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Advice Column, Part One: Tao Lin and Heidi Julavits

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 configurationsI 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?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.


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
  2. The Vanishers
    New Hardcover $26.95
  3. Shoplifting from American Apparel...
    Used Trade Paper $8.00


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

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