30 January, 2023

Litstack Recs | How to Write an Autobiographical Novel & When Women Were Dragons

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays, by Alexander Chee

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“Writing is a way of going to the depth of Being,” wrote Marguerite Yourcenar, and the sixteen essays that make up Alexander Chee’s 2018 memoir are at their heart about writing—but they are also about striving to succeed as a writer, reconciling the pain and trauma of the past, building home and literary community, and learning the craft from inimitable teachers such as Annie Dillard and Deborah Eisenberg.

In this collection of contemplative essays, the author dives deep, mining personal and literary history to reveal the self that drives the work. These essays chronicle Chee’s life growing up mixed race, a childhood spent with his father’s family in Korea, his subsequent struggle with the loss of his father, coming of age and coming out, his AIDS activism, and growing into one’s self as a literary citizen and mentor.

Chee is the author of two novels, and the recipient of a Whiting Award, an NEA Fellowship, as well as fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the VCCA, Civitella Ranieri and Amtrak. An associate professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College, Chee includes much here to instruct young writers (“You want vivid writing. How do we get vivid writing? Verbs, first. Precise verbs. All the action on the page, everything that happens, happens in the verbs.”). There is also solace for those who have faced trauma:

Most people misunderstand the crime of sexual abuse. They think of stolen youth, a child tucked under the arm and spirited away. But it isn’t like someone entering your house and stealing something from you. Instead, someone leaves something with you that grows until it replaces you.

How to Write An Autobiographical Novel is an intensely empathetic and personal work, and there is much here for writers new and seasoned, especially regarding examining the path a writer takes as he learns to tap into both the work and the self. On this latter point especially, Chee unblinkingly documents how survivors of trauma confront memory to work toward both a healed self, and a writing self, that is whole.

Lauren Alwan


  • TS Tate

    Tee received a Master of Arts in English in 2008 from Southeastern Louisiana University. She has studied under Edgar nominee Tim Gautreaux, Booksense Pick novelist Bev Marshall and Clarion West graduate and World Fantasy nominee, Cat Rambo. She has more than ten years of documentation and editing experience and is currently the Editor-in-Chief at LitStack.com.   She has spent the past nine years in the corporate environment as a Technical Editor and has previously edited for Christine Rose, Phoebe North, Heather McCorkle, Laura Pauling, Anne Riley, Christine Fonseca and UF writer Carolyn Crane. With Heather McCorkle, Tee co-founded the #WritersRoad chat on Twitter.  In addition, she is working on several creative projects, including her second novel and various short stories. Her flash fiction, "Street Noises," was included in the Pill Hill Press anthology "Daily Frights 2012: 366 Days of Dark Flash Fiction (Leap Year Edition)" and her short "Til Hunt Be Done," was included in the Winter Wonders anthology from Compass Press.  A diehard New Orleans Saints fan, Tee lives with her family in Southeast Louisiana.