Novelist Amy Tan digs deep into 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’s a wild ride with a surprise ending. (Recorded March 2008 in Monterey, California. Duration: 22:52.)
Watch Amy Tan’s talk on TED.com, where you can download it, rate it, comment on it and find other talks and performances.
Subscribe to the TED Blog >>
The value of nothing- Out of nothing comes something. That was an essay I wrote when I was 11 years old, and I got a B+. (laughter)
(slide of hand holding a brain, with caption “how do we create”)
What I’m going to talk about, nothing out of something, and how we create. And I’m going to try and do that within the 18 minute time span that we were told to stay within, and to follow the TED commandments:
(slide, the TED commandments: “REHEARSE but ACT SPONTANEOUS!!!
-is AL GORE in audience???
-DON’T be tedious!!!
-CHANGE the world!!!
-DON’T use bullet points!!!”
-displayed for a few moments, then bursts into flame graphics)
That is, actually, something that creates a near-death experience, but near-death is good for creativity. (laughter) OK.
So, I also want to explain, because Dave Eggers said he was gonna heckle me if I said anything that was a lie, or not true to universal creativity.
(slide: “how do we create?
parameters of discussion
And I’ve done it this way for half the audience who is scientific. When I say we, I don’t mean you, necessarily, I mean me, and my right brain, my left brain, and the one that’s in between that is the sensor and tells me what I’m saying is wrong.
(slide of inverted yellow triangle)
And I’m going to do that also by looking at what I think is part of my creative process, which includes a number of things that happened, actually — the nothing started even earlier than the moment in which I’m creating something new. And that includes nature, and nurture, and what I refer to as nightmares.
(words “nature”, “nurture”, and “nightmares” added to each corner of triangle graphic)
Now in the nature area,
(slide: picture of man, captioned “creativity — born with the muse chromosome?”, graphic of human genome map)
we look at whether or not we are innately equipped with something, perhaps in our brains, some abnormal chromosome that causes this muse-like effect.
(photo of Tan in purple gown with hennaed palm, captioned “cosmically enlightened?”)
And some people would say that we’re born with it in some other means,
(photos of Tan in Chinese peasant, Barbie, bondage, and Simpsons drag — “Daisy Tan theory: lots of material from past lives”)
and others, like my mother, would say that I get my material from past lives.
(photo of Tan in weird theatrical makeup: “psychotic muse theory a.k.a. VanGogh syndrome
Depression works, too: Proust, Plath, Poe, Styron…”)
Some people would also say that creativity may be a function of some other neurological quirk — Van Gogh syndrome — that you have a little bit of, you know, psychosis, or depression. I do have to say, somebody — I read recently that Van Gogh wasn’t really necessarily psychotic, that he might have had temporal lobe seizures, and that might have caused his spurt of creativity, and I don’t — I suppose it does something in some part of your brain. And I will mention that I actually developed temporal lobe seizures a number of years ago, but it was during the time I was writing my last book, and some people say that book is quite different.
(slide of Tan’s grade school yearbook, her photo highlighted with yellow arrow that says “I’m Chinese!!!” “wrongful birth principle:” you were not born who thought you would be (sic)”)
I think that part of it also begins with the sense of identity crisis, you know, who am I, why am I this particular person, why am I not black like everybody else,
(slide of old drawing of dogs, “innate artistic skill is not necessarily artistic creativity (not bad for age 9)”)
and sometimes you’re equipped with skills, but they may not be the kind of skills that enable creativity. I used to draw, I thought I would be an artist. And I had a miniature poodle. And it wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t really creative. ‘Cause all I could really do was represent in a very one-on-one way. And I have a sense that I probably copied this from a book.
(photo of hand pointing to old school papers, graded “B-” and “B”-“there may be false evidence of a muse deficit (not predictive at age 10)”)
And then I also wasn’t really shining in a certain area that I wanted to be, and you know, you look at those scores, and it wasn’t bad, but it was not certainly predictive that I would one day make my living out of the artful arrangement of words.
(childhood photo of Tan: “nurture principle: childhood trauma can be real good material”)
Also one of the principles of creativity is to have a little childhood trauma. And I had the usual kind that I think a lot of people had, and that is that, you know,
(photo of clear plastic “Invisible Woman” anatomical model, with Chinese speech bubble, “translation: ‘IQ test say you become brain surgeon! So study lots.'” – “mild trauma”)
I had expectations placed on me. That figure right there, by the way — figure right there was a toy given to me when I was but 9 years old, and it was to help me become a doctor from a very early age.
(photo of Tan, as child, at piano, Chinese caption, “translation: ‘If only you play like Ting-Ting, you be on Ed Sullivan Show, too.'” “moderate and memorable trauma”)
I have some ones that were long lasting, from the age of 5 to 15, this was supposed to be my side occupation, and it led to a sense of failure.
