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Posts tagged ‘Amy Tan’

Amy Tan on praise and criticism

Just a little bit more from Amy Tan, from this interview with her. The topic is close to home for me as a writer, as for anybody who tries to be creative and thereby takes the risk of humiliation. (Isn’t that what creation is?)

As a writer or creative type, you need good and honest feedback to see whether you are/are not connecting with other minds. But it gets complicated:

“The question for me is, “How am I affected by praise?” I am more fearful of praise these days because I don’t want to depend upon it. In the world of book publishing, there is never a comfortable balance point where you either have enough praise or enough criticism. If you get this kind of review then you worry about what’s going to happen with the next. So there’s never any comfort point.
On the other hand, I welcome criticism when I’m writing my books. I want to become better and better as a writer. I go to a writer’s group every week. We read our work aloud. They’re old friends, and they treat me as an equal in the group, meaning they tear my stuff apart like anybody else’s.


Why truth is in stories

“What is truer than truth?”, asks writer Isabel Allende at the very beginning of her TED talk, below. “Answer: The story.”

How similar to Amy Tan (still from the same interview that I quoted from in my last two posts):

I think that’s why I’m a storyteller. I take all these disparate events and I have to connect them. I have to make them seem inevitable and yet surprising and plausible. That’s what I think life is like, too. I have the luxury to do exactly what it is we all need time to do, and that is just think about the mystery of life.

And how similar to a less poetic author, Dan McAdams, a psychology professor at Northwestern who has

a life-story theory of identity, which argues that modern adults provide their lives with a sense of unity and purpose by constructing and refining self-defining life stories or “personal myths.”

It’s all about the story, in other words. Human beings remember and understand things only insofar as they learn them in a story.

The absence of such a story is what, in my opinion, limits so many non-fiction books. They have an idea or a thesis, but don’t wrap it into a story. So people read until they get the basic idea, then drop the book at page 50. After all, once you “got it”, why waste your time?

In my book, I’m trying to do the opposite. It is non-fiction, but true stories can be more suspenseful and surprising than fiction. And there is an idea, but it comes out through the story.

This is also my main rebuttal to my mom so far, who worries incessantly that I am giving away too much of my secret sauce in this blog, for some anonymous villain to steal it all. What, I keep thinking, would he (or she) steal? The idea without the story? Good luck. As Allende said, you need the story to get the truth. So, mom, for now I’ll keep blogging. Let me know what I’ve overlooked.
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A bit more on Amy Tan

Well, I’m still researching Amy Tan–and I’m still being deliberately coy about exactly which aspect of her life will make it into my book–and I keep coming across all these other interesting things she has said.

From the same interview as in the previous post, here she is talking about success and failure, making them sound rather impostor-like:

And here she is describing how she found her authentic voice:

At first I tried to write fiction by making up things that were completely alien to my life. I wrote about a girl whose parents were educated, were professors at MIT. There was no Joy Luck Club, it was the country club. I tried to copy somebody’s style that I thought was very clever. I thought I was clever enough to write as well as these people and I didn’t realize that there is something called originality and your own voice.

One day, after being told one of these stories didn’t work, I thought, “I’m just going to stop showing my work to people, and I’m just going to write a story. Make it fictional, but they’ll be Chinese-American.” What amazed me was: I wrote about a girl who plays chess and her mother is both her worst adversary and her best ally. I didn’t play chess, so I figured that counted for fiction, but I made her Chinese-American, which made me a little uncomfortable. By the end of this story I was practically crying. Because I realized that — although it was fiction and none of that had ever happened to me in that story — it was the closest thing of describing my life. Of the feelings that I had, of these things that my mother had taught me that were inexplicable or had no name. This invisible force that she taught me, this rebellion that I had. And then feeling that I had lost some power, lost her approval and then lost what had made me special. It was a magic turning point for me. I realized that was the reason for writing fiction. Through that, this subversion of myself, of creating something that never happened, I came closer to the truth. So, to me, fiction became a process of discovering what was true, for me. Only for me.

I went to a writer’s workshop. I met a wonderful writer there named Molly Giles. She looked at my work and said, “Where’s the voice? Where’s the story? There’s so many things that are happening that are not working, but there’s a possible beginning… So maybe you should think about this question, what is your voice?” That’s a question I still ask myself today as a writer.


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Amy Tan and I

And just as I am researching J.K. Rowling for my book, I am also looking into Amy Tan, and discovering interesting things other than those I am actively searching for. From Amy Tan, during this interview, the following:

I also grew up, thankfully, with a love of language. That may have happened because I was bilingual at an early age. … Words to me were magic. You could say a word and it could conjure up all kinds of images or feelings or a chilly sensation or whatever. It was amazing to me that words had this power.

Why interesting? Because I have, in my own way, said the exact same thing, many, many times. Perhaps there is something about bilingual types that lets us love words as others can’t.


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A lot about fathers

So I’m staring at the two books that have just dropped from the pile (a tall one) onto the floor, and they are titled: Faith of My Fathers (left) and Dreams from My Father (right).

“This boy is really doing his civic homework during an important election,” you may be saying. Actually, no. I’m doing research for (no surprises) my book.

You see, these two–Obama and McCain–made me think of my main characters, Hannibal and Scipio. No, it’s not because Obama is half African (I’ve explained here why I don’t think that Hannibal was “African” in that sense). No, it’s not because McCain has “something Roman about him”, as a friend of mine said, referring to McCain’s martial honor code. And it’s only a little bit because both pairs were formidable rivals and opponents.

It’s because Hannibal and Scipio, if they had written books, might well have given them the exact same titles.

Hannibal lived his life as he did, one could argue, because he inherited a “dream from his father,” Hamilcar. Hamilcar had fought the Romans in the First Punic War, and felt humiliated when Rome won, and wanted revenge. He even made Hannibal, when the boy was nine, swear an oath to keep the “faith of his father”. (100falcons has a nice write-up of it here.)

Scipio could have said the same. He had the same name as his father, Publius Cornelius Scipio, and fought in his father’s army against Hannibal, when Hannibal seemed invincible. His father and uncle later died in battle against Hannibal’s brothers, Hasdrubal and Mago. Scipio, too, was keeping the “faith of his fathers” when he rose at a precocious age to become Rome’s leader and last hope.

So, fathers clearly matter. Or perhaps only for sons? For Amy Tan, it seems to have been her mother who was the important early influencer.

Lots to ponder. Lots to ponder. The role of background in life choices, goal-setting, Success, failure….


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More Amy Tan, on creativity

Just following up on this weekend’s “writer’s Koan” by Amy Tan, best-selling author. For those of you who are interested, here is Amy speaking at the TED conference about the subject of creativity.

And for those of you who haven’t heard of the TED conference, it’s a sort of “cooler, hipper Davos,” traditionally held in Monterey, California, but now moving to L.A. I’ve gone once. Mind-blowing. A smorgasbord of intellectual stimuli from all fields of human endeavor–design, politics, philsophy, ideas, physics, environment, etc. And now it’s all online!

I digress. Here is Amy:


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Writer’s Koan of the day

Amy Tan, best-selling author, in today’s New York Times Magazine, when asked whether writing is a kind of performance, thus giving her anxiety:

No. It’s a meditation. It does not have to do with personal humiliation until after it gets done.

(Incidentally, she will feature in two of my chapters. I’m intrigued in the effect her mother had on her success and perceived failings, and of course whether any of it has been a Kiplingesque impostor. Amy, if you’re googling yourself, will you give me an interview?)


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