Last Saturday, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop hosted their third annual Pageturner Literary Festival (“the Siberian Literary Festival,” Granta Magazine Editor John Freeman joked when introducing his panel in the afternoon). Those of us who braved the snow/wind/rain to attend the amazing programs at Powerhouse Arena and Melville House, were very glad they made the trek. I couldn’t think of a better way to spend the day then camped out in DUMBO, listening to heartwarming stories celebrating 20 years of AAWWs, a panel on Occupy Wall Street (“There’s a reason why revolutions always happen in the spring”), and another on China and India with Siddartha Deb and Jianying Zha and their “menageries of profiles of people.” Amitava Kumar and Hishan Matar discussed the war on terror and straddling the line between activism and art, and one could just listen to Amitav Ghosh forever discuss history and opium.
One of the highlights of my day was watching Junot Diaz and Min Jin Lee “hang out.” The program description was exactly that. I wasn’t sure what this would entail, but I was so happy I stuck around to find out. Though neither one of them really uses twitter, the conversation was split up into hash tags. #origins, #doubt, #why people want to become writers. I am going to break this post into # origins, #doubt, #the reader and #we don’t sell anyway
Both Min Jin Lee and Junot Diaz took over ten years to publish their first books and they discussed this long process. Junot said that most discussions of “how one becomes a writer” often feel “less like options and more like the paths you failed to take.” There’s no one path and schedule that fits all. (He closed the panel with the very reassuring “ You didn’t do anything wrong”)
Min Jin did not study writing in college. She pursued economics and then switchted to history and went on to Law School. She wanted to examine what it was that led her and Junot to become writers. Neither of them came from families of writers or had the luxuries of trust funds to pursue their work. But this idea emerged, this “inner belief” that they were writers. Reading inspired this too. “We get so much courage from writers we don’t know,” Min Jin said.
“You feel like a loser for so long,” Min Jin said about her long road to publication lined with rejection letters. Junot talked about that constant battle of “you versus whether or not you think words mean anything.”
“What you need to finish a work,” Junot said, “is an extra dose of compassion.” Compassion for yourself. Once, he quit working on his novel for a whole year. It wasn’t until he was able to forgive himself, (“I forgive you for really sucking”) that he was able to begin the work again.
“Naipaul really helped me,” Min Jin said. “I don’t think he wanted to help me,” she laughed. But there was something in A House for Mr. Biswas that spoke to her, that told her she could do what she wanted to do.
While we have doubt, we must also have trust. Later there was a moment when Junot was talking about the difference between working on short stories and novels. You can hold a short story in your head. It can be perfect, he said. Novels draw strength from their imperfections, Junot observed. You can’t hold it all in your head, and you have to trust that that all the pieces will come together.
Junot had some concerns about the writing workshop lifestyle and writing to a group of writers. Often times, “the reader” is forgotten in these discussions. One writes to readers. You have to understand “how readers function… how reading actually works,” he said. Min Jin had some great workshop experiences at the Asian American Writers Workshop, and finding a group of writers/readers/mentors.
There are two gems I took away from their chat on these topics.
1- Junot pointed out, “The average reader is capable of deciphering a great deal of unintelligible stuff.” It is normative in the process of reading. “ (Perhaps even the pleasurable part. Wan explained this to me recently in education terms as “desired difficulty.”) We have readers who are going to get our work. (If they get 60 percent of what we are saying, that’s a win, Junot added)
2- Min Jin shared a little story about how when she was younger she never talked. Her parents thought there was something wrong with her. She got accepted into Bronx Science, and in high school, she realized she needed to learn to speak or else people would think she was stupid. “My parents thought I was stupid.” One great lesson she learned in public speaking training was something that can be applied to writing too. “Your audience wants to like you,” she said. They don’t want you to fail. “Your readers want you to succeed.” Many times when I’m writing, I have a critic in mind, whether internal or external, and not the generous reader who is invested in my story. This shift in perspective can make all the difference.
# We don’t sell anyway
In the publishing world, those of us writing about things new and different that aren’t part of the standard model, are “statistical anomalies,” Min Jin pointed out. She talked about wanting to populate an English novel with Korean words, like Russian novels of a certain time were populated with French, and how this idea wasn’t warmly received or understood.
Junot told us how he almost messed up his first novel by listening to his first editor who told him to take out all of the footnotes. He did. Then, the editor quit, and Junot put them back in, and the second editor didn’t say anything about the footnotes.
The problem, Junot said, is that they [publishers, editors, agents] are “making economic arguments about aesthetic issues.” Essentially saying, “ You are not going to sell.” “Well guess what?” Junot said. “We don’t sell anyway”
So we might as well write the stories we want to write and be true to them and not let the economic stuff get in our way. They closed with warm encouragement:
You matter. Your stories matter. You didn’t do anything wrong.