But actually there was something quite real in my life, that happened when I was about 14. And it was discovered that my brother, in 1967 — and then my father, six months later — had brain tumors. And my mother believed that something had gone wrong, and she was gonna find out what it was. And she was gonna fix it. My father was a Baptist minister, and he believed in miracles, and that God’s will would take care of that. But of course, they ended up dying, six months apart.
(photos of father, brother, other relatives, arrows labelled “death” pointing in to photo of mother, big caption “why?” “‘God’s will, bad fate, curses, karmic law and poisoned earth, bad luck, terrible coincidence, bad feng shui'”)
And after that, my mother believed that it was fate, or curses — she went looking through all the reasons in the universe why this would have happened. Everything except randomness. She did not believe in randomness. There was a reason for everything. And one of the reasons, she thought, was that her mother, who had died when she was very young, was angry at her. And so I had this notion of death all around me, because my mother also believed that I would be next, and she would be next. And when you are faced with the prospect of death very soon, you begin to think very much about everything, you become very creative, in a survival sense.
And this, then, led to my big questions. And they’re the same ones that I have today. And they are: Why do things happen, and how do things happen? And, the one my mother asked: How do I make things happen?
It’s a wonderful way to look at these questions, when you write a story. Because, after all, in that framework, between page 1 and 300, you have to answer this question of why things happen, how things happen, in what order they happen. What are the influences? How do I, as the narrator, as the writer, also influence that? And it’s also one that I think many of our scientists have been asking. It’s a kind of cosmology, and I have to develop a cosmology of my own universe, as the creator of that universe.
(shot of manuscript, lots of corrections: “the nature of the narrative world”)
And you see, there’s a lot of back and forth in trying to make that happen, trying to figure it out, years and years, oftentimes. So, when I look at creativity, I also think that it is this sense, or this inability to repress my looking at associations in practically anything in life. And I got a lot of them during what’s been going on throughout this conference, almost everything that’s been going on.
(slide in background- “creativity: the quantum mechanics of metaphor”)
And so I’m going to use, as the metaphor, this association — quantum mechanics, which I really don’t understand, but I’m still gonna use it as the process for explaining how it is the metaphor. So, in quantum mechanics, of course, you have dark energy and dark matter. And it’s the same thing in looking at these questions of how things happen. There’s a lot of unknown, and you often don’t know what it is except by its absence.
(photo of four rubber ducks, arrow associating them with Warhol-esque 4 panel portrait of Tan- “the metaphorical universe: synenergy (sic) and what matters”)
But when you make those associations, you want them to come together in a kind of synergy in the story, and what you’re finding is what matters. The meaning. And that’s what I look for in my work, a personal meaning.
(photo of Tan pondering, surrounded by speech bubbles: “I am not original anymore.” “I am a fraud.” “If I write that, people will think it’s me”. above: “the uncertainty principle also applies”)
There is also the uncertainty principle, which is part of quantum mechanics, as I understand it. (laughter) And this happens constantly in the writing.
(Tan studying mask: “and there is also the dreaded observer effect”)
And there’s the terrible and dreaded observer effect, in which you’re looking for something, and you know, things are happening simultaneously, and you’re looking at it in different way, and you’re trying to really look for the about-ness. Or what is this story about. And if you try too hard, then you will only write the about.
(slide switches: “when you say what a story is about, it is only ‘about'”: photo of Tan putting on mask)
You won’t discover anything.
(switches to photo of just the mask. “what you were supposed to find is no longer there”)
And, what you were supposed to find, what you hoped to find, in some serendipitous way, is no longer there.
(photo of hand holding brain again, arrows cross-relating it to a ball of yarn. “string theory of creativity”-“a creative person is multi-dimensional”)
Now, I don’t wanna ignore the other side of what happens in our universe, like many of our scientists have. And so I am gonna just throw in string theory here, and just say that creative people are multi-dimensional, and there are eleven levels, I think, of anxiety.
(photo of piles of anti-anxiety pills- “at least eleven levels of anxiety”)
(laughter) And they all operate at the same time.
There is also a big question of ambiguity. And I would link that to something called the cosmological constant. You don’t know what is operating, but something is operating there. And ambiguity, to me, is very uncomfortable in my life, and I have it. Moral ambiguity. It is constantly there. And just as an example, this is one that recently came to me. It was something I read in an editorial by a woman who was talking about the war in Iraq.
(slide of below quote)
And she said, “Save a man from drowning, you are responsible to him for life.” A very famous Chinese saying, she said. And that means because we went into Iraq, we should stay there until things were solved. You know, maybe even 100 years. So there was another one that I came across, and it’s “saving fish from drowning.” And it’s what Buddhist fishermen say, because they’re not supposed to kill anything. And they also have to make a living, and people need to be fed. So their way of rationalizing that, is they are saving the fish from drowning, and unfortunately in the process the fish die.
