Beauty inside

Reviews | Sheila Heti: ‘I don’t want to be a man’s mother’

A newspaper in
Alphabetical order
H to I

A little over 10 years ago, I started looking back at the journals I had kept over the previous decade. I wondered if I had changed. So I loaded the 500,000 words from my journals into Excel to sort the sentences alphabetically. Maybe that would help me identify patterns and repetitions. How many times had I written “I hate him”, for example? With the sentences detached from the narrative, I began to see the self in a new way: as something quite solid, anchored by surprisingly few characteristic concerns. As I came back to the project over the years, it became something more romantic. I blurred the characters and cut thousands of sentences, to introduce rhythm and beauty. When the Times asked me for a work of fiction that could be serialized, I thought of these newspapers: Surely the relationship of self to self is great fiction, and what more fundamental mode of serialization than the alphabet? After some editing, here is the result.
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How does he select the most irritating, superficial, superficial and terrible wives? How does someone disassemble? How does someone change their axis? How quickly the days pass. How Goethe put himself entirely in “The Sorrows of Young Werther”. How little you think about the sincerity with which you are judged by others for real, enduring, and serious flaws in your character, and instead fear judgment in that neurotic way, as if a little e- mail you send could result in their harsh condemnation – as if you weren’t really seen. How many men have I slept with this year? How many men have I kissed? How tiring it is to grow old.

I’m not saying this as a bad thing, but I just realized that nothing happens in life. I don’t remember anyone’s name. I don’t want a party. I don’t want anything to do with Pavel tonight. I don’t want to answer his calls. I don’t want to be a man’s mother. I don’t want to be a teacher. I don’t want to be dead in four years. I don’t want to be together anymore. I don’t want to go out into the world. I don’t want to go to any parties. I don’t want to impose on anyone or burden anyone else with myself. I don’t want to continue living in this apartment. I don’t want to sublet my room in May. I don’t want to go over the time allotted to me. I don’t want to tell my friends about him, and I feel like I never want anyone’s opinion of my life or their thoughts on my life ever again. I drank too much last night, and there was too much booze everywhere. I find blood on the fabric all the time now. I find it interesting that some people aren’t going to the US ambassador’s tomorrow night for a cocktail in protest of US foreign policy. I found out today that as a young doctor, my mother had to put a catheter inside a man’s penis. I gave her the chocolate I bought. I gave her the groceries I had bought for her, and she said that would be the first food in her cupboard. I gave him half the lemon bread that I had partly bought for him. I hate him these days. “I hate him,” I repeated over and over again in my dream.


I hate storytelling. I have a blister on my foot. I have a headache now from crying. I have a knife in my heart and I want them all to die. I tend, when things are going a little bad, to think things are the worst possible. I read this book on time management – the one the taxi driver and Bill Clinton recommended. I’ve been tired these days, but it’s probably just winter. I cleaned the whole apartment except the kitchen floor and the bathroom floor. I failed as a human being. I have more respect for those who want to change the world and social conditions than for those who want to change themselves and their relationships. I have no money. I have nobody. I started reading “Middlemarch” and I feel lazy. I have to figure out how to write a novel. I have to fix my brain. I have to see it. I tried to read “Snow”, but my mind is elsewhere. I kept waking up and hating him, feeling really bad for him. I kissed everyone hello. I kissed him and saw his smile in the night. I kissed him in front of them, just very chastely. I knelt by the log, joined my hands and prayed. I laughed into my hand. I lay in bed, checking the text messages on my phone. I lay on top of her and she pursed her lips. “I like dark, dusty corners,” I said, and she said, “Me too,” and then we relaxed. I really like Emmanuel Bové. I like it more since its shine. I like and dislike him in about equal parts, and I love and hate him in about equal parts. I love it on one level, but how boring and so completely devoid of self-knowledge on the other. I love how he wrapped my gift in tracing paper and silver tape. I like to look at the mountain. I like my face. I like to read Gogol. I like to read Jane Bowles. I like to read in the NYRB reviews of essay collections published by art critics. I like to see old women swimming – it doesn’t make being old seem so bad. I love how the pastries are taken out of their dishes, placed on paper plates, then wrapped in flower-covered wrapping paper with the sides tucked in and underneath. I like to take art slowly, as slowly as necessary. I loved watching Pavel smoke that last puff of a cigarette and throw it away before the doors opened, before we walked into the airport together. I lost my boots later, then I lost her bra, which she had given me earlier that night after dragging her to her room. I love scrambles. I love him so much. I love her so much. I love him, me. I love it. I love his skin, and I want to hold him in my arms, and I love his voice, and how much I want to open him up and climb into him. I love his voice, screaming into the other room. I like the way he says, “huh?” so gently and gently, his eyes becoming all innocent and boyish. I loved it. I loved it the other day when he showed me how new the newspaper was, tucking in the sports and arts sections, I just looked at it and what a marvel it is. I made us coffee. I mustn’t rush, but it’s, as he said, like a weather pattern looming on the horizon – you can’t stop love any more than you can stop the weather pattern from moving . I need a new bra. I need money. I need money. I need to overcome my guilt to write a story. I never imagine that love can last, I never imagine that there is no imminent threat. I never meet new people. I never met Gertrude Stein, yet I feel like I did. I never met Goethe or Jane Bowles. I never met Manet. I never really thought a baby would come out of me. I never used to cry at all. I only realized this today. I only think of art. I prefer my life when I’m calm and writing, not smoking and not traveling. I realized, walking up the block, that a good writer or artist creates a form inside your soul, and your soul takes on that form as well. I realize that’s what I did, look for a mother in everyone. I’m really a man that way. I’m really an inside person – I guess I always have been. I really like “2666”, but I still want to write this article for the back of The New York Times Book Review about how David Foster Wallace was replaced by Bolaño, and how there always has to be someone, a man-God writer, that everyone can cower thinking they have all the answers. I really like it, though. I really like.

Sheila Heti is the author of 10 books, including the novels “Motherhood”, “How Should a Person Be?” and the next “Pure Colour”. This is part 3 of a 10 part series. Sign up to receive it in your inbox.

Photographs by Yaël Malka.