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Amy Tan On Creativity

The notion of moral ambiguity has inspired ‘creative people’, or as Amy Tan put it ‘multidimensional people who have the sense or inability to compress and look at the things in life’, to pack up their muses and go on journeys of self-discovery ever since the stone-age tales of Gilgamesh. The big questions of life probe us to wonder who we are, what our purpose is, and how we know what we know. After thousands of years of vivid philosophical debate and quandary, the answers are still rather pointedly unanswered and inexplicably desired. Amy Tan, like millions of other creative persons, underwent an epic life-long quest to find the meaning in human existence, specifically her own. It would seem that after answering Socrates’ ceaseless questions, dealing with Descartes duality, and eating everything but the words of a Chinese sage, it would seem that we would call it a day and go home to drink recently expensive beer.. There are a myriad of reasons that could provoke a person to persistently dig at life to pull out possibilities, yet I am more interested in what separates the enlightened artists from those living on “Easy Street”.

Amy Tan described a muse as those “things that transform in our life, that are wonderful, and stay with us”. I am under the impression that a muse is the inspiration for creation. Or for the non-AP creative students, a muse is that which keeps you going through the day. Her’s happened to be a smallish dog kept in a smaller suitcase. Surprisingly, the dog was still throughout the duration of Amy Tan’s humorous and enlightening presentation. As I understand it, moral ambiguity allows one interpret a situation in different ways, so I am sure the dog interpreted being in the closed dark space as a chance to mediate instead of a being in a space where no “Man’s best friend” should have to go.

The questions “what is the answer to question 3 on the SAT”, “What is the least amount of sleep and red bull I can consume to function through out the day”, “What happens after I die” all have uncertain outcomes, although the last question is slightly more ‘morally ambiguous’. Not only does test anxiety, sleep deprivation, and suicidal tendencies indicate poor school performance, but they indicate a mental block which inhibits the creation of anything, well, creative. Amy Tan attributes to the tendency of humans to hold back to the Uncertainty Principle, which is generally regarded as a physical theory stating ‘one cannot assign exact simultaneous values to the position and momentum of a physical system. Rather, these quantities can only be determined with some characteristic ‘uncertainties’.’ There is uncertainty in everything. To over come uncertainty, Tan emphasized “We need a focus, When I have a question, I focus on it, and notice things that I wouldn’t have otherwise”. It is very easy to lose focus when the subject matter is tedious or overwhelming, or when distracted by our blackberry’s. Our focus can be cluttered by the words of others. Elizabeth Gilbert, the author of “Eat Pray and Love” mentioned in a TedTalk if she had listened those who doubted her choice of career 20 years ago she would have lost her focus on her writing goals. Gilbert finds the link between uncertainty and creativity disheartening to say the least. “And we have created the notion that creativity and suffering are automatically linked. It would be better if we could encourage the great creative minds to live.” Perhaps we have really lost focus on what matters if we are willing to put the burden of answering life’s greatest questions only on life’s ‘most creative minds’. Their advice directed at the aspiring creative genius’s of the world applies to the everyday man as well. Become a horse with blinders, block out the uncertainty, focus on what is necessary, and ultimately just show up for the race.

Deffenbacher, Jerry L. “Worry, Emotionality, and Task-Generated Interference in Test Anxiety: An Empirical Test of Attentional Theory” 1978.


It is interesting to look at the differences between the creative people and the otherwise dubbed uncreative people. Not only the differences between their test scores or intelligence, but how they live life in general. The two most interesting points in Amy Tan's speech, in my opinion, are in fact when she reveals the dog to the crowd; and one of her very first statements about how our creativity is largely purposed by three things: nature, nurture, and nightmares. These two points in her talk create a whole subject by themselves. What exactly does it mean to be creative, and what does that do for those who are creative? In reality, one could look at the dog and a human like Amy Tan as two opposite sides of the spectrum- one would surely attribute a presentation on Ted.com as intellectual and creative, and opposing that one may call a dog one of the least creative species, a conformist. However, like you said, they each have their own type of muse, and each muse has its own meaning to that whom it amuses. Every living thing certainly does come across the uncertainty principle, and to overcome that uncertainty we all attack it in different ways with different methods. That is what makes us different, we all have different focuses. Someone who is creative may look for a philosophical meaning to questions that are posed to us throughout our journey; someone who is not creative follows their journey in a more simplistic fashion. So, perhaps someone who is less creative is actually more affected by the uncertainty principle than someone who is very creative; they tend to hold back more than the others, they generally will not pose questions of life’s meanings. Perhaps someone who is regarded as creative has a stronger muse than others, something with more force and more mass. What we gain from living can be boiled down to a few things in my opinion. How others perceive us after we're gone, how we felt moments before death, and how we affected others during our life. Does it make sense that a creative person could be more respected than someone who's not? I believe that is true in one respect- how we affect others after death- but not in the other two. Someone who isn't creative surely can still achieve self actualization in their lifetime. It is possible to derive that a creative person may actually have a harder time reaching that stage than someone who isn't, as their process for living is more complicated. So I think that it is important to do as you say in your closing sentence. Everybody has a chance to show up to the race, and everybody has a relatively equal chance of performing spectacularly, regardless of how creative they are. What separates great people from the ordinary group is in fact not what they have to work with (intelligence, creativity, or well being) but what they can do with it.

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