Amy Tan's Lonely, ‘Pixel-by-Pixel’ Writing Method

Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” helps remind the Joy Luck Club author to capture the “microscopic” details that make her characters unique.

By Heart is a series in which authors share and discuss their all-time favorite passages in literature. See entries from Jonathan Franzen, Sherman Alexie, Andre Dubus, and more.

Doug McLean

If Supreme Court justices determine what should be true for all people in all cases, author Amy Tan told me, writers do the opposite—they focus on what makes individuals unique. To create convincing fiction, Tan feels she must “look microscopically”: Her characters grow out of the singular details, impressions, and secrets they share with no one else.

In searching for these small, telling facts, Tan’s learned that startling things can happen when you start to look closely. By spending hours looking at old photographs, examining every tiny detail for story possibilities, she unearthed a discovery that led to her new novel, The Valley of Amazement. In a book on Chinese courtesan culture in turn-of-the-century Shanghai, Tan found a picture of five women in professional garb: long coats with cheek-high, upturned collars and tight-fitting embroidered caps. It was the exact outfit worn by Tan’s grandmother in a favorite early photograph. If her grandmother had been a courtesan, Tan wondered, how would that recast the family story?

The Valley of Amazement begins in 1905, at the Hidden Jade Path, Shanghai’s most exclusive courtesan house. The book’s main narrator, Violet, is the daughter of the brothel’s American madam. In this latest book, Tan chronicles this fraught mother-daughter relationship through 40 years of conflict and renewal.

In her interview for this series, Tan discussed a section from Whitman’s “Song of Myself” that reminds us we travel along a private road, a shifting path we continually seek. The poem touches on the themes Tan tries to embody through her work: openness, lack of judgment, scrutiny, surprise. Tan’s most famous book, The Joy Luck Club, has been translated into 35 languages. She spoke to me by phone from her home in California.

Amy Tan: In my current novel, The Valley of Amazement, a character named Edward Ivory recites the following lines from Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself”:

Not I, nor any one else can travel that road for you,

You must travel it for yourself.

It is not far, it is within reach,

Perhaps you have been on it since you were born, and did not know,
Perhaps it is everywhere on water and on land.

I discovered this passage when I was writing the book, wondering how Edward, the son of a Western merchant, came to be in China. As I was working, I randomly took a book of poems off my shelf and found this passage facing me. The words just stared up at me from the page. And I realized: This is what the character is about. No, more than that: This is what my writing is about. This is what my whole life is about.

No one can travel your own road for you; you must travel it for yourself. My faith in this stems from my childhood. I grew up in a family with a system of religious beliefs handed down to me. In addition to being an engineer, my father was a Baptist minister. I attended church every Sunday. Sometimes, during the summer, I went to church every day—attended Bible study, choir practice, constant church activities. I tried so hard to be good. I tried so hard to hear Jesus. I tried so hard to get guidance from God. But I never could. I did my best to be a good Baptist, but I felt like a fraud.

Then, there was a year that I really tried to believe. My brother became ill with a brain tumor. The religious amperage was turned up in our house, and in the church: If we believed hard enough, he would be saved. But he didn’t get better. Instead, my father also became ill. He, too, was discovered to have a brain tumor. So the amperage turned up even higher. And they both died.

That year, as I tried to be especially good, I was sent to a church counselor for reading a banned book. And while my father was dying—while I was being told that I was disappointing God, as well as my father—that person from the church molested me. It was the combination of these experiences, ultimately, that made me reject the beliefs that had been handed to me. I decided to set out on my own, to find a way of viewing the world that was distinctly my own.

And I had an unexpected ally in this. After my father died, my mother revealed all these beliefs I never knew she had. It turned out she was only pretending to be a good Baptist. My mother believed in curses, karma, good luck, bad luck, feng shui. Her amorphous set of beliefs showed me you can pick and choose the qualities of your philosophy, based on what works for you. You develop your own personal framework, based on what you’ve seen and known. You take the ideas you rely on for survival, and discard what weighs you down.

My mother’s openness has remained inspiring to me. I strive to be a skeptic, in the best sense of that word: I question everything, and yet I’m open to everything. And I don’t have immovable beliefs. My values shift and grow with my experiences—and as my context changes, so does what I believe.

I do close the door on methodology—I close the door on evangelism, for example. I close the door on humiliation as a means to extract something from someone. But while I might disagree with someone’s approach, I don’t think it’s my right to judge any human need. As Whitman says, we are all alone in this fundamental sense. You’ll have companions, but no one really knows what it’s like to be you. So no one can tell you how you must understand the world, and you can’t say what someone else must do or be.

