On this week’s episode, I have author Shelia Heti, book writer of Pure Color, Motherhood, Alphabetical Diaries, and many many more. We talk about how I discovered her writing and why Pure Color meant so much to me. She also explains her writing process and how she approaches a story. There is so much more.

Show Notes

Sheila Heti Website: https://www.sheilaheti.com/

Sheila Heti on Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheila_Heti

Michael’s Online Screenwriting Course – https://michaeljamin.com/course

Free Screenwriting Lesson – https://michaeljamin.com/free

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Autogenerated Transcript

Sheila Heti:
That’s what I was thinking.

Michael Jamin:
It was work harder.

Sheila Heti:
I was like, I got to work harder than any other writer alive.

Michael Jamin:
And what did that work look like to you?

Sheila Heti:
Just always writing and always not being satisfied and being a real critic of my work and trying to make it better and trying to be more, try to get it to sound and more interesting and figure out what my sentences were and letting myself be bad and repeat myself until I got better. And I don’t think that I ever let that go. I’m not sitting here today saying, I work harder than any other writer alive. I do remember having that feeling when I was young. That’s what I need to do. That’s the only way

Michael Jamin:
You’re listening to What the hell is Michael Jamin talking about? I’ll tell you what I’m talking about. I’m talking about creativity. I’m talking about writing, and I’m talking about reinventing yourself through the arts.

Michael Jamin:
What the hell is Michael Jamin talking about today? Well, ladies and gentlemen, I’m talking about, honestly, one of the greatest, I feel, one of the greatest writers of my generation. Yep, yep. Her name is Sheila Hedy. She’s the author of I guess 11 books, including Pure Color, although it’s spelled with a U, the Canadian Way, a Garden of Creatures, motherhood, how Should a Person Be? And her forthcoming book, alphabetical Diaries. And she’s just an amazing talent. So she’s an author, but I don’t describe her this way. And by the way, I’m going to talk about Sheila for about 59 minutes, and then at the end I’ll let her get a word and then I’ll probably cut her off. But I have to give her a good proper introduction. She’s really, really that amazing of a writer. So author isn’t really the right word. She really is, in my opinion, an artist who paints with words.
And if you imagine going up to a Van Gogh painting, standing right up next to it, and then you see all these brushstrokes, and then you take a step back and you’re like, okay, now I see the patterns of the brushstrokes. And you take a little step back, oh, the patterns form an image. Then another step back, you say, oh, that’s a landscape. It really is like that with her writing. She has these images that she paints with words, and then they form bigger thoughts and you pull back and it’s really amazing what she does and how she kind of reinvents herself with each piece. And so I’m so excited and honored she for you to join me here so I can really talk more about this with you. Thank you for coming.

Sheila Heti:
Yeah, thanks. That introduction made me so happy. Thank you for saying all that.

Michael Jamin:
Lemme tell you by the way, how I first discovered you. So I have a daughter, Lola, she’s 20, she’s a writer, and we trade. I write something we trade. It’s really lovely that we get to talk about. And so she’s off at school, but she left a book behind and I’m like, all right, what’s this book she left behind? Because that way I can read it and we can talk about that, have our book club. And she left Pure Color. And I was like, oh, I like the cover, so I’ll take a look at it. And what I didn’t realize, it was the perfect book to discover you by because it’s book about among other things, about a father’s relationship with his daughter. So I text her, I say, I’m reading pure color. She goes, Sheila Hedy’s, one of my favorite authors. If I could write anybody, it would be her. I’m like, all right, well, I got to continue reading this. And then a couple of days later, I get to the part and I send her a text. I say, you and me would make a great leaf. And she goes, that’s my favorite part. The tree. That’s my favorite part.
You’re also an interviewer. You’ve interviewed some amazing writers. Joan Didion, Margaret Atwood, big shots. And so I’m sure as an interviewer, you give a lot of thought to your first question. So I was trying to, I better give a lot of thought to my first question, and I kept coming back to the same one, which is pure color. It’s such a big swing. If you were to pitch me this idea, you’d say, I’m going to write a book. It’s about a father’s relationship with his daughter, but it’s also about a woman’s unrequited love with her friend, but it’s also about the soul and what it means to have a life. I’d say, I don’t know, Sheila, that’s kind of a big swing. I don’t know about this, but you hit it out of the park, you did it. It was beautifully done. And so my first question is, you come up with an idea like this, where do you get the nerve to think that you can actually pull this off? This is really where do you get the nerve to think that, okay, I’m going to do this.

Sheila Heti:
The nerve.

Michael Jamin:
Well, it’s such a big swing. It’s like, how do you know you can do this? Do you know what I’m saying?

Sheila Heti:
Yeah. I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know that I could do it. So it’s nice to hear. I mean, I don’t think that you ever think you’re going to be able to finish the book that you start, and then when you finish a book, you never think you’re ever going to start a new one. That’s sort of where I am right now. In that confused place. There’s a part of it that always feels like, I dunno how to explain it. I mean, I don’t know how to answer that question. It’s a weird process. There’s no process. There’s no system to doing it, and then you hope you did it. You feel good and it feels done, but you dunno how you ever got there.

Michael Jamin:
And how do you know you arrived? How do you know when it’s time to quit on something? And do you ever quit on something?

Sheila Heti:
Yeah. Yeah, A lot. A lot. But usually not like three or four years in, usually 60 pages in or something like that.

Michael Jamin:
60

Sheila Heti:
Pages is when you start thinking this is not working.

Michael Jamin:
Is it a gut feeling? How do you know

Sheila Heti:
Your curiosity runs out?

Michael Jamin:
Your curiosity runs out. Okay, so you get bored by it yourself?

Sheila Heti:
Yeah.

Michael Jamin:
Is that what you’re saying?

Sheila Heti:
Yeah, it’s just like, that was fun. That was nice. That was a good couple of weeks. I was really excited. I really thought this was going somewhere. And then it just ends. It’s like a relationship. You think, oh, this is so great, I’m going to be with this person. And then after six months you’re like,

Michael Jamin:
I was kidding myself. But you’re writing. I have so much I want to say, it seems like you reinvent yourself with each piece. You know what I’m saying? It’s like pure color is very, very different from how should a person be, which I was like, okay, I want to read this. I’m not sure how should a person be, which is extremely different from alphabetical diaries, which is almost like an experiment. And I wonder, do you get pushback from your agent or your publisher? Do they want you to do the same thing? We know it works.

Sheila Heti:
No, I think that at this point there’s no expectation of that. When I wrote my second book, there was a feeling like that’s not the first one. And there was some disappointment and the publisher said, this book doesn’t count as your next book. In part, I think it was so different, but I think at this point that’s, I mean, I’ve been publishing for 20 years. That’s not really what people say to me anymore.

Michael Jamin:
Really? What do they say? They say, oh good, this is fresh. And it’s more from you.

Sheila Heti:
No, I mean, I guess I changed publishers a lot more than other people do. So my publisher of motherhood didn’t like pure color, so they rejected it. So I found a different publisher and the publisher of Tickner, my second book didn’t like how should a person be? So I found a different publisher. So I think I move around a lot for that reason.

Michael Jamin:
Is that common with authors? You have to tell me all about this author thing? No, it’s not really common.

Sheila Heti:
No. Usually you have one publisher and one editor and you just stick with them for a long time. So

Michael Jamin:
It seems though you came up through the art. Alright, I have this idea of who you are from reading your books. You have, it’s all very personal what you write and which makes it brave. It’s brave for a couple of reasons. It’s brave because you’re being so vulnerable, you’re putting yourself out there, but it’s also brave. I feel like you’re trying something new each time and that could fail. And so that to me is part of what makes your writing so exciting. But do you have any expectation when you’re writing something which is so different, do you have an expectation of your reader how you want them to react?

Sheila Heti:
I mean, I want them to get to the end of the book. That’s what I want. I want to draw them through, but I don’t think I have a feeling like, oh, I want them to be sad on this page and I want them to be curious of this page and feel this way on this page. I just want them to be interested enough to get to the end. So how do I keep that momentum up and how some people conversation, they have long monologues, they’re like a monologue, but I’m not because I’m always afraid people are going to lose interest. So I kind of feel like the same with my book. I’m always afraid that somebody’s going to lose interest. So I’m always trying to keep it moving,

Michael Jamin:
But it’s not an emotional reaction. I mean, your writing is very philosophical to me. When I’m reading your work, I feel like maybe this is my theory about what you have, and I’m sure it’s not right, but it’s that there are passages which I feel are so rich and so smart, and I have so much thought that I have to go back and read it again. So I’m wondering if that’s what you’re thinking. I want to write something that makes people have to read it again.

