How To Write To Write An Autobiographical Novel by Alexander Chee
Mariner Books, 2018
288 pages – Amazon
Until recently I worked at a coffee shop near MIT. It was a job with unambiguous responsibilities. I rung up orders, made lattes, rearranged the pastry display, bussed dishes, and cleaned. My relationship to work was simple in that doing it didn’t determine what kind of person the world thought of me or what I thought about the world as long as I smiled.
I preferred this arrangement to a desk job. In the typical major city, your identity gets tied up with your job. You are what you do and where you do it. That was certainly the case in Cambridge, where the cafe clientele was largely employed in tech or by the university. If I talked to you while behind a register, I probably limited my conversation topics to the weather, work, and when the weekend was going to arrive. At work I wasn’t anyone other than a food service persona I’d crafted: mostly friendly, hopefully unremarkable. I shied from revealing my interests; sharing my name with regulars felt egregious. There were exceptions, of course, but for the most part I practiced these tactics for my own survival.
In his upcoming essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Alexander Chee finds that articulating the working identity of a writer is in part what fuels writing itself.
Case in point: while writing his first novel, Chee works as a cater-waiter, which functions in disguise as a “writer’s education.” He explains, “[B]eing a cater-waiter allowed me access to the interiors of people’s lives in a way that was different from every other relationship I might have had. When you’re a waiter, clients usually treat you like human furniture. The result is that you see them in unguarded moments—and that I liked.”
Sometimes, at the train station, I ran into regulars also on their way to the cafe and we would walk together. I have always regarded the grade school student’s paranoia about running into their teacher outside of the classroom a cliche but now I know why it exists: it can be really awkward to acknowledge someone who recognizes only your persona. Human furniture, even.
“Right. I never knew your name.”
“That’s okay. You order lattes with 2% milk.”
Saying this embarrassed them, as if I’d exposed a grave secret. I laughed to take the edge off. Suddenly the relationship we had, as barista and customer, was being aired in public, and it is a ten minute walk from the station to the cafe. Though some of my coworkers would not have invited this situation, what I came to enjoy about these walks was that the context in which we’d met—I served them coffee and addressed them by name, more or less, every day—was slowly unraveled as we talked and learned about one another.
There was Mark, a math professor, who was the first customer I told what I did outside of work. One day we sat side-by-side on the train. I showed him a folder of poems I was working on, and he flipped through the pages while I scanned over a math problem of his I could barely decipher. He asked what I hoped to write next, and I pitched him a manuscript idea as we crossed the Charles River. Then we walked to the cafe, jaywalking whenever possible, as Mark talked about a poetry magazine his friend had subscribed him to for years and had I heard of it?
There was John, who recognized me one night at a club. We were halfway through a five hour party. Space was limited. Earlier in the night there had been room to really flaunt around and pose for your crush but now everyone danced in place, shoulder to shoulder. I was in that crowd of bodies when someone tapped me on the arm. “You work at that cafe don’t you?” he said. After that, we had something in common. When he came in we talked about music and where we liked to go dancing.
There were others, too. I liked having this window into the lives of others because I was never quite the same person with anyone. It gave my everyday life a change of pace. Cafe work is all about maintaining a state of equilibrium: set up the space in the morning, wreak havoc, clean it up at the end of the night. Its rhythm, its repetition formed my context for thinking about how works gets done. I was in it all day and could have worked in my sleep. This poetics of labor, as I jokingly thought of it, grew from an imaginary text to a realized one, though it was never as easy to write it down as it had been to work through it. It was never a question of why. Always there was work, and more work to be done.
When I grew tired of thinking about work, I fantasized about the work I wanted to do instead of working, which was writing. Eventually, I found two questions of interest: What is the work one puts in before they are able to write at all? And how do we talk about, and therefore qualify, this work—this labor of not-writing?
