Book Reviews

Book Review: Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel

One thing I learned from Chee: no honest writer can simply write “what happened.” Especially diving into his later essays, one learns while reading “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel” that writing is not mere reflection or a detailing of facts. Honest writing—true writing—is itself action. And it is no less action than the events described. 

I realized this most deeply in his essay “The Guardians,” where one feels not only the pain of a historical trauma but also the struggle of a writer to work things into words. The writing itself aches and is pained at times in a way that sets it apart from his opening essays, which feel in comparison a much more removed reflection on times abroad and tarot card reading. 

And the writing particularly in “The Guardians” is so effective that it is not only action of the writer, but action of the reader as well, at least in my case where I felt my own aching and a struggle to bring Chee’s writing into myself. Chee’s writing induced struggle through the memories and emotions it brought to life in my own world of reading on the train to work. I thus felt a threefold activity: that of the historical person written about in his essay, that of the writer fighting with himself for the accounting of a history, and that of the reader having his own struggle with this encounter. Chee’s writing is thus a multilayered theater where it is not always clear who is watching, who is performing, and who is producing. Book buyers beware.

Aside from this strange magic, you can find so many things in this essay collection. Chee’s essay on growing and loving and learning about roses is just as lovely and moving as any story about raising children. His reflections as a writer will exhort struggling writers to persevere and find inspiration. I was especially happy to see him share advice originally received from Annie Dillard. His tales of being a young gay man in San Francisco will make modern history come alive and make you want to change the world, even if only by printing fake newspaper pages and wrapping thousands of copies of the local paper in them by night. Pick up “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel” if you want to spend time with some excellent writing, if you’d like to wander life with a thoughtful explorer, or both.

You can order a copy here.


Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops. 

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