BOOK DETAILS

Motherhood: A Novel

Motherhood: A Novel

by Sheila Heti

ISBN: 9781627790772

Publisher Henry Holt and Co.

Published in Literature & Fiction/United States, Literature & Fiction/Literary

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Sample Chapter

Flipping three coins on a desk. Two or three heads — yes. Two or three tails — no.

Is this book a good idea?

yes

Is the time to start it now?

yes

Here, in Toronto?

yes

So then there's nothing to be worried about?

yes

Yes, there's nothing to be worried about?

no

Should I be worried?

yes

What should I be worried about? My soul?

yes

Will reading help my soul?

yes

Will being quiet help my soul?

yes

Will this book help my soul?

yes

So then I'm doing everything right?

no

Am I handling my relationship wrong?

no

Am I wrong in ignoring the suffering of others?

no

Am I wrong in ignoring the political world?

no

Am I wrong in not being grateful for the life I have?

yes

And the things I can do with it, having this time and prosperity?

no

Having my particular being?

yes

Is the time for worrying about my particular being over?

yes

Is this the time to begin thinking about the soul of time?

yes

Do I have everything I need to begin?

yes

Should I start at the beginning and move straight through to the end?

no

Should I do whatever I feel like, then stitch it all together later?

no

Should I start at the beginning, not knowing what will come next?

yes

Is this conversation the beginning?

yes

How about those rolls of colored tape Erica bought me, sitting over there. Should I use them somehow?

no

Should I just let them sit there and look at them?

no

Should I give them back to her?

no

Should I hide them from sight?

yes

In the cupboard?

yes.

It's going to be so hard not thinking about myself, but rather thinking about the soul of time. I have so little practice thinking about the soul of time, and so much practice thinking about myself. But nothing is easy at the start. The phrase the soul of time has been with me since Erica and I took that trip to New York over New Year's Eve several months ago. It was in my head shortly before that trip, too. I remember explaining it to her in detail on the subway platform. We were staying at Teresa and Walter's apartment. They were out of town, visiting family over Christmas. I threw up that night, drunk, in their toilet. But this was much earlier in the day. Was it December 31?

no

Funny, I don't remember it being cold, and I don't remember wearing a coat. Was it January 1?

no

December 30?

no

Was it some other trip entirely?

yes

I don't think it was. I was explaining to Erica about the soul of time, about how either we as individuals have no souls, but experience a sort of collective soul that either belongs to time or is time, or that our lives — we — are time's soul. I wasn't entirely clear on which one it was. The idea was in its infancy, and still is today. She got very excited, while I found the idea that my soul was not my possession very comforting — that either my life was an expression of time's soul, or that my soul was time. I don't know if I'm getting it right. Am I?

no

No, no. I hope to better understand what I meant on the subway platform, and what so excited my dear friend Erica. This will be my stated purpose, my design or agenda, in writing this — to understand what it means, the soul of time, or to explain it to myself. Is that a good premise for this book?

no

Is it too narrow?

yes

Can the soul of time be involved?

no

Am I allowed to betray you?

yes

Then that's definitely partly what this book will be about. Maybe I shouldn't have said that I wanted to explain it to myself but rather explain it to other people. Is that better?

no

To embody it rather than explain it?

yes

I have a headache. I'm so tired. I shouldn't have taken that nap. But if I hadn't taken that nap, I would be in an even worse mood than I am right now, right?

no.

* * *

Today I cried as Miles was leaving the house. When he asked why, I said it was because I had nothing to do. He said, You're a writer. You have the Bonjour Philippine book, you have the I Ching book — you have the Simone Weil book. Why don't you work on one of those? He hesitated before bringing up the Simone Weil book, because it was his idea that I write about the ideas of Simone Weil, and right after he said it, several weeks ago, both he and I became uncomfortable — that he should suggest a book idea to me. I rejected it outright, to his face, but around noon I started work on a book about Simone Weil. Miles texted me that afternoon to see if I was feeling better, and called me several hours later to ask the same thing. It's really him I should be worried about, not him who should be worried about me, because he is the one who just started working and has no time to study, right?

no

It's fair for both of us to be concerned about each other?

yes

I beat myself up over everything.

