Writing a Life

Whenever I walk into the bookstore in my hometown with Emma, she has already read everything on display. I labor over what I am going to read next, knowing that if I don’t finish the book before the next block starts, I will never finish. She tells me about every book, trying to decide whether or not she thinks I would like it. So far, she’s never been wrong. Ever since we sobbed together over Nicole Krauss’s “History of Love” sophomore year of high school, she tells me what to read and I call her when I’m done. Even though she had already graduated when I finished Hanya Yanagihara’s “A Little Life,” I still called in between two of my high school class periods, leaning against my locker, crying to her about it over the phone. She would understand how I felt.

Over this past winter break, as we spilled to each other everything that had happened since the summer, she told me to read Sheila Heti’s “How Should A Person Be?” As the days of break passed, she became more and more insistent. I had to read it. It was Maggie Nelson-esque, she said. And knowing our shared deep admiration for Maggie Nelson, a contemporary poet and theorist, neither of us took this comparison lightly. Nelson’s work seamlessly blends intellectualism and theory with her own lived experience. But when she ran out of her house to give me her copy before I came back to Colorado, I was skeptical. I trusted Emma, but “How Should A Person Be?” looked like a poorly designed self-help book. On the cover of the copy she handed to me, a featureless, dark green, ceramic figurine woman kneels and rests her head on her hand beside a kitschy bright yellow ceramic flower. Both are flecked with obvious glare from the room they were photographed in. The ugly white title, in a font that looks suspiciously similar to Times New Roman, overlays over the ceramic pieces, under all of which lies a dull gray.

“How Should A Person Be?” is a book without any clear narrative arc. A cursory flip through the book revealed a chapter called “What is Betrayal?” and another, “What is Love?”  Though I love thinking about questions like this, other people’s responses to these questions are usually polarizing for me. Sheila, the protagonist, is a playwright in Toronto who is obsessed with being a genius (she thinks she could be one, despite working on the same play for three years without any progress). The story is framed by Sheila’s friends competing in an ugly painting competition, but focuses on Sheila’s relationships with her own art and the woman who becomes her best friend, Margeaux. Their relationship is a depiction of female friendship like I’ve never read before: intense, devoted, and loving, though simultaneously petty and sometimes cruel. This relationship becomes fraught when Sheila wants to begin recording her conversations with Margeaux in an attempt to document life without artifice to better help her write her play. Along the way, Sheila puts enormous amounts of energy into seemingly small things (a major plot point of the story comes when she and Margeaux buy the same dress on a vacation, causing an argument). She does so while also musing on the value of art and life’s big mistakes—she almost nonchalantly describes her three-year marriage and then divorce from an unnamed man. She unashamedly describes both her humiliating and pleasurable experiences with men as well as her embarrassment at being unable to follow the classic narrative arc of a writer’s life (towards the end of the novel, she goes to New York to have the classic artist’s experience and ends up leaving after a few days, having flashed a small child at a crowded restaurant).

Throughout all of this, Sheila takes both everything and nothing seriously; every small worry is exemplary of one of life’s big problems and every big life event is equated to something small and inevitable. And somehow, perhaps because of the unconventional nature of its narrative, “How Should a Person Be?” answers its big, chapter-heading questions right. Or maybe it doesn’t answer them right, but it answers them the way I would like to think that I could answer them, the way that I want to be able to answer them.

Some literary critics think that, in very certain cases, a piece is beyond criticism, that these pieces are too painful and too intimate to be critiqued analytically. That’s kind of how I feel about “How Should A Person Be?” All the questions I was subconsciously asking—all my confusions about the ways that people exist and interact that I have unknowingly been trying to express since I entered high school—Sheila both voiced the questions and meditated upon the (lack of concrete) answers in 306 pages wedged between two misleading covers.

One of these questions turns out to be the center of the novel. I almost compulsively ask various people I know how they got to where they are, doing what they do, existing how they exist. Maybe if I know how other people live their lives, I can apply some of that to my own. Maybe if I ask enough people, I’ll discover the blueprint for a life. Maybe I can know how to exist.

