A week or so ago, I read two books from completely different authors. One was The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, a sprawling familial narrative that took place in the United States and the Dominican Republic and utilized elements of magical realism and a distinct voice. The other was Black Dogs by Ian Mcewan, a story that traces a British couple’s lives throughout Europe after World War II through the lens of two conversations that the main character had with his in-laws. The thing that most struck me about these novels was the authenticity and literary excellence that was being achieved. It made me think about how I could imitate this same literary excellence. These books were both very different with some stylistic similarities. Both were fictional stories set in real world places. Both are first-person narratives. But Junot Diaz writes in a playful and conversational tone where as Mcewan’s writing style is much more formal and serious. Mcewan writes his novel with a linear progression of time, and yet he leaves out large chunks of time. Memories from the past are just that: memories, offered up by a character in the story about his or her past. Diaz, on the other hand, bounces around a timeline that spans almost a century, throughout the Dominican Republic to the United States, and he eventually provides a complete and elaborate tapestry of family history and life. His timeline follows no rules, and his characters often experience supernatural occurrences in both DR and the US. These creative decisions: tone, structure and plot among others, are what make authors distinct and wonderful to read. But a few things, writing’s ‘nougat’ if you will, are present in many pieces of great writing. A couple of these aspects are the author’s experience and the emotion that he writes with. These two things often go hand in hand and help to create great pieces of art, especially writing. They are present in almost any great piece of literature, film, or dramatic performance.
Experience was the first thing that struck me about these two novels. The descriptions of city squares, smells, sights, and what the people existing in these two books felt were too genuine, too accurate regionally for an outsider to have written them. Mcewan himself spent almost twelve years in Germany while his father, a General in the English army, was stationed there during the occupation after WWII. His entire adult life has been spent in England and enriched by trips throughout Europe, Asia and Africa. Black Dogs follows the main character’s family from his home in England throughout France to Berlin, right as the wall is falling. The novel is chock full of vivid imagery of France’s mountains, the harsh and tense nature of Berlin in that time, and a very euro-centric lens of the world and the goings-on in it. Conversely, Junot Diaz is a Dominican-American citizen who immigrated to New Jersey when he was six years old. He received his degree from Rutgers University and has lived in New York since the late nineties. His novel The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao follows a family throughout the Dominican Republic, New Jersey and New York, with the main characters all attending Rutgers because of its convenience (to them? or Diaz? Both?). The narration of Oscar Wao is very Dominican, referencing fuku and Trujillo over and over again and refusing to shy away from the blatant colorism present in Dominican culture. This all adds up to two great authors writing about places and voices with which they are very familiar. This familiarity, this experience, is key to great writing. Without it, a story loses both credibility with locals and the sense of realness that can only be imparted by an author who knows the place he is writing about. Without experience, art is often flat and one-sided. This is the reason why people should be able to tell their own stories. White images of black pain, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, are often offensive and shallow. The same can be said about gay characters written by heterosexual authors, rural characters written by people in cities and women written by men (though none are usually as offensive as the first). The point is, the best realistic fiction writing first comes from one’s experiences. You have to know what it feels like to not only exist but truly live in the place that you’re writing about and from. Be able to describe the taste in the air, the streets, what the houses look like, how you feel as you walk home and out into the city, how you would talk, and what *could* happen here in this fantasy universe that you’re creating.
Emotion is the other key aspect that writers must be able to communicate to readers. When I read The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao I was struck by the depth and realness of the emotions Diaz was writing about. Rather than ignore the rebellion and anger that his characters felt throughout the novel or water it down, he accentuated it and indulged the reader in descriptions of feelings anyone with a mother, brother, sister, or lover could identify with. And with that anger came the inevitable yang, the love his characters felt for each other. The wide range of human emotions that Diaz captured in the novel was truly amazing to me, and I do not doubt that he has experienced all of these emotions himself. The writing was too real, too truthful for me to doubt that. It was almost like the first time I saw Manchester by the Sea. I could not stop myself from crying, overwhelmed by the depth and truth of the actors and actresses’ pain on screen. Like The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, that film’s authenticity of human emotions, raw and out in the open for the reader/viewer to see, was powerful. Likewise, authors like Stephen King and Gillian Flynn deftly use emotions like fear and suspense. Because of this, novels like IT and Gone Girl are exponentially better. No one wants to read about a killer clown that doesn’t scare the reader, or a missing wife that doesn’t put the reader on the edge of his/her seat. This is the reason why emotion is so important. You could write the most flawless narrative ever, with authentic spatial details, realistic events, and a well-developed plot. But if the reader can’t feel the emotion behind the words, if they don’t feel what the characters do, then the magic of great art is lost.
It is for this reason that I want to live in as many places as I can, work as many jobs as I can, and experience as many emotions as I possibly can in this life. It’s all in the pursuit of having a happier and more full existence and bettering myself as a writer and storyteller. If I can live in twenty different countries before I die, work blue and white collar jobs, feel joy, fear, pain, love, boredom, disinterest, anguish, and jubilation, I can maybe sniff the coattails of these great authors. This is why I want to watch my first child come out of the womb, why I hardly ever pass up an opportunity to climb a mountain, and why I have not once denied my body the love that I felt inside. To say “that’s too gross” “that’s too hard” “that’s too much” to any experience in life is something I’m going to try to avoid for the rest of my existence. Nothing is “too much” life for me; I want it all.