For Sheila Heti, art imitates life far more than life imitates art.
The School of the Arts kicked off the sixth annual Creative Writing Lecture series with Sheila Heti on Sept. 27. A young author of fiction and “conversational philosophy,” Heti published her fourth book, “How Should A Person Be? A Novel from Life,” this year.
Heti is the first to admit that her work blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction. The novel is comprised of pseudo-biographical vignettes that derive mostly from conversations Heti recorded between her and her friends over a period of several years.
“I wanted to talk to my friends and so I let myself,” she said.
But Heti asserts that the people who inspire the characters of the same name are not the characters themselves, but full and dynamic living beings. According to Heti, the lines we all draw between our own realities and fantasies are constructs.
“We’re all fictions,” Heti said.
She also said that recent experience taught her that seeing people as characters, like any writer or reader is prone to, is not to see them fully. She didn’t want to see people as characters any more, she said, and she considered it irresponsible to write them as such. “But,” she asked the audience, “how do you write a book without characters?”
Heti cautioned the crowd to be careful of the lines between reality and representation.
“I had this utopian idea that if you put out a representation of yourself, people would react to the representation and not to me,” she said. But her life, she explained, became merged with the character in her book in a way she didn’t expect, and the blending of fiction and life has taken its toll on all of the friends she brought into her book. “In terms of what I thought we were all learning, I don’t know if we learned those things.”
Since publishing the novel, Heti has been reflecting on the kind of writer she wants to become, noting that she hopes to write “about the most beautiful things about being alive.” With this latest work, Heti said that she tried to departs from convention by not putting “any restriction” on her creative process.
Heti said her first big breakthrough in this new process occurred when she decided not to censor herself as she worked on “The Middle Stories,” also published in the United States earlier this year. For Heti, writers always feel the temptation to “fix the originality and authenticity in their work.” But letting herself follow her creative impulses, even when they motivated her to write “badly,” made her work freer, she said.
“The only place where you can do whatever you want in life is in art,” Heti said.
The author of three novels and collection of short stories, Heti has written for the New York Times, Bookforum, McSweeney’s, n+1, and The Guardian among others. She is based in Toronto and currently works as interviews editor at The Believer magazine.