Writer-In-Residence Offers Words of Wisdom

Award-winning author Sheila Heti started writing as a toddler

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Writer-in-residence Sheila Heti.

Writer-in-residence Sheila Heti. Photo by Sylvia Plachy

Almost every writer has experienced rejection at some point. The difference between those who get published and those who don’t is perseverance, says Sheila Heti.

“I had tons and tons of stories rejected,” says the highly acclaimed author and U of G’s new writer-in-residence. But that didn’t stop her from writing. Rejection is part of the writing process, and it shouldn’t be taken personally. Instead, she advises writers to channel their reaction into their writing and use it as motivation to work harder.

Before she became a published author, she says, “I just wanted people to read what I wrote.” So she sent her stories to random strangers she found in the phone book and left copies of her writing on the subway. Now, the Internet makes it easier for writers to get noticed. “My ambition is not to be read by everybody. I mostly want to be read by people who appreciate my work.”

Heti published her first book of short stories at 24, but her storytelling began before she learned how to read and write. As a two-year-old, she told stories to family members, who wrote them down for her. “I always felt the best when I was doing it,” she says of the writing process. “I always felt the most myself and the most connected to the world and to life. If I could have that feeling for the rest of my life, then that’s what I want to do.”

So are some people born to write? She says the desire to tell stories comes from within, but the mechanics of writing and self-expression can be taught. Without that desire, writing is just a bunch of words on a page. “I don’t think you can learn the desire” for writing or anything else, she adds.

Now that Heti is putting her own words on paper – without her family’s help – her audience has grown to include The New Yorker, which named her book The Chairs Are Where the People Go as one of the Best Books of 2011. Her most recent work, How Should a Person Be?, received Best Book of the Year accolades from The New Yorker, The New York Times and The New Republic. The book also put her on the shortlist for Time magazine’s 2012 Most Influential People of the Year and earned her a nomination for the Women’s Prize for Fiction. “You work hard at something, and it’s nice to be recognized for that,” she says.

Heti advises aspiring writers to send their work to journals they enjoy reading instead of to numerous publications. “I think being read is more important than being published.” She says sharing your writing with others can help, as writing is a conversation between writer and reader, not a monologue. Even friends and family can offer constructive criticism.

For anyone who has struggled with writer’s block, Heti suggests thinking of the process as one sentence leading to another. “I’m using writing as a way to solve problems in my life or that I see in the world. I’m inspired by problems and using writing as a strange way of solving them.” She describes a good story as one that makes the reader – and writer – want to read it to the end. If you don’t enjoy reading your own writing, she says, why would anyone else?

As writer-in-residence, Heti welcomes members of the U of G community to discuss their written work or talk about writing. “I’m happy to talk to anyone at any level. No one should be shy; I’m not judging anybody.” Her office hours are Mondays and Wednesdays in Massey Hall. She’s available for 30- or 60-minute sessions and will review up to 20 pages of writing per person. To book an appointment, email hetis@uoguelph.ca.