This weekend young writers swarmed Dominican-American and Pulitzer-prize winning author Junot Díaz at the National Book Festival in Washington, D.C.. At the Q&A preceding his reading, he favored their questions. Here are the tips he gave young writers:
Forget about being original. When you find yourself sounding like someone else, go with it. "Don't worry about being authentic. Just keep going. Because later on you'll stumble into what you need to say. I was recently reading that great short-story collection by Krys Lee, called Drifting House. When I heard her in my head, I just kept going. I was like, that's great, you do the work for a while."
Make it count. On the short story vs. the novel: "You ever meet somebody and you have ten minutes to make an impression? Anyone ever done speed-dating? Imagine speed-dating, except there were Olympic-level speed-dating athletes. There are people who operate in short-story form in this country and everywhere where the English language is crafted, who are so damn good that they have raised the bar so incredibly hard. The novel is just more generous, the novel absorbs an enormous amount of mistakes. For me the novel is like dating someone who excuses a lot of your flaws. They forgive you. A short story, is like dating a person who definitely doesn't want to be with someone like you. The short form is incredibly demanding. Because the stakes... the ethos, what has come before is so polished."
Don't write for your frenemies. Don't listen to the naysayers, real or imagined. "You gotta drop out of the judgment place. And the judgment place is the one that keeps saying 'No, no, no, you're not good, you're not original.' Who the fuck cares? Nobody cares. Readers don't give a damn, if you sound just like the last book they read. I feel like we write as if the only readers out there are your worst enemy in a writing workshop. I promise you, your worst enemy is not going to read you anyway."
Let your characters speak as they must. History is on your side. "For the challenges of characters who code switch between multiple languages. They love to call it Spanglish because motherfuckers haven't taken a linguistics class. The thing about code-switching, is that we have such few models. All of us working in this area are looking to each other to figure out the best strategies. English and Spanish have been implicated in each other since they first arrived in this hemisphere. The conquest of the new world had Spanish and then English quickly behind it. So it's easier to do English and Spanish because the languages are so much together. English pretends it's not ... the imperial medium births no competitors, right? You put in and you take out and you see how much each language can withstand the other before it dissolves. The best part of this is that readers are so damn tolerant they will put up with your experiments."
Just read. You want to write but are out of ideas? "You know the deal. A student or someone I'm mentoring comes up to me and says, 'Prof. I'm like, out of ideas.' I say, 'Man, read ten books.' If you read ten books back to back, I promise you, you'll have ideas. Haven't you ever had that where you read two or three books and you're like, I can do this better, or, I can do this just as badly? Ten books every time you're stumped."
Follow your fears. Don't avoid going into the dark. "How does the writer manage the fear? Chances are your book is waiting for you in that place. The funny thing is your survived the scary place the first time, it can't destroy you the second time. Most of what I do as an artist is not write, most of what I do as a writer is feel myself back to that place. 99% of it."
Give in to the sucking. Do what doesn't come naturally. "Most of us avoid our weaknesses because we hate sucking. Your ego as a young artist and your phobia for sucking prevents you from realizing your project. The road to whatever your project is must go through sucking."
Put your pants on first. Itching to join the ranks of the published? "It's super, super simple to understand the process. Like college, the difficulty is just getting in. Don't worry about the publishing process until the book is done. You're distracting yourself and your distorting the art because your head is caught up in this stuff. When young writers talk to me about agents. I'm like, Put your fucking pants on first. Let's go for a walk. The procedure is simple. Writer's Market covers it."
Keep on. "You can be the best writer in the world and be completely ignored."