Recent Work By Alexander Chee

Very recently I learned that one of my favorite Mary Gaitskill stories, “The Nice Restaurant”, has never been collected. I still have the issue of the New Yorker it appeared in, and while I do own Mary Gaitskill’s work, it had never occurred to me she wouldn’t have collected it yet until a friend mentioned it in passing on Twitter and I was reminded, again, why for at least 20 years now, I save stories from magazines.

What I thought all of Iowa looked like back then.

[In the previous installment, I detailed my undoubtedly flawed if also successful plan to apply to MFA programs. This week, how I made my decision to go, and some lessons learned.]

The assistant director’s point, that I would just have to get a job once I got out of the program, made me think, but I had instantly understood she was being responsible to me, even as she offered me what I thought of as the chance of a lifetime. And once I got to Iowa and saw how many people there had, like myself, packed up their lives and left, and the various problems–financial, marital, etc., that can occur as a result–did I understand why she offered this caveat. Connie Brothers was the fixer. This was her trouble-shooting in advance.

I had the kind of job I would try to get once I got out, in other words. Did I want to give it up?

To be clear, I was not just surprised to get in, I was shocked. I had applied with a chip on my shoulder, sending a story about a clairvoyant adopted Korean high school student in a coven. He worked with the police to find lost children. The story was filled with explicit gay sex, witchcraft and psychic powers and there was even a scene where he was possessed by a ghost. It was a mash-up homage to many of the books I’d read as a kid, and to my strange high school friends. I expected to be told, No thanks. I had even said to people, “I just want them to know what kind of freak I really am”, and we’d all laugh nervously and I would think, There is no way this freak is going to get in there.

And to that freak, they said, not only yes, but, Yes, and here’s some money. Come if you can.

Why did I do this, or think like this? Well, I didn’t believe people like me got into that program and I was acting out my resentment to the standards I imagined for them–a fairly youthful thing to do, though, this practice of making up answers for other people and then having vituperative reactions to them is an increasingly American mode, no matter your age or profession. And there wasn’t one Korean American openly gay writer I could think of–my Wesleyan professor Kit Reed even said, “If you move quickly, you’ll be the first.” And I now I am.

I was and am making it up as I went along. I don’t have a role model, per se. I am living this life off-menu.

But of course, you have to go because it is right for you, and not for any other reason. I liked my life back then and didn’t want to leave it: I had friends, a serious boyfriend, a shared apartment in Fort Greene I could easily afford, living with a painter and his beautiful pitbull mix dog, who sat at my feet while I typed on my typewriter and was too gentle even to chase the mouse that would sometimes appear near the stove. But the days of sitting and typing with the dog had become pretty few and far between under the weight of a 70hr-a-week job at OUT.

When I listened to my fears about going, they told me I feared vanishing if I went to Iowa. That I would go and my friends would forget me, my boyfriend break up with me (he had not gotten into Iowa), my nascent magazine career blowing in the prairie wind.

But I was tired already of writing to house style–it felt like ventriloquism, not writing. And I had other fears talking to me: I didn’t want to be another gay man in New York with a job he sort of liked in an apartment he sort of liked, waiting for the chance to trade up–living like that seemed like no life at all, but I knew a lot of people like this. Yes, I was doing work I loved and felt strongly about politically, with some excellent people, and startups can feel like an adventure, when they don’t feel like working for too little money and no health insurance. But I wasn’t getting any writing done. And worse, after I got off the phone with Connie, to my surprise, my boss told me I was in line to be promoted, made, perhaps, managing editor in a few months.

A job I would have been terrible at, because back then the last job I wanted was one that involved going around to make sure everyone’s work was done. And yet of course, it would mean prestige, and so it was tempting. Most of the best mistakes are.

I ran into an author friend as I tried out the idea of going. “Iowa?” she said. “Everyone is so competitive there, though.”

This came in via email last night from a reader, and I was actually writing a post to address this.

Q: I am debating applying to MFA programs but am not sure how worthwhile they are.  What made you decide to get your MFA?  I’ve heard some complain that MFA’s didn’t improve their writing while other writers said they wanted the degree purely so they could teach.  The programs are expensive and time-consuming, and I’m not even sure I want to teach, yet I would like to improve my writing and build a network.  Would I be able to do this on my own by taking workshops in the city and reading more?

