Don’t Call it a Memoir— Steven Heller on His “Embroidery of Essays” on ’60s & ’70s New York

Posted inDesigner Interviews

“Somebody asked me if I could imagine this book becoming a successful seller, and I said I have absolutely no reason to believe it will sell a single copy.”
—Steven Heller a week before the release of his new memoir, Growing Up Underground: A Memoir of Counterculture New York

To read Steven Heller’s writing is to wander down a lush and never-ending path of curiosities and musings, underpinned by an audacious wit and a down-to-earth wisdom. And luckily for all of us, Heller has written an ungodly amount. As the author or co-author of over 200 books, and the writer behind the beloved column “The Daily Heller,” Heller describes himself as “voraciously curious,” and the processes of researching and writing serve as the main outlets for this hunger. 

Though Heller has been writing in this way for decades, he has only just released his first-ever, bonafide memoir— though he admittedly prickles at the “memoir” classification. “I have embroidered a sampler of essays— rather than a memoir per se,” he writes in the book’s introduction, “about personas, places, and things related to me and I to them and how they fit into the jigsaw puzzle of my formative years.”

As such, Growing Up Underground spans 10 years of Heller’s life, from ages 16 to 26. It covers the years he came of age in New York, before he ventured from underground newspapers to working in the big leagues as the youngest-ever art director for The New York Times op-ed page at just 24. 

A cover influenced by Aubrey Beardsley for My Discarded Tissue, a photocopied “literary” zine published with Heller and friends from the Walden School, April 1967.

I recently had the immense joy of chatting with Heller one-on-one about various themes in Growing Up Underground. As I already knew through my work with Heller here at PRINT, he is just as charming, wry, and thoughtful in conversation as he is on the page. 

(This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)

You’re an incredibly prolific writer, but this is your first memoir. How has this experience of writing about yourself so explicitly felt in comparison to all of your other writing? 

I don’t even really think of it as a memoir, but I don’t know how else to describe it. It’s a lot of essays that I’ve stitched together. Right now I’m suffering from Post Memoir Traumatic Stress Disorder. I’m worried about, Do I like it? Do I not like it? Will people like it? Will they not like it? Did I leave out too much? Did I put in too much? Did I forget too much?

I’ve written or edited about 200 books, and maybe 20 or 30 of them are books of essays. And in some of those books, there are memoir-ish things, like staying at a hospital overnight and thinking how wonderful it was because the room was painted so well, and it was well-designed for a patient— so I’d insert myself into the writing to a point. But in writing for The Times, or The Atlantic, or Wired, I would leave myself out. I would throw myself into everything that I did for “The Daily Heller,” or whatever other online writing I was doing. I separated online from print. Print to me was the Church. It was devout; it was sanctified. So I’d be a journalist for print, and I’d be an egotist for anything online.

That’s because online writing was new; nobody knew what they were doing online. In the beginning there weren’t any editors, really. At The Times, we had online editors, and they acted the same way they did for hardcopy for the paper, but in many of the other venues I wrote for, it was pretty laissez-faire. I hated the laissez-faire idea; I thought there should always be a structure, but then I started realizing that structure was a crutch.

After the experience of writing this “memoir,” do you prefer writing about yourself, or writing more objectively about others? 

I like doing it all. I enjoyed journalism when I was writing for The Times because it was rigorous, because I couldn’t take shortcuts. I enjoy doing pseudo-scholarly writing because I get to research. I used to be able to find out a lot of things about our field that nobody was looking at, but now everybody does on Instagram, etc. I get a Medium newsletter every day, and there are stories in it that are geared to me as a design writer that I wrote 10 years ago, 12 years ago, 15 years ago. So that stuff doesn’t have the same allure for me anymore. At the moment, writing more personally, but at the same time, still digging up stuff— that’s what interests me the most. 

How has your excavation process for finding things to write about changed in light of these societal shifts in accessibility of information? Where do you go about searching for what excites you?  

Almost anywhere. Almost anything can be translated into a design story. My favorite story— which is in one of my anthologies that I did for Design Observer— was about street measles. In New York, there are all these black dots on the sidewalk, usually around schools, and it’s gum that’s calcified and pushed into the sidewalk. Periodically, somebody will come with one of those sprayers to clean it up. So I did a piece called “The Designer as Gumshoe,” and I looked for people who were spitting their gum out in the street and tried to figure out why they were doing it. I ended up finding one person very close to me… and that was me. It’s a disgusting habit, but there’s a design quality to it. People have to design cities to compensate for what human beings are going to do to them. So it’s that kind of thing that I like right now.