Sheila Heti:
No, I never think that because a very fast reader, and I don’t reread passages and I don’t read slowly. So for me, I’m always thinking that people are reading. I’m always imagining the person reading kind of fast,

Michael Jamin:
But thought. I mean some of them are really, some of your thoughts are very deep and very profound, and I’m like, I’m not sure if I understood all this. I got to read it again. I mean, don’t you think? No.

Sheila Heti:
Yeah, I guess so. I don’t know. I don’t really think about that. I don’t really think about the person, the reader in that way of like, are they going to have to read this again? Is this going to be hard for them to understand? I think my language is very straightforward. Yeah. I don’t know how I think about the reader. I think of myself as the reader. So I’m really writing it so that I like every sentence. I like the way it turns. I like the pictures it makes.

Michael Jamin:
But when you say I want them to get to the end, what are you hoping they’ll do at the end? Is there any hope or expectation?

Sheila Heti:
Well, I think especially in pure color, the end is really important. It kind of makes the whole book makes sense. And motherhood too, and maybe less how should a person be and less alphabetical diaries. But I think in some cases, a book, I’m somebody who doesn’t always read books to the end. I like getting taste of different author’s minds and so on. But I think in the case of some books, you have to read it to the end to really understand the whole, so that’s in the case of pure color, why I wanted people to get to the end

Michael Jamin:
Because

Sheila Heti:
It makes the beginning mean something different. If you’ve read.

Michael Jamin:
It does. I mean it is, and it’s about processing grief. So do you outline when you come up with an idea, where do you begin?

Sheila Heti:
Well, with pure color, I thought I want to write a book about the history of art criticism. So I always start off really far away from where I end up. I always think that I want to write a book of nonfiction and I’m not a good nonfiction writer, so it always ends up being a novel. But I think I usually start off with an, well, in the case of this book, I also started off with this title that I had in my dream. The title was Critics Bayer, BARE. So I was thinking about art criticism and so on, but then I don’t know, the books kind of take on their own direction. I never really understood when people said that they had characters that sort of did things that they didn’t expect. But I feel like that is true sometimes of the book as a whole. It moves in a direction I didn’t expect, so I couldn’t outline.

Michael Jamin:
You don’t outline all. And so does it require you to discover what the story is then once you find it, toss out the stuff that’s not the story or

Sheila Heti:
Yeah, I basically write way too much and then just cut and try to find the story and move things in different orders and try to find the plot after. I’ve written a ton of stuff already,

Michael Jamin:
Because I know from reading, you come from the art world, you’re an artist and I think you hang out with artists, people, so you talk about what art is, is that right or no, do not shatter what I think of now. That’s not it

Sheila Heti:
Mean and relationships and all that kind of

Michael Jamin:
Stuff and relationships. Because I mean, I don’t know, it seems like that’s why I say you’re an artist. You have these conversations even about what art is. And do you draw inspiration from paintings when you approach?

Sheila Heti:
Yeah, I’m interested in the book as art. I think more than storytelling. I’m interested in the book as sort of an experience that you’re undergoing in different way from just the experience of being told a story. I don’t think that I’m so interested probably in the things that a lot of other novelists are interested in, character and plot and conflict and all those things.

Michael Jamin:
Well, it’s really, I’ve heard you say this, it’s really, you’re writing various forms of you and it’s very personal and very intimate. But you also made the distinction in something I read where there’s Sheila, the author, then there’s Sheila, the character. Is that right?

Sheila Heti:
Yeah. I mean, in two of the books there’s kind of a character that sort of stands in a way for me, but it never really, it doesn’t feel like a direct transcription of myself or my life or my thoughts. There’s always this feeling of maybe it’s like how actors are, there’s a part of yourself that goes into the character and there’s other parts of yourself that are left out.

Michael Jamin:
And so I was going to say, is there stuff about you that you leave out, for example? I mean, how should a person be? Or alphabetical diaries, it feels like we’re talking about you, right?

Sheila Heti:
Yeah. Well, how should a person be felt? A lot like a character pretty, I was thinking about Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan. This was like 2005, and Britney Spears and these kind of women in culture that were bad girls and doing things sort of the subject of so much attention and so narcissistic or considered Narcissistic and the Hills, which was a show that I really loved. And sort of thinking about this character in the book being a voice that was somewhere between me and those girls. So there was this, this layering on of personalities, which I’m not thinking about. What does it mean to try to be a celebrity? What does it mean to be one? To be looked at, to idolize oneself? Those are my diaries. So there wasn’t a sense of a character in the same way, but because the sentences are separated from one another, I guess it’s like I don’t feel like I’m telling anybody anything about my life. There’s no anecdote in there.

Michael Jamin:
But I see that’s the thing. And we’ll just talk about alphabetical diaries because you’re telling with such an, let me tell people what it’s, so it’s basically an ordinary diary is chronological. This is what I did today and this is tomorrow, whatever. But you grouped your diary by the first letter of each sentence, which organized, and this is again, another high degree of difficulty. This could have easily been gimmicky, but it was a rethinking of what a diary is. And when I say patterns emerge, so for example, when you get to D, these was do not whatever or do this or that. So you hear, okay, so here’s a person creating rules for themselves. And then an E was even though, so now they’re creating rules, but creating exceptions for these rules, making allowances. And so what you have is, and was so interesting about it, many of these thoughts were contradictory.
So you’re painting a picture of this person, but in one sentence, okay, maybe she’s dating this guy. And the next sentence, this other guy, I’m like, well, what’s going on here? Then I realize, oh, this is not chronological. And so I’m getting a complete picture of this person, which is so interesting, but, so I know who I guess know who you are, but I don’t know who you are today. I know who you are as this arching thing in your life, which is so fricking interesting. And that was where the thought process going into this,

Sheila Heti:
Yeah, mean. So it’s like 10 years of diaries and I put it into Excel and the a z function. So it’s completely alphabetical first letter of the sentence and then the second letter and the third letter. And it was just, I mean, I guess I wanted to see exactly that. What happens if you look at yourself in that way? Do you see patterns? Do you understand yourself in a different way? Not narratively, but as a collection of themes or Yeah, exactly. That a scientific or sort of a cross section of yourself.

Michael Jamin:
Yeah,

Sheila Heti:
And it worked that way. I think with the diaries, what you do see is, oh, there are sort of these recurring thoughts and these recurring themes and these recurring ways of perceiving the world and perceiving yourself that persists over 10 years. That actually the one self, you think of yourself as this thing that’s constantly changing through time and especially a diary gives you that feeling, but then when you do it alphabetical, the self looks like a really static kind of thing in way, no, I’m actually just these few little bubbles of concerns that don’t change,

Michael Jamin:
That keep recurring when, by the way, when people say everything’s been done before everything’s been written, it’s like, well, you haven’t read Sheila Heady. Start reading hers. This is different. This why’s so interesting about, that’s why I think you’re such an amazing writer, and it totally worked. Totally. You get a picture of this person and the recurring themes and recurring worries and, and even one of them, some things that struck me, there was one passage where it’s like you go into a bookstore and you’re like, isn’t this also novels? Isn’t it also unimportant? And I’m like, no, if it was, you wouldn’t be doing this. So this was just a thought that you had at one point. It’s not how you feel. It’s how you felt at this one moment, right?

Sheila Heti:
Yeah, yeah. Literary fiction. Yeah. Like what a little tiny thing that is.

Michael Jamin:
But when people, okay, so now we have this picture of you and when you go do, let’s say book signings or whatever, and people come up to you, they must have a parasocial relationship with you where they feel they know you. Your writing is so intimate. And what’s your response to that?

Sheila Heti:
I think that’s nice. I mean, I think that that’s kind of the feeling you want people to have is it is your soul or your mind or whatever that you’re trying to give people. And so if somebody feels that they know you well, in a certain sense they do. I mean, obviously not that well, they know

Michael Jamin:
What you share, but there’s, okay, I don’t know what kind of music you like. I’ve read to all this stuff, but I know your insecurities and fears, but I don’t know what you think is funny. I don’t know what music you like. There’s stuff you held back.

Sheila Heti:
Yeah, absolutely. But I think that’s like, I don’t know. I mean, I don’t know. People aren’t really very weird with me. Ed books or things, people are just pretty nice. And I never get this. I, I’ve rarely had interactions that feel creepy or weird or presumptuous or any of those things.

Michael Jamin:
Well, I’m not even going even that far, but they feel like they must feel like they know you certainly, but they know what you share. They know as much as you share. Right?

