Gentle and profane, provocative and hilarious, Junot Diaz was his Pulitzer-winning, MacArthur Genius self during a Monday afternoon reading/talk on campus. The author’s fans packed the Davis Center’s Livak Ballroom for the English Department’s Writer’s Workshop Series event; and Diaz packed his hour-long presentation with a short reading and a generous round of questions and answers.
Slight and bespectacled, Diaz comes across as the coolest nerd, maybe the kindliest badass, you’ve ever met. His rapport with the audience was easy and immediate. He thanked the members of the local community who showed up—“Really? It’s so nice out”—and joked with the students who admitted to being there for a class assignment. Working the room like a stand-up comic, Diaz asked who was from his two favorite places on Earth—New Jersey or the Caribbean—and followed up with exchanges about the virtues of Montclair or the Oranges or Red Bank and quick conversations in Spanish.
Before delivering his reading, Diaz forewarned the crowd to start thinking on their questions. “Q and A is where a university shows its quality,” Diaz said, let the laughter die down, and added, “Deans say crap like that.” Then he asked someone in the front row to borrow a copy of his latest novel, This is How You Lose Her—“I left mine in the car,” he said—and offered a short reading from the book. Slow, halting and deliberate, Diaz’s delivery impelled listeners to take in the words not so much as they were read, but as they were written.
As for that Q and A, the questions from students and others did the university and its deans proud. Read on for a sense of what Junot Diaz had to say yesterday. (For a truer sense, season where appropriate with F-words, MF-words, and sundry descriptors.)
On his writing process:
Diaz said he typically writes for three or four hours in the morning, followed by an equal amount of time spent reading the work of others. Then he does his job, teaching creative writing at MIT. Writing is a slow process for him, Diaz said, noting that his last book took him sixteen years to write. “It’s absolutely OK to be good at something you find difficult… I find being a writer endlessly difficult.” He said that one of his strengths as an artist is “a stubborn insistence on sticking around.”
On the differences in approach for short stories versus novels:
“The short story is an exercise in exclusion; the novel is an exercise in integration. The challenge of the short story is that it invites perfection and the challenge of a novel is that it can never be perfect.”
On advice to young writers:
“The biggest harm we’ve done to young artists is we’ve professionalized the arts,” Diaz said. He advised any undergrad writers in the audience not to spend their college years “worrying about being an artist. This is four years to learn everything you can. Don’t take creative writing classes; read everything you can.” He also counseled writers against going straight from their undergraduate degree to an MFA program, noting how many of his undergrads are “absolutely terrified” of the world and eager to stay in the academic environment. “Here’s my one tiny opinion that no one agrees with,” Diaz said. “The only reason art has survived and the only reason we need art is that artists bring us news of the world.” (My friend Laban nudges me and notes the William Carlos Williams reference. I look it up later: “It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there.” Indeed.)
On his biggest regret:
Diaz copped to having many regrets, not really comprehending those who advised living without regret, but he quickly landed on his biggest one: not doing study abroad in college. “Guys, you’ve got to get out of this place.”
On twenty-first century distraction and writing serious fiction against the odds:
Diaz lamented the technology/media/societal barrage that is dwarfing the modern attention span. A writer such as Toni Morrison, he said, simply would not be able to have a career today. Yet he encouraged his audience to work that muscle that enables keeping your eyes on the pages of one book for four hours. “Let’s get together for four hours and never look at our phones. I believe in us,” Diaz said. “I still have a deep belief in the ability of nerds and people who love art to regenerate our civilization.”