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Sheila Heti_Credit_ Angela Lewis
Sheila HetiPhotography by Angela Lewis

Sheila Heti’s Astonishing Reinvention of the Diary

As the Alphabetical Diaries is published, Sheila Heti discusses keeping a diary, her dislike of the term ‘autofiction’, and fragmenting time and place in her writing to extraordinary effect

Lead ImageSheila HetiPhotography by Angela Lewis

Work, love and money: Sheila Heti believes these are the things that preoccupy us most as human beings. In the Canadian author’s new book, the Alphabetical Diaries, these make up the three main pillars of the narrative. There’s the act of writing, which, in Heti’s case, is work – “I should remember that literature is the dark arts, and is probably not going to save my life or wind me up in some pretty, happy, conventional place” – love – “I love his voice, and how much I want to just crack him open and climb inside him” – sex – “I love how he uses that word for it, cock, and I came, though mildly, just from fucking him last night” – and money – “make enough money to live”. Comprising excerpts from Heti’s own diaries over the past ten years, the Alphabetical Diaries is a baring, brazen window into the author’s life and mind as she ponders big questions about life, love, art, and selfhood (her 2010 breakout book, aptly titled How Should a Person Be?, was similarly soul-searching).

But there’s a catch: instead of publishing her diaries in chronological order, Heti has rearranged them from A to Z, so that every sentence in each chapter begins with a specific letter (all the sentences in the ‘A’ chapter begin with ‘a’, for example). The result is an extraordinary blurring of time and place, where, freed from the conventions of narrative and chronology, readers get to roam around in Heti’s mind freely and at random. Like the stream-of-consciousness narratives deployed by Virginia Woolf and James Joyce – Woolf said of the style, “In one day thousands of ideas have coursed through your brains; thousands of emotions have met, collided, and disappeared in astonishing disorder” – Heti’s writing in the Alphabetical Diaries also comes remarkably close to capturing the experience of being alive; rattling around her subconscious as she oscillates from thought to thought, many of them ten whole years apart, reading the book is a fragmented, chaotic, and truly astonishing experience.

When I ask Heti why she didn’t just publish her diaries as they are, she seems shocked. “There’s no universe in which I would have wanted to do that,” she says. “I mean, what’s the literary value of that?” Instead, she likes to play with literary devices and constraints; there was the flipping of a coin in Motherhood to answer philosophical questions, the recording and transcribing of real-life conversations with friends in How Should a Person Be?, the narrator of Pure Colour getting stuck in a leaf for 40 whole pages, and most recently, her collaboration with an AI chatbot in her story in The New Yorker – which she says could wind up being her next book. Across all her work, she draws from her own life, but nowhere more directly than in the Alphabetical Diaries. “I guess I write about things close to me because I can see them better,” Heti says. “I like the limitations of writing from from within a life. I’m interested in how writing about a life changes the life, or how writing about the self changes how you are.”

Below, Sheila Heti talks about the ideas behind the Alphabetical Diaries.

Violet Conroy: How did you come up with the idea for the book?

Sheila Heti: It was 2010, and I was just curious about what would happen if I looked at my diaries in a completely different way. Like, what would I learn about the self? Is there a self that stays consistent, or does it change over time? Is there a way to analyse that by alphabetising? These were all the questions that were in my mind as I started the project.

VC: Have you kept a diary for all of your life?

SH: On and off, with a lot more emphasis on off. I mostly write when I have to.

VC: Have to what?

SH: Like, if I have to think through something, or I’m just trying to untangle things in my mind, or if there’s something I really want to remember. But mostly it’s when I have a problem and I need to think something through, and there’s nobody I really want to talk about it with.

VC: Why did you want to do something experimental with form, instead of just publishing your diaries as they are?

SH: I never would have done that. That’s not interesting to me. There’s no universe in which I would have wanted to do that. What would be the point?

VC: Why not?

SH: They’re private. I wouldn’t want to give myself away to people in that way. It’s not interesting, just publishing your diaries. I mean, what’s the literary value of that?

“One thinks about relationships, one thinks about work, one thinks about money, or at least I do. And that takes up the bulk of it, like 90% of it. I mean, what else is there?” – Sheila Heti

VC: So did using the alphabetical constraints make it feel less revealing?

SH: I don’t think it’s anywhere near as revealing as it would have been if it was just plain diaries. It’s not what I was going for – I’m not trying to reveal. I’m trying to do something with form, I’m trying to do something with language, I’m trying to look at the self in a different way and look at time in a different way. These are my concerns. I’m not trying to tell people about myself. That’s not interesting to me.