Writing about human beings— the designers that haven’t been heard from, or that we’ve forgotten— I started doing that in the early part of my career, and basically most of the people that I wrote about have been found and embraced, and had shows, and other books, and other articles written about them. I still want to meet new artists, which is why I stay in school, but I don’t live with them the way I lived with them when I was younger, so it’s a very different kind of process. I’m not as nimble or limber, and therefore I don’t find those outsiders as much as I used to. And other people are doing it anyway!

You come across as fairly comfortable with being vulnerable throughout Growing Up Underground. What was it like for you to tap into that openness and honesty for something you knew would be shared with the masses? Are you actually comfortable being vulnerable, or was this a facade conjured for the sake of the book?  

It’s both. Even in the memoir, I say about certain things, “This is better left unsaid.” The comic strip I didn’t want to describe is really embarrassing, for example. Then there was something else I didn’t really want to talk about, that I directly said I didn’t want to talk about. But that’s usually a hint that I do want to talk about it, but I’ll let somebody else talk about it. The stuff that I really don’t want to talk about, I don’t mention at all.

I am vulnerable. I worry a lot. I become self-effacing as a defense mechanism. I’m not a comedian by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m funny. Most of it is sarcasm or quips, and it’s defensive. It’s putting up the blockade. But at the same time, I want to say it before somebody else says it to me. That’s another reason why the memoir is causing this Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, where I’m unable to sleep at night— I keep thinking of different parts of it, and reading different parts of it over in my head.

New York Review of Sex and Politics, October 15, 1969. Type by Brad Holland, co-published and art directed by Steven Heller.

Your career has spanned decades, and so much has changed in that time period. What has that experience been like for you?

I figure that I’m at that age where I’m not competent anymore, but I have wisdom. I can’t design a page. I’m an art director, so I can tell people to move things around, or that this or that emphasis is wrong, but I can’t tell them how to create a voice. I don’t have a voice of my own as a designer. That’s basically what I mean by incompetence.

On my computer, basically all I can do is watch things and write, but I can’t create a design. My students [at the School of Visual Arts] come to me, and I give them my opinion and art direct them, but what I’d really rather be doing is doing it. But I can’t. I don’t know the programs. When I left The New York Times, they let me keep everything but the programs, and the programs kept going out of date. So every day basically, I would lose a little skill. It’s kind of like the erosion on a beach; after two or three hurricanes, you don’t have a beach anymore. If I’d wanted to keep up with it, I would have taken classes or something. Certainly I could do anything I want here at the school, but I wasn’t interested in that. So it’s easier for me, and people of my generation, to just ask others to do it.

Why didn’t keeping up with the advancements in design programs interest you? 

It interested me, but it didn’t interest me enough to spend my time doing it. It’s very similar to what happened to me at NYU. Studying English interested me— even learning Spanish interested me— but I didn’t have enough patience. I didn’t have enough of the scholarship chops to spend time doing it. I have two doctorates that are honorary, and given a synthesis of everything I’ve done here, I probably could have gotten a real doctorate by now if I had the patience, but I don’t.

It seems that you’ve carved out your own ravine of scholarship for yourself that’s separate from the typical structure we’re told we need to fit into. You follow your curiosity in whatever direction it takes you, and let that be your education. I think that’s inspiring!

Design has always been this ever-expanding universe, where I can pick out a lot of things that I’m interested in and look at the stars for a while, and look at a planet, and then shoot myself off into the space of design. That satisfies a certain part of me. 

The other thing that the book doesn’t really mention— and I was sorry I didn’t put it in— is that what motivates me, and what has motivated me from almost the beginning of my consciousness, was accomplishment. Accomplishment for me became about numbers. Like when I was art directing those underground papers, I art directed four at once, and that made me feel alive. To only do one thing at one time and not multitask makes me feel like a failure. 

Much of your book unpacks your relationship with your parents and the ways they were and weren’t able to make sense of you. How has that experience affected the way you’ve parented your own son? 

My son is a lot of his mother, who’s very talented and precisionist— not like I am at all. He has her talent and sense of order, and my temperament and sense of humor. I wanted him to think of me as someone who wasn’t an iron-fisted authority figure. I wanted him to be able to share his cultural references with me. My parents were as different as night and day with me. We shared a certain set of values— we were all Jewish New York liberals. My parents never took me on any of their trips, so I decided I would live my own life. I wasn’t going to do that with Nick. Wherever we’d go, he’d go too, until he said he didn’t want to anymore. But I didn’t want to make him into a brother— he’s a friend. 

I think whatever we did, we did the right way. I still remember the first time I made him cry, and I still feel guilty about that.

If you want to learn more about Heller’s coming of age, you can purchase a copy of Growing Up Underground wherever books are sold, and join Debbie Millman in a free Zoom discussion with Heller at the inaugural PRINT Book Club on October 25th at 4 PM ET.