* * *

Around noon today, I took a drive in the country with my father. I was trying to decide whether to take a three-week trip to New York in June. Teresa had told me that she and Walter would be heading out of town, and that their apartment would be free if I wanted it. After much debating over what to do, I decided to make the choice that would make me feel better and warmer inside right now, and that was to stay here. After the drive, I came home and took a nap and woke up with a good feeling. I sat on the purple couch in the bedroom and just thought. I have for so long been putting off starting a new book, but now that Miles has begun working long hours, the choice has presented itself: to make a change and run off to New York and have fun, or to be a writer as he put it — as he reminded me that I am. I wanted to tell him that I'm not the sort of writer who sits in her room and writes, but I did not. I remember how the other day he said that once a writer starts to have an interesting life their writing always suffers. My reply to him was, You just don't want me to have an interesting life! Does that continue to ring in his ears?

yes

Did it hurt his feelings?

yes

Will he one day just forget about it?

no

Must I apologize for it tonight?

yes.

* * *

Although Miles and I had been having a nice night, I apologized to him for that comment and told him I was not going to go to New York to stay in Teresa and Walter's apartment for three weeks. He said, I don't relate to these values you always come back from New York with. I love him. He just refilled the water in the vase with the lilacs, which he bought for me last week. They were dying, the lilacs on my desk, and I hadn't even noticed. Now the ice cream truck outside is playing its sad song, and I'm a little drunk from the wine I had earlier this evening. I'm feeling all right. Does it really matter how I'm feeling?

no

No, no. I didn't think so. So many feelings in a day. It's clearly not the rudder — not the oracle — not the thing you should steer your life by, not the map. Though there is always that temptation. What's a better thing to steer your life by? Your values?

yes

Your plans for the future?

no

Your artistic goals?

no

The things the people around you need — I mean, the things the people you love need?

yes

Security?

no

Adventure?

no

Whatever seems to confer soul, depth and development?

no

Whatever seems to bring happiness?

yes

So your values, happiness and the things the people around you need. Those are the things by which you should steer your life.

~

My mother cried for forty days and forty nights. As long as I have known her, I have known her to cry. I used to think that I would grow up to be a different sort of woman, that I would not cry, and that I would solve the problem of her crying. She could never tell me what was wrong except to say, I'm tired. Could it be that she was always tired? I wondered, when I was little, Doesn't she know she's unhappy? I thought the worst thing in the world would be to be unhappy, but not to know it. As I grew older, I compulsively checked myself for signs that I was unhappy. Then I grew unhappy, too. I grew filled up with tears.

All through my childhood, I felt I had done something wrong. I searched my every gesture, my words, the way I sat upon a chair. What was I doing to make her cry? A child thinks she is the cause of even the stars in the sky, so of course my mother's crying was all about me. Why had I been born to cause her pain? Since I had caused it, I wanted to take it away. But I was too little. I didn't even know how to spell my own name. Knowing so little, how could I have understood a single thing about her suffering? I still don't understand. No child, through her own will, can pull a mother out of her suffering, and as an adult, I have been very busy. I have been busy writing. My mother often says, You are free. Perhaps I am. I can do what I like. So I will stop her from crying. Once I am finished writing this book, neither one of us will ever cry again.

This will be a book to prevent future tears — to prevent me and my mother from crying. It can be called a success if, after reading it, my mother stops crying for good. I know it's not the job of a child to stop her mother from crying, but I'm not a child anymore. I'm a writer. The change I have undergone, from child to writer, gives me powers — I mean that magical powers are not far from my hand. If I am a good enough writer, perhaps I can stop her from crying. Perhaps I can figure out why she is crying, and why I cry, too, and I can heal us both with my words.

