It’s official: I have the yips. I finished reading this book three weeks ago, but every time I’ve tried to write a review, I freeze, not because I have nothing to say but because I can’t seem to calm my mind enough to write the review this book deserves.
For you see: Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is my favorite book of the year.
Chee shares essays about his life and writing career, keeping the subjects separate at first, then integrating them more and more as the book progresses. He writes about a summer exchange program in Mexico at age fifteen where he identifies his overwhelming sense of otherness for the first time. He writes about defaulting into an English major in college, his final semester punctuated by Annie Dillard’s non-fiction writing class. He writes about his post-college years as AIDS activist in San Francisco in the late 80’s and early 90’s. He writes about his fateful yet almost cavalier application to MFA programs after his then-boyfriend decided to apply. (Chee got into Iowa. The boyfriend did not. The relationship did not survive.) He writes about his years in New York after grad school, working odd jobs to allow him to write, one of the jobs being cater waiter for parties hosted by Pat and William F. Buckley. He writes about the long process of writing his first published novel based on an incident of sexual abuse in his childhood, and then in the last few essays, he describes his experience of being both writer and teacher.
This book was deeply personal to me. I also experienced a sense of otherness growing up. I also lived in San Francisco in my 20’s and recognized many of the cultural landmarks he mentions, in particular the (sadly extinct) Different Light bookstore in the Castro. I’ve also moved back and forth across the country multiple times for relationships that didn’t work out yet still benefited from taking those risks.
But I most closely identified with his struggle to write about an episode of sexual abuse from his childhood. He describes the long and ongoing journey towards acknowledging the abuse and then, perhaps even more difficult, letting go of self-blame and defensiveness, stressing that he couldn’t write the story until he learned to take the situations but not the events of his own life and turn them into an entirely new story of what would have happened to a fictional character in order to tell a story larger and more universal than his own personal experience.
I’ve been trying for several years to write about my own experience of childhood abuse, but I keep getting stuck, unable to fully surrender my experiences to a fictional character yet also uninterested in writing it as nonfiction. Chee didn’t tell me how to write that story, but he did tell me how I can approach it. I may never finish my book — and even if I do, it may never be published — but for the first time, I feel I have a chance to understand my own story and eventually put it to rest.
That’s the power of Chee’s work here. More than just another memoir or writing manual, it’s something greater: insightful, intimate, universal, and inspiring. As this (terrible in so many ways) year finally limps to an end, Chee’s own words provide a fitting message of defiance and resilience: “But at my worst, for now, I remember that one thing I still control is whether or not I give in. And then I go on.”