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Junot Diaz on Creative Thinking: The Critical Self and Play

Novelist Junot Díaz is a Professor of Writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is “a writer whose finely crafted works of fiction offer powerful insight into the realities of the Caribbean diaspora, American assimilation, and lives lived between cultures.”

From his Class of 2012 MacArthur Fellow profile page.

New York Times writer Sam Anderson recently interviewed him, and Diaz provides a number of helpful perspectives on creative expression, for any kind of artist.

Sam Anderson: “There’s a classic bit of creative-writing-class advice that tells us we need to learn to turn off our internal editors. I’ve never understood how to unbraid the critical and the creative. How do you manage that?”

Junot Diaz: “You’ve raised one of the thorniest dialectics of working, which is that you need your critical self: without it you can’t write, but in fact the critical self is what’s got both feet on the brakes of your process.

“My thing is, I’m just way too harsh. It’s an enormous impediment, and that’s just the truth of it. It doesn’t make me any better, make me any worse, it certainly isn’t more valorous. I have a character defect, man.”

Sam Anderson: “So turn on your harsh paternalistic, militaristic critic — (Diaz: It’s my dad.) O.K., invite your dad in: I want to hear his review of Junot Díaz the bad writer. What is wrong with that stuff? What are the mistakes you make?”

Junot Diaz: “First of all, nonsense characterization. The dullest, wet-noodle characteristics and behaviors and thoughts and interests are ascribed to the characters. These 80-year-old, left-in-the-sun newspaper-brittle conflicts — where the conflicts are so ridiculously subatomic that you have to summon all the key members of CERN to detect where the conflict in this piece is.

It just goes on, man. You know, I force it, and by forcing it, I lose everything that’s interesting about my work.

“What’s interesting about my work, for me — not for anyone else; God knows, I can’t speak for that — what’s interesting in my work is the way that when I am playing full out, when I am just feeling relaxed and I’m playing, and all my faculties are firing, but only just to play.

“Not to get a date, not because I want someone to hug me, not because I want anyone to read it. Just to play.”

From Junot Díaz Hates Writing Short Stories, by Sam Anderson, The New York Times September 27, 2012.

Photo from Junot Diaz Facebook page.

Listing of Junot Díaz books.

Criticism can cripple

Creativity coach Eric Maisel PhD thinks “Criticism is a real crippler…you may not be aware just how powerful a negative force criticism can be, how much damage it can do to your self-confidence, or how seriously it can deflect you from your path.”

From post: Toxic Criticism and Developing Creativity – which refers to the book Toxic Criticism: Break the Cycle with Friends, Family, Coworkers and Yourself, by Eric Maisel, PhD.

For his book Creating Innovators: The Making of Young People Who Will Change the World, Tony Wagner interviewed “scores of highly creative and entrepreneurial young people to understand the most important influences that enable someone to become an innovator.”

He says, “Innovation is the skill in greatest demand in the workplace today and is the one least likely to be outsourced or automated. For the innovation-minded parents whom I interviewed, developing their children’s intrinsic motivation was their most important goal. And they did so by encouraging their children’s play, passion and purpose.”

From post: Tony Wagner on Encouraging New Innovators.

Embracing play

“An artist must actively caress wonder: for fascination, like the desire to play, can be eradicated by the rigors of living.”Eric Maisel

“There is a myth, common in American culture, that work and play are entirely separate activities.”Laura Seargeant Richardson, a principal designer at frog design, who “specializes in the emotional, social, participatory and future design of products and environments.”

Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget once said, “Play is the answer to how anything new comes about.”

From my post Creative Development: Actively Caress Wonder. Play.


Junot Diaz on Creative Thinking: The Critical Self and Play

Douglas Eby

Douglas EbyDouglas Eby, MA/Psychology, is a writer and researcher on psychology and personal development related to creativity; creator of the , and author of books including [link to book site with excerpts.]
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APA Reference
Eby, D. (2012). Junot Diaz on Creative Thinking: The Critical Self and Play. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 4, 2020, from


Last updated: 7 Oct 2012
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