TED 2008 -- author Amy Tan

(I'm liveblogging from TED 2008, in Monterey, CA)

Presenter: author Amy Tan

Img 0280 She walks on stage and sets a bag on the ground. In every story something unknown is revealed. She says she will open the bag at the end of the talk.

Her creative process is nature, nurture, and nightmares, each word at one vertex on a triangle. One definition of creative is an inability to repress looking at associations.

She got some B minuses in school for her creative writing. Parents pushed her to be a doctor, or to be a pianist on Ed Sullivan show. Her father and brother were both diagnosed with brain tumors. Her father was a baptist minister and said God would take care of them. He died soon after and so did her brother. Her mother believed that she and Amy would be next. She then became very creative "in a survival sense." (This could be why she is so interested in "luck and fate and coincidences and the synchrony of mysterious forces.")

On writing a book: In that framework between page 1 and 300, I have to develop a cosmology as the creator of that universe. It can often take years and years to do that.

Dark energy and dark matter apply to creativity, too -- you sometimes find out what matters by what's missing. Sometimes what you hope to find is no longer there.

Moral ambiguity -- it is constantly there. "Save a man from drowning, you are responsible to him for life." We all hate moral ambiguity, but it is absolutely necessary in writing a story. It is the place where I begin.

"I will reveal what is in the bag - it's the muse that transforms our lives." It's little doggy that hops out and follows her offstage, where she puts the dog back in the bag.


  1. I went to the Miami Book Fair International a couple years ago. Dave Barry was performing with his band The Rock Bottom Remainders. Amy Tan was on the stage in a gold lame’ top, leopard-print stretch pants, and a ratty blonde wig singing “My Boyfriend’s Back”. It was quite awesome. Oh, as a side note, Scott Turow was also up on the stage: he’s got some pretty nice calves.

  2. Wow.

    It’s just like being at a convention….

    On my couch.

    Please liveblog the moderately priced dinner with colleagues, followed by playing with the hotel room teevee.

    Those are my favorite parts.

  3. The difference between JJ Abrams and Amy Tan is that Abrams will never show you what is in the box. In fact, he relishes not knowing what is in it himself.

    Whether that makes him more original or a better writer is up for debate.

  4. Mark, I am a writer and this post just made so many things click for me. Thanks for distilling the juicy nuggets!

  5. Having seen Amy Tan speak/read a few times I knew it would be the dog. I saw her read as part of a panel once. She sat with the other writers on a barstool at the rear of the stage while one by one the authors read to the audience. She had her toy dog in her purse the whole time and I swear she gave it sips from her longneck beer bottle.

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