How Should a Person Be?

by Scott Cheshire and Jason Tougaw

It’s a delight to welcome my friend Scott Cheshire. For his californica debut, he and I decided to publish our conversation about a book that got under our respective skins, Sheila Heti‘s How Should a Person Be?: A Novel from Life. (Also, for a treat, check out the playlist of songs Heti devised to accompany the book, on Largehearted Boy’s “Book Notes.”)

You recommended How Should a Person Be?, and when you said Heti’s book read like no other, I picked it up immediately. I guess you’d call it a docu-novel. Most of the characters are based on Heti’s circle of friends, named as they are in life—with the apparent exception of her love interest (er, fuck buddy) Israel. (I’ll get to him later.) I’d love to hear more about what you thought was so unique about Heti’s writing. For me, it’s not just that she’s walking the line between fiction and nonfiction, which writers do all the time. It’s the wavy, vernacular path she carves between documenting and fictionalizing her own experience. In the process of fictionalizing art and feeling and drugs and sex, she manages to document a very right now cultural moment and to feel like more Keats or the Shelleys than your Kerouacs and Ginsbergs (who did something similar in their time). And she’s rawer than most contemporary writers, offering a close look at her own scrapes and humiliations. There’s some prurience involved. But there’s also plenty of reflection and philosophy.

I like your Romantic take on the book. I hadn’t precisely thought of it that way and yet that does describe how I feel about the book. It reads like a deliberate and genuine search, and less like experiment, which is how most critics seem to be reading it (although I did think of Kerouac, too, while reading). I believe Heti. The book feels honest. Which is sort of an odd thing to say because for some it’s absolutely not that because it explicitly presents itself as a distortion of the “truth.” But for me that is what makes it such an exciting read. The book reads as a sort of middle finger at truth and authenticity, two words that I hear a lot more lately, especially by younger people. These are also words I don’t particularly like or trust. And yet this book comes closer to what I think we imagine those words mean more than most books. I find that tension thrilling.

A lot of critics have suggested similarities between Heti’s novel and Lena Dunham’s Girls and Tiny Furniture: the post-feminism, the degrading yet somehow empowering sex, the frank worry and failure, the gallivanting. The same critics often point out that Heti’s a decade older than Dunham, to explain differences between them. How Should a Person Be? is philosophical and intertextual, for one. Sheila celebrates drugs and sex, rather than watching others celebrate them. All this may be a product of genre as much as generation. She doesn’t have to worry about scaring TV or movie execs.

This is what Sheila Heti looks like.

But something else stood out for me in this book, something I haven’t seen people talk about. Heti is intent on showing that how much the person Sheila can be depends on the people around her, how her relationships with them and her responses to their feelings and actions make her who she is. Sometimes they help make her great: creative, enthusiastic, daring. Sometimes they make her pathetic: jealous, competitive, groveling for sex. The book documents her search for relationships that will make her the person she hopes to be. I’ll try to explain.

Early on, Heti recounts the story of her divorce, and the story of her marriage becomes the frame for her narrative about the split, a story about how a person shouldn’t be:

Since the beginning, there had been an empathy between me and my husband; there had always been a sweetness. It was like we were afraid of breaking each other. We never fought or pushed, as though the world was hard enough. As for difficult conversations that might hurt the other–we left those matters alone. It could have gone on–our life and our love–but a few years into my marriage, I tripped. I tripped and stumbled and I regained my step, but in the wrong place this time, and my days began to mirror exactly, in smell and sensation, a monthlong period when I was eighteen: a hot and sticky August. I’d just moved out of the house I had been living with my high school boyfriend, and was now in my father’s basement. It was a month of limbo, between life in a house with my boyfriend and the freedom of theater school in another town.

            That month, I experienced a tense idleness waiting for my new life to begin. It was a month of impatience, of stillness, like being set in amber. A certain smell followed me everywhere, like the smell of rotten candy. My insides were queasy. My skin was always sweating. 

