Posed in a rousing essay, approximately 200 pages into Alexander Chee’s new collection, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, this question fuels the book’s galvanic drive, naming its thematic core. To ask and then answer it, Chee suggests, is to become a writer.
The question is also nearly impossible to answer, but so be it. Chee accepts the challenge as he chronicles his attempts both to write his debut novel, the award-winning coming-of-age tale Edinburgh — a project for which he felt woefully unprepared — and to fashion a self in and for and through writing. In place of the imperative structure characteristic of so many craft books that cheerfully promise a way forward, that evince a comfortable universe of coherent rules and achievable outcomes, Chee offers instead the roundabout and the recursive, the indirect and stubbornly nonlinear. His essays are an invitation not to review the rules of writing, but to trace a unique pathway into knowledge and being in and through writing.
“The Curse,” the book’s opening essay, chronicles Chee’s experience as a 15-year-old exchange student in Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Mexico, a town close to the border of Guatemala, where he lives with a wealthy family and spends his days watching telenovelas with their cook while learning to speak Spanish. Chee is an adroit observer and skillfully sketches a sequence of scenes through a teenager’s point of view as it evolves across the summer. There’s a sumptuousness in Chee’s writing, a confident acumen that forgoes high drama in favor of amicable ease. The young man contemplates a series of small revelations — his attraction to another exchange student at the local swimming pool, a growing dislike for English as a language spoken by tourists on field trips, and, perhaps most significantly, the role of writing in his life.
On this last point, Chee explains that he began producing stories as a way to pass the time. Looking back, he realizes that this was the first writing that he had done just for himself. “There was something I wanted to feel, and I felt it only when I was writing,” he explains. “I think of this as one of the most important parts of my writer’s education — that when left alone with nothing else to read, I began to tell myself the stories I wanted to read.” This serves as a lesson, then: write for pleasure, tell the stories you want to read. If you like that feeling, repeat.
Chee complicates his observation about the role of writing in his life by pointing in the next paragraph to the story he was actually living, one in which the refractive experiences of both attraction and otherness — sexual, racial — in an unfamiliar national context illuminate just how unhappy he was in his real life back in New England as a kid growing up mixed race and queer. “Whatever I thought I was doing through my experiments in observation, I can see I was a boy losing himself as a way to find himself in the shapes of others,” he writes. To see if he can fool visitors to his host family’s home one weekend, Chee pretends to be a mestizo, “Alejandro from Tijuana.” He succeeds, and revels in a cathartic sense of freedom. He writes, “In Maine, my background — half white, half Korean — was constantly made to seem alien, or exotic, or somehow inhuman. In Mexico, I was only mestizo, ordinary at first glance.” He continues, reflecting on the difference, “When people looked at me, they saw me, and they didn’t stare at me as if at an object, the way my fellow American classmates did.” Chee’s felicitous new identity crumbles quickly though, especially as he prepares to return home. It will take several more decades of getting lost, and then writing his way back to himself, before Chee fathoms the significance of writing as a means for understanding who he is.
Another new book about writing, Betwixt-and-Between: Essays on the Writing Life by Jenny Boully, resembles Chee’s in its resistance to prescriptive instruction and the authoritative pedagogical impulse in favor of sketching edges and contours of what it means both to write and to be. Boully earned notoriety in 2003 when her piece, “The Body: An Essay,” was selected for inclusion in John D’Agata’s collection, The Next American Essay. It consisted of a number of footnotes annotating a nonexistent text: the body of “The Body” is absent. This curious form prompted D’Agata to muse on the lyric essay, noting that it “asks what happens when an essay begins to behave less like an essay and more like a poem,” which in turn helped identify a new literary form as writers increasingly engaged in this compositional misbehavior.
In her 2011 book, not merely because of the unknown that was stalking toward them, Boully continued to muddy generic boundaries, weaving a story of desire in and out of the work of J. M. Barrie. The result is both a critical analysis that interweaves quotations from Peter and Wendy with Boully’s own poetic text to ponder what it means for Wendy to love someone who will never grow up. Boully divides the pages in half with a black line, and titles the lower half of the page “The Home Underground,” which is where Peter Pan is from. The upper half of the page contains her critical reimagining of the story, with grown-ups; the lower half is a magical space, a kind of subconscious arena. As readers, we must decide how to read these two different stories, whether to read each page, or to read the upper half, and then the lower. Querying how we read — including something as simple as how we navigate across the page — constitutes a major part of Boully’s work overall.
