Almost two years ago, Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Junot Diaz spoke at Montgomery County Community College, where one of my younger brothers goes to school. I went and listened and made notes afterward. He was pretty incredible. Here are the notes I made (everything below is paraphrased from his talk):
Art shows us our best selves and helps us connect to others. We get to interact with another person’s nervous system when we read a book. The most important thing a young reader can do is read 1,000 books. Best advice he received: “Go out and get your heart broken on three continents.”
Four things he learned about writing:
Audience. Manipulate audiences, not words. You have to allow the reader to interpret a scene. Do not tell them how to interpret it with something built in.
Characters exist because of relationships. You can’t observe a person in isolation. In Cast Away, they had to make the character of Wilson to allow Tom Hanks a relationship while he was on a desert island. One relationship is good, but two is better, the classic triangle of dramaturgy. Characters interact with each other. You could write a 500 page description of a character and it wouldn’t be as good as a one sentence description that involved the same character in a relationship.
The fictional world has to resist the character. See the first Matrix movie when Agent Smith explains why the first matrix world was rejected by humans, because there was no fear, or war, or hunger. The world did not resist. People might not know a lot about literature, but they are professors emiriti of reality, and every day the world resists them.
Point of telling: when, in relation to the events of the story, is the story being told. Six months later, six years later? A way to maintain consistency in the narrative and make sure the focus is correct, close or distant. What details are related: fine details, or the big picture.
Thoughts on society: it teaches us to compete, to accumulate, to make hierarchies, and to be afraid. What art does is allow us to access what makes us most human: compassion, communion, the we-feeling. Developing these things is what allows you to make it through life. Those things will save your life.
Reading takes us off the market. No one can sell you anything when you’re reading. You’re literally offline. Puts you in touch with yourself. People come out of college without being able to deliver an operational definition of compassion. That is the main ontological (purpose) of being human—compassion.
Our business leaders have failed us, our political leaders have failed us, but our artists never have. That’s who we should be turning towards.
Reblogged from my friend Kevin who tumblrs at molarsmolars. Go follow him and check out his music blog, Molars.