“How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays” & “Wintering”

by Lauren Alwan & S.B.

For this LitStack Rec, we are looking at two books we’ve recommended before. “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays” is an amazing collection that will become a guidepost for your writing, and “Wintering” a psychological, wilderness survival story.

How to Write An Autobiographical Novel and Wintering

This Week’s LitStack Recs

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays, by Alexander Chee

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays and Wintering

“Writing is a way of going to the depth of Being,” wrote Marguerite Yourcenar, and the sixteen essays that make up Alexander Chee’s 2018 memoir are at their heart about writing—but they are also about striving to succeed as a writer, reconciling the pain and trauma of the past, building home and literary community, and learning the craft from inimitable teachers such as Annie Dillard and Deborah Eisenberg.

In How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Chee mines personal and literary history to reveal the self that drives the work. These essays chronicle growing up mixed race, a childhood spent with his father’s family in Korea, the subsequent struggle with the loss of his father, coming of age and coming out, AIDS activism, and growing into roles as a literary citizen and mentor.

An associate professor of English and Creative Writing at Dartmouth College, Chee is the author of two novels, as well as the recipient of a Whiting Award, an NEA Fellowship, and fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, the VCCA, Civitella Ranieri, and Amtrak. The author includes much here to instruct young writers: “You want vivid writing. How do we get vivid writing? Verbs, first. Precise verbs. All of the action on the page, everything that happens, happens in the verbs.”

There is also solace for those who have faced trauma:

Most people misunderstand the crime of sexual abuse. They think of stolen youth, a child tucked under the arm and spirited away. But it isn’t like someone entering your house and stealing something from you. Instead, someone leaves something with you that grows until it replaces you.

How to Write An Autobiographical Novel is an intensely empathetic and personal work, and there is much here for writers new and seasoned, especially in regard to examining the path a writer takes in the discovery of both the work and the self. On this latter point especially, Chee unblinkingly documents how survivors of trauma confront memory to work toward both a healed self, and a writing self, that is whole.

Lauren Alwan

Wintering, by Peter Geye

You could read Peter Geye’s third novel, Wintering, as a story of wilderness survival and endurance. You could read it as a taunt and harrowing tale of generational conflicts – a tale between a father and son, and the secrets kept between them – or a statement of the keen cutting edge of memory. Or you could read it as a testament to the beauty and power of Minnesota’s fierce and elegant North Shore landscape.

And you’d be right, on all accounts.

Wintering is the tale of Harry Eide, told through the memories of his son Gustav, and Berit, the woman who waited patiently most of her life to be with him. Harry, now elderly and riddled with dementia, slips out of his sickbed one November night and disappears into the wilderness that surrounds the town of Gunflint, Minnesota, nestled on the North Shore of Lake Superior.

His family and the entire town searched for a week with no trace except tracks heading up the river; months later children skating past the breakwater find his red woolen hat – nothing more. “People searched for don’t get found here,” Gus Eide says stoically to Berit.  “Not in these woods.”

How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays and Wintering

It’s not the first time Harry had quit civilization to disappear into the woods. More than 30 years earlier Harry had taken another flight into the wilderness with 18 year old Gus in tow. He made it sound like it would be an adventure, paddling canoes across the northern lake country using handmade maps, taking only what they could carry on their backs. They planned to spend the winter at an abandoned trapper’s fort, and live off the land. Or at least, that’s what Harry told Gus. The truth turned out to be far different, and far darker.

Told in a series of flashbacks as Gus shares with Berit the truth of what happened that winter, we follow the pair’s trek up rivers, with portages through woods and around falls, and across lakes that were mere sketches on poorly documented maps. They lose their way but push on, testing their skills and their meddle. There is danger, there is stress and conflict, but there also is grandeur and beauty.  Yet as they push deeper into the wild, Gus begins to realize that his father has a hidden agenda – one that ultimately turns tragic.

Berit, in turn, remembers the times she was able to spend with Harry after his marriage fell apart and his health – both mental and physical – suffered from his trek up north. But she also was aware of conflicts building many years prior, conflicts that touched her own life. Now, she is able to fill in some of the blanks for Gus that he suspected but never knew, for in her quiet way, she had harbored her own secrets over those many years.

It’s a harrowing tale, full of majesty and anger and human pettiness, drama both personal and primitive. It’s also beautifully written, with a strong voice that evokes the stark grandeur of the natural world during its coldest and bitterest times.

Gus made surveying his occupation between Thanksgiving and Christmas, weeks of hush and white and a kind of coldness he’d never known before. Sometimes he was gone for a day, sometimes two or three. Once, he was gone for four nights and crossed the Laurentian Divide. He knew because he came to a river whose south-rushing saults he couldn’t cross. His trails in the woods and across the frozen lakes gained permanence. He camped at the same spots and set fires on the heaps of old ashes.

The snap of those fires was often the only accompaniment to the silence, and in that faint rasping he heard music unlike any he’d ever known before and to which he composed lyrics he’d never sing. He never once saw another breathing creature that wasn’t black-winged and aloft.

You may not be a wilderness adventurer; you may never snowshoe across a frozen lake or stand mere feet from a cranky moose or dine on freshly caught fish grilled over an open fire. But Peter Geye’s faultless prose will take you there, along with the men who dared to brave the elements and came home forever changed.

And you’ll be glad to have made the journey with them.

—Sharon Browning

Other LitStack Resources

Be sure and look at our other LitStack Recs for our recommendations on books you should read, as well as these reviews by Lauren Alwan, and these reviews by Sharon Browning.

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