Internet Diary 1/2–1/9

1/9/2021 Chelsea, VT

Too often, dates at the start of chapters in fiction do less than the author imagines. The reader does not remember them until it is too late, and meanwhile the author believes someone is following along, and so does less than they should to convey context, story, meaning.

Anyway. Today is January 9th, 2021. It is 1AM.

I have been up late looking at old photos in my computer to cheer me up. I took the below when I was traveling across the South Island of New Zealand for 9 days before the Auckland Writers’ Festival, using a guidebook at first but soon going wherever the last person we met told us to go. …


Internet Diary 12/22–12/29

Dreams, recipes, links, unsent tweets, facts that stick around.

A dark cloud against lighter clouds, framed on three sides by tree branches.
A dark cloud against lighter clouds, framed on three sides by tree branches.
Somewhere in the Catskills in 2018. Author’s own.

“I’m sorry, I can’t read anything right now, but have fun with it!”

— Unsent tweet from my draft’s file, with no available context, back in March.

I woke up the other day to the sound of a doorbell. My husband was still asleep. I got up and went to the door and no one was outside. “Did you hear a doorbell,” I asked him, later, when he woke up. “We don’t have one,” he said. “We have a knocker.” There hadn’t been anyone at the door for so long, I didn’t remember this. …


Your Questions Answered

The first spell you cast as a writer, you cast on yourself.

A highway in Vermont, lined with trees, and white clouds and mountains in the distance against a blue sky.
A highway in Vermont, lined with trees, and white clouds and mountains in the distance against a blue sky.

What is often lost in talk of craft in writing is the exploration of sentiment, and as a result what is almost never discussed is how sentiment is described or even conjured, so this is a good question for aiming at that topic directly. So much advice about writing acts as if the emotional states in a piece of writing are already figured out and they just need to be described for the reader. …


Your Questions Answered

To prepare for a MFA in writing, focus on community and a writing practice first.

It is MFA application season, and I’ve received a number of variations on this question from students to which I have a single answer, and so I’ve decided to offer that answer here.

I typically do not answer as to their readiness with a single yes or no — I don’t want to be that powerful in such an important situation. They need to feel ready, and so I instead guide them on how to prepare. I extend the following caveat: do not let the application process be a referendum on your future as a writer. And then I offer an assignment: To submit work to contests and magazines, and to find a literary community. …


A misremembered quote, self forgiveness, and attending to the unmade decisions of a draft.

A French engraving from the late 19th Century with a series of eyes in a sky chasing a figure who is running from them.
A French engraving from the late 19th Century with a series of eyes in a sky chasing a figure who is running from them.
Paul Constant Soyer’s Crime et expiation, after J. J. Grandville, from the Met’s Open Access Art Collection.

I deal with writers’ block several times a year, usually in the form of other people’s writers’ block. Specifically, I find myself every year with a few students trying and failing to write their stories for class. Teaching creative writing inside of a liberal arts institution means putting creativity on a clock — the quarter or semester — and over the 25 years I’ve been teaching writing, I’ve learned my blocked students are usually high-achieving young people who are used to being able to power their way through a paper, get the answers, get the grade and move on. …


Computers cursed writers with a potentially infinite revision process. Using handwritten drafts during NaNoWriMo brought me home.

Last Sunday night on Twitter I ran across one of those Tweets that tells you about yourself. By which I mean, I learned something I thought was a deeply private humiliation is in fact a glass mountain many other writers try to climb: the practice of using determined aspirational file names (“FinalFinal.v.3.docx”) to try to announce to ourselves that this time — really, really this time — we are going to finish that novel.

The ego wants the novel to be done before the novel is done, as I learned eventually, after 8 or so years of typing these file names on at least 250 drafts of my novel. I had begun the practice of renaming drafts if major changes occurred back during the writing of my first novel, but that was not a good plan for a second novel, once that novel grew longer, eventually three times the size of that first novel. In 2008, for example, determined to finish, I first began using “queen.final.” By 2013, typing “final” on any of the files brought down waves of scalding self-mockery. By 2015, when I was really finishing, I stopped using “final.” …


Searching for a house in 2019 meant confronting my lifelong alienation from this country. Buying one felt like betting on this country, and me.

Surrounded by trees, a dark wooden cylinder of a house rising three stories out of the ground.
Surrounded by trees, a dark wooden cylinder of a house rising three stories out of the ground.
The house that got away, but began the dream of owning a house.

Four years ago, I moved north from New York City to Bradford, VT. I’d taken a job at Dartmouth College, and I needed to travel back and forth from New York to wherever I was teaching writing less than I had been — working outside of New York to be able to afford your life in New York had become an untenable, unhappy-making proposition. So I took an apartment in Bradford while I searched and got to know the surrounding towns.

I soon found a dream house, a house that will most likely turn into a story one day, as I spent so much time imagining a life inside of it. …


This pair of black jeans, bought on the run last January, became a lifeline and a lesson.

My black jeans, a little worn at the knees, laid out flat on a wooden floor.
My black jeans, a little worn at the knees, laid out flat on a wooden floor.

Last weekend, a friend on Twitter asked, “We’re not all still wearing jeans, are we?” I didn’t know what prompted this on her part — I forgot to ask if she meant, “have we all given up on clothes now?” — but an unlikely revelation floated up as I answered They’re all that’s keeping me together. And to be clear, it isn’t just jeans, it is black jeans. These black jeans.

When I think back over what I learned during quarantine this year, most of it is not particularly practical, and some of the gentler things come to mind first — some self protective gesture, no doubt. Gin, it turns out, helps take out a pen stain, but not vodka. The black raspberries I found in the yard of my new house are indigenous to Vermont and also Korea , and no, they are not the same as blackberries. A bird feeder is basically a bear feeder, if the bear gets there first. Broccoli, which I’d always scorned as the worst of vegetables, is in fact a prince, if you grow it yourself, maybe even a king, though the crown is the least of it. The leaves, which grow abundantly after the crown is harvested, are delicious, and I even like them better than most other greens. …


The New Self-Help

A novel protects what a missile can’t

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This story is part of The New Self-Help: 21 Books for a Better You in the 21st Century.

The first weekend of the war in Iraq, I wrote my writing students an email.

I had felt a sudden, intense protectiveness of them. I didn’t want my students to go into the draft, rumored then to be a possibility. I wanted to lead them to another world, one where people value writing and art more than war. But I knew then, and I know now, that the only thing that matters is to make that world here. …


Grief never ends because love never ends

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Illustration: Shira Inbar

The last few years, I’ve become a commuter, though I suppose I always was in some attenuated way. My current commute ranges widely. Sometimes, it is just the 25 minutes it takes me to drive from my apartment in Vermont to my classroom in New Hampshire and back again. As my husband still works in New York, sometimes it is the five hours I travel to him, on the bus. And then I have been traveling more than ever, touring for my new book, and teaching writing in far flung places, either exotic or mundane — Florence, Italy or Portland, Oregon, for example — and everywhere I go, I take my tiny suitcase that rolls and a shoulder bag balanced on top of it. …

About

Alexander Chee

Author of the novels THE QUEEN OF THE NIGHT and EDINBURGH, and the essay collection HOW TO WRITE AN AUTOBIOGRAPHICAL NOVEL.

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