Sheila Heti:
These

Michael Jamin:
Kind of brave, bold decisions you make to create all this stuff. Is there a writer whose work you emulated in the beginning? Where do you begin to come up with this stuff? Was there someone who you wanted to write? Just like,

Sheila Heti:
I mean, I really loved Dostoevsky and Kafka and the heavy hitters. Yeah, I mean, I just loved all the greatest writers,

Michael Jamin:
But did you want to write like them?

Sheila Heti:
No, I mean, I think the closest I ever felt like I wanted to write a writer was, do you know Jane Bowles? BOW Elliot? She was married to Paul Bulls.

Michael Jamin:
No, to me, much of your work felt a little bit like it. Tall Cals, some of it works. Some of it was very ethereal and meditative.

Sheila Heti:
Yeah, I mean, I think Jane Bowles was the only one that I really felt myself imitating her sentences. She wrote a book called Two Serious Ladies, which I still really love. That was the only time when I felt like I was falling into somebody else’s cadences and rhythms and so on. And

Michael Jamin:
What happened when

Sheila Heti:
That was with my first book, the Middle Stories, and then the second book was written was so different. The second book I wrote was in such a different style that left me, but maybe there’s still a way in which I still do. I think she’s probably the writer that I write the most, if anyone. But I mean, she only wrote one book. So it’s a very different kind of life than the one that I’ve had. No, I’m just always just trying to keep myself interested. So I think that I don’t ever want to, I a very, I just want it to be fun for me. And so if I was to write the same book again, it wouldn’t be fun. And books take five years to Write, or this diary book took more than 10 years to edit. So by the time I’m done a book, no, I’m such a different person than I was in some way when I started, even though I just said that you don’t really change, but there’s a way in which you get tired of thinking about the same things over,

Michael Jamin:
But then you think it would be hard to not constantly tinker with it. Isn’t that part of the problem?

Sheila Heti:
I like constantly tinkering with it. That’s fun.

Michael Jamin:
But then you have to let go. But how do you let go of it though?

Sheila Heti:
Well, at a certain point you start making it worse. You’re like, oh, I think I’m starting to make it worse. You start to become self-conscious, and then you start to want to correct it, and then you start to want it to sort of be the person that you are today rather than the person you were five years ago. But you’ve got to honor the person that was five years ago that started the book. So you can’t carry it on so far that you become, you’ve changed so much that now you’re a critic of the book that’s going to destroy the book.

Michael Jamin:
Yeah. See, that’s so interesting. That’s something I think about quite a bit. Yeah. How do I just let it go? And that someone else, it’s funny when you talk about the language, because that’s one thing that struck me about pure color. Your sentences are written in very, they’re very, it’s kind of brief, very, I dunno what the best way to describe it, but it’s almost terse. And to be honest, if you had told, as I’m reading this, I could have thought this was said 150 years ago, and then occasionally you say you make a reference to something modern Google, and I’m like, oh, wait a minute, this takes space today. So that was a conscious, obviously decision that you made to kind of give it a timelessness.

Sheila Heti:
Yeah, I always kind of want that because I think that’s my hope for a book is that it could be understood in a hundred years or 500 years, or you need Plato today, you want to write something that people could understand in a thousand years.

Michael Jamin:
But you know what I’m saying, the language, it almost felt, but your language is different though, in an alphabetical diary. Well, obviously since it’s a diary, but man, so to me it’s like you’re not doing, like I said, you’re not doing the same thing. I don’t know, it could have been two different authors. That’s what I’m saying. I guess it felt like two very different pieces and it was just wonderful. But when you say, so what then? Because like I said, you have these art friends, I have this whole life for you, you have these because you went to art, you studied art, and you hang out with a bunch of artists and you talk about art, and I want to know what these conversations are because we don’t talk about art and TV writing. No one, we don’t think we’re doing art, but I feel like that’s what you guys are doing. So do you talk about what the whole point of art is?

Sheila Heti:
I think I did when I was younger,

Michael Jamin:
Right? Then you grew

Sheila Heti:
Out of it when I was in my twenties. And then you kind of figure that out for yourself in some way. Well, then you have your crises and whatever, and then you got to think about it and talk about it again. But no, I think these days what I talk about with my friends is just whatever the specific project is, whatever problems you’re having with a specific thing, mostly complaining, the difficulty of not being able to pull it off or feeling like you are stuck or you’re never going to be able to write it. I have these three other writers that I share my work with we’re meeting tomorrow. So before I got on the call with you, I just sent something off to them, and tomorrow we’re just going to have read each other’s things and talk about how we feel about it. But for me, I’m just like, I think what I need at this point from them is reassurance, honestly.

Michael Jamin:
Reassurance,

Sheila Heti:
Yeah. Because you’re so lost in the middle and you don’t know what you’re communicating and if you’re communicating anything, and is it worth continuing? Should it just all be thrown out? There’s so much doubt

Michael Jamin:
Because it’s so very humble of you. You’re a master writer, and yet you make it sound like you’re still a student. You know what I’m saying?

Sheila Heti:
I mean, you think, I don’t know if it’s the same for you, but don’t you think you’re always kind of a student? Because

Michael Jamin:
Whenever you start, yeah, yeah. Look, yes. When every time you’re looking at that blank page, I dunno how to do any of this.

Sheila Heti:
Yeah, exactly. You always feel like you’re back at square one somehow.

Michael Jamin:
Yeah.

Sheila Heti:
Although now, not exactly square one. I’ve been starting this new book this week, and again, it may get to 60 pages and fall away from me, but now I have a different feeling that I had when I was in my early twenties. The feeling I have now is like, oh, I did that. Oh, I’ve had that thought before. Oh, I’ve written senses in that way before. What I’m trying to do now is none of the things that I’ve already done. They just, and so, yeah, where is this part of myself that I haven’t written from yet? So that’s kind where I’m now. So it’s not really starting from square one, but it’s still just as hard,

Michael Jamin:
Right? Because you feel like you’ve said everything you had to say or done everything you wanted. Is that what it is? Or,

Sheila Heti:
I know what my sentences sound like, so I feel like, oh, I’m not surprised by that sentence. That sounds like a sentence that my, I feel like I’m, you get this rhythm that is very pleasurable to write if the sentences have a rhythm, but now I’m just like, I’m tired of that rhythm. That rhythm can only give me one kind of sentence or one kind of thought. So I’m trying to figure out what else is there inside.

Michael Jamin:
Yeah, I imagine that’s hard for someone. Basically, you’re a physician who’s made a hit and another hit, and what if I don’t do it again? How do I do it differently? Or how do I reinvent myself now?

Sheila Heti:
And even just what’s the meaning in this for me now? With every book, there’s a different phase of life you’re at. And I’m 46 now, so I dunno how old you are.

Michael Jamin:
How dare you? I’m 53.

Sheila Heti:

  1. Yeah, I figured you were just a few years older than me. So it’s a very different age to write from because you are not hungry in the same way you were when you were 23 and you were both in houses. You have accomplished certain things. And so what’s the deepest part of yourself that still needs to do this when you’re 23? Every part of yourself needs to do it in this extreme way. You’ve got to make a life for yourself. You’ve got to prove to yourself, you can do it. You’ve got to make money, you’ve got to all this kind of stuff. So what’s the place at 46 or 53 that you’re writing from that is just as vital and urgent as that place at 23?

Michael Jamin:
Yeah, I think actually that’s why I started changing mediums. I’ve kind of done this headcount thing. What else can I do?

Sheila Heti:
So the essay, the podcast? Yeah.

Michael Jamin:
Well, most of the essays, the essay started the whole thing. It was like, it’s funny, in your book or a couple of times, you mentioned, should I go to LA? And I’m thinking, why does she want to go to la? What was that about? What’s

Sheila Heti:
That about? I’ve got family there. When I was a little kid, my parents used to put me on a plane. I was five years old and I’d be sent to LA and I had relatives and I would stay with them. And it was just, to me, it’s such happy childhood memories and I just love Los Angeles. Whenever I go back, I think this is a place in the world besides Toronto that I’d most like to live.

Michael Jamin:
Really? So different.

Sheila Heti:
Yeah. I just love it. Yeah, so I love everything. I love it.

Michael Jamin:
Oh my God, I don’t what, I’ve been to Toronto. I had, well, then I

Sheila Heti:
Remember that LA’s in America, and then I like, no, maybe not.

Michael Jamin:
Yeah, good point. Good point. So there’s something else. I remember what I wanted, what I want to say. You had in one book, it was like, you’re lamenting. I hope I never have to teach. And now you’re teaching, right?

Sheila Heti:
Yeah, just for this one year.

Michael Jamin:
Okay. What was that about that decision?

