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A Study in Time Lapse: Alphabetical Diaries, Memory, and Mundanity photo

Sheila Heti has a bad memory. She’s sitting on the stage of the Mark Taper Auditorium in the Los Angeles Central Library, wearing a velvet jumpsuit with gold tendrils and black lace tights. Heti tells the audience that her bad memory is the reason she writes things down; writing is how she tracks the movement of her life from one year to the next. Towards the end of the reading, an audience member with a photographic memory asks Heti: if she had his photographic memory, would she have bothered to write any of this? She says: I wouldn’t have had to.

The first time Heti wrote Alphabetical Diaries, she did it without meaning to. While in between projects, she realized she had written nearly 500,000 words worth of diary entries and decided to conduct an experiment. She placed the entries in an Excel spreadsheet and sorted them alphabetically. I was struck by the simplicity of the idea, and by Heti’s principal justification. Organizing was a source of pleasure; she liked the idea of re-structuring the passage of her life around something other than time. Indeed, the juxtaposition between the analytic, data-oriented medium of a spreadsheet and the messy, confessional format of a diary is enticing. What if we could parse out our raw experiences as data points, treating each lived moment as a sterile unit of information? However, the results of Heti’s experiment are not necessarily what we expect. By choosing to organize her diaries by something so simple — the alphabet — Heti throws a wrench into the logical narrative of her life. Time’s reliable forward motion is no longer in charge of the story. The Excel spreadsheet, arbiter of order, sows chaos.


Before Heti comes out on stage, I start reading my copy of Alphabetical Diaries. At first, I’m a little confounded by the relentless motion of her prose.  Heti spent so much time cutting, condensing, and streamlining her diaries that a whole month might be reduced to a single sentence. Each paragraph delivers whiplash; Heti is in constant motion, in constant thought, in a constant state of present.

I am in Istanbul. I am in New York. I am in Paris with nothing to do but be here for two more weeks.

She is all impulse, moving between tenses, then making tense irrelevant. She turns 27, and then just a few lines later, she turns 30. Daily life stumbles into keen observation. The profound sandwiched between the mundane. For instance, Heti writes this kernel of insight:

Fiction and nonfiction together, because the imagination is more amazing than anything in life, and life is more amazing than anything you can make up, and then, just a moment (or maybe a year?) later, Figure out money transfer.

There are many moments of cheeky contradiction. I loathe my sexual attraction to men. I long for him and love him and pine for him, even when we’re in the same room together. The work is carefully arranged and simultaneously one long stream-of-consciousness. Once I’m a few pages in, I begin to piece together a narrative from the fragmented sentences. The contours of Heti’s relationships, and their dissolutions, play out and puzzle together as we progress through the alphabet. We meet Heti’s friends — Agnes, then Claire, then Lemons — and assemble her complex and shifting feelings towards them. Her romantic relationships fluctuate between adoration, unrequited longing, and overwhelmed disinterest, following the same general arc towards disintegration, but building out intricacy in unexpected ways. Breaking with the linear structure of narrative changes our understanding of expectation and inevitability in these relationships. We might learn that Heti’s relationship with a boyfriend ended in disappointment and resentment before we ever learn that she loved him. We learn this, in some ways, before she does. It certainly helps that Heti writes lovely sentences, but she has also captured something that is lost with conventional accounts of memory. Seeing the interplay between mundanity and significance is an unexpectedly exact rendition of life. Most days are insignificant. On most days we are stubborn, and uncreative, and grumpy. Most days all we do is forget to shower, or go to the grocery store, or eat an unsatisfying meal, or have mediocre sex, or go to work. There is something lost in recognizing life only by its significant moments. Heti’s work reminds us that mundanity necessitates brilliance. Without the mundane, there would be no comparison point. The diary as a medium is both mundane, in its restriction to chronicling a single day, and brilliant as a composite portrait of a person’s life. Heti has done away with the narrative expectations of time, and instead, has created a work of time-lapse. In destroying the logical sequence of time, Heti reveals that life goes on without it; that the essential shape of life still emerges under a different set of rules.


On stage with Heti is artist and writer Michelle Tea, who could not be more of Heti’s aesthetic inverse. While Heti is dressed in a classic, all-black jumpsuit, Tea wears a playful, puffy pink dress and frilled socks. Their dynamic is slightly awkward, but sincere. At one point, Tea asks Heti if she grew up keeping a diary, and Heti responds that she only started as an adult, and only once she realized she could keep it on the computer. She reveals that she’s not afraid of death. An audience member asks her what the book made her realize, and she laughs and responds that she realizes now that she only knows a few different kinds of people.

Alphabetical Diaries makes you think about the components of sentences that we typically take for granted. There are certain words (and people) that you begin to anticipate while reading the book; for instance, I know after a few pages that the ‘I’ chapter will be the longest. You meet characters throughout the book, but you learn the most about them in the chapter that corresponds to the first letter of their name. Heti’s friends come into relief in fragments, then all at once, in paragraphs that recite their names.

Pavel is puttering in the kitchen. Pavel is so lovely and nice with the cat now, the way he talks to her. Pavel is so reasonable. Pavel is so sensitive sometimes, saying yesterday that he wanted to do my laundry, but we were out of detergent and he was running out of time, so he said he would do it when he got back.

Her language paints precise portraits of the people she surrounds herself with, tinted with the kind of mean, biased semi-honesty that is only confided in a diary. Heti is also honest about herself, speaking to herself at times, and as herself at others.

Get a lot of money and move on. Get a new computer for your efforts. Get a new set of dressers for my clothes and linens. Get a new typewriter or find your old one.

She is direct, and mean, and incisively brilliant at times. Sometimes, she is cruel to herself. Other times affectionately neutral. She is frequently nursing a devastating crush, then pulling back in disgust, then swelling with love. She is folding her laundry. Towards the end of the book, I’m surprised to discover that I know which character she’s talking about even when their name isn’t mentioned. Heti’s sentences are salacious, and vulgar, and intimate and instantaneous; they capture the formation of memory — Heti’s memory — as she chronicled her life. At times, Alphabetical Diaries moves like a poem, an ode to the word at the start of each sentence.

She took a little blue bird from underneath her dress, a little blue bird’s egg, for she thought it might grow sour, not hatching, so she was trying to hatch it between her breasts. She usually gets it backwards. She was alive. She was almost dead but a little bit alive.

The original diaries, and the world of each sentence, are suspended in the present. Heti’s arrangement, on the other hand, is a more measured curation.


The second time, Heti wrote Alphabetical Diaries on purpose. She condensed the entries — which spanned a decade — into a tenth of their original content. The editing process was performed by an older version of Heti, once she was emotionally removed from the contents of the diary. This, she suggests, is what enabled her to turn it into art. When the floor opens for questions from the audience, I ask Heti about her relationship to her younger self while editing. She replies that she was surprised and pleased by how funny she had been. I get the sense that she honors this sense of humor towards herself in choosing which sentences sit next to each other. The book is a collaboration with her younger self, the one who wrote the entries, with the added levity that comes with viewing your life in retrospect.

The book makes me wonder what my own diary entries would look like, sliced and dissected and organized around something as impartial as the alphabet. Which chapter would be the longest? Which letter carries the most subconscious significance to me? What a silly series of decisions I have made that brought me here. Alphabetical Diaries is a project that invites participation. In reading, we enter a world without linear time, without memory, without the threat of consequence. A conversation across many versions of one self.