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Upon finishing the book, I texted Emma (these texts are from Emma’s point of view).

When Emma and I talk about Sheila, is the Sheila in our discussion Sheila the author or Sheila the protagonist and narrator? The protagonist shares the author’s name and the novel is dedicated to Margeaux, also the name of Sheila the character’s best friend. Both Sheilas are writers living in Toronto. Both are attempting to capture “real” life through their art. “It’s autofiction,” Emma told me, though I’m still unsure of exactly what this means. My copy says that “How Should A Person Be?” is a novel; another copy’s cover classifies it as a “novel from life.”

In my search to understand my strong reaction to “How Should A Person Be?” I think of my almost as intense but less personal reaction to Maggie Nelson’s “The Argonauts,” and google “autofiction” and “autotheory.” I find that perhaps work like Heti’s is not as unique as I first thought it to be, but it also is not widely written about and defined. I came across Lauren Fournier, a visual artist, curator, and novelist whose academic work revolves around autotheory as a specifically feminist movement. In her dissertation, she writes that autotheory has not yet been defined, but seeks to frame it as the author’s “embodied experience [that] becomes the primary material for generating theory.” This indicates that the knowledge people gain from living through situations is valid as evidence and documentation of theoretical truths. In the same way, Heti’s embodied experience—in all of its disgustingness and emptiness and glory—informs the plot and characters. And maybe all fiction does this to some extent: how can a person’s lived experience not influence the “fictional” narratives they construct? Maybe it’s the simple act of using real names from Heti’s life that makes the events in the novel and Heti’s emotional outpourings seem that much more genuine and real.

In an article considering the lines between fiction and reality in contemporary autofiction, Christian Lorentzen writes, “Heti’s and Lerner’s books don’t lack artifice—they are novels, however their readers receive them—but the artifice is in service of creating the sensation that there’s no artifice, which is the whole point.” Through her lack of guile or clearly artificial narrative, Heti’s book draws closer to life itself. Heti’s attempts to record life with as little alteration as possible are in vain—the fact that she’s reducing life to a book inherently makes it something less than life. She’ll never be able to record life in all it’s life-ness in a novel. Maybe the same feature that makes the novel come across as mediocre and boring to some—the inclusion of the mundane and the petty and the perceived exclusion of artifice—is what makes it that much closer to life.

In the prologue, Heti begins by talking about how she perceives the personalities of great celebrities and artists and her desire to be one of those celebrities and great personalities. In the next two pages, she moves from this to blowjobs to Moses to a typo that she frequently makes (she accidentally types a ‘d’ at the end of soul to turn it into sould). It’s not stream-of-consciousness writing, but it mimics the way I think (and maybe the way a lot of people think), moving from big questions to mundane anxieties at the speed of light. The central question of the novel is its title: How should a person be a person? How should I exist in order to lead the type of life I want to live (and how do I want to live anyway)? Heti, of course, can’t answer this question. But her own seemingly inevitable conflation of the mundane with the dramatic and the all-encompassing: I can see myself there. Such broad questions, Heti knows, can only be answered on life’s micro-levels, in its most subjective spheres. She talks about being in a relationship, what it means to be married, and what it means to believe in destiny. She then writes, “In all of this, there was an overarching question that never left my mind, an ongoing task that could never be called complete, though I hoped one day it would be: What was the right way to react to people? Who was I to talk to at parties? How was I to be?” Everything, even conversations at parties, relates back to the central question of being a person. For Heti, every interaction is a microcosm for some larger pattern, answer, or rule of life; nothing can be taken lightly.  