Sheila Heti:
Well, I love teaching and I wanted the money because I didn’t want to have to feel like I had to rush to start a new book. So I just wanted a year where I didn’t have to have that anxiety of what’s my next book going to be like, I’ve got to start. I’ve got to get a certain ways in and then sell it. And I like teaching a lot, and I just felt excited about the idea, but it was supposed to be a two year position, and now I’ve just changed it to a one year position. It becomes too much, even one day. And teaching a week is like, there’s no point to write

Michael Jamin:
Because you have to read all the whatever they write on the side. You’re saying, well,

Sheila Heti:
I’ve got to commute two hours to get there, and then two hours home, and then, I don’t know. And then your brain just sort of stays in that university space with your students for three or four days, and then you have two days where you’re not with them and then you go back to school.

Michael Jamin:
So what does your life really look like? Your writing life? What is it like to be an author on a dayday basis?

Sheila Heti:
What your life is all day long? You’re either writing emails or you’re writing writing. Probably spend more time writing emails and doing correspondence and businessy stuff than writing. Writing, and then all the life stuff, walking the dog, doing household chores. I don’t have a very regimented existence, but I just sitting in bed and being on my computer, that’s sort of my

Michael Jamin:
Favorite. That’s where you write on laptop. Oh my God, my back would kill me. But something else you said, because I really was turning to you for answers as I was reading it. I’m like, she’s got the answers. And you said, and you’re like, I don’t have the answers, but no, I’m like, no, she’s got the answers. And you said, art must have at one point, art must have humor. I think you said that in How should a person be? And I was like, really? That’s what you guys think. There has to be humor in art.

Sheila Heti:
Oh yeah. You got to know where the funny is. Yeah, I think,

Michael Jamin:
Sure. I don’t

Sheila Heti:
Understand. It’s the two. I read your essay. It was very funny.

Michael Jamin:
Yeah. But thank you. But I have an intention. I have an intention when I write, but I don’t understand why you think there has to be humor. Alright. Why do you think there has to be humor it in art?

Sheila Heti:
Humor’s such a part of life. I mean, if you don’t have humor in life or art, you’re missing a huge part of the picture. I mean, it’s all, it’s just the absurdity of being a human. It’s,

Michael Jamin:
Well, see the thing as a sitcom writer, look, I’m grateful to have made a living as a sitcom writer. It’s what I wanted to do, but it’s not like anyone looks at what we do. It’s like, oh, that’s high art. They go, it’s kind of mostly, people think it’s kind of base. And I think, and when you think about even at the Oscars, when they’re fitting the best picture, it’s never a comedy. It’s that the comedies are not important enough. And so that’s why I had this feeling like, well, can humor be an art? Can it be, I

Sheila Heti:
Mean, I think great art always has humor in it, but it’s the same thing in literature. The funny writers are not as respected as the serious ones, but I think that they’re wrong. I mean, Kurt Vonnegut, I love Kurt Vonnegut. He’s extremely funny, but he’s never had the same status as somebody like, I dunno, Don DeLillo or whatever, because he’s not serious enough. But I think it’s a very, who are the people that are making that judgment? That the solemn writers that have no humor are the best writers. They’re just idiots. I mean, it’s not the case.

Michael Jamin:
I gave my manuscript to one publisher. I was rejected from him, and he wrote, he was very kind. He goes, oh, this book really works. I like it, but it’s not high literature. And we do high literature here. And I was like, how dare you? I was like, well, I totally agree. It’s not high literature. Not that I could write high literature, but I didn’t set out to do. But there was still that sting of what you’re doing is not important because it’s funny.

Sheila Heti:
Yeah. That’s a stupid editor.

Michael Jamin:
Well, he got the last laugh. Wait a minute, wait a minute. But yeah, I don’t know. Okay. But is humor in painting and humor in all art? I mean,

Sheila Heti:
Yeah, levity. Well, just that scent, that aspect of life. That is the laugh that is that bubbling up laughing. Yeah. I mean, I think that that’s joy. Joy and humor are very closely connected. And a work of art without humor is a work of art without joy

Michael Jamin:
And

Sheila Heti:
Wants to take that in.

Michael Jamin:
Then what is art? I’m honest here. You learned this when you’re 20 and I haven’t learned it yet. So what is art to you and what’s the difference between good art and bad art?

Sheila Heti:
It’s a reflection of the human experience. It’s like an expression of what it feels like to be a human, that a human is making for another human.

Michael Jamin:
Okay, so it’s this interpretation of what you feel, what it means to be human, is that right?

Sheila Heti:
It’s an expression of what you feel like it means to be human.

Michael Jamin:
Right. Okay. And then how do you

Sheila Heti:
That in an object?

Michael Jamin:
And then how do you know if it’s good art or bad art?

Sheila Heti:
I mean, there’s no consensus, right? You liked pure color, but a lot of people don’t. There’s just no consensus because it touched you, but somebody else thinks it’s the worst book they’ve ever read, and that’s okay. I mean, I think that that’s right. We can’t all speak to each other. We’re not all here for all of each other.

Michael Jamin:
Oh, just because you mentioned that it was so touching this one moment, it really hit me where you explain how you felt the father, how his love for his daughter was so much that it put pressure on her not to have her life because her life was so important to him. And I thought, oh crap, I hope I’m not doing that because my feeling is no, it’s just pure love. It’s an expression of pure love. But from the other side, I can see that.

Sheila Heti:
Yeah. Yeah. I think that that’s what I was thinking about in that book. That’s the sort of tragedy of

Michael Jamin:
Yes,

Sheila Heti:
Families and friendships and so on, that we want to love each other, but we can’t in the way that we want to.

Michael Jamin:
Hey, it’s Michael Jamin. If you like my content, and I know you do because you’re listening to me, I will email it to you for free. Just join my watch list. Every Friday I send out my top three videos of the week. These are for writers, actors, creative types, people like you can unsubscribe whenever you want. I’m not going to spam you, and the price is free. You got no excuse to join. Go to michaeljamin.com. And now back to, what the hell is Michael Jamin talking about?

Michael Jamin:
It was just so beautiful to express that as two souls stuck in a leaf, where is this coming from? It felt completely appropriate, but also almost out of the blue. And that’s what was so amazing about that whole section. Thanks.

Sheila Heti:
Yeah. I don’t even remember where that idea came to me. I don’t know if you feel like this with your writing, but sometimes you remember exactly where an idea came from. You can even picture yourself being right there having it, and sometimes you almost have anesia around it,

Michael Jamin:
Really? And what about the part? There was so many lovely moments of this woman working in a lamp store, and she has to turn the lamps on every single lamp on, and it’s almost like, I got to do this, but there’s her counterpart who has to turn the lamps off at the end of the day, something equally horrible. It was really funny, and it was just, I don’t know. Did you ever work in a lamp store?

Sheila Heti:
No. No. But there was this lamp store that I used to pass on the way to one of my first jobs, and I would look in the window, and I did eventually buy a lamp from that store with all the money I had in the world. But I never worked in a lamp store, but I was obsessed with this lamp. I really thought it was going to change my life.

Michael Jamin:
And do you still have it?

Sheila Heti:
No. It got broken in a

Michael Jamin:
Fit of

Sheila Heti:
Rage situation. Yeah, it got broken rage.

Michael Jamin:
I was stuck on a paragraph I wrote against this important list. It

Sheila Heti:
Was in the box on the floor, and somebody stepped on it. And anyway, it’s sad, but whatever.

Michael Jamin:
Okay. But alright. So much of it felt like, yeah. Okay. So it was a version of you that wasn’t exactly, but where was this coming from? You said you had a point you were making. I don’t remember

Sheila Heti:
Where, because at some parts you remember where they came from and some parts you just

Michael Jamin:
Kind of pull out of, pull

Sheila Heti:
Out of. You don’t remember how they came about?

Michael Jamin:
Yeah. I don’t know. I always feel like when I’m writing, if there’s an idea that has a strong emotional reaction, like, okay, maybe there’s something there.

Sheila Heti:
A strong emotional reaction in you.

Michael Jamin:
Yeah. In me. I have a terrible memory, but if I remember something, why do I remember it? There must be a reason.

Sheila Heti:
You have a terrible memory too,

Michael Jamin:
And you wouldn’t know it, but I guess you document everything in your diary.

Sheila Heti:
I mean, the diary is usually not about things that happened. It’s more about the feelings that I’m having in the moment that I’m writing it. I wish that my diary was more about things that happened

Michael Jamin:
Really Well, you get to decide what you put in your diary.

Sheila Heti:
I know usually when one writes a diary, it’s because you’re in a moment of high emotion that you need to get your feelings out.

Michael Jamin:
Do you write every day in your diary?

