Tag Archives: writing

From Quora: Writing Classes at MIT with Junot Diaz before his Pulitzer

At MIT from 2003 to 2007, I took 3 classes with Junot Diaz. Although my lecture attendance is notoriously bad (sometimes I didn’t even show up for exams), Junot’s classes were different. That first class freshman year, I felt like I’d been rummaging for garbage scraps my whole life and finally someone cut me some steak.

Junot swears, in a friendly way. “This isn’t fucking church. If it doesn’t move you, it’s ok to walk out.” I don’t know if his classes attracted the awesome, or if the class made people awesome, but some of the most awesome people I know I met in this class. Every week we would look forward to the 3 hour meeting because we were so excited to see each other. Whenever we met in the Infinite, we’d pause to talk about the readings and our work. Through writing, you get to know people in ways you would never see otherwise, because people write about things they wouldn’t have occasion to talk about: parents lying to each other about bad investments, gods contemplating tree spirits, suicide letters, using malaria to lose weight, grandmas stealing back grandchildren, getting stopped by the Israeli border patrol, shrooms in your fraternity, walking off a broken foot.

Once we went up to Wellesley because Rosa invited him to give a talk. Junot did a reading, and then went into discussion like always.
“How do we make the reader ok with the fact our narrator Yunior is a jerk?”
Imran said, “Yunior will do something terrible, but then he makes me laugh, which takes me to the next line.”
“He tells the truth,” I said. “He’s honest about being a jerk so you trust him to tell you the rest of the story.”
“Is there a sexist theme?” someone asked. “Yunior doesn’t respect women.”
“If the narrator keeps saying women are stupid, but then in the story a woman comes and takes his money, and another woman beats him up, no matter how much the narrator insists women are dumb, does the story say that women are stupid?”
Afterwards the Wellesley students crowded around, “Why haven’t I taken a class with him?”
This all was before Junot had written Oscar Wao (or won his Pulitzer), but his talent was obvious- we kids saw the signs.

Our mailing lists were active:
“Ignore my last email- that one’s shit, this is a better draft.”
“Let’s all meet at my ILG for dinner.”
“If MIT has taught me anything, it’s that parties don’t throw themselves.”
“Essays due! Get to work, gang!”

“Students! My students!” Chalk loosely gripped, Junot would dramatically, slowly scratch the board behind him without looking, then haphazardly stab back at it as he talked. Afterwards the abstract lines looked like we’d been doing some crazy algebraic geometry- you’d never guess we were talking about life outside the story, or lacunae, or structure, or voice. On my writing, he’d put check marks near good parts, “No” near bad parts, and a rare “You kick ass Nancy!” near kick ass parts. After class during finals week, we crashed a lecture hall to watch “Fuckin’ Shaolin Soccer” on the projector, everyone getting drunk.

It’s one thing to read a dead man’s writing. You can even read the living Sherman Alexei and think, “Yeah, some folks have it really bad,” while simultaneously implicitly concluding that others never suffer a day in their lives, or even that most people never suffer. Having my writing teacher be someone who wrote the type of stuff I’d read, who experienced things, who encouraged us to write about what messed us up, to connect with my crazy genius classmates, to realize everyone has a billion secret selves, shifting between various identities, to draw aside the curtain to reveal our secret worlds, was personality-altering for me. In my math and CS classes, we talked about approximation algorithms, theory of mind, big O, BBN: the Problems of advancing science, problems we were solving- not the ugly worries of the lower realms, dead-end stuff with no reason, base stuff you can’t work on aside from letting it fade, subjective stuff that isn’t truth the way other parts of understanding reality are Truth. Elevate beyond animal emotion, abhor politics, the path to the heavens through technology goes the complete opposite direction!

I was a writing major (21W) in addition to a math major (18C), and Junot’s class was the first real writing class I ever had. I’ve always been a bookworm, but I don’t think I learned to read until Junot taught me to write. Writing reads differently when you read as a writer. Sometimes I mark time by how much a book or script has changed since the last time I read it (my overall conclusion is that the classics actually are good; the literary community and tradition is smarter than me). Learning to write teaches me how to read, which teaches me how to think, which teaches me what to ask, what to work on, what to value. How do we navigate this life, with the noble promises of our expanding human knowledge propelling us into the stars, only for the battering of our pathetic human hearts to tear us back down into the grime? These writing classes were the other half of the equation for me. Ten years ago, I was starved as a stray cat and didn’t suspect that at MIT of all places I’d find a home to take me in.

My answer to “What was it like to have Junot Diaz as your creative writing professor at MIT?”

Quora: What is it like to be a humanities major at MIT?

Most MIT humanities majors have the humanities major as their secondary degree. If you’re only interested in humanities, I don’t know why you’d go to MIT, and neither will the other students. Other people will probably think you’re not hardcore enough to hack it in a “real” major, and if you are truly interested in only a humanities field then the MIT education is a suboptimal way of achieving expertise in that field because you’ll be spending a lot of time on hard math and science classes that wouldn’t really contribute to your goal. I also question the value of a degree in writing, especially a BS which is what I got (MIT only gives BS’s). You need degrees for hard sciences to pursue many of the goals involved in those fields but MIT people who get degrees in the humanities, unless they’re going into academia, basically do it just because they can. An MIT Bachelors of Science in Writing is meaningless and “ironic” on its own and doesn’t qualify me for anything.

