastic chairs and book enthusiasts in the Portland Art Museum back in November:

My friends in San Francisco at this time, we call each other “girl…” My women friends call each other “girl” too, and they say it sometimes like they are a little surprised at how much they like it. When we say it, the word is like a stone we pass one to the other: the stone thrown at all of us. And the more we catch it and pass it, it seems the less it can hurt us, the more we know who our family is now. Who knows us, and who doesn’t. It is something like a bullet turned into something like a badge of pride.

What a way to go out on a bang with 2018 reading. This is one I’ll be returning to, for sure, sitting on my favorites shelf next to Melissa Febos’ Abandon Me, Kiese Laymon’s Heavy, Thomas Page McBee’s Amateur, and everything by Jesmyn Ward, Virginia Woolf, and Roxane Gay. I highly recommend this book to anyone and everyone, especially if you’ need a book that will be good for your heart.

I am a Book Depository affiliate. If you purchase the books mentioned in the piece above via the links provided, I will receive a very small commission. 

Sarah Neilson
<p>Reading mainly own voices books, usually in the genres of memoir, literary fiction, nonfiction and poetry. I love reading and hope you'll find some great reviews here!</p>

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