            A vivid echo of those days, a living memory of it, entered my life again, came into my marriage, and remained with me for a whole six months. I wanted to break out of that loop–it felt terrible; something a person should not experience. Just wrong! Every day should feel new, but I was back in that atmosphere of another time; one I had lived already. 

            Every morning I woke up beside my husband and looked around to see if the feeling was still there; it always was. And I would get up for the day, exhausted already, sticky with the same tense idleness I had felt back then.

It takes a divorce to rid Heti of this feeling. But to call it a feeling downplays its significance. It’s a constant state of sticky remembering that defines her. As an experiment in how a person should be, Heti’s marriage is “just wrong!”–despite the empathy, kindness, and easy understanding between her and her husband. Through marriage, she becomes somebody she doesn’t want to be. Divorce becomes another phase in the experiment. Can she find the “just right!” Sheila Heti? Of course, nobody ever holds onto to a feeling of “just right!” for very long, but she pursues it through her relationship with her friend Margaux (Williamson), a painter, with whom she debates and fights all the time. With whom, she feels confusion more than empathy. The relationship soars into high drama—which made me cringe fairly often, even though I was rooting for both characters. For Heti, though, the friction seems to be a catalyst for a feeling of the sublime that sounds a lot like the feeling Wordsworth, Byron, and Shelley were after, except that she finds it in coke-fueled nights roaming urban streets, rather than the alps or the ruins of an ancient abbey. They want life to be art and vice versa, a point made kinda perfectly in Lee Towndrow‘s photo (below).

Sheila Heti, Margaux Williamson, Ryan Camstra, and Sholem Krishtalka imitate art in this portrait by Lee Towndrow (

I can certainly see how the high drama of their relationship (Shelia and Margaux’s) could be unappealing, but for me that was sort of the point. High drama can’t last very long, and I think the Sheila character (all her friends, really, but especially Sheila) is ultimately looking to get and feel “high,” for lack of a better term. Actually the term is perfect, when I think more about it, and it’s our general lack of respect for that notion that’s a problem. I think Sheila craves a life experienced at a more intensely lived level, one that is more acutely felt and understood. She says so herself, she wants to “Live!” And drugs give her and Margaux that feeling: “A good night of drinking and smoking, or a night of doing coke, and the next day Friday, far from being hungover, our brains felt still and refreshed. It was like our insides had been set back to 00:00:00…Margaux made the paintings of her career the morning after….”

I know that feeling, and I think it’s totally valid, and it does work, but only for so long. Sheila says as much:

In the beginning…[i]nstead of developing the capacities within, we took two roads: the delusion and oblivion of drugs—which didn’t start off as cheating, but as access to the sublime; and treating ourselves as objects to be admired—the attempt to make the self into an object of need and desire by tending to the image of ourselves. We have found that, in our freedom, we have wanted to be like coke to the coke addict….

These roads are rocky, yeah, but in service of a noble cause—to live! Now this may seem dangerously juvenile and sort of too simple, not really epiphany-worthy, but let’s remember the context. Drugs, coke, and booze—a left-handed way to God, you could say—are just one of several ways Sheila tries to “be” more intensely. There is sex, really dirty sex. And there’s the whole notion of mimicry in the novel, a kind self-help sympathetic magic, as in, do as others do and you too will be happy (but are they happy?). I think the co-dependence between Shelia and Margaux (especially Sheila’s) is more a symptom of their disease (a disease I would say most of us also have to some to degree, if we’re lucky), one that comes from manic and deliberate attempts at coke-fueled uber-conversation, and from the constant modeling-herself-on-others Sheila is forever wrangling with, and of course from their shared love and ambition with regard to art, the most prevalent and relevant way Sheila uses to “be” more intensely in the novel.

I agree. It’s about the high—and the many meanings of that word. That’s what feels capital R Romantic about this book. The high is the sublime. Sheila and her friends are after it. Even Israel is after it. That brings me to Israel.

I admit that I developed a crush on Israel while I was reading. I went online trying to figure out who he was. Or if he was based on a real person. A quick search will pull up all the book’s other major characters, whose names are not changed to protect them. But not Israel. He gets to be fiction. Maybe because he is fiction? Or a composite? Or maybe because the guy—or guys—he’s based on wanted to be protected from Heti’s Technicolor portrait of his obsession with his self-appointed superpower: his dick (and the precious semen it can deliver).

