by Sheila Heti, June 28, 2013 10:00 AM
Sarah Manguso is a poet and writer of nonfiction novels, or whatever you want to call them. They are poetic and spare and true. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and child. I met her at a writer's colony in 2006, and I vividly remember an early discussion we had in which we admitted to each other what part of our bodies we liked least. What was nice about it was that neither of us had even noticed what the other was complaining about, and when it was pointed out, we thought the other was absurd. That made an impression on me. My favorite of her books, The Two Kinds of Decay, was about an illness she suffered in her 20s, and her most recent book (also great), The Guardians, is about the death of a friend. She is a writer I truly admire, for she never shies away from writing about the most difficult things. She also has these incredible eyes, which means just what you think: she is indeed always looking.
Sheila: At what point should one abandon the decisions one has made? You and I have made pacts, and you've told me about decisions you've made that you've kept and about friends of yours who've made decisions they've kept. I know every situation is different, but do you have a rule of thumb, or could you imagine some sort of technique, to help one determine when to quit, when to go on, when to break a decision?
Sarah: I don't believe constancy of mind (hard-headedness?) is a virtue in itself, so I don't believe changing one's mind, adjusting or abandoning a decision, is necessarily "breaking" anything. At best, it's growth. Constancy of heart, keeping commitments to others — that's the virtue.
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by Sheila Heti, June 27, 2013 10:00 AM
Roxane Gay seems to be everywhere, always. I follow her on Twitter where she has tweeted over 50,000 times (and none are annoying); she blogs compellingly at roxanegay.com; and she has two new books coming out, a novel,
An Untamed State, and an essay collection called
Bad Feminist ("A bad feminist is just a feminist who's human, who's a mess of contradictions but still believes in the feminist project," she has said in an interview). She works at
The Rumpus as essays editor. She always writes with such swiftness, ease, intelligence, and confidence; therefore, it was a surprise to receive an email from her recently (sent to a bunch of undisclosed recipients) asking all sorts of questions about self-doubt and confidence, as it pertains to writing. Of course, that mixture of confidence and vulnerability is part of why her work is so well-loved.
Sheila: I decided a few years ago that, moving forward and making choices, I would only make the most comfortable choice: the choice that made me feel the most calm, restful, peaceful, taken care of, secure. In the past, I was always pushing myself to do the scariest thing, the thing that would make me want to throw up. Taken generally, as competing philosophies or approaches, what do you think are the risks and benefits of each? Does it seem like a good idea to switch?
Roxane: As I've gotten older, I've realized that suffering is less and less appealing and that willful risk-taking without consideration leads to a lot of suffering. I too used to push myself to do the scariest thing and I learned a lot from that kind of risk-taking. I certainly had experiences.
I also came to understand that sometimes, there's nothing ennobling about risk. Some things are scary because they are fucking scary and not in an instructive way. It is a good idea to have this kind of realization or evolution, but it's also a good idea to be a little reckless once in a while. So many of the most interesting experiences thrive in a reckless environment. The key is knowing the line between risky and reckless, and just plain dangerous and stupid.
It has gotten easier for me to tell the difference because I now consider the consequences of my actions. When I'm taking a risk or being reckless, I know that there might be danger involved in a decision, but I think about those potential dangers and assess how willing I am to incur them.
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Anne Theriault first came to my attention when I read a blog of hers (she blogs at The Belle Jar and at The Huffington Post about how angry she felt any time a men tried to explain the horrors of rape by saying, "Imagine if it was your mother, your daughter, your sister." I reblogged it over at The Believer, because her arguments were the kind I'd never before heard, then I started reading her regularly. Her writing always makes me think in ways I haven't before — about feminism, life, motherhood. When I learned that she lived in Toronto, like me, I suggested we go out for dinner. I was surprised to see that we had both dressed up: put on makeup and nice dresses. We drank, but responsibly, then walked through the dark to 7-Eleven. I remember talking about the best decision of our lives and the worst decision of our lives. Not bad for a first date.
Anne: I'm a cautious person by nature, a champion worrier, master deliberator, and obsessive writer of pros and cons lists. I like to know every possible outcome of any given situation — in fact, I remember telling you over dinner that I wished I had some sort of flowchart showing all the potential results of all the potential choices that I might have to make in my life. I picture it starting out with something like: "Would you like to be born? Yes/No," and then progressing from there, the branches spreading and multiplying across the page until, as the end of my life draws near, the chart begins to reach monstrous dimensions.
Of course, as you said at the time, this type of chart is a recipe for disaster. Anyone who knows anything can see that it would almost certainly turn into a "Monkey's Paw" type situation. For example, it might tell you that if you do x, then you will suddenly become thousands of dollars richer, but you don't realize until it's too late that those thousands of dollars are paid out to you from your mother's life insurance plan after she dies in a horrible, unforeseen accident.