Now what’s encapsulated in both these drowning metaphors — actually, one of them is my mother’s interpretation, and it is a famous Chinese saying, because she said it to me — “Save a man from drowning, you are responsible to him for life,” and it was a warning: Don’t get involved in other people’s business, or you’re gonna get stuck. OK. I think if somebody really was drowning, she’d save them.
But both of these sayings, saving a fish from drowning, or saving a man from drowning, to me they had to do with intentions. And all of us in life, when we see a situation, we have a response. And then we have intentions. There’s an ambiguity of what that should be that we should do, and then we do something. And the results of that may not match what our intentions had be (sic). Maybe things go wrong. And so, after that, what are our responsibilities? What are we supposed to do? Do we stay in for life, or do we do something else and justify and say, well, my intentions were good, and therefore I cannot be held responsible for all of it. That is the ambiguity in my life that really disturbed me and led me to write a book called Saving Fish From Drowning.
I saw examples of that, once I identified this question, it was all over the place.
(“you notice disturbing hints from the universe”-“they were always there”)
I got these hints everywhere. And then, in a way, I knew that they had always been there. And then writing, that’s what happens. I get these hints, these clues, and I realize that they’ve been obvious, and yet they have not been. And what I need, in effect, is a focus. And when I have the question, it is a focus. And all these things that seem to be flotsam and jetsam in life actually go through that question, and what happens is those particular things become relevant. And it seems like it’s happening all the time. You think there’s a sort of coincidence going on, a serendipity, in which you’re getting all this help from the universe. And it may also be explained that now you have a focus. And you are noticing it more often.
But you apply this, you begin to look at things having to do with your tensions, your brother, who’s fallen in trouble, do you take care of him, why, or why not. It may be something that is, perhaps, more serious, as I said, human rights in Burma. I was thinking that I shouldn’t go, because somebody said if I did, it would show that I approved of the military regime there. And then after a while, I had to ask myself — Why do we take on knowledge, why do we take on assumptions that other people have given us. And it was the same thing that I felt when I was growing up, and was hearing these rules of moral conduct from my father, who was a Baptist minister. So I decided that I would go to Burma for my own intentions, and still didn’t know that if I went there, what the result of that would be if I wrote a book — and I just would have to face that later, when the time came.
We are all concerned with things that we see in the world that we are aware of. We come to this point and say, what do I as an individual do? Not all of us can go to Africa, or work at hospitals, so what do we do if we have this moral response, this feeling?
(slide, word forming out of fire: “genocide”)
Also, I think one of the biggest things we are all looking at, and we talked about today, is genocide.
(“why am I here?”)
This leads to this question, when I look at all these things that are morally ambiguous and uncomfortable, and I consider what my intentions should be, I realize it goes back to this identity question that I had when I was a child — and why am I here, and what is the meaning of my life, and what is my place in the universe?
(“It’s obvious and not”)
It seems so obvious, and yet it is not.
(photo of Tan with mask again- “we hate moral ambiguity” … “and we need it”)
We all hate moral ambiguity in some sense, and yet it is also absolutely necessary. In writing a story, it is the place where I begin.
(“ghost of my grandmother”)
Sometimes I get help from the universe, it seems. My mother would say it was the ghost of my grandmother from the very first book, because it seemed I knew things I was not supposed to know. Instead of writing that the grandmother died accidentally, from an overdose of opium while having too much of a good time, I actually put down in the story that the woman killed herself, and that actually was the way it happened. And my mother decided that that information must have come from my grandmother.
(“the arrival of luck
ghost of my grandmother”-
picture of cover of Jonathan D. Spence’s The Search for Modern China)
There are also things, quite uncanny, which bring me information that will help me in the writing of the book — in this case, I was writing a story that included some kind of detail, period of history, a certain location — and I needed to find something historically that would match that. And I took down this book, and I — first page that I flipped it to was exactly the setting, and the time period, and the kind of character I needed was the Taiping rebellion, happening in the area near Qualin, outside of that, and a character who thought he was the son of God.
(previous slide, with “random chance?” added)
You wonder, are these things random chance? Well, what is random? What is chance, what is luck? What are things that you get from the universe that you can’t really explain? And that goes into the story too. These are the things I constantly think about from day to day. Especially when good things happen, and in particular, when bad things happen.
(previous slide, with “serendipity?” added)
But I do think there’s a kind of serendipity, and I do want to know what those elements are, so I can thank them, and also try to find them in my life. Because, again, I think that when I am aware of them, more of them happen.
