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Advice Column, Part Four: Roxane Gay and Anne Theriault

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.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 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.

More from Sheila Heti at PowellsBooks.Blog:

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Sheila Heti is the author of several books of fiction, including The Middle Stories and Ticknor; and an essay collection written with Misha Glouberman, The Chairs Are Where the People Go. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Bookforum, McSweeney's, n+1, and the Guardian. How Should a Person Be? is her latest book.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. How Should a Person Be? Used Trade Paper $10.95

Sheila Heti is the author of How Should a Person Be?

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