I'm the type of person who thinks that there must be some kind of inherent order to the universe, and this order can be reinforced by making safe, boring choices. This means that, for the most part, I've lead a fairly boring, predictable life. It also means that if the universe proves that, in fact, it's a totally chaotic, uncontrollable mess, I'm caught totally unaware. Making what I consider to be safe choices gives me the illusion of having some kind of authority over the direction my life is taking. Making risky choices helps me to realize that I'm not in control, that I've never been in control, and that any "safety" in my life is, at best, an unpredictable stroke of luck that comes with no guarantees of how long it might last.
I also think that the riskiest decisions that I've made — moving 1,500 miles away from home when I was 18, taking a dude home for my first one-night stand, marrying said dude four years later, moving to Toronto, having a kid — have resulted in the most happiness and personal growth. Even the things that didn't turn out the way that I wanted them to, the choices that resulted in the type of heartbreak that I thought would follow me around for the rest of my life, somehow seem, now, like they've contributed to my overall well-being.
I guess the real question is — why were you trying to do the scariest thing, the thing that would make you throw up? Was it because you truly thought that those were the best paths to go down? Or because you thought that it was better, more admirable, to be that type of person?
I know that I'm the type of person who tends to make the kind of lazy, risk-free decisions that allow me to trudge along the same old, familiar roads as always, even if those roads are making me miserable. So I think that making scary choices is something that tends to ultimately benefit me. But if you are someone whose instinct is to make dangerous, risky decisions, and if those decisions have a tendency to make you feel unhappy and self-destructive, then maybe changing up your philosophy is a smart move. It's possible that choosing the path that makes you feel the most calm, rested, and peaceful is better for you, Sheila, specifically.
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by Sheila Heti, June 26, 2013 10:00 AM
Kathryn Borel (Jr.) is a close friend of mine from Toronto who moved to Los Angeles with her boyfriend a few years ago and who is, as we speak, writing a pilot for ABC which is loosely based on her memoir, Corked. I still remember when she was calling her memoir Chateau Shitfaced. Too bad the publisher nixed that. The book is about how she accidentally killed a man with her car when she was in her early 20s and the aftermath in which she tries to grapple with the inevitable eventual death of her own beloved father. I asked her to answer my question, and also to give it to her mother, whose advice and insights I have come to rely on as much as I do on Kathryn's — her mother is a serious, girlish, super-intelligent person. I have never known a family who so much enjoys spending time together as the Borels (there is also a brother, Nico).
Sheila: I have noticed that women spend a lot of time trying to make themselves better, happier, smarter, more perfect. How can one tell when to stop? Is all this self-improvement necessary or not such a good idea? Is it a waste of time? Is it better to just accept oneself, in all one's flaws? What's the right balance?
Kathryn Borel Jr.: I guess it depends on the definition of self-improvement. Should I stop reading books that deepen my understanding of myself or the world? Probably not. Should I try yelling less when my boyfriend makes a small mistake that bugs me, like when he lets the garbage pile so high there's food slime stuck to the underside of the lid of the trashcan? Yes, I can maybe lower my voice and speak to him reasonably and ask him nicely to Windex the smell away.
The friction that occurs between who I am and who I think I can be is the reason I wake up and take a shower and leave the house.
To me, the best way to think about self-improvement is to always be wondering (and figuring out) what are the motivations behind my actions. If I can be honest and clear about those motivations, and be brave enough to say them out loud to the people who matter, I'm moving in a positive direction.
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Kathryn Borel Sr.: I think the desire to improve, whether it is in looks, education, physical conditioning, is an extension of the adolescent in us that wants to distinguish him or herself from the masses. The first 40-50 years of our lives are devoted to climbing the "mountain," whatever definition we have given it. The efforts of self-improvement, in whatever way we want to define that, physical or mental, are well-placed during this time frame, as long as they are not driven by pressures from outside but by an inner need to reach the vision we have set for ourselves.
After that time frame, then a certain contentment (hopefully) kicks in, a professional road that one can be proud of, a family situation which is satisfying and loving, a level of thinking down, being able to define who we are specifically, clearly expressing values, priorities, and ideas that are in keeping with and supported by one's entourage. The need to do better is confined to just those areas that we deem to be the most important and dependent on our rootedness; we are less impressionable and less in need of competing with others. This would be the growing down part and a natural extension of who we have become.
I think from age 50 onward, there is an accepting of who we are, recognizing the limitations and strengths, and working with this. The body also sends off messages that it is not able to run the same race as 20 years before. We take a distance from things, observe more, give back.
