Experimenting, Fiction, On Writing

The Writers Guide To Confidence (or This Is How You Fall In Love With Junot Diaz)

In theory, I’m going to review “chick-lit” novels in this space, dissecting the good from the way-too-Stilton-cheesy. But before I do that, I can’t help myself in writing a little about one of the things that 13503109inspired me to write a women’s fiction novel for NanoWriMo in the first place, and that something is a 40-something dimunitive Dominican anointed genius.

“But wouldn’t The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Bridget Jones’ Diary make pretty strange bedfellows?” you ask.

Yes. Yes they would. Although now that I think about…that’d be a fun little writing exercise for another blog post…

I had put Junot Diaz‘ Wao down about midway through a month before I stumbled into his tent at the National Book Fair in September. I enjoyed Diaz’ bilingual wordplay and the book’s Dominican history lessons. But for some reason, I’d bored of the book’s narrative. After hearing him read aloud from his newer book, “This Is How You Lose Her” at the book fair, I picked up “Wao” again and finished it promptly: Diaz is just that engaging. Listening to him read from his books is visceral in a way reading the text is not: Oscar and Yunior’s cadences and rhythms and heart must be spoken to be fully realized, and only their creator can truly deliver. Diaz has a way with an audience, too; he allowed Q&A to take up the entirety of his allotted speaking time after the reading. At one point, a high school-aged girl took the mic and told Diaz that she was an aspiring writer, but she worried that everything she wrote sounded like somebody else.

Diaz dismissed her worries. All writers are derivative of someone else, he said. Then, he said — I’m paraphrasing very liberally here — “You have to read things and study them and you find yourself thinking ‘I can do this better or I can do this just as badly’.”

I can do this better or I can do this just as badly. It was kinda how I felt whenever my friends suggested I write chick-lit. I certainly don’t have that thought about say, Nora Ephron or Helen Fielding or Jennifer Weiner. I’d be lucky to write anything a fraction as well any of them. But some (not all)  women’s fiction on the shelves and on my Kindle today relies on cliches and tired tropes and unsophisticated narration. It’s certainly not Shakespeare, which makes trying a bit less intimidating.  I could do this just as badly.  Surely, I can’t be the only one who reads things and feels this way (right?)

And about a week or so ago I read a profile of an actress in a women’s magazine, and thought, I could do this better. Sure, I was biased because I like the actress and her work. But, really, a lot of us can do better than the standard intro describing the hotel lobby where writer meets celebrity, standard nut graph about the celebrity’s current hot projects, next standard graph about how “Oh my gosh she’s a size 2 but just ordered truffle fries and a Diet Coke!” and so on? (Note to any women’s mag editors who probably aren’t reading this anyway: Can we puh-lease change this tired formula? Kthx).

But once that phrase was in my head: I can do this better or just as badly, it seemed many things were at least worth a shot. Not every published writer is Junot Diaz or Zadie Smith or can write celebrity profiles like Chris Jones. But why not try, at least at first, to be among the not-so-great? It’s a little less scary. Once you’ve got some words on the page, once some work is done, then you try to be better.

To paraphrase the most beautiful line of “This Is How You Lose Her” — the half life of mediocrity doesn’t have to be forever.