A precise and candid set of essays from the novelist Chee (English and Creative Writing/Dartmouth Coll.; The Queen of the Night, 2016, etc.) about life, writing, and how each sustains the other.
This collection wasn’t planned as a conventional memoir. However, arranged to cover the author’s life from adolescence to the present day, it possesses a loose arc and consistent set of throughlines. One is Chee’s status as a gay Amerasian man, which has energized him as a pro–LGBT activist and liberated him as a person; the counterweights, though, are the friends lost to AIDS and the professional doors closed to him. (His first gay-themed novel had a hard time selling due to its subject matter.) Another throughline is Chee’s struggle to launch his writing career, and he’s engagingly blunt about the labor that serious writing demands and the money that’s often lacking anyway. At his most spirited, in “My Parade,” he rebuts the dismissive clichés about MFA programs and how they’re often born of a writer’s fear of confronting the emotional honesty the job requires. “The only things you must have to become a writer,” he writes, “are the stamina to continue and a wily, cagey heart in the face of extremity, failure, and success.” Even Chee’s detours don’t stray far from his core concerns: working as a cater-waiter for William F. Buckley and his wife demanded emotionally balancing a certain jealousy of their lifestyle and contempt for his homophobia, while tending a rose garden in his dreary Brooklyn apartment serves as a metaphor for the ordered disorder of writing a novel. What truly unifies these pieces, though, is the author’s consistent care with words and open-hearted tone; having been through emotional and artistic wars, he’s produced a guidebook to help others survive them too.
Deserving of a place among other modern classic writers’ memoirs like Stephen King’s On Writing and Chee’s mentor Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life.