A quick example. At one point, Sheila and Margaux are at Art Basel in Miami. She’s talking to some art collectors:

As we were talking, my phone rang and I answered it. I recognized the lazy voice and at once felt faint, and I moved away from my friends. “Are you having a good time?” Israel asked. I said that I was. I tried to explain that we were talking to some rich people. “Would you like to have my cum in your mouth right now, talking to those rich people? That would be pretty good, wouldn’t it?” Not knowing what else to say, I stammered, “Yes.” When I got off the phone with him, I made a new rule for myself: that I would never again take his call—or, anyway, not until I finished my play—so never.

Of course, she does continue to take his calls. The feminist nightmare of this relationship has got to be intentional. (As in Dunham’s stuff.) But it’s that faint feeling Heti’s after, I think. As with the coke and the drinking and the fights with Margaux, Israel’s relentless love of his dick and what it can turn her into to makes her feel something. She also feels the degradation, and she has a feminist response to that, sometimes, but she refuses to reduce her own experience to the feminist response. Part of her wants to feel what it’s like to be a submissive girl. Part of her believes that’s part of living. Israel can make her feel faint, and in that way he’s part of the universal sublime, one of nature’s creatures whose effects on her are intense and interesting. She wants that.

There’s another passage that offers a twist on the question of feminist sexual degradation:

The night before, I had made out with a man in a bar. On his hands were warts–big ones covering his palms and wrists–and I let him put his acrid saliva all up and down my face and neck. It had given me satisfaction that he was so ugly. This is the great privilege of being a woman—we get to decide. I have always welcomed hunchbacks with a readiness I can only call justice. 

I think she’s saying that all straight men want all women, so women get to decide. It’s not quite that she’s doing the warty guy a favor. It’s that she gets to feel like an arbiter of justice when she makes the choice to favor him. I’m not saying we should call this feminist, but it is a nuanced take on desire. And I guess that’s one of the tings I think Heti’s after.

Anyway, Heti managed to get me to identify enough to develop a crush on Israel, who is as gross as he is hot. I’m curious to know how you responded to him. Or to her. Or to Margaux. Did you get crushes on these girls? Did any part of you want to be Israel?

Hahahaha. I can either carefully avoid answering this question and make believe that I did, or I can tell you how I really felt, that part of me absolutely wanted be like Israel—or better, to have been like him at one point in my life, but no longer—and that I absolutely crushed on the Sheila and Margaux characters.

We should talk about Sheila’s play. In the Israel passage I quoted earlier, she implies she’ll never finish it. Her unwritten play is the catalyst for the novel, which is a portrait of an artist who can’t write the thing she’s supposed to write, so she writes the novel instead.

The play-project in the novel becomes a way for Sheila to artfully arrange her life, have it be beautiful, and make sense, have it mean. This is what reminded of Kerouac, especially his great and sort of unclassifiable Visions of Cody, in which he transcribes conversations between himself and Cassidy and others, and seems intent on using those lived moments to make art read more meaningfully realistic, and in turn to make those transcribed moments suggest a life lived more artfully. Plus there’s plenty of sex, booze, and drugs. The effect is powerful and tense. What is this book? Do I trust the characters? Do I trust the writer? Another book I was constantly reminded of while reading How Should a Person Be? was Max Frisch’s novel Montauk, which is sort of a mirror version of How Should a Person Be? It’s is a slim novel about an older gentleman, a successful writer, who is looking back on his life and is trying to asses his life’s value, but largely by way of his relationships with friends and lovers. It’s also beautifully suspect with regard to how fictional it really is. It reads like autobiography, and yet he is constantly frustrating the novel’s form by trafficking between first person and third person, tossing away traditional paragraphing (the book is comprised of long sections and mini-sections each with their own sub-title), and offering plainspoken philosophical phrases like this: “DO YOU STILL FIND MARRIAGE A PROBLEM?”; and: “TO WHAT AGE DO YOU WISH TO LIVE? DO YOU LOVE ANYBODY? HOW DO YOU KNOW?” You can easily imagine a HOW SHOULD A PERSON BE? in that same company.