Sheila Heti:
No. No, no. Just when I need to. And I don’t even really do it anymore now.

Michael Jamin:
Interesting. Yeah, there is. There’s something else you said about it. Yeah. There’s so many moments that were so interesting. Like you said at one point that the men you date don’t understand you. I’m like, well, don’t they read your book? I mean, why don’t you just give ’em your book and didn’t understand you?

Sheila Heti:
No, I mean, I don’t know.

Michael Jamin:
You don’t know. We’ll get back to, I don’t

Sheila Heti:
Even think that it’s really all Yeah, like you were saying earlier, it’s not really you. It’s just an expression of a corner of you.

Michael Jamin:
Yeah. I don’t know. But do you really feel that? I mean, I’m going back and forth. You’ll see I contradict myself, but what you write is so to me, it feels so personal. I don’t know how it cannot be you.

Sheila Heti:
I mean, I don’t know. When I’m working on it, it doesn’t feel like me. It just feels like writing on a page. It feels very plastic. I don’t feel like it’s me.

Michael Jamin:
So there’s no, wow, because there’s no inhibition there because it’s very intimate. There’s no inhibition. You don’t feel to be judged. This is just a character named Sheila, by the way.

Sheila Heti:
I mean, I just don’t think about it. Just I have this, that part of my brain is not awake when I’m editing or writing that people that are going to think it’s me

Michael Jamin:
Or whatever. Well, that’s bold. That really is bold because the notion that you’re not worried about being judged, you’re not worrying about expressing

Sheila Heti:
Yourself. I worry about being judged for an email that I send. That’s a stupid email much more than I ever worry about a book.

Michael Jamin:
Really? Really? Yeah. Your book is permanent and it’s your art.

Sheila Heti:
But I have so much control over it. I have so much. I take so much time with it. It’s not spontaneous. It’s really thought through. So I’m not, and it’s art. It’s not me. An email is me. A book is not, it’s its own thing.

Michael Jamin:
Okay. How should a person be? I mean, this to me felt like this is your struggle. It was really interesting when it was a narrative struggle about a woman trying to find herself in a brief period of time. And I felt like, no, this is you. Right?

Sheila Heti:
I mean, it doesn’t really feel like that. No.

Michael Jamin:
Alright. This interview’s over. That’s why I think when I said, you’re brave, I think that’s what makes you brave, is that this fearlessness of I can put it out there and I’m not really worried about it.

Sheila Heti:
Yeah. I just don’t care. I care about being judged as a human in the world, as a person, but not through my books, not through your I care about it and Oh, she’s wearing a really stupid outfit. I care about it in all those ways that everybody does, but not via the books. Not as the books as a portal to judgment about me.

Michael Jamin:
Wow. Wow. I I don’t know if you know how profound that is. To me. It really is. Yeah, because it gives you so much freedom to write then.

Sheila Heti:
Yeah. I mean, but fiction is different from essays. I think with essays you do feel like it’s you, but with novels you don’t. Or I don’t,

Michael Jamin:
Yeah. But I guess, and I didn’t really know this term, it’s auto nonfiction, which I guess is this term. I was not familiar with

Sheila Heti:
Auto fiction. They call it

Michael Jamin:
Auto fiction. That’s what I meant. Auto fiction. Yeah. And so

Sheila Heti:
I like auto nonfiction though. I think that’s how it should start to be called.

Michael Jamin:
Really? Yeah. Just by my dumbest. Yeah. But when you call it auto itself, so I don’t know.

Sheila Heti:
Yeah, I didn’t give it that term. The critics give it that term, auto fiction, but all writing is auto fiction. All writing comes from yourself. It’s a really silly term, but I mean, they guess they use it for people that write characters that have their name. Which again, that’s only, and how should a person be? Does the character have my name? None of the other books.

Michael Jamin:
Well, okay, but Well, the

Sheila Heti:
Diaries, obviously

Michael Jamin:
The diaries, but also I also know that pure color was taken from your life. I mean, we know that in

Sheila Heti:
A lot of

Michael Jamin:
Ways. So I also want to know about this, and I know I’m concentrating on how should person, well, on both of ’em I guess. But this play that you were commissioned to write, how does that work that you were tortured by throughout the whole book? You felt like you couldn’t come up with anything good. How does that come about? So a local theater said, will you write us a play?

Sheila Heti:
Yeah, yeah.

Michael Jamin:
And it was their idea.

Sheila Heti:
Yeah. Yeah. They commissioned a play for me,

Michael Jamin:
But they said, I mean, this is what we want it to be about. Or they said right about

Sheila Heti:
It was a feminist theater company, and they said it could be about anything as long as it was about women in it. And I really had the hardest time. I mean, I wrote a play, I’m sure you experienced this in Hollywood, and then there was a lot of notes. And in theater we call it dramaturgy. And I got so confused and I just couldn’t make the play better from the notes. And it was just this torture, because when you’re writing a book, or at least in my case, editors aren’t like that. They’re not giving you their notes to make the book something other than what you want it to be. But in theater, what’s this character’s motivation? Why does this happen here? There was just so much feedback and I just lost my sense of what I liked about it and what it was.

Michael Jamin:
And then how did you find it ultimately? You were happy with it, weren’t you?

Sheila Heti:
Ultimately, I just, when it got put on a couple years after, how should a person be was published, it was just my original draft. So I never ended up editing it according to any of the notes in the end.

Michael Jamin:
Wow. So you won that battle?

Sheila Heti:
I guess so you did. It wasn’t them who put it on. It was some other, some kid.

Michael Jamin:
Oh,

Sheila Heti:
I mean, he’s not a kid anymore, but he seemed like a kid at the time.

Michael Jamin:
But you also do something called trampoline hall, which struck me as really fun. It seems like you’re just part of this artwork. You make art. Well, I don’t care what it is. Let’s just do something weird and interesting until trampoline hall, which I love the premise of it’s you say people deliver lectures on subjects they don’t know anything about.

Sheila Heti:
Is that what it’s, it’s not their area of professional expertise. So they can do, oh,

Michael Jamin:
So they are experts.

Sheila Heti:
They can do research for their talk. It’s just that it can’t be their professional expertise.

Michael Jamin:
So they’re not talking out of the rests. They’re talking to about if they know No. Oh, okay.

Sheila Heti:
They do the research. Yeah. And then there’s, so the talk lasts about 15 minutes, and then there’s a q and a, and then So there’s three of those and night, and yeah, it’s been running once a month in Toronto since December, 2000 or 2001. Them. I haven’t been involved in it. You them? Oh, no, no. I mean, I started it, and my friend Misha Goberman is and was the host, but after about three or four years, I left around 2005 or so. But he still keeps it going. So now I used to pick the three people every month, and I just used to, when I was in my twenties, I had crushes on people all the time. And it was fascinated by people in such a way that it was a way of having these friendships where I would go out with them and talk about what their talk was going to be about, and then I’d see them on stage.
And it was just a way of being with people. My life is not really like that anymore, where I’m coming into contact with so many people that I just have to have a show and put them on stage. I find ’em so fascinating. And the culture’s changed because again, in the early two thousands, there weren’t, the internet wasn’t what it is. And I just felt like there’s all these smart people with all these interesting things to say, and nobody’s paying any attention to them. And here’s a venue for them. You obviously don’t need that, a barroom lecture series for people to have a voice in this culture anymore. Yeah,

Michael Jamin:
Right. That’s right. Now you deal with students, young people. And so what’s your take then, as an artist, as you deal with people of this younger generation? What do you see?

Sheila Heti:
I don’t know. I mean, I only see them through a very narrow lens. You don’t show your teacher that much of your life. I see them sitting in a classroom for two and a half hours once a week. I’ve only done it for seven weeks.

Michael Jamin:
But you read their work or you pretend to?

Sheila Heti:
I read it. There’s not that much. I mean, I don’t know. You can’t really generalize about a generation. Every person’s different.

Michael Jamin:
One of the stories in my book is about that. It was about me trying to, being in a creative writing class, trying to impress my teacher, and just having no idea how to write, just none. And feeling complete. You’re smiling. You can relate or you see it.

Sheila Heti:
Well, because I’m smiling, because yeah, that’s how people feel. And it’s sort of a failure of the way that creative writing is taught that makes a person feel like they can’t write

Michael Jamin:
Well. Okay. So what’s the first thing you tell? What’s the most important thing you tell your students then maybe?

Sheila Heti:
Well, I try to show them all these examples of, so-called bad writing and stuff that’s intentionally boring and that’s badly put together because I just think it’s a better route. You’re more likely to become a good writer if you are trying to do something bad than if you’re trying to do something good. If you’re reading the greatest writers and you’re trying to emulate them, and you’re all intimidated and blocked and nervous, and you’re trying to write in a style that has nothing to do with yourself.

