Tag Archives: Junot Díaz

Finding the door

Junot Diaz

When I get stuck on my novel revision, it’s like sitting in a room with furniture covering every wall, including possible doorways out. There is something going on with my novel that is not right/should not be there/needs to be moved so that I can get unstuck.

Oftentimes, it’s my tyranny as a writer in a previous draft that causes a block in a subsequent revision–usually it is because I’ve forced the characters to do something that is unnatural and against their will. Or I’ve just cluttered the draft with unnecessary, incongruous details. Either way, I and my novel end up with roadblocks.

So it is with this point in my revision. There are more than a couple instances of roadblock going on in my novel. Because I’ll look at a chapter and just SIT there, wondering where to go from there. And I’ll see no openings, no windows, no doors, not even a trapdoor (okay, I haven’t yet looked for a trapdoor, and maybe I should). It feels like a dead-end, in which case I have no choice but to take the whole damn room apart, or demolish it altogether.

It’s scary to delete entire chapters. Sometimes it has to be done.

In the interim, I’m working on strengthening chapters and scenes that do work. I wrote five sentences of my novel revision the other day. This, my friends, is a miracle. Because that’s the most I’ve written in my novel in weeks. Weeks. Weeeeeeks. Some people say you get a burst of creativity when you’re in my specific physical condition–but I’ve just gotten massive creativity constipation.

It just so happens that another dam is breaking, too. I built up an emotional wall to brace myself for a personal event–and it isn’t the healthiest of things to do, and certainly not healthy for writing. It’s more honest to fall and cry and stand back up than it is for me to stand rigid and quivering. And I’m stronger when I stand after falling. And a good cry is even better for my writing.

Sorry for being so vague. Personal stuff.

And then there’s more personal stuff that is challenging me to open up, that makes me less alone on this earth, and yet makes me feel more alone than ever. It’s good stuff but again, sorry for being so vague. Personal stuff yet again.

I’ve also stepped back in as Fiction Editor over at Kartika Review. If you’re Asian American and/or write about Asian American related writing (whether theme or character), please send your fiction in.

And being as I’m in NYC for a few weeks, I’m surrounded by readings. The big reading event of Fall 2012 was the Junot Díaz reading at Barnes & Noble on Union Square. There were hundreds of people at that reading. I showed up over an hour in advance of start time, and got myself a seat (my friend had gotten there about ten minutes earlier and saved me a seat). There were hundreds of people behind me standing. There were people downstairs trying to get up to the reading. NYPD was there for crowd control. It was awesome to see literature need rock-star-crowd-control measure.

I live-tweeted the reading (Junot makes his readings less about reading and more about a dialogue with his audience, so there are good tidbits all around). Here are a few excerpts from my live-tweets:

“ppl in the back we love u. It’s one thing 2 hv a fucking seat. It’s another 2 hv 2 stand the fuck up.” –Junot Diaz (2 the capacity crowd)

“when ur rendering chars on paper, u’ve gotta be strategic. Chars hv no weight until u attach them to relationships.” — Junot Díaz

“male representation is so absurd, trivial. Despite the over abundance of men the internal lives of boys are overlooked.”-Junot Diaz

“what’s intriguing w most of us is it’s so much easier to live w the safety of work unrealized. It’s safe.” –Junot Diaz

“Truth is Tht safety of work unrealized does not in any way compare to flawed beauty of work realized.” –Junot Diaz

“first you have to suck for a long time. The only thing Tht separates a published writer is a tolerance for imperfection.” –Junot Diaz

“this is a wired generation. My MIT students ask me where my reading is. Lookitupmotherfucker dot com!”–Junot Diaz

“get to fucking work, yo.” -Junot Diaz

If ur an immigrant what the fuck haven’t u survived? –Junot Diaz

It is u & ur story, fuck everybody else. The best part is when it’s done every1 will get their say so why give them say before? -Junot Diaz

I don’t know about you, but listening to Junot always flips a light switch on in my head.

I hope you’re finding the doors in your work. I’m trying to find the doors in mine. I’m so determined to get some work done.

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Angst: on feeling bad vs being bad

"WET PAINT" sign meme

I woke up to two arguments in my email inbox today.

The first argument, I believe, became an argument because I have been quiet and “good,” not having articulated my goals/needs clearly along the way, because I did not want to ruffle penises feathers. So people made assumptions. I did not advocate for myself.

The second is not an argument per se, but one that has spurred an internal debate. In this “argument,” I am met with suggestions, and because as my friend S said, I empathized with the sender of said suggestions (instead of with my own self), I acquiesced. Immediately, without checking in with myself, I expressed gratitude and intention to incorporate suggestions. But the thing is, the changes dont work for me, and I’ve ended up stuck. Again, I did not advocate for myself.

Both situations have come to a point where I must stand up for myself, something that makes me feel very uncomfortable (ironic, because my strength lies in advocating for others).

And so I find myself dissatisfied, anxious..and angsty.

My angst (or as my friend E put it, “the mean reds”) can be defined as a glowing ball of suppressed anger combined with a good dose of helplessness. Of which I feel a lot today.

