The title of Alexander Chee's collection of essays, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, is a joke. Chee is well-known for his first novel, the semi-autobiographical Edinburgh, and his second novel, The Queen of the Night, which came out in 2016. But the new essay collection is not a "how-to" guide, as the title suggests. As you read each of Chee's engrossing, smart, insightful, intimate, moving, responsibly adventurous, somewhat meditative, even occasionally luscious, but never boring essays, you quickly learn that Life itself has been his greatest writing teacher. (Though Annie Dillard didn't hurt.) So what advice does Chee have for writers? I asked him.
Let's begin with a game. I will present you with a cliché about writing, and you tell me if you agree with it or disagree. The first: "Write what you know."
Write what you know as a first draft, and then question all of it. Report it, even. One of the things I learned in putting the collection together is that the things I needed to research the most were the things I thought I did not need to. Those parts are usually where your blind spots hide.
"Write to discover."
Is that a cliché?
No, but you know what I mean.
I wish it was! I think that's something that has been left behind in what gets taught about writing. You can write to figure something out. It's something I have to teach my writers at an undergraduate level. I have an assignment where I have my fiction students make list of things they need to know for their short stories, and then I send them to the library.
"Tell the story only you can tell."
I don't know that there's anything else to do but that. I call it the "Be Your Own Freak" method.
Do you recommend a writing regimen? A daily practice?
What I recommend—how do I put this? I have to remind myself to stand up, make food, go do other things, talk to my husband, go to the gym. What I recommend for my students is a daily living practice, where they try to act like ordinary people and also get the writing done.
Let's say I just wanted to flirt with the idea of becoming a writer. What simple habit of mind should I adopt?
It's difficult, but I try to keep a diary. There are things you tell yourself first that really matter. Those things are usually obscured in this culture of "sharing."
You're coming to Hugo House on April 23. You also came to Seattle last year with your second novel. What do you like about Seattle?
It's a beautiful place with delicious food, and the library there looks a Hilton hotel. It's great to see people really spend money on a library. I love all the neon signs, too. If I lived in Seattle, I would have a neon sign in my window. I don't know what it would say.