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TED2008: Amy Tan and her muse

Amy Tan wrote an essay when she was eleven titled, “From Nothing Comes Something”. She got a B-. Her talk, on her creative process, is essentially an attempt to figure out how her remarkable literary creations come from the nothingness of imagination.

Inspired by TED’s focus on science and equations, plus the admonition from TED to “rehearse, but act spontaneous”, she offers her own set of theories for how she creates, including the equation:

W (we) = {I – U}

Her balanced set of quarks, ala Garrett Lisi, are “nature, nurture and nightmares.” She wonders whether some writers are “iinnately equipped with muselike effect.” Are they getting material from past lives? From their depression or psychosis? (She had temporal lobe seizures during the writing of her last book.) Do writers feel dislocated, like they are “wrongful births”? Tan shows us an elementary school picture, where she’s a single Asian face in an all African-American classroom – “Why was I not black like everyone else?” She refers to childhood traumas – in her case, the pressure to become a surgeon or a pianist.

There was real trauma in her childhood. When she was 14, her father and brother both developed brain tumors. Her mother kept looking for causes – the fates, bad feng shui, curses from her dead mother. Tan didn’t look for causes – she looks for laws of the universe. These laws are a bit different from those offered by physicists. Her uncertainty principle involves thinking, “I am not original anymore, I am a fraud.” She offers a string theory – “Creative people are multidimensional. There are 11 levels of anxiety.”

She tells us about a story she read, as a commentary on Iraq. “An ancient Chinese legend says, ‘If you save a man from drowning, you are responsible for him for life’.” This story was used to justify staying in Iraq for hundreds of years. She tells us that Chinese buddhist fishermen are reluctant to kill anything… so fishermen simply try to save fish from drowning, collecting the day’s catch in the process. Her mother, she tells us, told her the proverb about a drowning man and responsibility, but told it as a cautionary tale – “don’t get involved or you become responsible.”

Tan believes in serendipity – she discovers that she sometimes knows things she wasn’t supposed to know – an ancestor who died of an opium overdose, which she was able to write as a suicide. That turned out to be the real story behind the story. She talks about discovering an ominous village on a trip, that she knew would become the setting for a future book. There she discovered a man who balances stacks of rocks without adhesive. She asked him how he does this work, and he replied, “With everything there’s a place of balance,” which is what she sees as the theme of her work.

At the end of a long, funny and rambling talk, she reveals her muse, unzipping a handbag and letting loose her small dog. June Cohen helps her put the dog back into the bag and announces, “Amy Tan is a gifted writer, a soulful thinker, and a standup comic.”