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by Sheila Heti, June 25, 2013 10:00 AM
Susan Swan is a Canadian novelist. She is the author of seven books, has received numerous awards, and has been published in over 20 countries. Her latest book is called
The Western Light. I remember how, many years ago, her novel, The Biggest Modern Woman in the World, was confiscated by Customs for obscenity. She has a big public presence in Canada, always speaking out powerfully about feminism and politics. She even served as the chair of the Writers' Union of Canada for many years. She has a grown daughter, Samantha Haywood, who is a literary agent. I think we first interacted for real when we were doing a panel over email for the
Globe and Mail on writing about sex. Recently, we have been exchanging long and personal emails. The first book I remember reading of hers, as a teenager, and absolutely loving, was
The Last of the Golden Girls, which I recently ordered to reread.
Sheila: I have always found romantic relationships difficult. I think this is true for many people, but have you noticed that for some people they're not difficult? What are those people doing differently? Is it just who they choose to be with, and if so, what is behind their choice? Are people who don't experience difficulties just basically easygoing people who choose easygoing people? Are people who are in relatively simple relationships learning anything? Does learning matter? Does conflict actually help one grow, or is that a myth, do you think?
Susan: I was an easygoing young woman, so at boarding school I was placed with girls nobody liked. This happened to me twice, and at first, I hated it because it meant I couldn't room with my friends. But I ended up becoming very close with one of these girls, and I learned that difficult people tend to be interesting, and that all relationships need a certain amount of give and take to make them work. That's true of romantic relationships most of all. "Hold your love lightly but not loosely," I once told a friend's daughter who was getting married.
In other words, loving somebody is a Zen discipline. You have to cut them the same slack you would for your best friend or for yourself, and that's often not easy because we feel more vulnerable in romantic relationships. Let's face it — intimacy is terrifying. Nobody I know does it well all of the time. In fact, I'd say that people who are able to be intimate easily are like .0009 percent of the population. Pride, self-disrespect, fears left over from past bad relationships — all these bogeymen can creep in and sabotage the best of lovers' philosophies and mutual respect.
I've been living with one man, Patrick Crean, for 21 years, and he represents home to me. Our relationship started out stormy; when we had a fight or a conflict, I would threaten to leave him and move to New York because I didn't trust that something could work out. I had been pretty independent before we got together. I used to brag that I was my own institution; I'd created myself out of hard work and ambition, and I didn't need anybody to make me feel whole. (And I still don't need anybody to make me feel whole, but looking back, my words strike me as a bit pompous.) Anyway, we would argue and get mad at each other, but what was different with him is that we would come out the other side of a fight to a new place. He says I taught him to process conflicts, and maybe I did, but in my experience this was new. I'd been brought up in a WASP family where confrontations were considered extremely rude and inconsiderate, so I was amazed that having a conflict could clear the air and pave the way for a better understanding of the other person. Now we pride ourselves on getting through conflicts together; we have done it in the past so we know we can do it in the future. There's a great sense of security in knowing this about each other.
As a couple we have two big natural advantages. His needs for solitude and time together are pretty much the same as mine. Before Patrick, I used to be with men who were either emotionally unavailable or made me feel claustrophobic because they needed a lot of time together. A writer needs a lot of privacy; so does an editor. When we were starting to fall in love, I told him that he was the first man who offered me the right amounts of time together and time apart, and maybe this meant we would be happy together. I wrote him a letter about this, and when he received it, he ended an old relationship which had been starting to flag and we became serious.
The other big plus, which has nothing to do with maturity, is that Patrick fulfills my romance ethic. When I was in my 30s (around your age, Sheila), I exchanged diaries in the mail with two other women about our relationships. We did this for about two years, and we were asking each other the questions you are asking here. Eventually we wrote a screenplay based on these diaries called "It's Not All Porn: A Treatise on Ethics." Our letters to each other would start with the phrase "Dear Diary," and then we would confide our fears and hopes about our relationships. Our diaries revealed that our love lives were a self-styled kind of personal drama; we were each the star and the director of our own romance story, and each of these three stories had a different ethos. But the ethos was always the same and the stories of our romances showed this, no matter who the man or woman was. One of the women (who was a performance artist and stripper) was always saving men through her sexuality, and the second woman, a theatre producer, liked dangerous or sinister men. My ethos was that I needed a man who was always dying to marry me but would accept that I didn't want to get married.
Patrick is that man. He makes me feel cherished and wanted without me having to turn into a wife.
I suspect everybody has their romance ethic whether they know it or not. We didn't know it until we did the diaries together. So no matter how mature and generous two lovers or partners are with each other, they still need some extra pluses that come from the unique combination of the two of you together.
