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Alphabetical Diaries by Sheila Heti: personal writing that distorts, shatters and remakes

Arrestingly original work began as a decade of diaries imported into Excel to sort the sentences into alphabetical order and then to seek out patterns and repetitions

Alphabetical Diaries
Alphabetical Diaries
Author: Sheila Heti
ISBN-13: 978-1804270776
Publisher: Fitzcarraldo Editions
Guideline Price: £10.99

Sheila Heti, on being asked in a 2022 Guardian interview if she termed her work autofiction, replied: “All writers use their lives. Look at Proust – it’s all f***ing autofiction.”

Singing in harmony with Ernaux, Cusk, Kang, Tsushima, etc, Heti takes the idea of personal writing and distorts, shatters, remakes. Her new book, with the fantastic Fitzcarraldo Editions, began as a newsletter at The New York Times. She imported a decade of diaries into Excel, sorted the sentences in alphabetical order, cut, blurred, then searched for patterns and repetitions.

There is a lot of sex. There are musings on clothes and cities and cookies. We go from the mundane to the magical at breakneck speed.

It makes for a very specific and intriguing form of reading, and I’m confident Heti knew fully what she was doing; exactly where she was leading us.

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I read it straight, then dipped in and out randomly, and I read two different books.

The DON’T section is perhaps the finest guide for a writer I have ever read: ‘Don’t ask the question why, why are you writing this?... Don’t be afraid of not having money come…'

My favourite of the letters is Q, a single line: “Quiet days, not seeing people, feeling fine.”

Pure mastery.

The DON’T section is perhaps the finest guide for a writer I have ever read: “Don’t ask the question why, why are you writing this?... Don’t be afraid of not having money come… Don’t be so impressed with yourself, but do the good work…Don’t check your email in the mornings… Don’t do blurbs next year if you can help it. Don’t do readings… Don’t take yourself so seriously; don’t think about yourself at all…”

The STOP section is thrilling, too…

Heti writes so creaturely, so bodily, that it feels a whole new genre is being formed as we read. Here she takes the ideas we had of her and her work and shakes them like the little glass snow globe that they are, leaving the letters as our only lantern here – her writing shining clearer for it all, somehow.

23 pages begin with the word I:

“I like seeing the old women swimming”;

“I put the teeth in my pocket”;

“I am looking forward to writing and the beauty and rhythm of the sentences I will write, to outlining a world, and making it real… and seeing what is the best thing I can make.”

And what a thing she has made here!