Author Junot Diaz’s appearance this past Saturday at the Coral Gables Congregational Church, in an event sponsored by Books and Books, was part reading and signing but mostly a rousing pep talk. Yes, Diaz, who won the Pulitzer for his 2007 novel The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, dutifully read two passages from his new book, This Is How You Lose Her. But this segment came sandwiched between two extended Q&A sessions during which Diaz expounded motivationally on the artistic life, peppering his answers with big-bucks vocabulary words only a nerd could love.
And yes, this was a room full of several hundred people who were proud to wave the nerd flag, dutifully laughing when Diaz exclaimed, “All of you are here on a Saturday night?” Observing the crowd, he then added, “I can always tell when there are grad students, because they always look so afflicted.” After a quick roll-call to acknowledge the various minority groups there might be in the audience — Caribbeans, Latinos, immigrants, Dominicans, and New Jersey natives — he took the microphone and wandered the crowd, fielding questions.
On getting into writing, in general, Diaz explained it stemmed from a love of reading he used to smooth over the difficulties of his immigration to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic at age seven. “I couldn’t figure out any other way to spend my life reading,” he said, before opining that the lack of reading time is, in fact, the great flaw of most MFA programs.
Besides remaining a voracious reader, though, Diaz preached a policy of total honesty to any would-be artists in the room. To an audience member who asked about his family’s reaction to the public airing of personal stories, he said, “You can’t be an artist with other people in the room. The biggest challenge is people you want to impress or need approval from.”
“You can tell an artist powered by approval because they go at such desperate speed,” he continued, “and that’s already a bad Jedi in the making.”
In other words, Diaz said, an artist should be brutally honest, but not try to aim for a specific message or even try to strictly control the final product. “Every time you try to have ‘a message,’ the form is going to bake into the exact opposite message,” he said.
Loosen the reins and embrace the fear, he advised, and learn to sublimate the constant inner critic. “No matter what applause you get, unless you’re insane, you know how bad you are,” he said. “I have enormous ambivalence about what it means to be an artist. I fight with my fear and uncertainty every day. Three books haven’t changed that.”