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by Sheila Heti, June 24, 2013 10:00 AM
I was asked to blog this week, but I didn't know what to say. So this is an advice column — with questions by me. I asked friends and acquaintances to play the role of helper. On some days, I asked more than one person to answer the same question.
I first heard about Tao Lin when he came to Toronto for a reading. I don't know what he did wrong, but all my friends went, and many were angrily disappointed. At this point I became fascinated and started reading his books and following him online. I truly admired how he was not playing "the role of a writer" in either his books or his online persona. His Shoplifting from American Apparel is my favorite of his books, but that's maybe because I'm only partly through his latest, Taipei (not for lack of wanting to finish it, but he kept on telling me to stop reading and sending me new copies; the final book arrived yesterday, so I can begin again with ease). This past spring, my friend Margaux Williamson and I met him in New York, and we went to see some art. He was very shy and sweet.
Sheila: If a person has a bad memory (as I do) and an emotional memory, which means remembering happy events when happy and sad events when sad, how can you ever feel like you have an accurate estimation of any situation you experience: a relationship, a trip, working on a book, your life? Do you think there are any tricks or exercises one can do to make one's memory not so biased toward one's feelings in the present moment, to remember life more like it happened?
Tao: Maybe by writing accounts of experiences soon after having them? I think memories probably begin changing immediately, as you study parts of them, distorting their original configurations, as parts of them leave your range of awareness, going to where your unconscious will distort them without your knowledge, etc. But an account — of only what happened to your senses, or that and also what you felt and thought — can be stored outside yourself, safe from your influence.
Like how a house can be repeatedly built from the same blueprints, each time slightly different — except here it's less consistent, less accurate — you can, by reading your account, reconstruct a memory of an experience and discern, for example, that you had a horrible (not mediocre, or whatever) time vacationing in Alaska, or doing whatever.
The more you do this (store a memory of a recent experience outside yourself, remember the experience, compare the account to what you remember), the more information you'll have about how, particularly and generally, you seem to misremember experiences. With this information, collected into a sort of guidebook on the usage of your brain to better reconstruct or maintain a memory's original configuration, you can accordingly (1) interpret whatever memory your unsupervised brain has constructed and presented to you, or maybe somehow (2) secretly monitor and subtly instruct your brain while it constructs a memory.
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Heidi Julavits is the author of four novels, most recently The Vanishers. She and I work together at The Believer magazine and are currently collaborating with Leanne Shapton on a book titled "Women in Clothes" (to participate, visit www.womeninclothes.com). I feel like her fiction works like no one else's I've read; its logic is winding and harsh, and there is always a sense of unnamed trouble on the horizon, as if the human indirectly affects other forces in the universe, of which she has no knowledge. Heidi has a fast and brilliant mind. Talking to her is like rafting on an inner tube down a white, rushing river.
Heidi: OK, firstly how funny is it that I "forgot" to answer this question. Evidently I am either the very best person to answer a question about memory or the very last person in the world who should be consulted.
I had an interesting experience a few weeks ago that made me rethink how I answered advice questions. As a professor (and a human, I guess), I'm often asked for advice. But this time I was asking for advice about a decision I needed to make. Most people responded "emotionally" to my request; their responses were interesting but specific to the situation. It wasn't advice I could use in any other realm of my life. Then I asked a man I don't know very well. He said, "I believe in the benefits of dramatic change." I thought this was an incredible way to give advice; not to tell a person what to think about a question, but to change the way they think about the question.
So I want to offer a response that's more about how to think than what to think. I'd begin by asking: Is the memory incorrect, or was the experience you had at the time incorrect? It seems that you're wanting not only to remember your life more objectively, but also to experience it more objectively so that you can create less "biased" memories. But why is bias less accurate? Might bias skew you closer to, rather than further from, the truth?
I dated a man once. He often told a story about his father, his sweet, nonviolent, scientist father who abruptly moved out into the country while still married to my boyfriend's mother. He decided he needed a separate life and some space from his family. One day my boyfriend was visiting his father in the country. The next-door neighbor owned a beagle that barked incessantly. His father was driven crazy by this beagle. On this day he snapped. He grabbed a gun from the trunk of his car, walked to the fence, and shot the beagle.
I'd heard this story probably upwards of 20 times when my boyfriend and I went to a relationship counselor. He told her the beagle story. As we were driving home, he said, "I can't believe I told her the beagle story." I asked him why and he said, "Because it didn't happen. It's not true."
I was floored. What? This story I've used to define you isn't true?
He said, "It isn't true, but it captures what it felt like to be me at that time."
I thought that this was so much better than facts, than reporting an objective memory. He was trying to communicate his emotional experience to me; he was trying to help me understand not the facts of his life, but the state of his head. Why would I prefer objective truth? He helped me know a person I'd never meet. He brought a little boy back from the dead.
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