Like most queer people, my parents are straight. I was raised in the country, in rural Washington State. We couldn’t get cable, so my dad installed an antenna rotor on our roof to help with the salt-and-pepper static that clouded NBC, but this was before Will & Grace. All I knew about being gay is that it would get you beat up as a kid, and then you’d die from AIDS.
I was in college before I learned how gay men had sex. I’d been attracted to men by then—my first boy-crush was a lanky, tall boy who played basketball in the intramural league it was my campus job to organize. Walking home drunk from a party, a straight man told me that gay men fuck in the ass, but I didn’t believe him. This same straight boy often got too drunk and asked me, slurring his words, to slow dance with him, shirtless.
“What did you think gay men do?” he asked. I was 21. I wanted to fuck men, that much I knew, but I had never thought about how.
If sex between men seemed impossible to imagine, intimacy seemed even more so. Intimacy between men seemed then — like it sometimes seems even now — to be a foreign language spoken in a country where I was only a visitor, dependent on a dictionary even for banalities: ordering an orange juice for breakfast, a gin martini at a bar.
“What did you think gay men do?” Two weeks later, home for spring break, I stuck two fingers inside myself and vowed that, after college, I would end up in a city where I’d be able, finally, to learn.
Alexander Chee, smirking, in black and white, stares at me from the cover of his new book of essays, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. Inside, there is he again, a grid of him, smiling widely here, flirting there, making, in my favorite image, a kissy face. These photos were taken in a photo booth in Iowa, where Chee did his MFA, to send to his then-boyfriend. They’re intimate, sexy, playful, a glimpse into his life and a relationship he had, and lost, decades ago.
Like me, Chee grew up before the internet and in the middle of nowhere. Unlike me, he wasn’t just nerdy and gay—he was also half Korean in a deeply white town. Alexander’s book begins in childhood, but not in his native Maine. We begin abroad, in Mexico, where he finds in his foreignness a sense of belonging he never had at home. This theme—where we belong, and to whom—runs through all the essays in this book, which act as a memoir in pieces rather than individual chapters themselves.
Alexander follows the thread of his life from Maine to college to San Francisco during the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis. He met trauma early in life, with the death of his father, and then grew up into a world where gay men were dying of AIDS.
There is connective tissue between all the work. Although the form changes, from a lyric memoir of a rose garden to a listicle on writing and finishing a novel, the essays return, one after another, to the book’s central questions. The HIV/AIDS Crisis. Chee’s childhood abuse and decision to write through it as a fiction. Trauma and healing. Reading and writing. Loving and breaking our patterns of false love. Making art in a world that undermines, even mocks, art’s value.
Here’s the strength, the brilliance, of Chee’s book. He hints at these things, but then withholds detail until much later. We learn of his abuse in an early chapter about his relationships in his twenties failing. Great writers, particularly ones attuned to plot, don’t put a gun into the hands of a character unless that gun will be fired. We wait, and wait, and years and pages later, the trigger finger finally twitches just far enough. This–and Chee’s trademark, precise-but-wandering sentences–pulls us rapidly through the chapters. But beyond its success as a narrative device, this is what trauma feels like: A loaded gun, always there, without lock or safety, ready, at all times, to go off, to break us, to explode the world we think we’ve safely built.
I kept my promise to myself. I moved to New York in 2006, after college and a year abroad, for a PhD program in Biophysics. I was surprised, although I suppose I shouldn’t have been, to find many gay scientists my age in my program. There weren’t any out gay faculty members, though, nor any faculty members of color at the university. It took some time in this new, big city, but I found many gay friends as well–all my own age—outside of science. In school, I had many mentors, all straight, all scientists, all older. My scientific mentors offered much wisdom, but their advice arrested short of the biology of one particular body: my own.
Queer people often find our kin later in life. We find mentors, those who have survived long enough to have accumulated some wisdom and who are willing to share it to make our own survival a bit easier.
Except when we don’t.
I was born in 1983, a year before HIV was conclusively shown to cause AIDS. When I moved to New York in 2006, it was to a city where the so many gay men five or ten years older than me had not survived a plague. I was 13 in 1996, the year protease inhibitors were added to the drug cocktails to treat AIDS. This is the year the positive started to live.
