Photo Courtesy of Sheila Heti
In the days before my interview with Sheila Heti, I found myself questioning what it means to write. I had once thought that the best writers were like monks. Just as religious devotees depart from society in favor of spiritual purity, artists withdraw from loved ones and neglect physical existence to immerse themselves in the world of aesthetics. I assumed this type of life was sad, desperate, and relentless. I imagined that once you entered it there was no easy way out. I figured that writers choose between sets of mutually exclusive opposites: uncomfortable reality or comfortable fantasy, social engagement or spiritual engagement, happiness or excellence.
Within the first few pages of her second novel, Motherhood, Heti shatters this image. A loosely autobiographical protagonist complains of a boyfriend who insists that she must choose between having fun in New York and staying home to write. She thinks to herself, “I’m not the sort of writer who sits in her room and writes.” Reading this, I was baffled. What other kind of writer is there?
I entered the interview with that question—what kind of writer is Sheila Heti? Heti, who spent last semester as a Visiting Fellow at Yale’s Whitney Humanities Center, has penned ten books, among them Motherhood, How Should a Person Be?, and Pure Colour. It was clear by the end of our conversation that Heti, despite writing in her room, is, in fact, not the kind of writer who sits in her room and writes. Of course, she writes a great deal, and her writing is serious. But Heti doesn’t write to observe the world passively—she writes to live better.
Heti did not write very much during her fall 2022 semester at Yale. She spent much of her energy adapting to life in Niantic, a town about 45 minutes outside of New Haven, where she stayed with her dog. She has always wanted to live by the sea and was happy to find a place on the shore. In Niantic, she went on walks, learned where to shop for groceries, and collected some notes for her next book.
It is normal for Heti to pause work for weeks or months at a time. When she is excited about a project, however, she can work all day. She writes according to where she is and what she is thinking about; she does not have rituals. As a teenager, she read interviews in the Paris Review to learn how authors write, but the only consensus she could find was that there was none. While all writers center their lives around writing, that center may take endless forms.
That is not to say there are no patterns to her craft. Heti prefers typing on a computer. After having written on one all of her life, the computer “feels like a part of [her] body.” Her raw material comes out in short, sporadic bursts that last no longer than an hour or two. “I mean, you kind of empty yourself out!” she explained. “Or, at least I feel like I empty myself out and need the day and the night to sleep to fill myself back up again and have something to write about the next day.”
She edits more than she writes–it’s her favorite part. It’s like cleaning without having to “move around the house and get your hands dirty.” In our conversation, I added that the pleasures of a well-structured essay may correspond to those of an orderly room. She agreed.
Knowing that Heti thinks of her computer as a third limb, works in short, intuitive bursts of creativity, and needs to “fill” herself back up again before returning to her work, I had to wonder—is writing something of a natural process for Heti, one intuitive as breathing? When I asked her about fears of loneliness surrounding the profession, she said that the concern of solitude had never occurred to her; being a writer has allowed her to prioritize doing the thing she loves most.
Heti has written plays, compiled an anthology on fashion called Women in Clothes, alphabetized her diary entries for the New York Times, and collected and published her dreams about the 2008 Democratic primaries. In her novels, her narratives oscillate from meditations on the pursuit of the truth to accounts of kinky sex. Her passages regularly alternate between polished prose, streams of consciousness that last for several pages, and pure dialogue.
Critics have classified Heti’s writing as autofiction, memoir, theology, and everything else in between. But if you ask Heti herself, the answer is simple: she is a novelist. She may not be the most conventional one, but her books are essentially novelistic in that they follow characters moving through time and space. “I think I want to write a conventional sort of narrative,” she confesses, “but I just don’t. I probably don’t believe in it…You can’t really write what you don’t believe in.”
Heti has found a form that, in declining to follow the structure of a traditional story, transcends it: “In the missing of the mark,” Heti reasons, “the literary interest happens.” She makes a distinction between the books that imitate the novel and the one that imitates life itself. Her own novels, I think, belong to the latter category.
The seminar that Sheila taught during her semester at Yale, Fate and Chance, included a scene from RuPaul’s Drag Race in its syllabus. In the episode, the contestants were tasked with making an outfit out of garbage. Ultimately, the winner was not the drag queen with the most high fashion, but the one whose design retained a resemblance to trash. The class came to the conclusion that, as Heti recounted to me, “somehow transforming [the material] utterly, so that it no longer shows the trace, is not as beautiful or interesting as those transformations which retain the trace of what it was.”
Later, I realized that this must be true—the past gives us dimension. Maybe that is why Heti’s books often make reference to their own processes, capturing a series of motions and experiments leading up to their product. These experiments are, in themselves, substance.
Heti’s novel, How Should a Person Be? recounts both conversations between Heti and her friend Margaux and the moments when Heti sets out to record those conversations. In Pure Colour chronicles the divine creation art writ large. In Motherhood, she involves the reader directly in her artistic decisions, tossing coins and asking questions. She wonders if the book is good, if art requires an audience to make it worthwhile, and if it even matters in the grand scheme of things.
All of Heti’s books follow her as she works through something specific in her life—the question of what life is and what it means to be a person. “At different ages,” she explains, “that question can center on different problems.” It might have to do with a desire to be famous, the meaning of womanhood, or what one owes to one’s friends. But these issues all circle back to that same, central, notorious conundrum.
Around the time she wrote How Should a Person Be? Heti was especially confused about her duties as a person.
“I just feel like I didn’t understand any of that,” she told me. “I didn’t, no one taught me or something, or maybe no one knows. But I felt like there were some things about living that other people took for granted that I couldn’t, I didn’t, for whatever reason.”
One thing Heti has found difficult to understand is love. She used to think that love was like an exercise. She assumed that the success of any given relationship was by who a person was, rather than who they were with. You can love anyone if you are a good person, she reasoned.
Heti’s understanding of love has changed, but still she maintains that there is something mysterious and impossible about it. “I haven’t heard firsthand of a lot of experiences of love that overflow the heart permanently,” she remarked. She asked me if I had. I hadn’t. Love, as she described it to me, always leaves some part of us unfulfilled. In her books, though, as gritty and confusing and difficult as the central relationships are, there is never a point at which the characters give up on love entirely.
Heti convinces me that writing isn’t a radical sacrifice, nor are writers fundamentally separate from anyone else. Art is just one way, among others, to live and learn. The wisdom she imparts to her readers, though often brilliant, is not resolute. When I asked her if she had hopes for what readers would take away from her writing, she replied: “I don’t have that feeling.”
Writing carries Heti through the challenge, confusion, and beauty of her own life. As she moves on from her semester at Yale, she will doubtless pursue new sites of disorientation, interrogation, and discursive engagement. This is all part of Heti’s process. As she puts it, “I’m not looking for answers. I’m looking for resting places.”