0 Complete Answers, 1 Hidden Muse: Amy Tan on Creativity and Imagination
“The value of nothing? Out of nothing comes something.”
How do you create something out of nothing? How do you create a life–an identity–out of that creation? This is where novelist Amy Tan begins her exploration of the creative process, journeying through her childhood and family history and into the worlds of physics and chance, looking for hints of where her own creativity comes from.
“It seems so obvious and yet it is not. We all hate moral ambiguity in some sense, and yet it is also absolutely necessary. In writing a story it’s where I begin.”
Tan’s character focus gets sharpest when she’s exploring why good things happen, and especially when bad things happen. Do they happen from luck? from random chance? from serendipity?
Certainly one can see such themes dramatized in her most recent narrative about the profound connections between mothers and daughters in The Valley of Amazement. Her latest novel returns readers to the compelling territory of the book that shares similar themes, The Joy Luck Club. With compassionate insight and humor, she conjures a story of inherited trauma, desire and deception, and the power and stubbornness of love.
“When I come to a story I have to let go of my western beliefs and way of thinking and just go there and be there.”
As for discovering amazing coincidences in her own life, Tan feels like more of them happen when she’s paying attention. She wonders if it’s because of the filters of the creative process itself, or is it truly some sense of serendipity?
It’s important for her to take on the beliefs and truly inhabit her characters’ psyches because that’s where the story becomes real. And that is where she says she’s going to find the answers to important questions in her life. And similar to what Elizabeth Gilbert says about not owning the creative spirit she says, “When the book arrives it is no longer my book. It is in the hands of readers and they interpret it differently.”
“So I go back to this question, how do I create something out of nothing. And how do I create my own life? And I think it is by questioning. And saying to myself that there are no absolute truths. I believe in specifics. Specifics of story, and that past and what is happening in the story at that point.”
She also believes that by thinking about luck and fate, coincidences and accidents, God’s will, the synchrony of mysterious forces, she will come to some notion of how it is that we create.
“There are no complete answers. I have to find particles of the truth flowing through me in the creative enterprise. If there is an answer it is that uncertainty is a good thing because then I will discover something new. If there is a more complete answer it is to simply imagine. If I imagine I put myself into that story until there is a transparency between me and the story that I’m creating. If I feel what’s going on in a story, I come closest to feeling compassion. The feeling is what comes closest.”
Watch the talk in its entirety to discover what the “muse” is hidden in her bag.