Michael Jamin:
So then how does showing them something bad help? Do you say, go ahead and write or write. What’s the point of showing them something

Sheila Heti:
Bad? I don’t want ’em to try to write. Well

Michael Jamin:
Write Well, you don’t, but you don’t want ’em to write schlocky or poorly written stuff either.

Sheila Heti:
I’d rather have them write basic. I don’t know. I just think when you’re trying to impress, when you’re writing to try to impress somebody, it’s just you’re starting off on completely the wrong foot. I want them their writing. So for example, in this class, one of the first experiments we did was I told them to go into their messages, their text messages, threads, and to copy out every single text message that they’d sent and put that in a document and make it a long sort of monologue, because that is actually what they write. That is what they’re writing. You got to start from what you’re actually saying and what you’re actually writing, not this imaginary idea of what writing is.

Michael Jamin:
Right, right, right. That’s exactly right. So there’s this thought of what writing should be and what writing, how get, I guess, how did you get over that, especially when you were writing your favorite authors were the greats. How did you find the confidence to have your own voice, I guess?

Sheila Heti:
Well, when I was young, when I was a teenager, I read all the Paris Review interviews, and I just got the sense like, oh, there’s no way to do it no one way. Everyone has their own way. Faulkner has his way, and Dorothy Parker has her way, and John au has his way, and there’s just no consensus. And so you just have to figure out your own way. That’s what they all did. I just sort of saw that’s what each one of them had done.

Michael Jamin:
See, that’s where I struggled with, and you’re getting my therapist now and my creative writing teacher when I was starting to write this book. Because as a TV writer, my job is not to have a voice. My job is to emulate the voice of the show or the characters. And I’m a copy. I’m a mimic. That’s what I do. And that’s what I’ve been doing for 27 years. And then to write, this was an experiment to me. What would it be like to write just whatever I want to write with no notes, no one telling me what to do. And it was very scary in the beginning. And it was very, I loved David Sari. How can I do him? And so I wrote a couple of pieces. I studied him, I read all, I’ve studied books over and over again. He was so entertaining. He writes so beautifully. And I read it over and over again, and I wrote my first pieces, almost like I was doing him. And I felt, oh, this is good. And then I let it sit for a couple of weeks, and then I read it with fresh eyes. And this is terrible. It sounds like someone pretending to be him is terrible.

Sheila Heti:
Yeah, yeah. But that’s a stage that you still probably learned a bunch by doing that, maybe about structure or about something.

Michael Jamin:
No, not that I learned that I felt like I was a pretender, but my thought was, well, he’s doing it. He’s successful. I write and now I perform my pieces as well, which is what, and I tore a little bit, and I thought, well, if it works for him, why reinvent the wheels? He’s obviously got a market. And then I realized I had to come to the conclusion that it was almost heartbreaking. I can never write like him. I can’t, no matter much. I want to, it’ll never happen. And then I had to let go of that, and then had to come to the more, even a larger, heartbreaking realization was like, oh, I have to write me. And who the hell is that?

Sheila Heti:
And how did you find it?

Michael Jamin:
It was a lot of just drafts after draft. And then the problem, and this is something else, but I find some of the earlier pieces are very different from the later pieces. And I’ve tempted to go back and change the earlier ones. But like you’re saying, I’m also tempted. I feel like I can’t, can’t, it’s time to let ’em go.

Sheila Heti:
Right. That was that person.

Michael Jamin:
But it’s all in the same book, and it felt like, well, should there be any kind of, is that okay? Is it okay to feel like each one’s a little different from the other? I don’t know.

Sheila Heti:
Yeah. I don’t know. I mean, are the early ones still good, even if they’re different?

Michael Jamin:
Yeah, I think they’re good. I’m not sure if anyone else would notice except for me, but I noticed

Sheila Heti:
Maybe not. Yeah, probably. Yeah. And I think it’s okay if they’re a little different from each other.

Michael Jamin:
Yeah. I don’t, well, we’ll find out. But that was very difficult for me to figure out how to, and I turned a lot to, and I wonder if you do this, you kind of answered a little bit. I didn’t want to turn to other writers. I turned to musicians to music. Do you do that as

Sheila Heti:
Well? Which musicians?

Michael Jamin:
It was turning to musicians to find out what is art? What am I supposed to be doing here? Yeah.

Sheila Heti:
I always look to painters for that.

Michael Jamin:
So painter, is it contemporary painters or

Sheila Heti:
Contemporary or not contemporary?

Michael Jamin:
And how do you pull, what are you looking for them? Yeah. When you look at a painting, how does that help you?

Sheila Heti:
Well, how does it help you to look at musicians?

Michael Jamin:
Well, there’s two things with music, and I feel like music is too, they’re telling us, they get to tell a story with lyrics and with music. So if you didn’t hear the lyrics, maybe you’d still get the sentiment of it. And so I feel like they have two tools where we only have one because they can set a mood just for the tune. And so I looked to them for the intimacy in their bravery. You’d look, okay, Stevie Nicks, she’s singing about herself. That’s all she’s doing. And okay, you can do that. It just felt so vulnerable to be doing this.

Sheila Heti:
Yeah.

Michael Jamin:
And that’s why I’m shocked that you’re so brave about it.

Sheila Heti:
I mean, it’s the only job is to not care about yourself in relation to it, that the book matters. And you don’t matter.

Michael Jamin:
Right. That’s your job is to put the art first. Right.

Sheila Heti:
To not do things because worried about what people will think of you. That’s the first. And I guess when I was younger, I was reading so many avant-garde writers that did that in such flamboyant ways. It just seemed to me the only Henry Miller, it just seemed to me maybe the first lesson, not even a conscious lesson, just like, oh, clearly he’s not worried about what people are going to think of him or his reputation among decent people.

Michael Jamin:
Yeah. Right. And so you don’t have that, obviously, you don’t have that worry.

Sheila Heti:
No, but I don’t know. A lot of decent people.

Michael Jamin:
Yes, you do. But yeah, I don’t know. Again, it’s what makes you, I don’t know, such a fantastic writer. I mean, I want everyone to read your work because it’s really fantastic. I have some questions here that I have to ask from. So my daughter, Lola, I tell her she’s a way better writer than I was at her age. But the truth is, she may be a better writer than I’m now, but I don’t tell her that part. But she has these questions. She put down some questions like, damn, you’ve got some good questions. So I can’t take credit. I can’t take credit for this question. Give

Sheila Heti:
Me Lowes questions.

Michael Jamin:
Okay. First of all, she says, what are your dreams for your writing, and how do you let them go while also keeping them alive? Oops. I dropped a rock.

Sheila Heti:
My dreams. You dropped a rock.

Michael Jamin:
Yeah, I dropped. I have magic crystals by my computer that are supposed to make my work better.

Sheila Heti:
Oh, what kind of rock is that?

Michael Jamin:
It came out of my head. You want some? Yeah. I don’t know. They’re magic, but they’re on my computer. So what are your dreams for your writing, and how do you let them go while also keeping them alive? And I guess what she means is, I guess, ambitions at the age You were talking about that young age.

Sheila Heti:
Young. Yeah. How old is she? 20.

Michael Jamin:
Yeah.

Sheila Heti:
When I was 20, my dream was to be the best living writer, just to be the best novelist, just to work harder than any other writer alive. That’s what I was thinking. It

Michael Jamin:
Was work harder.

Sheila Heti:
I was like, I got to work harder than any other writer alive.

Michael Jamin:
That’s what I was. And what did that work look like to you?

Sheila Heti:
Just always writing and always not being satisfied, and being a real critic of my work and trying to make it better, and trying to try to get it to sound more interesting and figure out what my sentences were, and letting myself be bad and repeat myself until I got better. And I don’t think that I ever let that go. I am not sitting here today saying, I work harder than any other writer alive. But I do remember having that feeling when I was young. That’s what I need to do. That’s the only way it’s going to work.

Michael Jamin:
Yeah. That importance. Yeah, because

Sheila Heti:
It’s just so hard. It’s just so hard to write. Well, to write anything good for people.

Michael Jamin:
I think you give the perfect answer on that. I’ll give her another the

Sheila Heti:
Parental answer. In any case, work hard.