I’ve told everybody to read this book. Is it one-of-a-kind, like I view it to be? Is it objectively a mediocre work? Even so, it had such an impact on me. I want to know how other people receive it. Is the effect of the novel less intense when the reader doesn’t relate to the protagonist? In other people’s reactions, I find myself trying to refine and make sense of my own fixations with and reactions to various parts of the text. Kat, my friend and the wonderful editor of this article, having given into my nagging and begun to read the book, texts me: “ok so im like a bit more than halfway through and I love it but lowkey Sheila is totally insufferable.” And later at lunch she complained, “Why is she so preoccupied with being a genius? She’s not a genius.” She paused and I waited for her to go on, “I wanna tell Sheila to chill. I like this book but it’s mediocre.”

Heti makes large generalizations about women, but also makes it implicitly clear that she’s not trying to speak for everyone—she doesn’t need to speak for everyone because she’s not following some of the prescribed rules for geniuses. To Sheila the protagonist (and perhaps also Sheila the author), being an artistic genius requires producing work that can “stand the test of time” and works with virtues and plotlines that ring true universally.  In her view, she has written herself out of the category of “genius” just by virtue of being a woman; she writes that “one good thing about being a woman is we haven’t too many examples yet of what a genius looks like … I laugh when [men] won’t say what they mean so the academies will study them forever.” She doesn’t need to write the “Next Great American Novel” or make universal claims that answer philosophy’s big questions about life and love, even though those are her questions too. By prototyping her own sort of anti-genius and by allowing her work to be so intertwined with her life, she is able to answer these questions surprisingly originally, and on her own terms.

By page three of the novel, Heti discusses her blowjob prowess. The first page of the autotheoretical work “The Argonauts” finds Maggie Nelson talking about getting her face smashed on the floor during anal sex. Both women establish immediately that they aren’t here to write or be geniuses by any set of rules that have so far been used to judge “genius.” Dante, by contrast, had a wife and children and only wrote about a woman named Beatrice, whom historians now think never even existed. Although his lived political experience became important to his work, his lived personal and intimate experiences were almost irrelevant. And I don’t mean to say that Dante speaks for all examples of male genius, but there is a common thread among the people (almost always men) widely perceived as genius by academies and institutions. The intelligence of Mark Zuckerberg, whom Heti cites as an example of male genius, is impersonal. It is completely outside of his experience as an individual. Entrepreneurial, literary, scientific, artistic: all of these come with their own sets of expectations and limits. But Heti doesn’t particularly care about these people or qualifying her judgements on them. She doesn’t really care about the rules others have set out, about genius or about analysis of things like genius at all. She sees the world the way she sees it, and she sees it unapologetically.

This is part of the reason this book struck me so much. Someone talking about her life as it is, day to day, is much more impactful to me than someone who attempts to speak for everyone, or attempts to speak about only the most profound moments of life. She is able to find profundity in her life’s un-profundity. Often, I love talking about the abstract things. I like philosophizing. But then I go back to my life, and usually, I’m stressed about the wording of my texts, whether there’s a more fun party that I could be going to then the one that I’m currently at, or whether people can see the pit stains on my shirt during class. I think more about my relationships with other people than I do about any theoretical philosophy that doesn’t apply directly to me. If my best friend and I also bought the same dress, as Sheila and Margeaux do, I would also think for a long time about the implications and our possibly changed dynamics. My life is often mundane. This is also what might have led the novel to such an ambivalent public reaction: maybe it falls flat with some people because they read fiction to get out of their heads and lives, not to become pushed deeper and deeper into them.  

This is also not to say that the term “relatable” can be applied to every audience. Maybe this book struck me so much because I find myself relating very deeply to the main character, in ways that are sometimes shameful; she talks about things I’ve felt but never read in a work, fiction or nonfiction. This is not to say art must be “relatable” to be appreciated, because I don’t think I believe that. Heti’s work hasn’t taken away from my awe at art that does not directly apply to my own lived experience. But maybe it has to be relatable to be felt, and maybe we can begin to embrace fiction not only as a method of experiencing worlds and perspectives beyond our own but also as a way to further articulate things about our own lives in a more intimate and exploratory sense. Maybe art can be just as profound if it is uncomfortably close to home.

Fill In The Blank Issue | April 2019