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How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays

4.43  ·  Rating details ·  7,403 ratings  ·  1,079 reviews
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is the author’s manifesto on the entangling of life, literature, and politics, and how the lessons learned from a life spent reading and writing fiction have changed him. In these essays, he grows from student to teacher, reader to writer, and reckons with his identities as a son, a gay man, a Korean American, an artist, an activist, ...more
Paperback, 277 pages
Published April 17th 2018 by Mariner Books
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Alexander I've read biographies that begin with the parents of a subject, in fact. The beginning can be quite far back.…moreI've read biographies that begin with the parents of a subject, in fact. The beginning can be quite far back.(less)

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Dec 31, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Nuanced, sophisticated, intelligent, intimate, sincere essays about writing, identity, and being alive.
Justin Tate
Jun 27, 2019 rated it really liked it
Lest there be any confusion, this is not a book on how to write an autobiographical novel. It is, however, an excellent example of how to write a collection of essays. The book's title comes from a very short essay (5 pages or so) where Chee recounts the challenges of writing a novel that drew heavily from painful experiences. Otherwise, this is a delightfully rendered collage of key moments and reflections from Chee's life. For writer nerds, there are wonderful segments where he describes his t ...more
A vulnerable and moving essay collection that kept me up well past midnight thinking about writing, writing, writing. A successful novelist, Alexander Chee shares his personal life in these essays about growing up as both Korean and white, about his work as an activist in the queer community, about his relationship with writing, and more. As a gay Asian American, I related to quite a bit in How to Write an Autobiographical Novel; my own stomach coiled when Chee wrote about one of his first lusts ...more
May 15, 2018 rated it really liked it
Shelves: 2018, recs
Conversational, but thoughtful, Alexander Chee earnestly engages with the world in How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, his memoir about coming of age and becoming a writer. Chee moves at a measured pace in these essays, steadily drifting from subject to subject, scene to scene, memory to memory. He seems less interested in establishing definitive centers for his essays than in exploring a wide range of topics, making his work read as expansive and open minded; a concept groups together each ...more
Julie Ehlers
Things started off really well between Alexander Chee and me. I loved reading about his childhood and family issues, how he decided to go into writing, his early class with Annie Dillard, his experiences with an AIDS activist group after college. The writing was spectacular, intelligent and engaging. But then things got a little iffy: I thought some of his observations about class and about the power of [extremely conventional] female beauty were too simplistic, and I, a long-lapsed Catholic, wa ...more
Jessica Woodbury
I do not read many books of essays even though I read a lot of essays online. There's a big difference between reading one personal essay and reading over a dozen by the same person, there are not many writers I trust that much. But I do trust Alexander Chee that much and my trust yielded significant dividends with this beautiful, complex, and moving collection.

With an entire book of mostly quite personal essays you may wonder how a person may have this much to say and not just write a memoir. I
Manuel Betancourt
May 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I don’t think I’ll read a more passionate defense (and excoriation) of the practice of writing. Wrestling with what it means to write and to be a writer, Chee has gifted us with a collection of essays sure to be read and re-read for years to come. As practical advice it delivers. As memoir it dazzles. As both at the same time it astounds.
This is an amazing, diverse collection of personal essays. Topics range from a teenage summer spent in Mexico, to getting really into tarot, becoming a writer, the HIV / AIDS epidemic, identities of being Korean American and gay, being a student and a teacher, childhood sexual abuse, and lots more. I loved his voice and how he got to the heart of big issues while sometimes writing ostensibly about smaller, everyday things. Excellently read with precision and feeling as an audiobook.

Some favourit
Mar 30, 2019 rated it really liked it
"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."

This book of essays, which now includes pink and yellow highlights for easy referencing, has left quite a few in
Spencer Orey
May 16, 2021 rated it it was amazing
I for some reason was expecting a bit more of a writing craft book, but the essays here are fantastic and touching. The collection taken together is a bracing look at the writing life and what it looks like trying to make a career out of writing these days, examined through personal stories. Emotional, thoughtful, and one of those books I can imagine giving to a lot of people.
Well, shit.

Look, I put off reading this because there's something about the cover that really pisses me off. Maybe it's the red border. Maybe it's the black-and-white photobooth photo of the author as a young man, the cocky face and tilt of the head. But something about it rubs me the wrong way and I didn't want to admit it might be a good book, especially because I've heard nothing but good things about it.

Dammit, it's a really good book.

This is my first experience with Chee's writing but it wo
Read By RodKelly
Mar 19, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Alexander Chee has totally changed my feeling about essays with this collection. I've not had the best luck connecting with an essay collection from start to finish (besides those of the incredible Thomas Glave and Zadie Smith), but the depth of emotion imbued in Chee's writing sets him a world apart from many other writers who tend to be stronger in one form than in others. No matter the medium or form, Chee is an author who aspires to beauty at all costs, which is quite brave in a world which ...more
Joseph Cassara
May 21, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: faves
This book spoke to me on so many levels. It is impossible to overstate just how much I loved these essays!

I have waited so long for a book like this—something that could speak to my heart, mind, and soul. If only this were around when I was in high school...

