According to Junot Diaz, what we should all be doing in our MFA program is figuring out “how we manage our fear so we can learn shit.”
He came to speak for a few short hours to a lottery-winning group of students about his fiction, writing as a minority (which he expanded to include any marginalized group–POC, women, poor, queer) and writing to a generous public and a secret audience.
After D’Agata’s hour of bullshit and obfuscation, it felt like a scalp massage. No, a soul massage. He looked at all of us and reminded us that “We are so serious about art we forget the strengths that brought us here. You’re a little fucking warrior and you put up with a lot of shit to get here.”
I was moved. It made me think of the sexist fat-hating assholes in elementary and middle schools, the sexist and insecurity exploiting assholes in college and the handful of New York assholes who’ve enjoyed making me feel less than.
The other powerful thing he talked about was the lack of intellectual rigor in the typical MFA program. We could “work on our art” for two solid years and come out no knowing what a chapter actually is, what an audience is (it’s a writing strategy and there are four of them: Strategic, who the book is pretending to speak to, Secret, which is optional but can be helpful, Ideal, the ones you would hang yourself if they didn’t get it, and the Actual, whoever picks it up in the real world).
I asked him to talk about the stupendous Nerd Cred that he wove in to The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
like another language (along with Spanish and historiography). He reminded us all that our readers are generous. “They bring beer to the party even though we as writers think we have to bring the beer, the drugs, the girls and boys, the music, and rent the place”. By including nerd references on every page he was signaling to the readers he wanted to write for that this book was for them.
He brought up the level of bigotry that can exist in a workshop classroom, and the tendency of writers to defend their pathology by saying it’s their “art” as though it were organic and not received bullshit. It doesn’t let you correct your form if you are so busy being defensive about a racist or sexist character.
Junot Diaz told us to avoid writing for approval, not to worry about what assholes in power were going to say–as soon as you do that you wind up distorting what the story is trying to say.
Then he name dropped some books that we all need to read–Paul Gilney, Spivac, Neil Smith, and a bunch more I will tell you as soon as I look up how to spell them.
He also had some praise for Nonfiction, that it hasn’t even begun to reach its parameters. After D’Agata running it down all night, this was particularly welcome.
“You are writing for the future,” he told us, “The people who are going to need your books aren’t even here yet. . . You’re doing nothing wrong if you’re not one of the chosen ones.”
“The real resists” and “when a writer doesn’t read, the art is thin.”
“Make room for play. . . closely held beliefs are like a stranglehold on reality. Loosen up to play.”
“Every time you feel like you’re fucking things up, go back to what you love.”
And let what you write steep–“the best parts vote the worst parts off the island.” Oscar Wao took him 11 years.
If you haven’t read it you can borrow mine.