After attending my first session of an MIT writing class, I seriously considered transferring. After the students apathetically struggled to interpret the most basic reading, I was concerned half my brain would starve to death in such an environment and seriously considered leaving. Then I emailed Alan Lightman, a physicist and writing professor, who told me that science was for young people whereas writing often improved with age, so why not study both if I liked both? He asked to read my work, was really supportive, and recommended I avoid the intro classes. For discussion driven humanities classes, the interest and talent of the other students are vital to having a good class experience, and I found this was only true in classes such as small workshops that most students wouldn’t take to simply fulfill a HASS requirement.

After my initial doubt, studying writing at MIT was awesome.
1) As the only writing major of my year, I got lots of attention. I won grants and writing prizes because there wasn’t that much competition. All the professors opened their doors to me and were eager to read my stuff and help me write better.
2) Great faculty. MIT has a lot of money for a world class faculty, even in the humanities departments. Junot Diaz was my main writing teacher, and he ended up winning a Pulitzer.
3) In comparison to the class I took at Harvard, MIT students are in general less well-rounded and well-read, so the discussions will take a pretty different path at MIT than at Harvard. Although Harvard kids know more about literature etc (so I guess are better educated in these areas), I think MIT kids are more direct in their feedback.

What is it like to be a humanities/social science major at MIT?

Virtual Reality Game Opera

‘Let’s go work out, Hua.’
‘I’m busy.’
‘You’re playing Draw Something and watching Game of Thrones.’
‘No, I’m taking notes and planning things! You’re the one reading HPMOR and watching Starcraft.’ (Hehehe I’ve gotten many people addicted to HPMOR. You can be the next victim!)
‘You said one of your goals was to become as strong as possible. How will you be strong if you don’t work out?’
‘But if you don’t do what you want all of the time, you’ll be unhappy some of the time.’

Thirty minutes later, I’m bored out of my mind in between some set of something (exercise bores me so I mainly exercise through games or learning some new skill or sporadically crossfit. Sets are boring. I only do one rep of anything because in that rep I destroy the universe by ripping the fabric of space time). As I’m unhelpfully zoning out while waiting for my turn, I enter a fantasy about a Korean soap opera where everyone gets plastic surgery and their identities become confused. After 1.25 hours in the gym (what a waste of time! Crossfit has 4 minute workouts that kick your ass. But I tend to use this fact as a reason to never work out at all…), I have the plotting almost totally done and I’ve changed story elements so that it’s actually a virtual reality game opera and hence more fun to draw. The above drawings are from scenes from this story. The first installment is here. I’m also working on a lost-martial-arts soap opera that’s very fun to draw, especially since I eliminated most men from this story (men’s clothing is so boring to draw), and I think I’ll make illustrated story versions of my movie scripts as well.

‘Aren’t you glad you went to the gym, Hua? Exercising inspired you to think of this story.’
‘No, I thought of it because I was bored!’
‘Let’s go work out today.’
‘You work out every day?!’
‘Yes, except rest days. And when I’m sick.’
‘I’m sick.’ (Everything I know about debate I learned from South Park, specifically Cartman.)

Sketch club and Web Comics

Sketch club is an amazing iPad app and this is my first sketch club drawing! It’s me punching a baby dinosaur I belatedly realized resembled Barney. Whatever, it was self defense.

This drawing was inspired by the fact that I was late to every engagement I’ve had this week- I’m usually late to everything, although incredibly I was never late to work- and I fantasized that my excuse was that I punched a mugger so hard I ripped the fabric of space time and ended up in a past or future ice age I then had to punch my way out of.

“Sorry, punching through space time is not an exact science. This was the closest I could get: it was either a day early or an hour late.”

In reality I have never punched anyone, probably because my punch would rip the fabric of space time. Once Colin said I could try punching him but I didn’t take it seriously. Although would I even know if I ripped space time? Maybe I did punch Colin and now we’re in some other universe…

Part of my motivation to draw more came from my recent trip to San Francisco. For a long time I rarely drew anything except a few portraits here and there, but in San Francisco I met artists, and Yinmeng also got me playing drawsomething on my iPhone, which led me to get the sketch club app and now I’m inspired! I’m thinking about drawing web comics because my non-portrait drawings would be too inexplicably weird in any other form.

I have fantasies and conversations with real people who don’t exist- my last imaginary conversation was with Scientist Ryan Gosling who agreed it was possible I’d already ripped space time. I’m not like tim rogers who plans out every possible conversation for the next 6 months, but if you think I say weird stuff, keep in mind you’re getting the edited version- my unfiltered thoughts are even weirder. I don’t want you getting the impression my stories about my great cat are exaggerated, or, if you’re an accredited investor, that it’d be unwise to give me all your money to manage. Thus consider all my weirder drawings to be part of my web comic, a genre where all kinds of weirdness abounds, of which this drawing is the first installation. Web comic name suggestions welcome.