From where does this helplessness arise? For most of the time, I do not feel helpless, and I believe, at least in theory, that true helplessness is rare. (Though people in North Korean labor camps face true helplessness–and I cannot compare my situation to theirs).

I thought I would examine this “helplessness” here in order to get to know and overthrow my combatant, because my helplessness is certainly not in any way real. I am not in a prison. I am not cut off from communication with friends and family. I am not denied food or rest. I am not helpless, and yet I feel helpless.

I’ve come to the conclusion that my helplessness stems from the desire to be good. To be good above all else. To subjugate my own desires and needs if necessary, so I can “be good.”

To “be good” is to please others. To gain approval. To prioritize others before myself. To follow laws (and not all laws are “good”–what of the Nazi rules to report hiding Jews and turn them into the concentration camps?). To “be good” is to stay out of trouble. To “be good” is to be good to others.

But it is “being bad” that enables my writing. And thus, the debate.

It is this desire to “be good” that also curtails my writing and my ability to play within my narrative. It is a desire to “be good” that makes it impossible for me to be truthful at times.

Writing is not about pleasing others. It is not about gaining approval (that’s propaganda, not writing). It is not about prioritizing others before myself. Writing is a diva and will not stand to be put in second place. Writing breaks laws, and invites trouble, because writing is about the truth. Writing saves my life, because “being good” does not.

In workshop last week, I gave feedback, to which Junot responded. His response was offhand, but contained a large lesson. The dialogue went as follows:

Me: “This story is too big to be a short story. It’s like being a size 14 and trying to fit into size 8 pants.”
Junot: “More like size 2!”
Me: “I was trying to be nice.”
Junot (cocking his head and without missing a beat): “Oh. I was trying to be TRUTHFUL.”

Therein lies the difference between “being good” and “being bad.” “Being good” in this case is about supporting the status quo, about supporting mediocrity. Being bad is telling the truth. It means true advocacy. It means saying “fuck it” and going for it.

Which is more important? For me? For my writing? For my life? For overcoming helplessness?

I want to be bad. I want to be the one that feels better. My mother-in-law once told me, “If there are two people, it’s best if both feel good and emerge winners. But if only one can feel good, let that one be YOU.”

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…and an amazing time was had: VONA 2011 + Pride

VONA 2011: advanced fiction alum workshop

This was the BEST.VONA.EVAR. (I think I say this every year).

But really: the fucking lightbulb went on over my head during my week at VONA. Junot took me by the shoulders and pointed me in a direction I hadn’t yet seen–and then he and my workshop peers took a metaphorical flashlight and turned it on. And there it was: a path. I now know the way to the end of my novel, through all the revisions ahead. And I’m going to do it, knowing that there are people who believe in me, and in this manuscript. Who “get it.”

I can’t even tell you the sense of relief and elation and gratitude I feel.

You see, my goal for this revision was to work on characterization. I knew the characters lacked 3D…but I learned what lacked was STORY. Their stories. Ding ding ding!

I’ve been writing this thing for nearly 7 years. Not a straight 7 years, as I took a 2 year break from the novel while I recovered from a freaky deaky left thalamic stroke that left me with no short term memory (something, I cruelly discovered, that is critical to writing narrative). But still: 7 years. And I can now see my destination.

It’s still a ways off in the distance–and there’s still a lot of work and revision ahead of me–but it’s just work. And more importantly, I am almost done (almost being at least 3 more revisions). Just being able to see the Emerald City on the horizon after all this time on the yellow brick road (or if you prefer another metaphor–the New World after sailing across the ocean)–feels like relief. And hope. And joy. I’ve got my second wind now. And with that second wind, I hope I breath more life and stories into my characters. And that my readers will feel that second wind!

Now I’m experiencing re-entry into my world. The last time I had such a hard time re-adjusting was after my three week residency at Hedgebrook. I was changed then, and I am changed now. But nothing else has changed. And no one seems to know I’ve changed. Things feel out of sync. I’m bewildered and bewildering.

And so I find myself taking a deep breath. I’m saving that breath for my novel. And in my real life, I am settling back into normal patterns, so that I can fit back into my real life.

Immediately upon my return to NYC this weekend, I went to Pride–in my 20+ years in the SF Bay Area, I’d never been to a Pride Parade, for no good reason other than not wanting to deal with traffic, which is like–a really bad reason. So like with yoga, it took NYC to get me to Pride. And what a Pride it was! The jubilance in the wake of the passage of NY’s Marriage Equality Law was amazing. I cried tears of joy, and my voice went hoarse along the parade route.

But I gotta admit–I think some of those tears of pride were for myself. I’m a self-critical writer, and I rarely feel proud of myself as a writer–but in that moment along the parade route, in the wake of immense writing encouragement and support at VONA, I felt rare pride in my writing. And it took Pride to swallow me up and allow me room for my private moment of pride.

"I'll see your Prop8...and raise you New York!"

