Junot Diaz – “Art Demands That You Be Human”

A while back, I watched Junot Diaz’s Smithsonian discussion about writing.  You figure, this guy has gotta know what he’s talking about because he won the Pullitzer for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao—a book not categorized as YA, but that revolves around a teenage Dominican boy growing up in New Jersey’s Washington Heights.  Diaz seems uncomfortable with a lot of attention or accolades, but the guy is pretty amazing.  I mean, even as his discussion is littered with profanity, the eloquence with which he speaks and the wisdom he shares is evident.  He seems both real and transcendental.  Anyway, at some point in the discussion Junot Diaz hits us with this:

Art demands that you be human.

Got that?

Art. Demands. That. You. Be. Human.

That simple statement is one of the best pieces of advice/wisdom I’ve ever heard about writing. I even scribbled it on a piece of paper and put it up on the cork board in my office because it’s simple and easy to remember, but encompasses so much and has come to kind of guide me in my writing.  Actually, it’s not even a statement.  It’s more like a command.

Art demands that you be human.

Think about it—being human, I mean.  So I’ll try not to get too philosophical, but what does being human mean?  I guess this can get scary because there are great and terrible things about being human, about what makes us up, about what we are capable of.  But being human to me is mostly about feeling—feeling everything; pride, shame, love, hate, anger, frustration, compassion, worry, confusion, relief, regret, jealousy, rage, loneliness, joy, fear, determination, excitement, anticipation, etc. etc..  The ability to feel all this and more makes us human.  To feel on such a large spectrum makes us a unique species, a species that can create art.  A species that wants to create art, that sees it as necessary.

To say I’m bit of a worrier is an understatement (get panic attacks every now and then).  So there have been times I’ve wished I actually didn’t “feel,” you know?  I’ve wished for indifference.  I think this is actually pretty common; lots of people wish they could numb feeling, which is maybe why some people do things like drugs and alcohol to dull it.  Let’s face it, feeling can be hard.  But at some point I realized, damn, feeling, the good and bad kind, helps me write—helps me create, helps me create believable characters who also “feel.”  The same way a painter has to feel something for it to come out on canvas.  The same way a musician must feel something to come through in his music.  Without it, just words, paint, sound—not art.   In writing, art demands you take feeling, pour it into your characters, into your words, into your story so it can ooze off the pages and into the fingertips of your reader and through their veins and into their heart until they feel too.  If you don’t feel, the emptiness in what you’ve created comes through because…

Art demands that you be human.

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6 Responses to Junot Diaz – “Art Demands That You Be Human”

  1. timkeen40 says:

    I don’t know how anyone can write anything other than a technical manual without feeling what they are writing. If you write about a character but can not feel that character, then that character will never become real That character will never react in the way you wish that character to react.

    I loved the post and have subscribed.


  2. Ghenet says:

    I love this! Being an artist is all about telling the truth, and you have to embrace your humanity to do that. Like you, I deal with issues of anxiety but I’ve even poured those emotions into my writing.

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