How We Spend Our Days: Alexander Chee

Annie Dillard wrote, “How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.” On the first of each month, Catching Days hosts a guest writer in the series, “How We Spend Our Days.” Today, please welcome writer Alexander Chee:

7:00AM I wake up, cough. I’m tired, have a cold, but I feel I should be downstairs. I can feel the novel waiting.

My boyfriend Dustin opens an eye. I’m worried about you, he says. You’re not getting enough sleep. Can you stay in bed another hour at least? He turns and puts his head back down and then turns back. I’m not telling you what to do, he says, and grins. It’s just a suggestion.

I smile, go back to sleep.

8:30AM I wake up again and feel much better. Dustin was right. He opens an eye again. How do you feel?

Better, I say.

He goes back to sleep. I pull on my favorite old sweatshirt, a navy Puma hoodie, some yoga shorts and go downstairs. I have a two-bedroom faculty housing apartment Amherst College rents to me as their Visiting Writer and I’ve made three writing spaces in it. On a library table I bought on E-Bay for very little in the dining room, a big spare room with bookshelves. On the kitchen table, really a slightly different library table. Each of these matches the floors of the room they’re in: the one in the dining room has a wooden top, the one in the kitchen is as pale gray as the linoleum. I use the kitchen table as much as I use the desk in the dining room, as I like to cook for myself and I write as I do so. The third place is my office.

My pantry/office is located right near where the “A” is in this satellite image below from Google Maps.

The house my apartment is in was once a great house belonging to the college’s astronomer, now divided into three apartments. My kitchen was the kitchen for this house, the pantry larger than anything I could use, and so when I saw it was the only room in the house with ample built-in shelving, I installed a stainless steel desk from a used office-supply store.

I write in three spaces in my house because sometimes, if I know I’m writing, it paralyzes me–this way, I can sneak into it. A fourth room, upstairs directly above the pantry, is now called “Dustin’s Room”, and is his away office from his apartment in New York. We can work separately and not hear each other until we’re ready to do so.

I make coffee, act as if I‘m just looking over scene notes from the day before and begin writing.

10:30 AM Dustin comes downstairs, hungry. I pause, make kimchee fried rice with hamburger and eggs. We devour it hungrily.

11:30 AM I run upstairs. He’s asleep again, his book open next to him. I feel terrible about having woken him up in the middle of the night.

4:30PM At the library, I print 700-some pages from 5 years of drafts, hoping to turn them into 400-some pages for my forthcoming novel, The Queen of the Night, under contract with Houghton and due soon. The final draft for some time has felt like it is rising up out of these different files, as if I’ve left this here and this here, and now all of the pieces finally meet.

I also can’t work on the computer right now–the screen is too small. I recently realized that most of what I saw as rejected material for this novel is actually…the novel. I just wasn’t ready for it. At this point I need to reconcile at least 7 different drafts of the novel across 5 years, taking the best moments from three different directions. I print the different drafts with cover pages indicating the computer files I found them in, and create a folder with the date and the phrase “print revision”, so I know each document I took text from.

And when I’m done, an hour later, Dustin and I walk home across the now-dark campus.

7:30PM While I read my novel, Dustin makes a meatloaf wrapped in bacon with sriracha. I get up and decide if I’m going to drink bourbon for this cold (the cough returned) it should be Manhattan, perfect (with sweet and dry vermouth) and blood orange bitters from Maine. It works once again, but longer. And the meatloaf is delicious.


1. What is the best book you’ve read in the last few months and how did you choose it?

  • The Line of Beauty, by Alan Hollinghurst. I picked it up because I realized I’d seen the television series and not read the novel. That felt terrible.

2. Would you give us one little piece of writing advice?

  • Write down the page number where you stop work on your writing, so you can start there again the next day, and not begin on page 1 per the computer’s software. You’ll destroy less of your work that way.

3. What is your strangest reading or writing habit?

  • Lately, apparently, using a typewriter. I bought a manual to avoid the internet, an Olympia. It turns out to be a device to speak just with your work. Unlike our computers, which have become televisions, shopping malls, newspapers and mailboxes.

By Alexander Chee:

20 thoughts on “How We Spend Our Days: Alexander Chee

  1. Alexander Chee offers the best advice I’ve heard in a long time:

    Write down the page number where you stop work on your writing, so you can start there again the next day, and not begin on page 1 per the computer’s software. You’ll destroy less of your work that way.

    How many times have I erred by staring the day on page one? I can’t count the mistakes.

    But as much as I love this post, I can’t help but leave a bit jealous of Chee who wakes up next to a man who suggests he go back to sleep.


  2. How did you get Alexander Chee on here? I’m curious!

    Also, his writing process (at least for this novel) eerily resembles that of Junot Diaz . . . maybe they are on to something with this chaos, this excess words, and the perplexity that accompanies both?

    Also, Chee seems to rely heavily on his environment – the surfaces, smells, etc. that construct the spaces in which he writes. At a lecture I went to today, a professor discussed the way that we consciously or unconsciously construct our environments and the way that our environments consequently shape us. Hmmm. What do our writing environments say about us? How do they change the way we think?


  3. I enjoyed hearing about this day in the life of Alexander Chee. I’ll have to try his method of using a typewriter. It is true the computer holds many distractions. The idea of a typewriter being “a device to speak just with your work” is wonderful.


  4. Thank you. I love Junot and think that’s a big compliment. And I think that your professor is on to something about the conscious/unconscious environments. I.e., yes, I’m very influenced by my surroundings, whether I’m aware of it at the time or not, and I know it.


  5. wonderful piece!
    i very much like the idea of multiple writing places. i can empathize with the paralysis of realizing you are writing. sometimes, in the middle of a sentence, i’ll get up and walk away, both excited and terrified that it’s working.


  6. Kimchee! Yum!

    I love working on a typewriter as well. Though every once and a while I catch myself imagining that I’m a 1940s newspaperman as I type madly along. Then I know it’s time for a scotch break.

    Thanks for sharing Alex.


  7. Cynthia, I love this feature in your blog. I’m not familiar with this author so thanks for the introduction.

    Chee sounds like a quirky author with a good sense of humor. Yikes, 700 to 400 pages is a big cut. I wish him luck.

    I also find it easier to write more than less. I need to disconnect while writing, but I still prefer my computer to a typewriter – much easier for revision.


  8. Thanks, Aimee. Don’t leave mid-sentence!

    I think in those cases, be sure to watch yourself for whether or not you’re getting in your own way to make someone else in your life feel better—i.e., holding yourself back so they’re not threatened. I’m not saying it’s true, but the above is one of the symptoms, that’s all. Good luck with your work.


  9. Thanks, Sarah. The result of the edit was to discover the story. Now, in revision, to make sure the manuscript tells it.


  10. Excellent advice from Alex. I used to use Word, start at page 1, and maul the first few pages of my manuscripts. I now use Scrivener, which has a novel-friendly format that helps me go straight to where I’d left off. Huuuge.

    Now that I’m revising my novel, I find that I can’t do it on the computer–I printed out all the pages and am going through them by hand. Format makes a big difference.

    I also love how Alex makes it so his living space is an impossible place to escape writing. My dad, when he visited me in college, would critique the way in which I’d set up the apartment. He’d say, “You have to make the apartment a place that is studying-oriented.” Well–Alex has made his place writing-oriented, and major props for that!


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  12. Aw. Christine, thanks. I am writing a writer’s spaces post now based on conversations I’ve been having about this post! Some very interesting stuff.


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