The first of the book’s 19 essays, “the future imagined, the past imagined,” continues questioning assumptions, now about the writer and her relationship to what is written, by playing with form. The piece is more like an incantation than an essay for its rhythmic cadence and cyclical repetition of key phrases, which gain new meaning with each recurrence. The chapter begins by considering “the writing life,” and the desire to be part of the world seen, but somehow always feeling separate from it. Boully writes, “I refuse to see that the mirror too is glass, a window, a glass with a thin sheet on which I am written, a sheet that keeps the inside in. To be a part of it is to be apart from it.” The piece ponders time and pulses with the repetitions of prosaic cycles — the seasons, shifting from summer to autumn; the body, from health to illness; the family, with its rotations of parents and children and then more children. Woven through the temporal patterns, however, is a course thread of melancholy that interrupts easy interpretations of the text and its metaphors. This will not be the pipe and ink Writing Life of our cultural imagination. The narrator writes, but nothing seems to get written, and yet there exist fragments of writing. The narrator may or may not be taking anti-depressants, but there are bottles of pills, empty, evidence, but of what? The narrator dreams and wakes, but cannot discern dreaming from waking. “The present tense is all about immediate feelings,” she writes,
about wanting and lack. The present tense is about things that you don’t notice until you can’t help but notice them. The present tense is for when you are in your living room crying and the person you love is somehow a part of that, and suddenly there are two possibilities, and the present tense is telling you that you have to choose.
This is a woozy writing crafted in cycles and slippages, in repetition with minor variances. It is, well, life, and the body, repeating, repeating, repeating, like breath and blood, at once inexorably the same and ineffably different. As readers of this writing, then, we do not learn a craft so much as gather and sense, sift and glean, becoming aware through accretion, collection, absorption, rereading. We are not told how to write in clear terms; instead, we are shown what writing actually feels like and what words can be made to do.
How do we learn to write if the process is so personal and hard to codify? Chee and Boully both reflect on their academic training as writers, but much of what they have garnered about the pursuit is through trial and error at their own desks. Even immersed in a creative writing MFA program at University of Iowa, Chee still found practical aspects of the craft elusive. “Perhaps out of a desire not to appear prescriptive, at no point in my education as a writer had my teachers offered specific instruction on the writing of novels and stories,” he writes. Chee learned by tracking clues, “as if I had wandered into a place where everyone already knew what I did not know, and I had to catch up without letting on.”
That does not stop Chee. In fact, stumbling through the creation of Edinburgh seems to be the only way he could have acquired the knowledge necessary for writing it. He began with a collection of seemingly unrelated materials — some unpublished poems, a short story from college, an essay about lighthouses in his hometown. He put the materials together in a binder and announced, “When we get to New York, tell me what you are.” Upon arrival in his new home city, and with input from a friend, he decided the assorted materials might just be an autobiographical novel, and he dove into the project.
As he went, he began to play with writing in both the past and the present tense, and was delighted by their juxtaposition. Inspired by Margaret Atwood’s Cat’s Eye, which is told in alternating points of view, he noticed something strange. “I was interested in this idea of the self brought to a confrontation with the past through the structure of the narration.” He continues with an insight reminiscent of Boully’s: “I found that writing in the present tense acted as self-hypnosis.” He notes, “Discussions of the use of the tense speak often of the effect on the reader, but the effect on the writer is just as important. Using it casts a powerful spell on the writer’s own mind.” By continuing to write his novel in this experimental way, he runs into the central revelation that a key metaphor — his mother who has moved into a new house but, feeling unhappy, never unpacked — conjures his own state of mind as he begins his book. Put bluntly, his story fragments are in a suitcase waiting to be opened. He has all the pieces, but the only way to assemble them is to begin writing. A lot. Pages and pages into the project, Chee begins to find his way, and ultimately, begins to understand the relationship between plot, action, and his own life. “I had written my way there,” Chee marvels, realizing that letting the story unfold was the writing. And this is the beauty modeled by Chee’s book: the act of writing takes the writer to the self. What will you let yourself know?