Chee offers a lens for answering these questions by interrogating his experiences as a working writer. In addition to being a writer, Chee has been a bookseller, tarot reader, yoga teacher, cater-waiter, and director of a meal program for the homeless. Though it’s easy to prioritize author over any of these job titles, because author is what we know him as, Chee’s experiences do not allow us to forget what it often means to be in a position to write.
In other words, if you are going to write you are going to need money, and the need for money is almost always present because the writing you do is not enough for you to live. Your situation can change but the reasons for working rarely do. As a cater-waiter for the Buckley family, Chee chose to work for rather than decry Mr. Buckley, whose homophobia is immortalized in a opinion piece for the New York Times Book Review that people with AIDs should be tattooed on the forearm and on the buttocks as a matter of public safety. He keeps his feelings to himself. How could you? his friends ask, and the answer is simply I needed the money.
Writing was never far from his mind, I think, because service work and writing are both forms of emotional labor that demand your attention, energy, and time. They require complete availability and total flexibility; you give yourself up and yet in either it is difficult to discern the end goal of it all. Still, service work, he maintains, provided him a good education in people. Whether washing expensive silverware or shopping for the hospitality program’s weekly dinner, Chee was shaping his relationship to writing. He was producing even when he was on the clock, and when work ended the unpaid work of writing began.
Reading these essays on my commute, I admired his gumption in insisting his working life had trained him for the writing that lay ahead. I relished in the moment he describes sharing the same advice for his yoga and writing students. I can relate to that feeling of writing and outlining in the lull of commuting to work or waiting for the start of a shift: “The white shirt, the black bow tie, and apron came to feel like a cocoon for the novel, or the writer, or both.” Scribbling down thoughts on receipts I stuck in my pocket lest I forget them later, or repeating favored sentences in my head over and over like a VIP’s order. I imagine many writers similarly conflate their working and writing lives.
Admittedly I am uneasy writing this now.
If working bridges the gap between earning money and writing, then writing is the epitome of not working especially if you are writing about the work you do. The captain who hires him to work at the Buckleys’ makes this explicit. In a scene that’s equal parts humorous and threatening, he informs Chee offhandedly: “Don’t you dare write about any of this, or I’ll have to hunt you down and kill you. With my bare hands. Because I love them dearly.”
So he does not write about the Buckleys until after their deaths, which is long after he has left cater-waiting and a number of other jobs. By this point he is living off grants, advances, and teaching; he can afford to do so because he is finally living as a writer.
I am nowhere near that point, though I write regardless. Many people write privately for years without reaching a position of stability. They work when they must and they write when they can. They stop writing for a variety of reasons, either due to a lack of resources or time or interest. I think about the barriers of entry, not simply in writing circles but within my own circle of friends. Why did working in service mark me in such a way? When I talk about my days with my friends who work in offices I am sometimes unable to communicate how it is I became exhausted, or why my body is temporarily unresponsive to their acts of tenderness. There were days at the cafe when I could not muster a smile, or my attempt to smile gave the wrong impression. There were days when I could do nothing right and somebody said a horrible thing to my face. And in such a situation, I’d perform my best version of hospitality while internalizing the wound. You learn to swallow the pain of mundane conflict and continue to serve someone as if nothing has happened. In service work, I have encountered an ever growing catalog of pain I had thought only possible from reading very tragic books or watching melodramatic movies.
During breaks, I take notes of what I’ve done and seen that day. I write everything down, even the scenes I would prefer not to remember. Later on I revisit these journals for evidence not simply of my writing but of my having worked at all.
In the margins of How to Write an Autobiographical Novel I leave a list of suggestions for how to be seen not for who you are but for what you are doing:
I don’t want you to watch what I have to do when I am not writing.
I want to be tipped regardless of how I am assisting you.
I don’t want pity but acknowledgement of the fact we share a reality.
I want you to listen to what I am doing in order to write.
Catherine Chen is a poet and performer. Her writing has appeared in the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, Mask Magazine, Tagvverk, and Nat. Brut. Send a postcard to @aluutte.