Sheila Heti’s How Should A Person Be?, a “novel from life” just released in the US (it came out in Canada in 2010), is not the kind of book that comes along often. It’s highly quotable, funny, shocking, anxiety-inducing and, finally, inspiring. It is particularly potent for the creators among us, anyone who longs to make something, but struggles to know exactly what, or how. How Should A Person Be? is a flurry of romantic vignettes, philosophical conversations between friends, momentous journeys — all episodes in one big identity crisis. It’s not straightforward or easily classifiable, nor is it easy to tell the fiction from the facts (the narrator’s name is also Sheila, but the rest is a mystery). None of this really matters. The haphazard quality of this book, the way Heti chips away at conversations, thoughts and encounters searching for some singular truth about creativity, makes it all the more relatable. It is undeniably of the moment, a blueprint of how to be lost in the Internet Age.
Then again, Heti’s story, set in contemporary Toronto, contains exactly four very brief mentions of the Internet, so it’s hard to say whether this story is really “our story,” the 21st century story, or whether we just want to make this timeless plight ours because Sheila Heti is (to paraphrase a revelation her narrator has in the book) our fucking contemporary! Sheila’s quest is to uncover How A Person Should Be in lieu of actually getting to work on Being That Person. Sheila eventually realizes that uncovering how she should be is work, and is artistic work.
When the novel opens, Sheila is lost in the thicket of an impossible play she’s been commissioned to write, a play “about women.” But she doesn’t know anything about women!, she says. Soon she embarks on a friendship with a painter named Margaux (Margaux is, after all, a woman!) Margaux serves as an inspiring distraction for Sheila, and Sheila begins recording their conversations, believing that talking to Margaux will help her figure out her play and, more important, her identity.
Sheila is afraid to take off. She is afraid of creating a work of art that won’t be everything, that won’t change the world forever. So instead of working, she does “research.” Instead of living, she becomes an audience to Margaux’s life. This is somewhat of a fool’s errand, of course, but it takes Sheila some time to realize this. A key turning point comes when Sheila speaks to her analyst, Ann, about her inability to finish her play. Ann evokes the archetype of the puer aeternus, the boy who never grows up. In one of the most enlightening passages in the book, Ann says:
Puers…will suddenly tell you that they have another plan, and they always do it the moment things start getting difficult. But it’s their everlasting switching that’s the dangerous thing, not what they choose…Because people who live their lives this way can look forward to a single destiny shared with others of this type — though such people do not believe they represent a type, but feel themselves distinguished from the common run of man, who they see as held down by the banal anchors of the world. But while others actually build a life in which things gain in meaning and significance, this is not true of the puer. Such a person inevitably looks back on life as it nears its end with a feeling of emptiness and sadness, aware of what they have built: nothing. In their quest for a life without failure, suffering, or doubt, that is what they achieve: a life empty of all those things that make a human life meaningful. And yet they started off believing themselves too special for this world!
As Ann speaks Sheila becomes increasingly alarmed. Her pulse races. She recognizes herself in the puer.
But — and here is the hope — there is a solution for people of this type, and it’s perhaps not the solution that could have been predicted. The answer for them is to build on what they have begun and not abandon their plans as soon as things start getting difficult. They must work — without escaping into fantasies about being the person who worked. And I don’t mean work for its own sake, but they must choose work that begins and ends in a passion, a question that is gnawing at their guts, which is not to be avoided but must be realized and lived through the hard work and suffering that inevitably comes with the process.
The remaining half of the novel contains much “hard work and suffering.” Just as Sheila believed she could find answers in Margaux, it is tempting to believe that How Should A Person Be? will answer for us the question that its title poses. Perhaps it does, but the answer isn’t any easier to stomach than the question. And it certainly isn’t a destination. It’s just an open door. It is, essentially, what Ann says: we must “work — without escaping into fantasies about being the person who worked.”
Sheila takes the straight, easy path, but it doesn’t really lead anywhere, and she comes out the other side even emptier, with Margaux lying in her wake. Only then does she painfully learn that there is no easy way into her imagination. She also learns to accept failure, that it’s OK to give up on one thing and pick up something else. When she realizes that there is a different story in her waiting to come out — her picaresque struggle to figure out who she is:
I wrote fluidly for three or four hours. And I felt so happy doing it, so at home. There was a peace and security in me. It wasn’t my play, but it felt good — far better than fiddling with the dialogue of Ms. Oddi and Mrs. Sing, as I had been doing for so long. I felt closer to knowing something about reality, closer to some truth.
Printing it out and reading it over, a feeling of pride bloomed in me like a spring, like something new was being born.
Sheila goes through a transformation, but we are still left wondering how exactly it came about. What were the magical elements that came together to shift Sheila, to make her realize that she didn’t have to “be” the person who finished the terrible play? It doesn’t really matter, and it may be impossible to know. Each person has to do her own particular heavy lifting. But it is so helpful to know that we must accept this, as all artists do, and start to lift.