Boully’s memory of her education centers on constantly being misidentified, and her experience as a published writer — and as a person — similarly centers on being miscategorized. Or just categorized. Her work may or may not be fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, or it may be a mix. Her identity may be Texan or Thai, or both or neither. This ambiguity engenders consternation, and she is asked incessantly to explain herself. She responds, “To be told to choose is to be told that you disrupt the neat notion of where things belong, that you don’t belong.” Boully refuses “the neat notion,” as she should; the tidy, the clear, the known all attain their stature through exclusion and demarcation. What happens when we allow the boundaries to blur, when those categories, especially of race and ethnicity, that are meant to divide instead find coalescence?
At certain points, both Boully and Chee do acquiesce and invoke the imperative. For Boully, the instructional form appears in an essay titled “How to Write on Grand Themes.” However, even here, do not expect a conventional lesson. When she suggests “keep your audience in mind,” for example, she does not mean the vague crowd of faceless readers who might read what you have written. No, she is referring to your beloved: that possibly cruel and indifferent reader who holds (or more likely withholds) the only praise you desire. Addressing the writer as well as the lovelorn, the essay enacts a doubling, interlacing guidance for one with advice to the other. The essay’s subheads capture the drift from the practical — pay particular attention to detail; edit lightly — to the more peculiar — obsess; cry about it; invoke the supernatural. The seepage of instruction among categories yields a reader who, too, slips between ranks, from writer to wounded.
Chee’s formal instruction takes the shape of a list, “100 Things About Writing a Novel.” Thing one: “Sometimes music is needed.” Thing two: “Sometimes silence.” So you see immediately that the list is Borgesian, a limning rather than coherent collecting, its internal structure one of association rather than logic. That said, the list does contain hints of the practical. Number 24: “Once you have finished a draft, revising it turns something like laundry into something like Christmas.” Exactly! And number 25: “The first draft is a scaffolding, torn down to discover what grew underneath it,” followed by number 26: “The first draft as a chrysalis of guesses.” All of this rings true, at once speaking to all writers while revealing Chee’s own specific struggles and revelations.
If this idiosyncratic attention to the self as writer seems hermetic and interior, it is not. Both authors structure the self in loving, wistful relation to others. Recalling years spent as an AIDS activist in San Francisco in the 1980s, for example, Chee chronicles his relationship with another activist, Peter Kelloran, and describes the pair’s first date. After attending a concert, the two men lie down on Chee’s bed, still dressed in their coats and boots. Chee asks Kelloran to lie on top of him. “The weight of him pressed me out,” he recalls. “I felt covered, safe; something dark in me retreated and, for what felt like the first time in the arms of a man, I felt safe.” Chee continues, “Peter stayed there for some time. He may have fallen asleep at some point. And so it is that when I hear stories of how thin he became, I can’t reconcile them with the weight of the boy who pinned me to myself, made me feel the place in me where I attached to the world.” Even in so profound an episode, Chee has us wondering if his experience of finding attachment to the world could have been known and wholly felt without it having been written.
Betwixt-and-Between is haunted by a lost love, a persona (or perhaps a series of figures) who appears and disappears throughout the book; the conflation of writing and loving is direct. In the final essay, “On Beginnings and Endings,” Boully writes, “To begin is to admit an infatuation, a longing, a love,” and she adds a few lines later, “To write is to encounter a love affair.” Writing, loving, and losing braid together, forming and deforming each other in a fractious snarl.
Reaching the end of these two books, we can ask how we ever teach, or learn, to write. Chee and Boully abjure mastery, offering instead a poetics inclined toward both divestiture and discovery. Rather than instruct, they undress. Rather than tutor, they consult tarot cards and practice witchcraft. They have built their own toolkits from snippets of learned direction as much as from angst animated by erasure and racism. And they insist that we read in a similar way, panning through their experiences to find gold, what resonates for each of us. Like the best teachers, they model their principles of instruction, writing us toward a profound and considered sense of being. At one point, Chee identifies the purpose of the entire enterprise: “All of this,” he argues, is “a machine to make yourself more human.”
Holly Willis teaches classes in writing, film, and new media in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California.