The entire novel could be taken as an attempt in the opposite direction of Heti, that is to find out if a life already lived under what Frisch calls “artistic discipline,” spent partly measuring oneself according to the work and manor of your peers (in Frisch’s case, and explicitly in Montauk, Roth, Beckett, and others), and spent casually philosophizing (Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, Heidegger) is a better one? In one of my favorite moments in the novel Frisch succinctly presents the very problem with living “under artistic discipline,” a compulsion toward narrative-based thinking and an appreciation for compelling and aesthetically pleasing artifice.  He writes: “The writer is afraid of feelings that are not suited to publication; he takes refuge then in irony; all he perceives is considered from the point of view of whether it is worth describing, and he dislikes experiences that can never be expressed in words. A professional disease that drives many writers to drink.”

Heti’s book has the same concern but examines it from the opposite end of the timeline. Sheila wants for her life to mean something and desperately (thank goodness, otherwise we wouldn’t have a book) tries to use art to make that happen. The impossible challenge however remains, that life is random and art is selective. And so the formal tensions in Heti’s (and Frisch’s) novel. Hell, even her sub-title vibrates a little bit: A Novel from Life.

There is a lovely double-moment in Heti’s novel that nicely presents this problematic impulse, that is to just “be” and to be artfully. From the opening paragraph of chapter seven:

There’s so much beauty in the world that it’s hard to begin. There are no words with which to express my gratitude at having been given this one chance to live—if not Live. Let other people frequent the nightclubs in their tight-ass skirts and Live. I’m just sitting here, vibrating in my apartment, at having been given this one chance to live.

I am writing a play. I want to write a play that is going to save the world. If it only saves three people, I will not be happy.

Just pages before, Sheila has a dream: she is “waiting at an airport… trying to get someplace higher and better.” She then finds herself on a plane “flying so low to the city, just above the highways, flying in between the homes, dipping down sharply, then up”; they “flew over a vast recycling center… bags of garbage forever and ever.” She wakes up and immediately calls her Jungian analyst (that is too funny), and tells her analyst the dream. The analyst responds: “‘Did you imagine writing the play would get you somewhere higher an better, just like an airplane does?’” And Sheila responds: “I didn’t know how to answer such a plainly obvious question. “‘Of course!.'”

Speaking of dreams. I think it’s worth noting that Heti was the curator of the online projects “I Dream of Barack” and “I Dream of Hilary”—during the 2008 Democratic Presidential Primary. Do you remember that? She collected accounts of dreams people had about Barack and Hilary and put them online, with some commentary from dream researchers. My paramour for life, David Driver, had a dream about Hilary included. Some of my colleagues in dream studies—Bernard Welt and Kelly Bulkeley—provided some pretty great commentary. I know you’re also interested in dreams. Did you pay attention to the site at the time?

How funny you mention this because I’m just now realizing this is not the first time we have talked about Heti’s work. Although that first time it was incidental. You tipped me off to that dream project, back then, too, which I found fascinating. So I then wrote a short piece for the Huffington Post about presidential dreams and more specifically apocalyptic dreams. I’m guessing you’ve totally forgotten about this, like me.

I love that history. I remember the article well, but I’d forgotten the connection to Heti’s project.

One last question: How would Heti answer her own question? How should a person be?

I saw her read from the novel and someone there asked the very same thing. If I remember correctly she said she didn’t really have the answer and that the book was her way of asking the question. I like that.

I’m sure that’s the actual answer, and I like it too. I’ll just add what I took from the book more than anything else: A person should be attentive to the traces of other people in us. Maybe even cultivate these traces, make life a personal science experiment.


Scott Cheshire has published both fiction and non-fiction, and he teaches writing at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop. His forthcoming debut novel High as the Horses’ Bridles will be published by Henry Holt. 

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