“I was always having to be what I was looking for in the world,” Alexander writes, “and wishing that the person I would become already existed – some other I before me.” As queer scientists, my friends and I understood this too well.
This sentiment can’t be disconnected from Chee’s race or queerness or his ambition to be a writer. It also can’t be taken out of the context, as he writes earlier in the book, of the HIV crisis. He arrived in San Francisco in 1989 and “had to overcome the false impression that no one like us had ever existed before, because the ones who might have greeted us when we arrived were already dead.”
“We lacked models for bravery and were trying to invent them, as we likewise invented models for loving and for activism.”
I arrived in New York in 2006 with much the same feeling, that the older queer men who might have welcomed me had gone a decade before. My friends and I felt the same way, that we had to invent a way to live because our lives were so different than anything we had been taught.
I didn’t see answers for my questions in the rom-coms I watched growing up. I’d read elegies, tragedies, but I hadn’t read novels about gay people who’d made it, who’d survived. I didn’t see examples lived in the mentors I had in science–while they were often open about their relationships, they looked a lot more like my parents’ marriage than my own messy life, so full of false starts and huge losses. I didn’t see answers. And so, it seemed, me and my friends—all my own age—that we had to make them on our own.
Maybe everyone feels this way, that the lives lived by their parents can’t teach them much about how to live themselves. Maybe, though, this is the curse and the blessing of queerness. Maybe each generation has to reinvent itself outside of the nuclear families we largely come from and into our new queer possibility, a horizon we walk ever toward. My friends and I had to deal with the loss of many of those we might have followed on our journey. I can’t imagine the pain and loss of being in that generation. But I know, too, the loneliness of growing up gay in its wake.
Alexander Chee’s book is a bit of a trick of false advertising. Its title suggests a How to…, and the book almost, kind of, delivers. The title suggests that the book is about writing, and it is about that, but not just that.
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is a remembrance of a life lived and the country it was lived in. Alexander remembers. He remembers the HIV era in a different way than I do. In an early essay in his collection we see him at an illegal demonstration putting his hand on the side of an ambulance that’s holding an injured friend, his hand a signal–to the police–not to harm him as well. A signal that he knew, and that we know, might simply be ignored.
In “After Peter,” an elegy for a lost friend, Chee shares the weight of that time, how bad it could hurt to lose a friend, an acquaintance, an artistic and beautiful young man whose possibility was blotted out so early. “The men I wanted to follow into the future are dead,” Alexander writes. Losing a single friend is “a permanent loss of possibility, so that what is left is only ever better than nothing, but the loss is limitless,” like “stars falling out of the sky and into the sea and gone.”
Alexander lived, and tells that story—one I saw on the news, but the news never felt like much to me. I read “After Peter” for the first time on the plane, sobbing between two strangers, for this young man Peter and his friend Alex who, HIV-positive and HIV-negative, were putting their flesh on the line.
Memory and experience are the nucleation point of wisdom. They’re not sufficient; so many people let the worst moments they live through turn them against themselves, make them hide from intimacy, hiding from seeing themselves honestly. Life becomes a running away. Alexander, according to his book, spent decades like that.
But, he tells his writing students, “pain is information… Pain has a story to tell you. But you have to listen to it.” Alexander’s youthful mistake was believing that money, or success, or love, allowed us to control our suffering. “Money is not power over pain. Facing pain is.”
It would be so easy for gay folks my age, in New York City, in the era of Truvada, to forget the pain and loss of the HIV crisis, a crisis that persists in so many places, still, in this country. The memory of what came before, and the willingness to acknowledge the pain of it, might be the first thing we ask for, that we need, from a mentor.
I first made older gay friends through my writing. In particular, it was my writing on growing up in the aftermath of the AIDS crisis, how the disease changed my relationship to my body, to pleasure. I was living in New York, I was already in my thirties. Gay writers who had survived that time were—they told me—just glad we were still talking about HIV. They were worried about being forgotten.