Michael Jamin:
Work hard. Well, but it was really,

Sheila Heti:
It’s true. I think it’s true that, and I remember being her age and interviewing this older Canadian writer, Barbara Gowdy, who I really loved, and she told me, and she’s terrific. She told me, I was writing for the student newspaper, and she said, it’s funny, I’ve got my students who have talent, clear talent, and then I’ve got these other students who don’t seem to have so much talent, but the ones who don’t so much talent work really hard, and they end up doing better than the ones that have talent. And I thought, oh, I never even would’ve known that. I would’ve thought that. I didn’t know that hard work meant could mean more than talent. So hopefully you have talent, and then you can also make the choice to talent

Michael Jamin:
Work. And you learned this at a young age, you’re saying this

Sheila Heti:
Part? I mean, my mother was also just very strict about working hard

Michael Jamin:
Right.

Sheila Heti:
Studies and stuff.

Michael Jamin:
Interesting. Yeah. She’s a delian mom. Hungarian.

Sheila Heti:
Yeah.

Michael Jamin:
Do you speak any Hungarian?

Sheila Heti:
No. Do you? No.

Michael Jamin:
No, I don’t. But I do know there’s a Hungarian expression that really helped me. I’ll tell you what it is. So do you speak any other languages?

Sheila Heti:
No,

Michael Jamin:
No, no. That’s your next task. I wrote about this in one of my stories as well. There’s a Hungarian expression where it says, okay, so let me take it back. So I learned to speak Spanish as a teenager and then Italian as an adult. So each time when you learn a new language that you’re not born into, there’s that moment where it’s like it’s really hard to talk. It takes months and months, and then finally one day you open your mouth and the words just come out without thinking just like that magic. And it’s turning on a light bulb. And I’ve had a hard time explaining to people what that feels like. But then I discovered a Hungarian expression, which said it perfectly. It says, when you learn a little language, you gain a new soul. And I thought, that’s exactly what it feels like, because you’re talking, you’re like, who is this? I don’t speak this language. Who am I? That’s incredible. And you talk about soul so much in your work. I thought maybe that’s something you had experienced.

Sheila Heti:
I never got that far. I mean, I studied French and I never got close to a new soul. I didn’t have always translation.

Michael Jamin:
You’re always translating in your head,

Sheila Heti:
Right? Yeah.

Michael Jamin:
It’s just that moment, like, I don’t know who I am. And then you find yourself reacting differently. And also using, if I find myself, I can’t say, I don’t know how to say this, so I’ll say it this way, which is not how I would talk, because that’s the only way I can express it. And then you’re a different person. That’s so neat. Yeah.

Sheila Heti:
Wonder people love learning languages.

Michael Jamin:
Yeah, it really is. Anyway, your mom must know she came up with it. Okay. So let me give her another question. Question. Okay. This is a good one. Okay. How do you tow the line between explaining what you mean by your writing? For example, the entire tree portion of pure color and just letting it be, even if that means being misinterpreted or confusing people. How do you tow the line between explaining?

Sheila Heti:
Don’t really explain. I think I spend very little time explaining,

Michael Jamin:
But are you worried that it might be misinterpreted you people to understand your thoughts?

Sheila Heti:
Yeah, I guess so. I mean, I think if the intention is there, if it’s a clear intention when you’re writing, then you’re maybe not going to be misinterpreted as much as you think. And the intention is something that you can’t really analyze. You can’t take it apart, take a sentence apart and say where the intention was. But I do have that feeling that when writers are writing with a really strong intent, emotional or not emotional, just that it’s coming from something very powerful inside, then it’s less likely to be interpreted than one might fear. I don’t think that I go in for much explaining.

Michael Jamin:
Well, when you share your work with a friend, do you say, Hey, do you get what I’m going for here?

Sheila Heti:
I mean, when you share your work, then people say what they’re getting from it. And usually it’s not that. Usually the problem I have is not that they’re not getting what I don’t usually feel like the problem with readers is misinterpretation. I think usually the problem is that it’s not interesting. It’s not compelling. It’s not, rather than it’s they’re getting something completely different from what you intended.

Michael Jamin:
Because see, in TV writing, I often think the difference between smart writing and maybe not smart writing is not that much. It’s just whether you’re explaining it or not. If you don’t explain it, you’re making the audience work. And then they think, oh, this must be smart. I figured it out.

Sheila Heti:
Right.

Michael Jamin:
And dumb writing, you just, Hey, spell it out. But that’s not something that’s your concern, I guess.

Sheila Heti:
I mean, I just don’t want to ever, I think I’ve always, always been, ever written the connective tissue that other writers put in. I have this feeling if I am not interested in writing it, it probably doesn’t need to be written. And maybe that’s not true, but I always don’t want to feel obliged to write something just for the reader. If I don’t have a need to write it myself, then I don’t think it should be on the page. That’s why I think I’m not so good at writing nonfiction, because nonfiction is very much about serving the reader with explanation.

Michael Jamin:
Right. Well, but there’s some moments where I tend to race through moments which I shouldn’t race through. So I am conscious of that’s like go back and write it and make sure it lands and take, this is not a sentence. You better step it out with a paragraph or something. But that’s not something that even, that’s why I think you’re more artful when you’re writing.

Sheila Heti:
I don’t know. I try to skip it. I just don’t want to put something down on the page if it doesn’t also have some need from myself to be written. I just don’t want to write something just for the reader to just for the reader, get two parts to, I had a friend, I remember we were much younger. He was like, how do you get people out of rooms? I was like, why do you need to get them out of the room? But he felt like he had to put every step in.

Michael Jamin:
Right, right. And you’ll just take a jump.

Sheila Heti:
If you don’t feel like writing them leaving the room, then just, yeah. I think, yeah, it was just such a different thing that I never thought the reader doesn’t need to see them leave the room. It’s sort of like that with lots of things.

Michael Jamin:
Yeah, I agree with you. It’s hard to know. I think I agree with your friend, though. It’s hard to know what to put in, what to put out, how much handhold, because I don’t think I really feel like when reading you, I feel like you’re pulling us through a trail. You’re holding us by the hand, but you’re walking ahead. And then sometimes you wait for us to catch up, and then you move ahead, and then we’re catching up to you, but then you’ll stop and you wait for us. So I felt taken care of as a reader. That’s nice. Yeah. But it turns out you weren’t trying to take care of me at all. You were just writing the way you write, right?

Sheila Heti:
No, I mean, I want it to make sense. I want it to make sense. Of course. It’s just like how much sense does a person need? But I’m also think that, well, everyone’s going to like my books. I started taking it as a given that probably half the people, and that’s okay. I’d rather have a third of the people really, or quarter of the people, or 10th of the people really love it. And then the rest not really get it. So I don’t think that, I’m trying to write the kind of books

Michael Jamin:
You did in one of your pieces. You did mention that you felt compelled to write something with a little more commercial appeal at one point

Sheila Heti:
In the diary. I said

Michael Jamin:
That, yeah. Maybe might’ve been the diary.

Sheila Heti:
Yeah. I mean, always when you’re young, you’re always trying to figure out, how am I going to make money? But also, you can’t even, that’s hard. It’s hard to write something with commercial appeal. It’s not as easy as it sounds.

Michael Jamin:
Well, yeah, I don’t know. I mean, I guess, I don’t know. To me, writing something, people

Sheila Heti:
Think, oh, I’ll just write some dumb popular book. But it’s like those,

Michael Jamin:
It’s

Sheila Heti:
Something that people really want.

Michael Jamin:
Yeah, that’s true. I agree with you there. But I also feel, whatever this is next level, like I said, I don’t know where you begin to think that this is going to work. And it does. You know what I’m saying? It’s not like, because it’s so many things, but all the pieces fit together, especially at the end. It all makes sense. So it was just lovely. Oh yeah, it was lovely. Yeah. Made me want to throw the book across the room, because I can’t do this damnit, but okay. I want to answer one more question, then I’ll let you go back to your life. But not until I get my answers. Let’s see, what was it? Okay, this is interesting. So she writes so beautifully, she says, okay, you’ve answered a question as daunting as how should a person be in a whole book? In many ways, in many different ways, and explorations and explanations, you’ve arrived at answers not explicitly or all at once, but sewn into the whole entire book. So she asked, what was your initial instinctual answer on how a person should be? When that question first popped into your head,

Sheila Heti:
Gosh. I mean, honestly, Lola, I don’t even remember. It was so long ago. That was 20 years ago that I started writing that book. I don’t think that I even was thinking about, oh, what’s my answer? I just really liked the way that sentence sounded, and I came up with

Michael Jamin:
Message. But you were trying to find yourself at that point.

