When I started reading Alex Chee’s “How to write an autobiographical novel” I had no idea what I was getting into. I had never heard of the author. I was browsing through one of the best-of-2018 books section of a website when, under the title, “Books about the life of a writer”, Alex Chee appeared.
Personally, I have always enjoyed essays written by mainstream authors because they give you an insight on what affects them and the situations that shaped them. Amitav Ghosh’s essays are point in case – one such, “The Ghosts of Mrs Gandhi”, detailing about the author’s personal experiences on the day Mrs Indira Gandhi was assassinated and what happened thereafter, makes compelling reading.
Alexander Chee’s essays though, dwell much deeper and broader. He recounts his days – as an adolescent, as a student, then, as a gay, an HIV/AIDS activist, a waiter, a writer and everything in between. There’s New York, Iowa and there’s the September 11 attacks. Along the way there are questions asked on what it is to be a writer in the aftermath of the 2016 US Presidential elections. Between all of this, there’s writing advice – on what shaped him as writer and what it means to be one.
The title of the book hints at a work that sounds preachy though it is anything but. In the guise of a help-book for writers, Alex has laid bare his vulnerabilities and insecurities while looking back, drawing wisdom. He repeatedly refers to his first novel, the critically acclaimed “Edinburgh”, which is actually an autobiographical novel. In his essays, he taps into his formal – and informal education, that made him a writer. For example, working as a waiter, he notes:
“Waiting tables was not just a good living, but also a good education in people. I saw things I never would have imagined, an education in life out past the limits of my own social class. Your imagination needs to be broken in, I think, to become anywhere near as weird as the world.”
Here Alex hints on how the imagination is esentially limited – it is not much beyond the contrasting realities that a person has ever faced in his/her life. Waiting tables was an education, in the sense that he faced realities that broadened his perspective and thus, his imagination.
At Weseleyan University, having Annie Dillard as a mentor greatly affected Alex’s writing. One of the things that she taught her students was to deep dive within themselves to write reflective prose:
“Annie Dillard, in my nonfiction class at Wesleyan, had warned us that writing about the past was like submerging yourself in a diving bell: you took yourself down to the bottom of your own sea. You could get the bends. You had to take care not to let the past self take over, the child with the child’s injuries, the child’s perceptions. “All of us were picked on, growing up,” she said. “Come up before that happens.””
On a personal note, this section of the book had a profound effect on me. Having done some reflective writing myself, I knew exactly what Dillard meant – You need to go into your own personal dark abyss and relive those situations to reflect deep and make prose out of it. The night I read this, I slept thinking about it. That night, I had a very vivid dream – I was back in Pune, India. I found myself looking out on the shores of the Ganesh visarjan ghats in Pune, a place where me and my then-girlfriend (my only heartbreak) used to spend time together. In my dream I was wandering aimlessly, it was dark and I was asking aloud: Do you remember that boy and the girl who used to visit this place in the early dark hours of the morning? Have you seen them lately? Where are they?
I had led myself to the bottom of my own sea.
The latter chapters of the book are also the most intense and bring about serious forthcoming advice for writers. In one of the last chapters of the book, Chee recalls how, after the result of the 2016 presidential elections, a dismayed student asked him what was the point of writing, if such a thing could happen.
The author admits he had no idea what to say. But as evident, he spends a lot of time thinking over finding that answer. There’s so much to that answer that any summary would be an injustice but the crux of it is this – The point of writing is the possibility that it could be read and broaden the limits of the imagination of who reads it.
This is a book that should be in every bookshelf. It is not a book that teaches us how to write. Instead it gives us something far more important – it teaches us how to think.