Issue 34

Insistent and Beyond Choice

Author and playwright Sheila Heti discusses her latest book, reworking a decade of diaries


Diaries are off-limits, private musings of private minds. To read them would be wrong, insensitive, near-illegal – so I’m told when I put the question to Google. But what about when they’re typeset, bound, in a bookshop?

Sheila Heti began compiling a decade’s worth of her own diaries after writing her wildly original and often amusing 2012 novel How Should a Person Be?. She loaded half-a-million words typed between her mid-20s and mid-30s into an Excel spreadsheet, and ordered the sentences from A to Z. Of course, there was more to it than that – whittling down the wordcount, lending the lines rhythm – but that’s the gist. The result, Alphabetical Diaries, is a compendium of the author’s thoughts, feelings, wonderings. It’s about living. Being with the right and wrong men. Buying and wearing nice clothes. Having or not having children. Lipstick. Love and sex and desire and shame. Money and lack thereof. Reading and writing books. It’s curious, philosophical, funny, earnest.

I ask where the seed for the project came from, and Heti tells me, “Maybe it was that I wanted to see who I’d been all those years. Maybe it was a curiosity about which repetitions would come up or what it would do to the story of one’s life to alphabetise it.” But she says those were secondary concerns. “The primary concern was that I’d just finished a book and I wanted to stay on the computer and keep working.” Which, judging by the number of books she’s published – 11 to date – isn’t something she struggles with.

And yet, when we speak via our screens in early January – Heti from her home in downtown Toronto – she admits she only woke up 45 minutes ago. “Somebody was yelling in the street, and I thought, why is she waking me up at seven in the morning?, and then it turned out it was 10,” she says, laughing – over the course of our conversation, we’ll both do a lot of this. Even so, she has her first coffee of the day in hand, is nestled on a comfy-looking armchair by a window letting in the not-so-early milky morning light, and is fresh-faced, friendly and ready to go.

So, what was it like, revisiting her past self on the page? Emotional? “I don’t think so, for one thing because the sentences are broken up – so I wasn’t looking at my life in a narrative way, going through scenes.” She offers to show me, and together we zip through long lists of isolated sentences on her shared screen. To begin with, she didn’t edit for fear of ruining the experiment, then the experiment became a book. “I never changed the meaning, but I did cut 90 per cent of the words.” The lines that remain resemble scraps and fragments, individual pieces that, as you read, gradually form a semi-complete puzzle, loosely Heti-shaped.

I wonder whether she learned anything new about herself or had any surprises (nasty or nice). “I guess it makes you think about your life more archetypally,” she says, looking towards the window. “When you’re living your life narratively, you think, Okay, there’s this one guy, and he’s different from the next guy, and then he’s different from the next guy, but when you alphabetise it, you realise, Oh no, I’m just always thinking about… a guy.” We laugh. “I think we have this feeling, going through life, of things happening to us, but the repetition makes you appreciate the fact that actually you’remaking things happen to you, over and over again, because your character enjoys or needs them.”

In her deeply personal and formally inventive novels, Heti writes beautifully and honestly about what she’s lived and thought about and felt. Motherhood is an exhilarating meditation on maternal ambivalence, while Pure Colour considers art criticism, grief, God. But she doesn’t think of those books as confessional or particularly exposing: “By the time the experiences are in book form they feel separate from me as a person.” With the diaries, it’s a little more daunting – perhaps because, unlike the characters in her novels, the character she’s putting across to readers here is “more mysterious”. She worried when they were excerpted ahead of publication in The New York Times that they would come across as trivial or narcissistic. Then again, as she points out, “Everyone’s diary is solipsistic – it’s a place to be thinking about yourself.”

Whether she’s working on novels or diaries, Heti’s process is intuitive: rather than thinking about why she’s writing, she just writes. “Everything can be worked out later,” she says. “But if you don’t go with your instincts, there’s going to be nothing to work with.” She doesn’t write to a schedule, and she never has. “But I love working and I feel bad when I’m not thinking about a project, so it gets done.” If there are gaps, she figures they need to happen; maybe she’ll have a dream, and that will spark something. She compares writing to being in a relationship, the way it slips and shifts and one way or another works itself out. “I’m not trying to make myself into a different kind of person in order to write books. I think the trick is to figure out what kind of person you are and then come up with a process that suits you.”

One thing that’s never wavered is her desire to be a writer. A sentence in the first chapter (A) reads: “All I ever wanted when I was younger was to be a writer, to be able to sit in one place and write things forever, and not feel like I had to do anything else.” She isn’t sure what prompted that ambition. She was an artistic child who preferred putting on plays to playing sports. “Sometimes you don’t know where these things come from,” she says, after giving it thought. “They just come strongly, and they’re insistent and beyond choice.”

She’s also managed to fulfil her desire to write in one place. Besides small stints in other places, she’s lived her whole life in Toronto, where she was born to Jewish-Hungarian immigrants on Christmas Day in 1976. Alphabetical Diaries is peppered with the tussle between her hometown – “Toronto felt to me yesterday like putting on soft pyjamas,” – and the life she could be living in New York, “full of parties and glamorous people, never feeling sad, alone, left out, apart”. Does she regret not being there? “I’m happy in Toronto and staying here was the right decision for me for a million reasons,” she says, reeling off a list that includes affordability and healthcare, grants, the absence of noise, having her friends and collaborators around. “If what I most wanted was to be a writer, it made sense to stay.”

Which reminds me of another line in the book: “Everything has to be sacrificed for writing.” Heti clarifies: “I don’t think that’s everybody’s path, but I’ve always loved Kierkegaard, Simone Weil – the people who have sacrificed everything for writing.” She tries to choose experiences that are interesting and will expand her knowledge of what it feels like to live. To go into the emotional stuff with a sense of courage. To use her life as a testing ground and not take herself too seriously. Still, I wonder aloud whether the prospect of sacrificing everything for one’s art could come across to some as bleak. Heti smiles. “I don’t think it’s bleak. I think it’s exciting, thrilling. A bit like being an adventurer on the high seas.”


This article is taken from Port issue 34. To continue reading, buy the issue or subscribe here