VC: When you published an excerpt of your diaries in the New York Times, you wrote that the self is anchored by shockingly few characteristic preoccupations. What did you mean by that?

SH: I don’t know how similar those two things are, the diary self and the self. But at least in a diary, there appear to be certain themes that one returns to over and over and over again. One thinks about relationships, one thinks about work, one thinks about money, or at least I do. And that takes up the bulk of it, like 90 per cent of it. I mean, what else is there? Freud said the only things that really matter in life are work and love, but I think work, love and money is maybe a little more accurate. Who I’m obsessing over, who didn’t email me back, some man you’re trying to figure out, where money is going to come from, how I’m going to write this book ... it’s quite narrow when you look at it without narrative, just sentence by sentence. People are probably more interested in hearing a little bit more about love than they are in hearing about whether I want to live in Toronto or New York … there are just certain themes that are more interesting, more universal, and have more angles to them. I was always trying to think about the balance. 

VC: You also wrote that “the self’s report on itself is surely a great fiction”. Are we guilty of self-mythologising in our diaries?

SH: You’re constantly telling yourself stories about who you are and who other people are. And your story of who you are is different from your partner’s story of who you are. There’s just so much invention. You can’t live without having some idea about who you are and why you’re doing things, but somebody else comes along and thinks you’re a completely different person from the person you think you are. Where’s the truth? So that’s what I mean by the self being an invention. And then the report on oneself [a diary] would also be an invention. You are inventing the self.

VC: In your previous books like Motherhood and How Should a Person Be?, you blur fiction and nonfiction together. Do you see the Alphabetical Diaries as a mix of the two as well?

SH: I don’t really think about things in terms of fiction or nonfiction. Those seem like publishing categories to me, not thinking categories. One doesn’t think: now I’m thinking in a fictional way, now, in thinking in a non-fictional way. You’re just thinking, and it’s always a mix of fact and invention and interpretation, and what you can remember happened and what you think you remember but aren’t remembering accurately. And I feel like writing is an extension of thinking, so if those categories, fiction or nonfiction, are not present in thinking, for me, they’re not really categories that I think about when I’m writing. I’m just trying to think about what’s interesting, what’s engaging, what’s revealing, what’s beautiful.

VC: What keeps bringing you back to autofiction? And how do you feel about that label?

SH: It’s not a label that I feel a lot of connection to. I guess I write about things close to me because I can see them better. And I want to think about life, I’m more interested in life than imagination. I don’t want to be making things up out of whole cloth because there’s a kind of limitlessness to that that doesn’t feel interesting. I like the limitations of writing from from within a life. I’m interested in how writing about a life changes the life, or how writing about the self changes how you are. And I’m interested in writing with material that already exists. I find the limitlessness of the imagination kind of hard to work with.

VC: You also use literary constraints and devices, like the alphabetical formation with the diaries, or the coin in Motherhood. What draws you to play? 

SH: I don’t know ... I like games. It makes it into a game. [Laughs]. I like playing, I like editing. I like the puzzle of it. I don’t know how to explain it, it’s just what seems fun to me.

“I’m trying to do something with form, I’m trying to do something with language, I’m trying to look at the self in a different way and look at time in a different way” – Sheila Heti

VC: I felt like the book came really close to capturing the experience of being alive. Did you want to capture life in a more true way, away from the conventions of chronological structure?

SH: That’s always something I’m interested in. Because our minds do skip around a lot, and we do move through space and time very quickly in our minds. Memory is also very fragmented and crosses time and space very quickly. So yeah, I think it does represent something that feels true, which is a surprise since you wouldn’t think that alphabetising your diary would make something feel more true than narrative, but in some strange way, it does. 

VC: Are there any writers in particular who have inspired you with their innovations in form and writing?

SH: I really like the American writer Kenneth Goldsmith. He wrote a book called Soliloquy which really inspired me. Each book tries to do something new and they’re all reports on the self, or reports on the news or culture in some very unliterary, unwritten way. There’s a lot of found material in his work. I was definitely thinking a lot about his books and Soliloquy in particular when I was working on the Alphabetical Diaries.

VC: What are you working on next?

SH: I’ve been playing around with this AI book that I published a little bit of in The New Yorker and a bit in The Paris Review. I feel like that is something that I’m going to want to finish and figure out, but I go back and forth on it. But that’s just the stage I’m at, you know, the back-and-forth stage. I’d rather not feel compelled, but I do feel compelled. 

Alphabetical Diaries by Sheila Heti is published by Fitzcarraldo Editions, and is out now.