I have a feeling that this will be one of the books that I re-read every year or two.
Sep 21, 2019 rated it really liked it
Chee delineates the arc of his life through these essays, affecting and honest and open, with an overall effect that’s hard to achieve. I was most moved by the third-to-last and the final essays, especially their approach to trauma (his own), and how memory and identity and one’s permanent sense of self are affected by childhood abuse.
Jun 03, 2019 rated it really liked it
Shelves: audiobook, essays
A strong collection of autobiographical essays. These essays fit together so well - Chee writes about his life and about the writing life. Each essay reveals something new. I really enjoyed Chee's style- he writes as if talking to a friend. ...more
Wanted to like this more than I did. My attention often wandered while I was listening to it, and I'm not really sure why. Wish I had more to say, but I don't so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

(PS: my 100th book of the year!!!!!!!!!)

Michael Livingston
Jul 22, 2020 rated it really liked it
I was completely blown away by some of the essays in this collection - Chee's writing on memory, activism, queerness and politics is phenomenal. He's thoughtful, engaging, funny and smart - just excellent literary company. The book was slightly heavy on writing about writing for my tastes - I loved the short essay about what Chee learned from Annie Dillard, but a few of the later pieces felt more like teaching exercises than essays for a wider audience. Still: highly recommended. ...more
Nov 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Having read The Queen of the Night, I was enticed to read Chee's latest collection of essays, but not really knowing what I was getting myself into. I am not sure if I as a non writer is the intended audience for a book largely looking at the events, choices and processes that turned Chee into who he is today as an author. That said, the collection of essays was eye openinng, offering insight into both the mundane thoughts writers work through as they construct their work, but also into the pain ...more
Jan 14, 2020 rated it really liked it
Alexander Chee opens himself up to the reader offering a look into his writing world as well as his personal life. He is quite open about his sexuality and his activism in the queer community, he openly talks about the loss of close friends during the Aids epidemic during the height of the Aids crisis while living in San Francisco and the deep impact those loses made on him. Some past trauma, a major family tragedy and his personal troubles with depression all shape him to be the vulnerable and ...more
Dec 01, 2018 rated it really liked it
3.5 stars.

I absolutely loved some of the essays in this collection, and could have done without others. Most of the essays are long and meandering; however, they typically come to an enlightening and moving conclusion. I also found myself inspired to write by some of the author's essays.

Worth reading if you can add one more book to your teetering TBR pile.
Kevin Bertolero
Apr 25, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: lgbt
"I wanted to write a novel that would take a reader by the collar and run. And yet I was drawn to writing stories in which nothing happened."

lol same bro
May 14, 2019 rated it really liked it
I loved most of these essays, I felt like they were written by someone close to me. I had never read anything by alexander Chee, and I love that he mentions Annie Dillard, since she is a writer I have enjoyed reading very much. His attitude is that of a teacher, and I loved that. I will have to read his novels too. He speaks about his life as a Korean-american, as a gay writer, an activist for AIDS victims, his different jobs, his passion for writing. Truly a great read.
Nov 09, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: own
A little backstory here so it's (hopefully) clear I wasn't predisposed to dislike this book: I knew nothing about the author except that his novels had been well-received and sounded interesting. I picked up "How to Write..." based on the strength of the first few pages. After finishing, I still believe the first essay is the strongest of the book. In it, Chee describes the summer he spent in Mexico as part of an exchange program with other high school students from Maine. The writing in this pa ...more
Katie Devine
May 01, 2018 rated it it was amazing
More so than any recent book I can remember, Alexander Chee's How To Write An Autobiographical Novel has changed the way I read, the way I think, and hopefully, the way I write. This is a must-read for anyone attempting to find and articulate truth on the page. But it's also a must-read for anyone attempting to make their way through a world that tells them, something is wrong with you, something is strange about you, something, anything about you. This book is a gift, and I will continue to tre ...more
Oct 11, 2020 rated it really liked it
A writer pulls back the curtain on his life and invites the public to browse. Self-analysis, self-discovery, self-deception, self-invention, self-reliance, self-promotion, self-forgiveness...and all of it literary. Chee's talent and strength of character carry the day.

3.5 stars
Carolee Wheeler
Apr 19, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Breathe in this sadness, kindness, compassion, pain, and uncertainty. Breathe out. Breathe in. This is a beautiful collection.
It is a humbling, awe-inspiring thing to be invited into the mind of a writer of Alexander Chee's caliber. What I most appreciate about these essays is how consistently Chee holds any claims to virtuosity at arm's length. His prose is intensely beautiful, intensely moving, but he also shows the rigor that goes into the magic trick, the work of knowing one's self. With this generous, self-revelatory collection, he has given a tremendous gift to us all.

Katherine Addison
In a lot of ways, this collection of essays IS an autobiographical novel, told out of sequence and very subtly. You have to be watching the details to see what he's doing.

Chee is a literary writer, and it always amazes me to get a glimpse into that world, where novels are expected to take years to write (as opposed to commercial publishing, where publishers would really like authors to produce a book a year) and the thematics of the novel are almost more important than the story. Writing a novel
Alanna Why
Jan 29, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
Two weeks ago, I picked up this essay collection by Alexander Chee from the Drawn & Quarterly store in Montreal and instantly, all of the other books I am reading right now got mad at me for ignoring them in favour of this. I have gotten weirdly good at buying books on a whim and having them turn out to be exactly what I need to read at the time. I haven't read Chee's novels yet, but I recognized his name from an essay he wrote that I loved from last year's edition of Best Americian Essays. How ...more
Ingrid Contreras
Dec 29, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Organized around the nature of writing and the basic operation of the craft of story, this is a book about life itself. I believe in this book so much I find myself opening it at random as if it were an oracle.
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