opinion | Sheila Heti: ‘Sell My Soul and Hopefully Start Over With a New One.’

A Diary in
Alphabetical Order

A little more than 10 years ago, I began looking back at the diaries I had kept over the previous decade. I wondered if I’d changed. So I loaded all 500,000 words of my journals into Excel to order the sentences alphabetically. Perhaps this would help me identify patterns and repetitions. How many times had I written, “I hate him,” for example? With the sentences untethered from narrative, I started to see the self in a new way: as something quite solid, anchored by shockingly few characteristic concerns. As I returned to the project over the years, it grew into something more novelistic. I blurred the characters and cut thousands of sentences, to introduce some rhythm and beauty. When The Times asked me for a work of fiction that could be serialized, I thought of these diaries: The self’s report on itself is surely a great fiction, and what is a more fundamental mode of serialization than the alphabet? After some editing, here is the result.
This is part 8 of a 10-part series. Sign up to get it in your inbox.

Remember how he wasn’t as tantalizing — how terrifying he was — when he was within reach? Remember how you felt yesterday after having gone shopping for underwear, that shopping is an activity, a way of spending not only money but time? Remember the winters of your childhood, all that snow? Remember, it doesn’t matter what you write about. Right before we parted, he picked me up and swung me around and put me back down on the steps.

Saw her last night, and it’s always depressing. Saw him in the hospital last night. Seeing her for a coffee was not so bad. Sell ​​a story to Hollywood. Sell ​​my bed. Sell ​​my soul and hopefully start over with a new one. Sell ​​things on eBay that you don’t need. Settle accounts and then be frugal with your money. Several weeks ago, he got his nipple ring put back in. Sexiest boy in the school. She and I biked around the other day. She and I talked until 10 to 11, so I missed meeting up with Lark. She asked me today, after seeing the flowers, “Is Pavel a bit in love with you?” She came down in her bathrobe at around 10 at night. She complains and deprives herself of every indulgence, living like a mole, like a homely person, without the hope of transcendence ever. She criticizes herself for always defining herself in relation to a man, and I said that I had wasted so much of my life thinking about men, too. She felt listless without him. She felt that she would dry up without him. She got dressed, and then we went to have breakfast at the place we had eaten at the day before.

She had never tasted love’s sweetness before. She heard the door to the third floor swing open. She is boiling water for coffee, and I can hear her flushing the toilet. She is nearing 70, and it was amazing to hear her talk about how her life was at its best now. She is the perfect woman. She is turning 17 the day after tomorrow. She looked flirtatiously, or with a hint of a smile, at the owner of the bookshop, who was looking over his calculations on a single sheet of paper. She made a masterpiece today. She never dates men. She pointed out that I always feel anxious about every relationship right from the start. She said I could bring a TV over to her apartment and we could watch the movie there, but I wasn’t sure how I would bring over a TV. She said I needed a home, a nice apartment, and that it was the most important thing to spend money on. She said it is so much nicer to carry around a stack of paper than it is to carry around a computer. She said it was sick that the capitalist system expects so much of people. She said Jung’s conception of God was the energy that sweeps you from your plans, that comes in — the force that destroys what you think you are building. She said she cried when she turned 34 — to her, it seemed too old. She said that this is the realization that Stephen Dedalus had come to. She said, “Why not see if you can find someone whom you have both an intellectual and a physical connection with?” She said, “You are your body; there is no distinction.” She searched herself and produced a tiny compass. She sometimes wondered at not having had the experience of a long-term love, and her therapist told her, “Well, other people haven’t had your experiences.” She spoke about the Doors, about how their idea of ​​sex compelled her because it was not the hippie idea in which sex is benign but instead that sex is powerful because sex is death. She spoke on and on about her granddaughter — she monologues a lot, like a man. She told me that I was right about these literary women, that at night they suddenly cared about couture and wore glamorous dresses. She told me to wear lipstick, and yesterday it came in the mail. She took a little blue egg from underneath her dress, a little blue bird egg, for she thought it might grow sour, not hatching, so she was trying to hatch it between her breasts. She usually gets it backward. She was comparing casual sex to cigarettes, saying that the craving is gone in the morning. She was giving up fashion design because it was too stupid; you had to make 60 new things every six months. She was married unhappily for 15 years, and she called it an abusive relationship and said that when a man insists on an apology, that is controlling, and that she is happy not to be controlled and that she has never regretted leaving, never looked back . She was talking about Martha Graham and about how Martha Graham said it takes 10 years of training before the body is able to be free. She was the downstairs neighbor. She was the fresh air. She will be a mother to a bird while the rest of us are still drinking and crying. Should the four of us begin having sex together? “Should we stay here or go to your room?” I asked as we walked inside, wanting to go to his room. Since that letter I sent him, I feel completely out of control. So embarrassing, so bad. So forget about him. So much changes all the time, I can barely work fast enough. So there we go. Some kind of integration of everything I have ever done. Some kind of organizing pleasure in writing. Some knowledge of literature. Some little cats were lying in a basket, seven little cats all together. Some people don’t have parents. Some people get a lot of money. Some people get a true love. Some people like the richness of life, but I have found it to be a distraction. Something about her was withering. Something is changing inside me, slowly. Something is starting, and something has ended. Something is starting to emerge from the muck and the mud. Something more eternal, maybe. Something more than this feeling of being invisibly oppressed. Something new. Sometimes good things don’t have to be shared. Sometimes I am aware of how much work my dreams are doing, putting things in categories. Sometimes it’s even better than that: Food is served, and there might be sandwiches in the middle of the table and coffee and tea on a side table. Sometimes the sun comes in through the window. Sometimes women think their lives are not real until they are with a man, or they don’t believe their lives will start until they have found the right one. Soon it will be fall. Sooner than I think. “Stay here,” he told me, and it turned me on. “Stay,” he said. Staying in Toronto is starting to feel really heavy. Stop smoking. Stop talking with people. Strange that Zadie Smith and her husband are in the apartment right across from us and that I can see them on the 15th floor.

Sheila Heti is the author of 10 books, including the novels “Motherhood,” “How Should a Person Be?” and the forthcoming “Pure Colour.” This is part 8 of a 10-part series. Sign up to get it in your inbox.

Photographs by Yael Malka.

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