* * *

Is attention soul? If I pay attention to mother my mother's sorrow, does that give it soul? If I pay attention to her unhappiness — if I put it into words, transform it, and make it into something new — can I be like the alchemists, turning lead into gold? If I sell this book, I will get back gold in return. That's a kind of alchemy. The philosophers wanted to turn dark matter into gold, and I want to turn my mother's sadness into gold. When the gold comes in, I will go to my mother's doorstep, and I will hand it to her and say: Here is your sadness, turned into gold.

Should the title of this book be The Soul of Time?

yes

Should it have a subtitle?

no

It's relaxing to have a title, whether or not it's a good one. Is it a good one?

no

No, but that's the way it's going to be?

yes

I suppose it doesn't much matter, in the general scope of things. Of course, it might matter a lot to me whether the title of this book is a good or bad one, because I am the one responsible, and I will be the one to blame. The focus will be on me, and the judgement will come down on my poor taste. But for the world, whether one book has a good title or bad one doesn't much matter, so why should I concern myself with it? Does this book have to be any good at all?

no

Because it will never be published, because no one will ever see it?

yes

What's the point of writing something that no one will ever read? I forget who said that a work of art does not exist without an audience — that it's not enough for it to be made. Is it wrong to have an audience in mind when setting out on a work of art?

yes

Should you simply be trying to have an experience?

no

Does one do it for the non-audience that is God?

yes

To bring glory to the world?

no

Out of gratitude for being made alive?

yes

And because art is what humans do?

yes

Are my insecurities going to ruin my relationship?

yes

Is there anything I can do about it?

yes

Will it take a long time?

yes

Will our relationship be over by the time I have overcome them?

yes

Is there any good in that?

yes

Good in it for both of us?

yes

Miles is making us dinner right now. Is the more important thing than writing this to go into the kitchen and be with him there?

yes

All right. I'm going.

* * *

Now I'm sitting on our bed, with the cicadas humming outside. Miles is at the corner store. I have to return to the question I asked before dinner, Will our relationship be over by the time I have overcome my insecurities? I never considered, when I was asking it, that our relationship would be over by the time I overcame my insecurities because we only overcome our insecurities in death. Is that what you meant? That I will only overcome my insecurities in death, and that our love and relationship will last till my death?

yes

Oh good! I feel so good. Everything feels a million times better than it did yesterday. I'm glad I'm not going to New York to stay in Teresa and Walter's apartment. It feels so much richer, fuller, and more alive to stay here.

Last night, I had a vivid dream, a wild dream of being with my son, who was five or so. I spent so much of the dream staring into his face. I knew it was him, knew it was a dream, and kept wanting to write it down — that this was happening; that I was encountering the face of my future son. It was clearly my son with Miles. The boy had slightly darker skin than Miles or me, and an intelligent, sensitive face. At one point, I was crying and tears were running down my face from sorrow; the boy was sitting on a windowsill in the kitchen, watching me, and I could tell he was overwhelmed by my adult feelings. I saw that I should not be putting so much of my emotional life on him; that it was too big a burden to bear. He seemed really delicate and lovely. I loved him, but I also felt like the love was not as I imagined it would be; it was not as deep to the core as I thought it would feel, I don't know why. I felt a little bit distant from him, a little bit alienated. But I loved looking at his face and into his eyes. I said to myself, I can't believe I'm seeing the face of my future son! I would love to have a child like that. He was slender and good.

I woke from the dream in the middle of the night, disgusted and horrified with how I have been living. For a woman nearing forty, earning not enough money, renting an apartment infested with mice, with no savings, no children, divorced, and still living in the city of her birth, it seemed I had not thought as my father advised me to do ten years ago, after my marriage ended: Next time — THINK. I saw I had not thought, but continued to let myself be whipped about in the waves of life, building nothing.

* * *

Miles has said that the decision is mine — he doesn't want a child apart from the one he had, quite by accident, when he was young, who lives in another country with her mother, and stays with us on holidays and half the summer. It's a risk, he says, his daughter is lovely, but you never know what you're going to get. If I want a child, we can have one, he said, but you have to be sure.

* * *

Whether I want kids is a secret I keep from myself — it is the greatest secret I keep from myself.

