Using the materials of your life in fiction and nonfiction
Welcome to The Querent, by Alexander Chee. I am most recently the author of the essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. It wasn’t a how to book. But now I am actually working on a book about writing, created out of lectures I’ve given over the years, and as I put that together, I will offer, through this newsletter, a mix of essays and stories from my archives, writing advice, writing prompts, and letters to readers on what I’m reading and writing.
The first month of this Substack is free. I’ll be answering questions I received after my recent class, Thief of Lives, offered at the Shipman Agency’s Work Room, and then I will grow what’s offered here. The answers to writing questions posts will be available for free. Paid subscribers will have access to what will become the chapters of that book and much more.
I thought I’d begin by offering a prompt I came up with while listening to a conversation between Jean Kyoung Frazier and Alice Sola Kim, at Books Are Magic’s Zoom event for Frazier’s hilarious and moving debut novel, Pizza Girl. Alice had asked her about the book’s origins and she spoke of a girlfriend, horrified by how much email she had unanswered in her inbox. So she went in to her inbox to begin deleting things, and soon found herself rereading her own emails from 2010. She found a voice—her own, of course—but there was something she found herself wanting to work with—a tone, and in the tone, a sense of an era, and a place. Thus was Pizza Girl born.
The writing prompt here, then: Find a line or two you wrote at least ten years ago, in an email or letter. Something you wrote when you weren’t necessarily thinking of it as ‘writing.’ Look for a tone that catches at you. That carries something you find missing now. And then write it down as a first line and try writing for fifteen minutes without stopping, filling it in with what seems to be missing.
At the end of that fifteen minutes, ask yourself some questions: What have I found? Who is this speaker/character? Is this something I want to continue with? The question this prompt really asks is: Can you make a character for a story out of who you were then? Or even who you thought you were, or who you meant to be? And if you do so, is that character for an essay, say—or a memoir? Or is it better for a story, or a novel?
I am trying it now, and what I see so far is how intensely utilitarian my correspondence had become by 2010. People wrote asking me to readings or asking me to read for them or asking me for a letter, or an evaluation. Or I was doing the same, as I was on the job market, applying for jobs and residencies, as my time as a visiting writer at Amherst College had come to an end—a post I had happily, for four years. I was meanwhile overcommitted to too many underpaid or unpaid online writing projects while also trying to finish my second novel, and I can see the exhaustion in the clipped nature of each message.
2010 was the year I moved in with the man who would become my husband, and he told me I couldn’t commit to writing essays that paid me just $200 anymore, as they took too much out of me. He told me this after I’d written this essay, about e-readers, that I’ll be including in my next essay collection. And it is true that once I began turning down those lower-paid essays, I did begin earning more for my writing elsewhere. I don’t know if there’s a story in here yet, but there is a portrait of me I can make into an essay about being a writer surviving capitalism—the crisis of living to write or writing for a living. And I did find a link to this beautiful Amitav Ghosh essay, “The March of the Novel Through Time: The Testimony of My Grandfather’s Bookcases.”