The Creativity of Writing According to Amy Tan

I watched the TED Talk “Amy Tan: Where does creativity hide?”, and holy cow! I knew that she was an amazing writer with quite a complicated background, but I didn’t realize just how much she had been through. In her short story “Two Kinds”, Amy explores the relationship between her mother and herself, and how she reacted to her mom as a child. (The story is called “Two Kinds” because her mother, while young Amy butts heads with her, left Amy some wisdom about children: there are two kinds of children, the kind that obey their parents and the ones who rebel. As a child, Amy was forced to take piano lessons, and after a horrifying and scarring performance, Amy decided to forever give up on the piano, forcing her mother to give up her dream of having a famous and successful child. With her dream, Amy’s mother also seemed to give up any hope and apparent love for her daughter. The two did not talk much the whole rest of Amy’s life, right up until the day Daisy, her mother, died and left Amy the piano on which she took lessons as a young girl.)  However, it was not until this TED Talk that I realized both her brother and father died relatively young! A death of such close family members is a struggle, to say the least.

She is funny, charismatic, witty, and so intelligent. “Creative” is a word that should not even need to be mentioned when referring to Amy Tan because her writing says enough of that itself.  However, in her lecture she helps us define what it means to be creative. She says specifically that it’s asking questions; questions about life events (“why does it happen?”, “how does it happen?”, “what did I do to make this happen?”) are what Amy says to keep in mind when writing because those questions will help drive a story’s events and reactions.

She doesn’t give the word “creativity” a definition because it is more of a concept than anything, I think we can all agree. What she does give is a process with which one can work and better their creativity. She says not to “tell the audience about it because then all you’d be doing is saying what it is.” Amy is definitely an advocate for the “show, not tell” philosophy of writing (as am I). She also seems to work best with metaphors. She says her worst habit is constantly finding associations between things in life (“And I find a lot of them”, she says.). This is to take the initial object or idea and find is meaning–why is it there?–and thus, eventually, finding the meaning of your story.

Amy mentions some theories of where creativity comes from, and where the writing process takes you that included beliefs such as:

Creativity comes from a part of the brain that not everyone has

“The Uncertainty Principle”–always asking if what you’re writing or thinking is correct or the right way of thinking.

“The Cosmological Constant”–That moment when your focus becomes clear and you begin, as the writer, to notice little “hints” but realize that those little “hints” have been there, obvious, the whole time. I interpret this idea as a moment of epiphany; that moment when as you’re writing and worried that you’re not going to direction you’re meant to go in, you look back and you realize just what it was you were to be focused on, and at that point, it all makes sense.

Her final bit of information was that you, as the writer, need to put yourself in the setting, in your writing. She literally goes to the village multiple times of which she was writing, but I don’t think that it needs to be interpreted so literally, especially when many writers create settings from their imaginations.

So, with all of that in mind, I would like to connect Amy’s advice and breakdown of the creative process to teaching. How can we as teachers (and future teachers) cultivate and support such creativity in our own students? I know my classroom will more than likely just SCREAM creativity, as an English classroom.  However, I know that not every student I get in my desks will be of the same “I LOVE TO WRITE, AND I LOVE ENGLISH” mindset that I am in every moment of my life. To remedy this, and try to nurture creativity from those students a good place to start is always going to be with exploration of individual interests.

In high schools all over, students are no longer required to only read one book with the rest of the class, but they are given an opportunity to choose among three books or so, allowing them to decide to read a book that will (hopefully) hold their interest. The same can be done with writing assignments! Allowing students to choose for themselves shows that we, as the teachers, care about what they want. I sincerely believe that creativity is within every human being, it just needs to be brought out and the best way to do that is to allow them to individually explore their interests. When anyone is more interested in one topic other the other, they’re going to be excited to do almost anything surrounding it.

If a writing assignment isn’t one that cannot really stray from the point of the assignment at all (for example, maybe the assignment is to demonstrate some themes in The Great Gatsby), use your own creativity first and give the students different modes of demonstration. For instance, (sticking with the idea of demonstrating themes found in The Great Gatsby) allow the students to choose among writing a responsive essay, or creating a visual representation (when I first read Gatsby, we created a timeline of themes, motifs, and symbols, for example) of their choice and write an explanation of their project; you could even try to give a creative writing-based assignment to allow students to show their understandings–re-write the novel in a present-day setting, for example.

Giving the students options and the opportunity to take the assignment however they see fit allows those students to be as comfortable as they want to be with the assignments. We can’t force students to be “creative”, but we can support them and be welcoming to their level of comfort in the creative realm.


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