Masterclass: Amy Tan Teaches Fiction, Memory, and Imagination.

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Amy Tan was 33 before she first explored her voice as a fiction author. A few years later, her debut novel, The Joy Luck Club, spent 40 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list.

“In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” –  Shunryo Suzuki, Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind

In her early 30s, she was a successful freelance writer working upwards of 90 billable hours a week for various business clients, staving off burnout. When she chose to pursue fiction writing on the side to nurture her creative yearnings, she made an unusual move: She leaned into her early failings by hanging the rejection letters from literary journals and magazines on a bulletin board and reviewing them frequently.

When Amy was fifteen years old, her father and older brother Peter both died of brain tumors within six months of each other.

Amy was born in Oakland, California, in 1952 to Chinese parents; as a child, she suffered the torment of her mother, a complicated and anxious woman named Daisy who’d left three children from another marriage behind in China. Daisy was prone to violence toward herself and others and threatened to kill herself on numerous occasions.

In the span of six months, both Amy’s older brother and her father died of brain tumors while she was still in high school. Then, as a student at the University of California, Berkeley, her roommate was murdered, and Amy was forced to identify the body. All of these moments offered her inexhaustible wells of feeling to draw from as a fiction writer.

Rather than explicitly recounting the narrative details of her upbringing, Amy has instead tapped into the emotions of the memories surrounding them.

Her breakout debut novel, 1989’s The Joy Luck club, was nominated for a National Book Award and, later, adapted into a hit feature film. Since then, she’s published six bestselling novels, including The Bonesetter’s Daughter, which she later turned into an opera libretto. She’s also written two children’s books and a memoir; stories and essays for The New Yorker, Harper’s Bazaar, and National Geographic; and she’s received a host of prestigious literary prizes. She is now one of the most celebrated contemporary fiction writers of her time and one of the most deft chroniclers of the immigrant American experience.

There are three sides to every story: yours, mine, and the truth.


Observing how other storytellers approach a topic can sharpen your vision. Make a list of movies that revolve around memory and emotion (e.g., Errol Morris’s The Thin Blue Line, Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing), then review them in your spare time.


 There are, as the saying goes, three sides to every story: yours, mine, and the truth. The way you remember something might be totally different from how, say, your mother or spouse recalls the same event. Write down a handful of your strongest memories in as much detail as possible, then ask other people who were there to tell you their version of those same memories. Note the similarities and differences between your recollections. What does this reveal about the importance of perspective (and, perhaps, subjectivity) when reflecting on our personal history?


Humans have an incredible ability to forge bonds with one another. We often do the same with our physical possessions. Choose an object that is extremely important to you—whether it’s your bed, a family heirloom, an item of clothing, or a simple trinket. Use your emotional attachment to that object as the jumping-off point for a 30-minute freewriting session. What does the item represent? When did it become significant? Has its meaning changed over time? Could it change in the future?


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