The first older men who slid into my Facebook inbox wanted what a lot of fake-ass mentors want. One, a poet, invited me to coffee. He came all the way downtown to meet me in the middle of a snowstorm. We flirted in the way that gay men often do, and he hinted again and again at his closeness to so many famous writers, so many literary agents. It became clear that he’d read about a third of one of my essays, which, in his defense, are usually quite long. This was my first indication that he was more interested in me than in my work.
When he texted me to come uptown for Netflix and bad Chinese delivery, I couldn’t even feign surprise. I had a boyfriend then, an easy excuse. When his subtle offers to connect me to agents disappeared, alongside his ability to make eye contact at readings and events, I knew exactly what he had been after.
Many others, though, gave time, gave advice, gave love. And then there was Alex. I met Alex, the flesh of him, at the Tin House Summer Writing Workshop. He was teaching, and two gay men I’d befriended were taking his class.
We became friends quickly, bonding like good homosexuals over rosé after most of the straight faculty and students had gone to bed. Alex had a way of arriving in a conversation, sitting and listening, cracking a few jokes, and then, in a moment of silence, dropping in a perfect nugget of wisdom, the kind that concludes the discussion of that particular topic, for good.
In his craft seminar at the conference, Alex talked slowly, deliberately, with many pauses. His audience leaned forward, leaned toward the language, jotted notes. “A novel,” he said, “is not simply the story of a life.”
A memoir, I wrote in my notes, isn’t that either.
Later that year, my partner dumped me and moved out to take a job abroad. One of the reasons he gave for leaving me was that he was worried that I would write about him, like I’d written about other exes, and he was tired of living that way. I messaged Alex, asking about the relationship between his writing and his love life. From reading his essays, including the ones that are now collected in this book, I knew he’d written about former loves and lovers.
“I deal with things,” I said, “by writing through them.”
“It sounds like you have a writing process that is hard to survive, and it makes me concerned,” Alex wrote to me. He instituted long ago, he told me, a three-year rule, something he learned from Annie Dillard. He doesn’t write about anything until three years had passed, and maybe even more when a man is involved. I realize, now, that I am breaking it here.
“Living people,” he texted me, “live uncomfortably in prose.”
But, he said, people who have a problem with your writing will have a problem with your writing. He says the same in his book: “Anyone who saw themselves in your characters will mostly see themselves, even if they were not described.” My note in the margin: Word.
Alex checked in on me every couple of weeks for months thereafter. He offered words, a drink, dinner. He offered friendship.
Like Alex, I’d spent much of my life running away from pain and into the arms of willing men. “There was always a new man, another will-o’-wisp of desire,” Alex wrote, describing his life as he moved from place to place, from lover to lover, never stopping to confront himself.
I asked Alex when he met Dustin, his partner. The answer reassured me—I was thirty-four at the time. They’d met when Alex was in his forties. What reassured me even more was the simple fact that Alex, and other gay friends of mine, now in their fifties and sixties, had lived through what I was living through. The simple fact that they’d survived was wisdom enough, as I wasn’t sure that I would. “You can lose more than you ever thought,” Alex wrote, “and still grow back, stronger than anyone imagined.”
I’m a writer, and Alex’s book is a How to. I don’t write much fiction, except the one terrible, fragmented novel I used, for two years, to query literary agents. It won’t ever see the light of day, and that’s fine. The first novel you publish, Alex Chee tells us in How to Write, is “almost never the first novel [you] wrote.”
The first book I published was not the first book I finished.
I’m a writer, but I also never did an MFA. Actually, I never studied writing at all. As a college student I studied literature, yes, but in French, and even then my main focus was biology. I learned to write because I cared about writing, and I cared about reading, and I wanted my work to be good. I got lots of help with craft from friends—my own age—who cared about writing like I did. I got help from them, too, for editorial contacts, connections to agents and editors.
I was learning craft by doing, and figuring out what worked. I needed mentorship to figure out how writing fit into my life, and how to write about myself without undermining the possibility of my own life. I worried that I was so open about queer sex, love, and loss, that I might never get a job. That I might never keep a man.
What I needed, I thought, was guidance. In part, I just needed reassurance. “I was someone who didn’t know how to find the path he was on,” Alex writes, “the one under his feet. This, it seems to me, is why we have teachers.”