I also went to the Alexander McQueen show at the Met yesterday afternoon (like I said, I’m not jumping straight back into my writing–I’ve gotta digest all the epiphanies from last week)–and that show is a masterpiece. All those beautiful, groundbreaking clothes–created from the dark places in McQueen’s heart. It was like a torch for me and my writing.

Afterword:
If you are a writer of color serious about your craft and seeking community and mentorship…get thee to VONA. Apply. It happens every summer in the SF Bay Area (this summer, VONA moved to the Berkeley campus). It’s been life changing for me, and game changing for my writing. If you have attended VONA in the past and/or want to support writers of color, consider making a donation to VONA.

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Quick blog post, June 15, 2011

Rapture Art

I am sitting down to write for the first time in weeks. Life has been hectic, albeit in celebration, these days. Lots of parties, outings, (non-writing) work, meetings, travel. I wonder at times if the world is cold-blooded; now that the temperatures have risen, the pace of activity has quickened.

And in the face of a frenetic social schedule and steamy summer, I find myself fantasizing about winter–a time of year when the ubiquitous jackhammers silence, the snow casts a monochromatic scheme over things, and getting dressed is mostly about getting that down parka over my jeans and tshirt. (Yes, I spend almost the entirety of winter in a tshirt and jeans under a parka). I love when nighttime outweighs daylight and a party is not outdoors but cast in lamplight and candles. You’d find me happy in wintertime Narnia.

Winter is the time of year when I get most of my writing done. I am not sure why this is, but after numerous writing seasons, this is confirmed as fact. Thankfully, I normally live in San Francisco, where summer is one long glorious winter.

But it’s summer in NYC, where it can get so sweltering that my legs become slick with sweat (sexy, I know). I’ve stocked up on summer dresses. I’ve cut my hair. I’m trying to figure out summer makeup. And I’m writing and seeing how it goes.

Because I haven’t blogged in awhile–thought I’d do a “quick blog post” as an update.

Read/Reading:

  • Nova Ren Suma’s debut YA novel, Imaginary Girls. Buy it.
  • Beginning to read manuscripts from VONA. Did I mention VONA before? I got a lot of rejections in the past few weeks (everytime I opened my mailbox, it seemed there was a lightweight envelope addressed in my own handwriting)…but I will be in Junot Díaz’s fiction workshop this summer. I haven’t had workshop with him since 2005, and I’m excited about working with Junot again.
  • Can you believe I’ve never read Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse? So I’m picking it up.

Wrote/Writing:

  • My novel. I am trying very hard to work on nothing else.
  • But I did write up my parents’ visit to NYC, and in particular, their jaunt to Queens, over at AAWW’s Open City blog.

Viewed:

  • A lightning storm from inside a jet. I saw a flash out of the corner of my eye, and I looked out the plane window. I’d missed whatever it was. Then another flash in my peripheral vision–was my retina detaching? I kept my eyes on the infinite black horizon–and there, there I saw it: an illumination of the clouds beneath. Lightning storm down below. It was like the animation of synapses firing inside a brain, the clouds brain matter and lightning, genius.
  • Too many couples breaking up on the streets of Manhattan to count.
  • An “I love my dildo!” sticker on a residential vehicle in San Francisco’s Mission.
  • Sailors falling-down-drunk during Fleet Week.
  • Bridesmaids. The female response to The Hangover–booyah!
  • Lots of nekkid people looking out their windows in the hotel across the street.

Memorable eats/Culinary outings:

  • Fine dining Israeli food at Zahav in Philly. Israeli food is much more than pita and hummus, people!
  • Too many great meals in Manhattan (some upscale, many more cheap eats)–I’ll have to do a different post on my favorite eats here.
  • Everytime I return to the Bay Area–the first thing I want when I get off the plane is a Gordo burrito. If I land too late to get a Gordo burrito, I just get it the next day. NYC has Dos Toros (a direct derivation of Gordo) and it is good–but isn’t the same.

Cooked:

  • Oh holy crap, I’m turning into a New Yorker; I don’t think I’ve cooked anything substantial in weeks, not even when I was in San Francisco.

Happenings:

  • I have an excerpt from my novel out in Men Undressed: Women Writers on the Male Sexual Experience. I’ve been trying to keep my lips sealed on this until closer to publication date (in October), but I can’t keep it closed anymore! The book is available for pre-order from Amazon–and yes, it features a sex scene from my novel.
  • My short story “Ume” will be out in Kweli Journal’s June issue. The piece holds a special place in my heart, because it was the first piece I began and finished after my stroke, from which I took about 2 years to recover. “Ume” was inspired by a friend who told me a story in hopes that it would awaken a part of my damaged brain, and the story brought me hope that I could write again.
  • Tamiko interviewed me about writing and MFAs as part of her “(private)” MFA series at kikugirl. I had fun reflecting on my MFA experience, and I hope some of it will resonate with you.
  • I have a stigmata on my left foot. When I slammed my foot by accident into a spike, I at first thought, “OW, what did I hit?” and then thought, “This is a very particular kind of bruise–this hurts more than a bruise.” I looked down. I saw the hole.in.my.foot. And then I started crying hysterically as I ran for a bandaid.

Never happened:

  • The Rapture

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