Alexander Chee reads an excerpt from his new essay collection, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, published by Mariner Books in April.
The Autobiography of My Novel
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. But learning this was still ahead of me.
I knew what I thought was normal for a first novel, but every first novel is the answer to the question of what is normal for a first novel. Mine came to me in pieces at first, as if it were once whole and someone had broken it and scattered it inside me, hiding until it was safe for it to be put back together. In the time before I understood that I was writing this novel, each time a piece of it emerged, I felt as if I’d received a strange valentine from a part of me that had a very different relationship to language than the me that walked around, had coffee with friends, and hoped for the best out of every day. The words felt both old and new, and the things they described were more real to me when I reread them than the things my previous sentences had tried to collect inside them.
And so while I wrote this novel, it didn’t feel like I could say that I chose to write this novel. The writing felt both like an autonomic process, as compulsory as breathing or the beat of the heart, and at the same time as if an invisible creature had moved into a corner of my mind and begun building itself, making visible parts out of things dismantled from my memory, summoned from my imagination. I was spelling out a message that would allow me to talk to myself and to others. The novel that emerged was about things I could not speak of in life, in some cases literally. I would lie, or I would feel a weight on my chest as if someone was sitting there. But when the novel was done, I could read from it. A prosthetic voice.
Prior to this, my sentences were often criticized in writing workshops for being only beautiful, and lacking meaning. I felt I understood what they meant, and worked to correct it, but didn’t really think about what this meant until the novel was done.
I’d once organized my life, my conversation, even my sentences, in such a way as to never say what I was now trying to write. I had avoided the story for years with all the force I could bring to bear—intellectual, emotional, physical. Imagine a child’s teeth after wearing a gag for thirteen years. That is what my sentences were like then, pushed in around the shape of a story I did not want to tell, but pointing all the same to what was there.
I have a theory of the first novel now, that it is something that makes the writer, even as the writer makes the novel. That it must be something you care about enough to see through to the end. I tell my students all the time: writing fiction is an exercise in giving a shit—an exercise in finding out what you really care about. Many student writers become obsessed with aesthetics, but I find that is usually a way to avoid whatever it is they have to say. My first novel was not the first one I started. It was the first one I finished. Looking at my records, I count three previous unfinished novels; pieces of one of them went into this first one. But the one I finished, I finished because I asked myself a question.
What will you let yourself know? What will you allow yourself to know?
Excerpted from How to Write an Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee. Copyright © Alexander Chee, 2018. Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.