I needed to know that I could write about my painful history without being doomed to repeat it. I needed to know that I could write about suffering without seeking more suffering out. I needed to know that writing could free me of my past, not trap me in it. How to Write is an answer. Writing isn’t healing, Alex’s work tells me, but it doesn’t have to stand in its way, either.
In How to Write, we spend time with Alex in writing classrooms, both as a teacher and as a student. We get the wisdom that Alex learned from his own mentors, Annie Dillard in particular. Her advice, passed from Annie to Alex to me: “Go up to the place in the bookstore where your books will go. Walk right up and find your place on the shelf. Put your finger there, and then go every time.” I texted Alex a picture of my own finger in literary nonfiction, somewhere deep in the Os.
How to Write goes well beyond writing. Alex shows how to not just write, but live. How not just to live, but to heal. How men can force us to heal, or run and hide, by showing us to ourselves. The difference between the catharsis that comes from writing something down and the healing that comes from facing it alone, without the page. How not just to heal but to share that healing with others, allowing the possibility of connection, of love.
I imagine the gift this book might have been if I had met it in my childhood. The image is bittersweet. The sweetness is how much the book would have offered me. The bitterness is how much I needed it. I imagine how much I’d need the book, too, if I hadn’t met Alex, if I’d never tried to write. And how much I needed to read it this year, even though Alex remains very much in my life.
One of the things Alex has told me as a friend, over a drink, is that gay writers need to allow themselves to be self-indulgent. To get over our fear of being read as dramatic, as camp. Here goes.
Scene: I’m me, it’s 2018, Donald Trump is president and the world is a trash heap. I am a teaching professor of biology at NYU. I am a reader, but I never started writing. I never made any of the friends I made because we all try to do this impossible-seeming thing, taking a blank document and making it sing. I never met mentors by writing about an HIV crisis that some older writers had survived. I don’t know Alex, I don’t know John or Tommy or David or Randall or Darnell. I don’t know any of these people. But I know their work. I’m sitting in my office on the weekend reading, because I love reading. The book is fire engine red, its author stares out at me. In the pages, I find the voice of a man who lived a life kind of like mine, loving and losing men, suffering and healing from suffering. In his words, I find memories of the AIDS crisis, the years I watched on TV. I lean forward, trying to hear the silences between the lines. On the pages, I find guidance, I find hardship and truth. I find love. I find a model for living a creative and true life in my thirties, my forties, my fifties. This book is not flesh, it’s not bone, it doesn’t breathe, but it is friendship, and care, and love. It’s 2018, and all of these things are in short supply. I am 35 and crying at the fact that I never had this mentor, and the fact that I’ve finally found him in these pages.
Scene: It’s 2018, and I am a child, 12 or 13 or 14. It’s me, but not me now. When I was 14, Dancer at the Dance was not available at the library in my logging town, and I wouldn’t have known to look for it anyway. But now it’s 2018, and this book How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is big enough to be written about on Buzzfeed and in Teen Vogue and I see it. I am wondering about my sexuality, and I want to be a writer—maybe—someday. I ask my mom to buy the book, and she does, thinking it’s a simple How To. In its pages, I see myself reflected and refracted, I see a future that’s mean and big and true. I cry. I know that life will not be easy, but I know that it will be. Zoom out and look at the book, fire engine red, there in my hands, as I sit on a school bus. No one knows it’s a gay book, and so I’m safe. I see, on that bus ride home, the world grow so much larger, my own future suddenly inevitable, and possible, and grand.
Scene: It’s 2018, and I have Alex and his work, and I well up with gratitude for the gifts that writing has given me. The flesh? Well, I get to love on that too, and on good days I wake up beaming with gratitude for the gift of his gay friendship, his queer mentorship. I know it’s precious, because I remember life without it. It took me three decades and more to find. His book sits now on my desk, next to the molecular biology quizzes I should be grading. The pages of his book are bent and broken, my pen has dug into the flesh of its paper. My eyes, open now on this page, imagining the future, knowing that it’s coming. Now there’s no going back. The world needs changing. At a recent talkback about his book, Alex, told me that we’re trying to change the world. We’re crazy enough to believe that writing can do its part. Now, there’s only giving forward.