The thing to do when you're feeling ambivalent is to wait. But for how long? Next week I'll be thirty-seven. Time is running short on making certain decisions. How can we know how it will go for us, us ambivalent women of thirty-seven? On the one hand, the joy of children. On the other hand, the misery of them. On the one hand, the freedom of not having children. On the other hand, the loss of never having had them — but what is there to lose? The love, the child, and all those motherly feelings that the mothers speak about in such an enticing way, as though a child is something to have, not something to do. The doing is what seems hard. The having seems marvellous. But one doesn't have a child, one does it. I know I have more than most mothers. But I also have less. In a way, I have nothing at all. But I like that and think I do not want a child.

Yesterday I talked on the phone with Teresa, who is about fifty years old. I said that it seemed like other people were suddenly ahead of me with their marriages, their houses, their children, their savings. She said that when a person has those feelings, they need to look more closely at what their actual values are. We have to live our values. Often people are streamed into the conventional life — the life there's so much pressure to live. But how can there only be one path that's legitimate? She says this path is often not even right for many of the people who wind up living it. They become forty-five, fifty, then they hit a wall. It's easy to bob along the surface, she said. But only for so long.

* * *

Do I want children because I want to be admired as the admirable sort of woman who has children? Because I want to be seen as a normal sort of woman, or because I want to be the best kind of woman, a woman with not only work, but the desire and ability to nurture, a body that can make babies, and someone who another person wants to make babies with? Do I want a child to show myself to be the (normal) sort of woman who wants and ultimately has a child?

The feeling of not wanting children is the feeling of not wanting to be someone's idea of me. Parents have something greater than I'll ever have, but I don't want it, even if it's so great, even if in a sense they've won the prize, or grabbed the golden ring, which is genetic relief — relief at having procreated; success in the biological sense, which on some days seems like the only sense that matters. And they have social success, too.

There is a kind of sadness in not wanting the things that give so many other people their life's meaning. There can be sadness at not living out a more universal story — the supposed life cycle — how out of one life cycle another cycle is supposed to come. But when out of your life, no new cycle comes, what does that feel like? It feels like nothing. Yet there is a bit of a let- down feeling when the great things that happen in the lives of others — you don't actually want those things for yourself.

It is so hard to conceive of making art without an audience who will eventually see it. I know we make art because we're humans, and that's what humans do, for the sake of God. But will God ever see it?

no

Is that because art is God?

no

Is it because art exists in the house of God, but God doesn't pay attention to what's in God's home?

yes

Is art at home in the world?

yes

Is art a living thing — while one is making it, that is? As living as anything else we call living?

yes

Is it as living as when it is bound in a book or hung on a wall?

yes

Then can a woman who makes books be let off the hook by the universe for not making the living thing we call babies?

yes

Oh good! I feel so guilty about it sometimes, thinking it's what I should do, because I always think that animals are happiest when they live out their instincts. Maybe not happiest, but feel most alive. Yet making art makes me feel alive, and taking care of others doesn't make me feel as alive. Maybe I have to think about myself less as a woman with this woman's special task, and more as an individual with her own special task — not put woman before my individuality. Is that right?

no

Is it that making babies is not a woman's special task?

yes

I should not be asking questions in the negative. Is it her special task?

yes

Yes, but the universe lets women who make art but don't make babies, off the hook? Does the universe mind if women who don't make art choose not to make babies?

yes

Are these women punished?

yes

By not experiencing the mystery and joy?

yes

In any other way?

yes

By not passing on their genes?

yes

But I don't care about passing on my genes! Can't one pass on one's genes through art?

yes

Do men who don't procreate receive punishment from the universe?

no

Do they receive punishment for neglecting other tasks one typically associates with maleness?

no

Men escape all damnation and can do whatever they want?

no

Perhaps their punishment comes not from the universe but from society?

yes

Does it take the form of ridicule?

yes

From women?

no

From other men?

yes

And is their suffering as great as the suffering of these women at the hands of the universe?

yes

Well, I guess that seems fair.

yes.

(Continues…)

Excerpted from "Motherhood: A Novel" by Sheila Heti. Copyright © 2013 by Sheila Heti. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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