(slide of mountain scene in China, captioned “chance”)
Another chance encounter is when I went to a place — I just was with some friends, and we drove randomly to a different place, and we ended up in this non-tourist location, a beautiful village, pristine — and we walked three valleys beyond, and the third valley there was something quite mysterious and ominous, a discomfort I felt. And then I knew that had to be setting of my book. And in writing one of the scenes, it happened in that third valley– for some reason I wrote about cairns — stacks of rocks — that a man was building. And I didn’t know exactly why I had it, but it was so vivid. I got stuck, and a friend, when she asked if I would go for a walk, with her dogs, that I said sure. And about 45 minutes later, walking along the beach, I came across this –
(photo of rock stacks on a beach, seemingly impossibly balanced)
And it was a man, a Chinese man, and he was stacking these things, not with glue, not with anything. And I asked him how is it possible to do this? And he said, well, I guess with everything in life, there’s a place of balance. And this was exactly the meaning of my story at that point. I had so many examples — I have so many instances like this when I’m writing a story, and I cannot explain it. Is it because I had the filter that I have such a strong coincidence in writing about these things? Or is it a kind of serendipity that we cannot explain, like the cosmological constant?
A big thing that I also think about is accidents. And as I said, my mother did not believe in randomness. What is the nature of accidents?
(slide of word “accidents” arranged in a triangle)
And how are we going to assign what the responsibility and the causes are, outside of a court of law?
(photo of village described below)
I was able to see that in a first hand way, when I went to beautiful Dong village, in Guizhou, the poorest province of China. And I saw this beautiful place, I knew I wanted to come back. And I had a chance to do that when National Geographic asked me if I wanted to write anything about China. And I said yes, about this village of Singing people, Singing minority. And they agreed, and between the time I saw this place and the next time I went, there was a terrible accident.
(photo of fire devastation in same village)
A man — an old man — fell asleep and his quilt dropped in a pan of fire that kept him warm, 60 homes were destroyed, and 40 were damaged. Responsibility was assigned to the family, the man’s sons were banished to live 3 kilometers away, in a cow shed. And of course, as Westerners, we say, well, it was an accident. That’s not fair, it’s the son, not the father. And when I go on a story, I have to let go of those kinds of beliefs. It takes a while, but I have to let go of them and just go there, and be there. And so I was there on three occasions, different seasons. And I began to sense something different about the history and what had happened before, and the nature of life in a very poor village, and what you find as your joys, and your rituals, your traditions, your links with other families. And I saw how this had a kind of justice in its responsibility. I was also able to find out also about the ceremony that they were using- a ceremony they hadn’t used in about 29 years — and it was to send some men — a Feng Shui master sent men down to the underworld on ghost horses. Now you, as Westerners, and I, as Westerners, would say well, that’s superstition. But after being there for a while, and seeing the amazing things that happened, you begin to wonder whose beliefs are those that are in operation, in the world, determining how things happen.
(photo of villagers- “the narrative world of their beliefs”)
So I remained with them, and the more I wrote that story, the more I got in to those beliefs, and I think that’s important for me — to take on the beliefs, because that is where the story is real, and that is where I’m gonna find the answers to how I feel about certain questions that I have in life.
Years go by, of course, and the writing, it doesn’t happen instantly, as I’m trying to convey it to you here at TED. The book comes and it goes. When it arrives, it is no longer my book, it is in the hands of readers, and they interpret it differently.
But I go back to this question of 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, the specifics of story, and the past, the specifics of that past, and what is happening in the story at that point.
(“by thinking about luck and fate, coincidences and accidents, God’s will, the synchrony of mysterious forces”)
I also believe that, in thinking about things, my thinking about luck, and fate, and coincidences and accidents, God’s will, and the synchrony of mysterious forces, I will come to some notion of what that is, how we create.
(same slide, adding “by thinking about my role in all of it, what to think, do, and feel.”)
I have to think of my role. Where I am in the universe, and did somebody intend for me to be that way, or is it just something I came up with? And I also can find that, by imagining fully, and becoming what is imagined, and yet is in that real world, the fictional world. And that is how I find particles of truth, not the absolute truth, or the whole truth. And they have to be in all possibilities, including those I never considered before.
(“not complete answers”)
So there are never complete answers.
(“uncertainty is a good thing”)
Or, rather, if there is an answer, it is to remind myself that there is uncertainty in everything, and that is good, because then I will discover something new. And if there is a partial answer, a more complete answer from me, it is to simply imagine. And to imagine is to put myself in that story, until there was only — there is a transparency between me and the story I am creating.
(“and feel what is in one story”)
And that’s how I’ve discovered that if I feel what is in the story — in one story — then I come the closest, I think, to knowing what compassion is, to feeling that compassion. Because for everything, in that question of how things happen, it has to do with the feeling. I have to become the story in order to understand a lot of that.
We’ve come to the end of the talk, and I will reveal what is in the bag (referring to leather duffel at her feet), and it is the muse, and it is the things that transform in our lives, that are wonderful and stay with us. (bends to bag, opens it, and a small dog runs out) There she is. Thank you very much!