Life: The Unofficial Ugly Painting Contest

Canadian author Sheila Heti is about to release a new novel called Motherhood, but since I can’t get my hands on it until May it seems like an opportune moment to look back at her acclaimed novel How Should a Person Be? (2010) and remember how awesome it is.
Sheila Heti’s third book, How Should a Person Be?


Part memoir, part novel, part transcript of alleged conversations and fully philosophical, How Should a Person Be? presents its reader with a cast of artists and writers — all of whom are our contemporaries — grappling rather unsuccessfully like the rest of us with the titular question.

The book centres around a fictional protagonist, also named Sheila, and her friendship with the artist Margaux Williamson (who, like all the other characters, is based on a real person) while the question looms over every aspect of her life.

The novel poses as a self-help book while its heroine is, ironically, unable to help herself.

She is consumed by her quest to turn her life into a work of art, which by implication renders it necessary to be beautiful, and write a play that will change the world— but this too seems utterly impossible because her contemporaries are ‘fucking idiots’ and by association, so is she.

The lesson is allegorised by an ugly painting contest, born out of a conversation between Sheila and her circle of friends. It involves Sholem and Margaux, both painters, creating the ugliest painting they can.

Of course, it begs the question: Why on earth would anyone intentionally create something ugly? What possible role can ugliness play? And if a good artist succeeds at making hideous art, does it undermine their artistic capabilities or is it somehow liberating and demonstrative of their range? And given how inextricably linked art is to life itself, if we as people end up making a terrible mess of our lives, are we irredeemably awful?
Sheila Heti was born in Toronto, Canada, to Hungarian-Jewish parents.

I mean, intuitively I’m inclined to say no… But the irony is characterised by my own crippling fear and anxiety every time I exhibit substandard behaviour or appear disagreeable to someone.

As Heti explores in the novel, ‘[A] fear can feel like a premonition’ and the more we fixate on being perfect, the more inevitable our failure to be precisely so becomes.

It’s a slippery slope of self-loathing when we try so hard to please and then hate ourselves for being so impressionable and pathetic and before you know it we’ve lost every ounce of pizzazz that makes us who we are.

Not to mention, seeming irrevocably amiable is a hard act to keep up. It’s a lot of pressure for very little pay off because people can be massive shits.

“If art reserves the right to be ugly, then perhaps so do our lives.”

Heti suggests that perhaps living life bears more similarities to painting in this respect than it does to writing.

Everything we do by decision or by negation is as irreversible as a brush stroke. We can paint over it, hide it, do our best to make lemonade, but we can neither erase nor backspace its happening and so the pressure to do the ‘right’ thing mounts.

Although I don’t believe Heti pretends to have any answers to the question of how a person should be, I do think the question is very much linked to the point of the ugly painting contest.

If art reserves the right to be ugly, then perhaps so do our lives. It’s as important to create something ugly as it is to allow ourselves to be unabashedly flawed and human.

Maybe we don’t have to have it together and be fabulous all the time, and maybe it’s just as essential to accept that all we can be sometimes is a hot mess.
Heti emailed artist Miranda July after an interview, suggesting the pair should talk once a week for an hour. July agreed and there blossomed the women’s friendship.

Anyways, How Should a Person Be? is a quintessential account of modern living, but don’t take it from me. It was, after all, named ‘Best Book of the Year’ by The New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker, The San Francisco Chronicle, Salon, Flavorpill, the New Republic, The New York Observer AND The Huffington Post.

The novel was also Heti’s way of grappling with the current digital and information age; in an interview with The Georgia Straight, she explains ‘[E]verybody who’s engaged in the Internet in any way has to contend for themselves—what should be private, what should be public. It’s not a simple answer for anyone.’

“As if the quest to self-discovery needed more obstacles than it already had.”

In 2018, nearly a decade after the novel’s publication, the question of what we share, how much of it we share and even why we share the tedious particularities of our daily life is more prominent and increasingly difficult to answer.

One repercussion is the constant sense of inadequacy felt as a result of comparing aspects of our lives or our identity with another more perfect individual—as if the quest towards self-discovery needed more obstacles than it already had.

Typical grass is greener stuff, and the reason How Should a Person Be? is not only relatable on a personal level, but relevant in terms of our social existence.

Relatable and relevant.

Heralded by The Globe and Mail as Canada’s latest literary shooting star, Heti is tirelessly experimenting with form and genre in her work by straddling the boundary between fact and fiction in ways that raise poignant questions.

The Chairs are Where the People Go (2011) is essentially a transcript of the conversations shared between Heti and her friend Misha Glouberman. Heti had decided to record and share with the world the witty, profound and at times ridiculous musings of her friend on everything from how to set up chairs for events to how to quit smoking.

Equally distinctive is her upcoming novel, Motherhood (2018) which takes on the task of investigating the modern woman’s moral and social obligation to and relationship with procreation in light of more updated norms of femininity.

Amidst the advance praise for the novel cited on Heti’s website, Heti’s friend and contemporary Miranda July, seems to have summed the book up perfectly:

‘Here it finally is. A book for all of you who are considering having a baby, who had a baby, who didn’t have a baby, who didn’t want a baby, who don’t know what they want but the clock is ticking anyway. This topic is finally tackled as if it were the most important decision in your life. Because, um… How lucky are we that one of our foremost thinkers took this upon herself, for years, in real time, wrestling every day and living to tell. So fucking ready to live in the world this book will help make. Read and discuss, discuss, discuss.’

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