Junot Díaz’s No-Fear, No-Originality Training Program … and the NFL
Junot Díaz, pumping invisible iron. (photo by Keith Hood)
When Junot Díaz stripped down to his T-shirt at his Nov. 11 craft session at Lighthouse, he was noticeably in good shape, like his narrator(s). That might explain why he had no hesitation in putting us through our paces during his wide-ranging presentation, even with a half-time break caused by a parking-lot snafu.
Díaz’s topic was “fear and control in writing.” At one point, he proposed that when we get stuck in our writing, really stuck, we should take a break and read ten books back to back. This suggestion elicited a collective gasp. Díaz mockingly grimaced, and then pointed out how many athletes train on a daily basis, for hours, with no expectation of particular success. He suggested we pursue writing with the same focus on the work as an end unto itself.
Afterward, I came home and collapsed on the couch to watch a recorded football game that had been played while he spoke. Over the last couple years I’ve become a Denver Broncos fan, or rather returned to the bosom of my family’s fandom. This is largely laziness. I like sitting on the couch, and it gives me something to talk about with my family. I’m not naturally a sports fan: In the artiste tradition, sports fandom is uncool. Plus, I’m too tenderhearted. Last year when our team was losing I felt sorry for the Broncos. This year, when the Broncos are trouncing everyone else, I feel sorry for our opponents. I guess I like it best when the team is neither winning or losing but in the middle
Why this digression into the personal politics of my football watching? Because I suspect Junot Díaz (or “Coach Díaz,” as we might call him) would have no truck with my preference for middle-of-the-road waffling. And maybe I shouldn’t either.
Díaz was honest with us about success: it’s unlikely. The odds, simply, are against us. He does believe, though, that anyone can write a book. He means literally anyone with the basic tools, such as literacy and, you know, a pencil. In fact he pointed out that when we hear of a wunderkind who sits down and dashes off a bestseller, often it’s because that person has no sense of themselves as a writer, and so they’re free to get out of their own way.
I’ll translate this to mean we might need a coach, mostly to train our own minds so we get out of our own way. I believe he was suggesting—with the rigor and toughness and sporadic vulgarity of a coach-of-jocks—that we find ways to coach ourselves, and others to coach us, as we create our work, and in turn serve as a coach to our work.
Here are my notes about Coach Díaz’s training regimen:
- First, try. Díaz asked why we don’t write. Fear was high on the list. We are afraid we won’t succeed. We’re afraid we will succeed. (Sounds like my football fandom to me.) We’re afraid of finishing, because when we finish, a work could be good or bad, but while we’re writing the jury is perpetually out. Díaz asked: Does the jock not train because they might or might not win? No sir. They work. So get off your ass, or, in writing terms, put your ass in the chair.
- Get over it. You think you’re a star? Think you suck? As Díaz might say, Fuck it. No one cares who you are until you finish. And (back to those odds) they probably won’t care then either. Díaz keeps the potentially controversial proclamation “No originality” over his desk when he writes. The point is not that you should create carbon copy work. The point is that while you’re writing, you should not be concerned about whether what you’re creating is original. Instead, just write.
- Prep. Getting back to the football game (on this occasion, a painfully powerful win over the Carolina Panthers), can a football player join the NFL after watching a game or two that happened to be on at the bar? Um, no. I’m no jock, but when I did run for a few years it was a great learning experience. For a non-jock, maybe a nerd who’s good at school, it can be eye-opening to realize your body improves one step at a time—no shortcuts. Similarly—duh—we shouldn’t expect we can write a book without tons of preparation.
- Visualize success. For a writer, this is reading, thinking, writing. To build a habit of writing, Díaz recommended spending an hour a day reading a book, with your journal next to it, and writing down a few lines of your own story as you read. Do it for 90 days, he told a questioner, and you will have tricked yourself into a daily writing habit.
- Huddle. Everyone needs a collective, Díaz says, to support their artistic life. He defines this team as at least three people who share and discuss their work. They don’t have to be writers. Any artists can do.
- Review the tape. After a day like the Panthers had on Sunday—especially QB Cam Newton—the next day is going to be rough. But you can bet he’ll watch his performance and try to learn, because jocks are tough. For a writer this amounts to reviewing your draft and revising it. Even when you’re bruised and beaten.
- Negotiate player contracts. (OK, this is the owner’s job, but bear with me.) Díaz seeks to relinquish control in his work by negotiating with his characters. This way, work will be fresh. Successful. We want certain things from our characters, he pointed out. So listen to them and let them ask for what they want. For example, he said, if you inflict cruelty on a character, give that character deeply human characteristics to round him or her out.
That takes us to the two-minute warning. See you in the locker room. Bring a book along, and grab your notebook too—maybe a waterproof one, for the showers.
 No real-life steroid use implied.
 All terrible football analogies are mine. Bright ideas should be attributed to Díaz.