Sheila Heti:
Yeah, but that sentence also was such a weird sentence. I don’t even remember. I remember feeling I had it on my wall. I wrote it down and I put it on my wall. I was thinking about it. Should this be the, I don’t know. That’s an important sentence for me. I didn’t know it was going to be the title of the book or anything. And my friend Margo came in. I was at a writer’s retreat, this place called Yado, and she came in and she’s like, she visited me there. She’s like, that should be the title of your book. But I remember I put it on the wall. To me, it was such a weird sentence, it just got in my head like a earworm, just like a bug.
Is this sentence even asking a question? Is this sentence even saying something I liked? And I remember I put, when I was at this writer’s calling, I wasn’t sure the title of the book should be, should It Be? How Should a Person Be? Should It Be The Ugly Painting Competition? I had one or two other ideas, and there was this table that writers could sort of put notes for each other on. And I put this note on sort of saying, make a tick mark with which title you think it should be. And most people chose the Ugly Painting competition. So there’s this retrospective thing where, oh, that’s a really good title, people say, but I think at the time, it just felt like a really weird sentence. And so I didn’t really have an instinctive answer. I more just had a magnetic attraction to that sentence.

Michael Jamin:
So you weren’t struggling with the notion at the time of how you should be. I felt like you were when I was reading it.

Sheila Heti:
I mean, you have to narrow things down to put them in a book. I mean, I was just lost and confused and didn’t know how to be a good person, and I didn’t know what choices I should be making or how anybody made choices or, yeah, it all comes together in that sentence, I guess. But I wasn’t walking around as a human thinking, how should a person be for myself? I was making really, I was just feeling very discouraged and very excited. Alternately,

Michael Jamin:
Right. Oh, okay. Okay. Alright. Hard part being asked a question from a book that was so long ago, but I would tell every, no,

Sheila Heti:
But I think that’s the right answer. I think that you’re not really magnetized exactly by the questions that are your life questions. You’re magnetized by the questions that can be translated into book questions.

Michael Jamin:
Go on. I’m almost there. I’m almost with you. I’m still struggling. But

Sheila Heti:
You’re drawn to the, you have to narrow things down to put them in a book. You can’t put your whole life into a book. You have to narrow it down. And so you become attracted to those symbols, like the sentence, how should a person be as a symbol? You become attracted to these symbols that can be objects in a book, but in your life, you’re not living symbolically where you’re just lost and you just don’t know how to be. So it doesn’t crystallize in life. It’s just this miasma of confusion and doubt and whatever. That’s what life is.

Michael Jamin:
So do you think your writing helps you make sense of your life? Or are you making sense of it first and then writing.

Sheila Heti:
Writing? Am I making sense of it first and then writing? No. Yeah.

Michael Jamin:
Do you understand what I’m saying or no?

Sheila Heti:
Yeah. No, I don’t think so. I think you’re writing to try to give structure to it, to try to give narrative, to try to give color to it or shade and, yeah, no, I don’t think you don’t make sense of it first and then write it out.

Michael Jamin:
And so in that way, I agree with you. And in that way, you almost invent yourself. You go, okay, this is a narrative. And now I guess it’s true now.

Sheila Heti:
Well, no, no, it’s not that. It’s true now because you know that you invented it. So it serves a purpose for a short period of time.

Michael Jamin:
It serves a purpose, but

Sheila Heti:
You know, invented it. So it doesn’t really permanently serve a purpose,

Michael Jamin:
But it does help you understand. It does help you, like I said, make a narrative of your life and that helps you understand, oh, I guess this is who I am now. This is who I am

Sheila Heti:
For those three years that you’re writing three years, and then the book ends, and then you’re lost again. And then you’re like, now who am I going to be? What am I going to be? What is my outline?

Michael Jamin:
And then how do you come, okay, so how do you decide what your next work is going to be?

Sheila Heti:
I mean, you can make all sorts of decisions. And then we started off the conversation, then three weeks later, it was, you realized you were wrong. So it’s more just like what sticks around. Again? I see you’re wearing your wedding ring. You’re married that it’s like your partner. You probably had other people you thought you might marry or whatever, but it’s just like, who ended up being your wife? You can ask that question retrospectively, but at the time you hope she’s going to be your wife. Maybe you hope this other person was going to be your wife. You don’t really know what it’s going to be. So I guess it’s the same with a book project. Retrospectively, you’re like, oh, well, geez, I’m still working on that. It’s been four years.

Michael Jamin:
Isn’t that interesting though? Even when you talk about that, that you’re, it’s like how when you’re talking about marrying someone, it’s not even so much the person. It’s the time. It’s the time when it’s almost like timing.

Sheila Heti:
Yeah. That’s probably part of it too. I always want to start a book, and then when I actually do start one, I’m like, oh, well, you just weren’t ready yet. You were still attached to the last book,

Michael Jamin:
But do you feel, okay, I get this idea of what sticks is what you’ll work on and has legs, but do you feel any kind of pressure? I don’t know, to continue reinventing this is what you’re doing. That’s the pattern. I see. Oh, I’m reinventing what my writing will be.

Sheila Heti:
I don’t feel pressure. I feel like excited for the curiosity. I’m curious, or I would just want, well, what’s the next thing? No, it’s not pressure. It’s more just looking forward to something new to play with.

Michael Jamin:
Wow. Yeah. Yeah. Okay. I get that. I understand that. To me, I would be thinking, well, if it ain’t broke, I’m trying to fix it. This is, I don’t know. But no, I get

Sheila Heti:
It. But that’s not true because you did leave screenwriting.

Michael Jamin:
Well, I’m still kind of, who knows? When you

Sheila Heti:
Started something new Yeah. And it wasn’t broke. It was just that you wanted to try something.

Michael Jamin:
Yeah. It really was, what can I do without someone telling me what to do? Yeah. But did you ever have any interest in writing for screen?

Sheila Heti:
I’ve tried, and I just don’t have, I would have to put in a lot more time than I probably have, but the couple of times I’ve tried to write for the screen, I just felt like it didn’t, yeah. It’s just not my medium. It’s a very different, it’s a much more mathematical, dramatic, logical kind of, I don’t know. It’s only halfway there because then the actors have to come. I like the fact with the book that it’s the whole thing.

Michael Jamin:
It’s all yours. Right. Do you watch a lot of TV or film?

Sheila Heti:
Yeah. My boyfriend and I watch something more or less every night. Oh,

Michael Jamin:
Really? What do you went to? Yeah,

Sheila Heti:
He loves movies. Right now we’re watching the Boys.

Michael Jamin:
Oh, the Boys, okay. Right.

Sheila Heti:
But I think my favorite was The Leftovers,

Michael Jamin:
The Wait, I didn’t see that. That Leftovers

Sheila Heti:
TV show that ran for three seasons. I thought that was an incredible work of art.

Michael Jamin:
Really? Oh, that’s work for that.

Sheila Heti:
Interesting. The film was just great. But yeah, and I love Curb and Seinfeld. I mean, just this good old tv,

Michael Jamin:
Good old. Great. Wow. Sheila. Sheila Hetty, thank you so much. I don’t know. This is one of the benefits of getting to do what I’m doing now, is I get to meet people like you and just learn and soak it up, because I just feel you is such an incredible talent. And so I urge everybody just to, I don’t know, your newest book will be Alphabetical Diaries. That’s February drop in February. But I guess for me, I’ll probably read motherhood next. Is that what I should read next? Okay. She shaking Head. Okay. That’s what I will. And so I urge everyone, Sheila, thank you so much. Thank you so much for joining

Michael Jamin:
Me so much for this

Michael Jamin:
Interview. Thanks for asking me. I really appreciate it. Oh, this was such a pleasure. Oh, please, everyone in my family, I was telling em, looks like the interview Sheila Hadie. And it was like a big deal. I got my questions, my daughter send me questions. Don’t ruin it. Don’t ruin the opportunity. Thank you again so much. Alright, everyone. More great stuff next week. Thank you so much for listening and keep writing.

Michael Jamin:
So now we all know what the hell Michael Jamin’s talking about. If you’re interested in learning more about writing, make sure you register for my free monthly webinars @michaeljamin.com/webinar. And if you found this podcast helpful or entertaining, please share it with a friend and consider leaving us a five star review on iTunes that really, really helps. For more of this, whatever the hell this is, follow Michael Jamin on social media @MichaelJaminwriter. And you can follow Phil Hudson on social media @PhilaHudson. This podcast was produced by Phil Hudson. It was edited by Dallas Crane and music was composed by Anthony Rizzo. And remember, you can have excuses or you can have a creative life, but you can’t have both. See you next week.

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Michael Jamin, Showrunner, TV Writer, Author

Michael Jamin

For the past 26 years, Michael Jamin has been a professional television writer/showrunner. His credits include King of the Hill, Beavis & Butthead, Wilfred, Maron, Just Shoot Me, Rules of Engagement, Brickleberry, Tacoma FD and many more.

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