Our uniqueness makes us special, makes perception valuable—but it can also make us lonely. This loneliness is different from being “alone”: You can be lonely even surrounded by people. The feeling I’m talking about stems from the sense that we can never fully share the truth of who we are. I experienced this acutely at an early age. When I was six or seven, I used to read a thesaurus searching for the words that meant exactly what I felt. And I could never find them. I could see shades of meaning in the different ways something could be said; I could appreciate the difference, say, between the verbs “fall” and “catapult.” But when I had a feeling like sadness, I couldn’t find a word that meant everything that I felt inside of me. I always felt that words were inadequate, that I’d never been able to express myself—ever. Even now, it’s so hard to express what I think and feel, the totality of what I’ve seen.

But this loneliness is the impetus for writing, because language is the best means we have to connect. I’ve found that the way to capture the truth of a character—and beyond that, to reflect the truth of how I feel—is to write microscopically. To focus on all the tiny details that, together, make sense of character. Each person’s perspective is absolutely unique; my job is to unearth all the specific events and associations that form an individual consciousness. It’s not enough to show how someone behaves in a single moment—I want to provide the whole history and context that informs each action.

Once, someone asked me to be on an honorary advisory committee with the ACLU. Now, I really admire the ACLU, and I value the important work they do. But I said, “You look at things universally, telescopically, macroscopically. I’m microscopic.” I’m at that tiny end where stories begin. I wouldn’t be able to say—it should always be this way, for all people. Generalizations are just not part of how I think. Stories begin with microscopic-level detail, in the particularities that make up each individual life. That’s my territory.

As I write a story, I have to be open to all the possibilities of what these characters are thinking and doing and what might apply. For me, the best way to do this is writing longhand, the way I write the early drafts of a novel. Writing by hand helps me remain open to all those particular circumstances, all those little details that add up to the truth.

So much of my work through the beginning—and especially through the middle—of writing a story is establishing what the characters believe as they go on and face ever-changing situations and hardships. Whether they fall in love, or have a death that occurs, or think that they’re dying—how do they respond, and what experiences shape the way they respond? I have to be open to their beliefs, whatever framework they might come up with to respond to the circumstances of their lives. As Whitman says, “Perhaps it is everywhere on water and on land”: I don’t try to confine myself to one particular road, but instead allow myself wide-ranging exploration.

There’s so much chaos in my early drafts. As I try to open myself up to all possibilities, anarchy tends to reign. So how do I know when I’m moving in a productive direction? If anything might happen in a character’s life, how do I determine which details will serve me well?

When I first started writing fiction, someone handed me a book called Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki. It starts like this: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s, there are few.” What I have to do is go back to my beginner’s mind, trying as much as possible to get rid of all my assumptions, the usual pat thoughts, the confusions I have, the conclusions that cause me to contrive direction in the story. It’s very dangerous to begin with your assumptions and conclusions—you close off possibilities. If I am patient and open, at some point, the wordless feeling I’m trying to express will drive the story to whatever the end point is.

So, I try to see as much as possible—in microscopic detail. I have an exercise that helps me with this, using old family photographs. I’ll blow an image up as much as I can, and work through it pixel by pixel. This isn’t the way we typically look at pictures—where we take in the whole gestalt, eyes focusing mostly on the central image. I’ll start at, say, a corner, looking at every detail. And the strangest things happen: you end up noticing things you never would have noticed. Sometimes, I’ve discovered crucial, overlooked details that are important to my family’s story. This process is a metaphor for the way I work—it’s the same process of looking closely, looking carefully, looking in the unexpected places, and being receptive to what you find there.

As a result, I err on the side of going into too much detail when I do research and write. I abandon 95 percent of it. But I love it. It’s part of my writing process. I never consider it a waste of time. I never know where I’m going when I write. It’s the same reason I never come to conclusions about anything. Why I’d never have static beliefs. I’m constantly fluid in what I believe and what my conclusions are. Story-wise, of course, it has to lead somewhere narratively—otherwise we’d never turn in our books (and maybe I’ll do that one day, just work on a book forever for myself, its process as my framework.) But we have to turn it in—and at that point, you are guided by craft. You get to do your anarchy, try this and try that, try everything, and then apply craft.  Trade in the longhand pages for the computer screen. That’s the taskmaster, the person wielding the whip—you can’t go anywhere you want to go. You sit in this room, and clean up this mess.

But so much of writing, for me, is about being open—open to new ideas, open to other frameworks, open to details I don’t understand at first. I love that Whitman says “perhaps it is even here on water”—because water is a new pathway I just discovered. I used to be so afraid of water. I would never get in the ocean, or else I’d do it with great trepidation. It frightened me to be unable to see what lay beneath the water’s surface. The ocean is so enormous, it seemed like anything could come along.

But I have marine biologist friends who discover species no one has ever seen before—and they inspired me to give the underwater world a chance. For my 60th birthday, I went to a remote island and spent the whole week just snorkeling and looking at as many things as I could. I even saw sharks! Everything about the ocean just became a playland, and I thought—how could I miss this world, this enormous world, bigger than the world we have on land? To me that was a metaphor for how in life, in work, there can be huge openings you don’t even anticipate.