by Sage Mitchell (he/they)
Sage is the creator of Songs of Ourselves. He writes short essays and poems.
A few months ago, I read Alexander Chee’s book How to Write an Autobiographical Novel after it was recommended by my therapist. The suggestion came up while we were discussing my fears around writing about my life. I wasn’t really sure what I was going to get from this book, especially with the words “how to” in the title. Since I didn't do any research on the book beforehand, I expected it to be more like a guidebook to completing this type of writing which in made me even more weary to read it. Instead, I was thrilled to discover that it was full of beautifully written personal essays, all centered around Alexander Chee's experience of writing about his life.
I still see this book as a “how to” but in a subtle way. I learned a lot, especially when I made space for my own reflection as I read the book. I decided, instead of writing out a review for you, I would write some writing prompts that encourage reflection and could be the basis of writing your own personal essays. I have listed which essay each prompt is inspired by if you would like to use this guide as you read or return to the book.
7 WRITING PROMPTS INSPIRED BY ALEXANDER CHEE’S HOW TO WRITE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOVEL
1. "The Writing Life"
What is one lesson a teacher or mentor taught you that still resonates today? Where have you applied that lesson in your own life?
2. "After Peter"
Write a piece that paints a picture of a friend from your life. Illustrate fragments of their personality through description, anecdotes, etc. What is something you learned from your relationship?
3. "The Rosary"
Have you been fixated on an object/plant/animal before? Write about what caused your interest and how it changed as you yourself changed. Bonus: Research information about what you were interested in and include facts you learn in your writing.
4. "The Autobiography of my Novel"
In this essay, Alexander talks about how he realized that focusing on the aesthetics of his writing was a way for him to avoid what he really wanted to be saying. He asks the reader “What will you let yourself know? What will you allow yourself to know?” When you think about these questions, what comes up for you?
5. "The Guardians"
In the essay, Alexander shares the ways his trauma has impacted his life. His therapist says to him “You can’t get rid of the guardians who’ve kept you safe until now. You have to give them new jobs.” What ways do you protect yourself? If you were to imagine your guardians, who are they? Can you describe them?
6. "How to Write an Autobiographical Novel"
Alexander provides the tip “Create a character like you, but not you.” Give it a try.
7. "On Becoming an American Writer"
Why do you write? Who do you write for? What ancestors (blood or not blood) hold you accountable?
The Gradient is a writing resource by and for queer and trans people who write (or want to write). You can find how to submit your own work to be published on the blog by clicking "submit" on the Songs of Ourselves website.