Tag Archives | writers on writing

Empathy, Not Experience

“Writers don’t write from experience, though many are resistant to admit that they don’t. I want to be clear about this. If you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.” — Nikki Giovanni

I agree with Nikki Giovanni, and also with Anne Rice, who said this: “The idea that we should limit ourselves to our experience in writing is ludicrous and absurd.”


An Act of Faith and Magic: The Opposite of Fate

Some years ago, by chance, I turned on the radio and heard Amy Tan on This American Life. She was talking about a time when she had been flat broke, and how a fender-bender had brought her the exact amount of money she needed to fix her cat’s broken leg. I always wanted to hear the whole story. Though I made a note to find that episode on the web, I never did. Then, during a library foray, I came upon The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings. Here was that long-sought story in its entirety, along with many others: Amy Tan’s travels to China, her recollections about Hollywood and writing the screenplay for The Joy Luck Club, conversational talks given at universities, her time with an all-author rock ‘n’ roll band.

The story that drew me to this book is the third one in, “A Question of Fate.” It is a dark tale about the murder of her friend Pete, and the ways in which her life and life path were changed by this horrific event that coincided with her 24th birthday. Pete, still grieving the death of his wife in a car accident, had a dream in which two men “…strangers to him, broke into his room, overcame him, and slowly strangled him to death…” Pete felt that the dream was a premonition. In fact, the dream did describe the circumstances and many details of his murder.

After his death, Amy Tan had a series of dreams in which Pete spoke to her. In one, he told her (accurately) the names of the two men who had murdered him. In another dream in which he invited her to go flying, Pete showed her that “…it’s your belief in yourself that enables you to do what you wish.”

Opposite of FateThere is a great ghost story, called “Room with a View, New Kitchen, and Ghosts.” “My Hair, My Face, My Nails” is a harrowing tale of a stay at a Tahoe cabin retreat, and how Amy Tan and her husband survived a monster flood that engulfed homes, trees, bridges and large chunks of earth along the Truckee River. She also writes a good deal about her mother — all those accounts made me grateful again for my own mother — I don’t think I could have survived Daisy Tan.

What I enjoyed most in this book is the author writing about writing itself, and the odd consequences of her success. “Required Reading and Other Dangerous Subjects” is a superb rant about the ways in which school can kill one’s love of literature. There are no educators, publishers, editors, or critics who are spared in this defense of those who write and read for themselves, for the pleasure they find in in stories and make-believe. “It disturbs me—” Amy Tan states, “—no, let me amend that—it terrifies me when I hear people dictating what literature must do and mean and say. And it infuriates me when people use the ‘authority’ of their race, gender, and class to stipulate who should write what, and why.”

Though this book goes in many directions, it is all held together by Amy Tan herself, an intelligent woman who writes well about her unique family history, her career, her love of language, and the mysterious, sometimes ridiculous things that comprise her life experience. For her, writing is “…a hope I will discover what I mean by truth…” She feels that reading, like writing, is an act of faith: “…if the writer and the reader discover the same thing, if they have that connection, the act of faith has resulted in an act of magic.”

I often felt that connection in reading these “musings.” Whether or not you find magic here, The Opposite of Fate is a good read.


A Lovely Getaway: Mr. Fooster Traveling on a Whim

Mr. Fooster CoverOne shelf in my studio bookcase is reserved for books on writing. It is a collection made up of a few writers whose books about writing have inspired and helped me; they have fueled my writing energy and aided my craft. Mixed in with those books are some plays and screenplays that I love. There is one anomaly: Mr. Fooster Traveling on a Whim: A Visual Novel by Tom Corwin, Illustrated by Craig Frazier. It may have won its place alongside such titles as Writing Down the Bones, For Writers Only and The War of Art by virtue of its beauty –Mr. Fooster Traveling on a Whim is wonderful to hold and to look at, as well as being an odd and charming read.

It’s difficult to make this book last for any length of time, because it’s only 101 pages, and half of those are illustrations. Craig Frazier chose brown ink for his illustrations, which gives them — and the book — a warmth and richness that black ink could not have achieved. The beautiful pen and ink drawings depict the travels of Mr. Fooster, who sets out on his journey with no particular destination in mind and no suitcase or backpack. All he has with him is an old wrinkled letter, his compass, and a bottle of bubble soap.

As he walks along, his mind wanders. He asks himself how it is that mandarin oranges come in “… perfect little segments without any mechanical engineering…How come you never see baby pigeons? Who figured out how to eat artichokes?” Along the way, he meets animal, insect, and man, and he gets into some truly dicey situations, such as finding himself facing “…a bug the size of a bulldozer.” The bug is eating a path around the world, consuming everyone and everything that crosses its path. Since Mr. Fooster has, without question, crossed its path, he is about to become a big bug’s lunch. How Mr. Fooster copes with this and other difficult encounters surprised and delighted me right through to the end. His story continually bends the left brain out of shape and offers up refreshment for the right brain.
Mr Fooster illustration
This book is a little like dipping back into an analogue age, a time when you could spin a dial and end up in unusual and unexpected places. If you need a break from the digital, pre-programmed, app-specific thinking that dominates our world, I recommend a journey with Tom Corwin’s Mr. Fooster. It is a lovely getaway.