A: I think a good place to begin is with this quote from The Morning News, in a discussion between Robert Birnbaum and Tobias Wolff. This is Tobias Wolff speaking here:

Sometimes someone will ask me, “Should I go to a writing program?” And I invariably tell them that they should not go into a writing program until they have gone out and worked for at least two years, and probably three or four would be better, and keep writing as they’re working. If they can do that, and their writing is getting better, then they should consider going to a writing program because it could be helpful.

In college, I had two writing teachers with opposing views of the MFA: Annie Dillard urged me to go right away, and Kit Reed said don’t go, in fact never go, get a job, preferably a magazine job, and just write.

I tried Kit’s advice first, which appealed to the loner contrarian I was back then. And so in the time between when I graduated college and when I applied, I moved to San Francisco, took a job in a bookstore and got a cheap apartment with two friends. I found an internship at Out/Look, the journal of LGBT studies and culture, and helped organize Out/Write, the first national LGBT writers conference in San Francisco. I published my first short story, “Memorials”, in the prize anthology for the Holt, Rinehart & Winston student literature prize and it was nearly included in a textbook–the textbook editor signed the story up and then cut it for space at the last minute. The editor of Out/Look gave me a chance to write a cover-story for the magazine after the writer dropped out–she knew I knew about the topic, the activist group Queer Nation–and I ran with the opportunity. That led to my first free-lance writing work. And at every chance I got, I went to cafes with my friend Choire to write. A travel article I published in Outweek brought me to the attention of David Groff, an editor then at Crown, who invited me to have lunch with him in New York to see if I had a novel.

My point in telling you all of this is that while I was not in an MFA program, I did find and participate with a community of writers, I sent out work, published, I took jobs that put me in touch with working writers and had career opportunities, such as that lunch at Crown, that many young writers today believe only come from being in a MFA program for those now-mythical ‘connections’. Which you do not need writing programs to find.

After two years, I moved to New York, taking another cheap apartment with another friend, and continuing my work as a bookseller, which, in New York, was terrifying–as in the pay, which meant questions like “Do I take the subway to work or do I save the money for a bagel for lunch?” My boyfriend of the time, also a writer, was very seriously sending away for MFA brochures. I was skeptical of the idea but thinking about it–I increasingly resented the time I spent at my day job.

I sat down and set parameters:

  1. I wasn’t going to take out loans to do this. A writer’s life with high overhead of any kind is a curse, and New York was like that already. So I established the goal of getting a fellowship.
  2. Failing getting a fellowship, I was resolved either to wait and apply again, or to go to state schools, with low tuition costs.
  3. Going through the boyfriend’s brochures, I looked to see which schools had graduated the most professors–the credentials of the faculty, in other words. At the time, I noted three rose to the top: University of Iowa, University of MA, Amherst, and University of AZ, Tucson.

I decided to test the waters and apply just to those three schools. In October, I wrote to Annie Dillard and Kit Reed for letters of recommendation. This elicited a postcard from Annie: “Of course you’ll get in and I’m thrilled you’re applying, but am concerned you’re applying to just three schools! Apply to at least 9, which most do.”

My boyfriend was applying to 9 schools. This struck me as too much work, as I was unsure of the reputations of the other schools back then (I know considerably more now). I don’t recommend this small a sample, but in any case, by March, the happy result was that I was accepted at two of the three schools, Amherst and Iowa, with fellowship offers. Arizona turned me down. This was crushing to me, because I’d made it my first choice, despite the desire to study with Marilynne Robinson at Iowa.

Worse, in what seemed like an act of fate, my boyfriend of the time was accepted at Arizona and U Mass but rejected at Iowa.

By then, I was also an assistant editor at a little start-up magazine called OUT Magazine. The University of Massachusetts Amherst had offered me a tuition waiver plus a fellowship, and John Edgar Wideman had blown my mind by writing me a note, saying he liked my work. The boyfriend and I rented a car, drove up to Amherst and had lunch with Mr. Wideman, where we learned a hiring freeze due to the bad economy was going to mean faculty shortages within the program [again, note—all of this information dates from over a decade ago—U Mass has since recovered]. Connie Brothers, the assistant director of the University of Iowa’s program, then called me at work, offering double what U Mass had offered. My whole office freaked out, as did I. And then Connie said something I still think about.

“Before you say yes,” she said, “do you like your job?”

“I do,” I said.

“Well, think about it before you say yes, because we’re just going to have to get you another one once you get out of here.”

[This is one of two parts. Part two goes up after Thanksgiving.]


Yesterday, in my Fiction II class, as the students introduced themselves I asked them to speak about what they’d been reading over the summer. One student impressively admitted to reading both Underworld and Infinite Jest. Another, though, shyly said she was reading YA novels.