Flying Home With Amy Tan
My wife wasn’t talking to me for a few hours, or more accurately, I wasn’t talking to her. Sometimes we’re blessed with the gift of serendipity, a moment of good fortune that falls into our laps like manna from the sky. I had such a moment recently when we were flying home from visiting the kids and grandkids in California. Rushing to load the bags into the car for the ride to the airport, I left my backpack behind. Not the catastrophe it might have been, for our boarding passes were loaded on my phone and our IDs were secure in our wallets. Besides, our son Dave would bring the backpack a few days later when he would be flying east. But both the book I was reading and my phone charger were in that bag. How would I pass the five-and-a half hours flying from San Francisco to New York? I could dive into my library of e-books on my phone but doubted my battery, already down to 60%, would last the journey.
Delta, it turns out, offers an array of in-flight entertainment from HBO, Showtime, Hulu, some network TV series, and a selection of featured movies. While none of them piqued my interest, what did catch my eye was a program that was to captivate me for the next 2,586 miles: a Master Class on writing by Amy Tan, author of The Joy Luck Club.
As my wife dozed in her seat beside me, I flew home with Amy Tan, who regaled me with reminders and new insights to the craft of writing. Her suggestion, for instance, that writers should not do too much research rang true for me as a writer of historical fiction. I recalled having gone down a rabbit hole when trying to date the invention of friction matches in the nineteenth century for my novel about the Irish Famine of the 1840s. Had they been invented yet when my characters lit a fire? I needed to know, and so I spent hours researching one link after another through the history and intricacies of sulfur and safety matches, which were a significant technological advance in their time. But how much of the research would I actually use in my story? Amy Tan’s advice to avoid needless details in research, then, was a timely admonition.
Her recommendation that writers keep a Nature Journal where we sketch what we see and consider its implications for story or essay was intriguing. While I’m not gifted with an artist’s skill, sketching what I observe will no doubt train me to notice details more closely. I liked, too,
Amy Tan’s assertion that every word in a story has a relationship to the rhythm of the next one since I’ve long been attuned to the sounds and rhythms of words in my writing. Her suggestion to break down the revision process to manageable components was also a useful tactic, and her views on the causes of writer’s block and strategies to avoid it were helpful. Finally, her thoughts on knowing how and when to end a story were particularly insightful for both new and seasoned writers.
I’d put Amy Tan on pause every hour or so to snap a shot of the Rockies over Colorado and to share a snack or talk briefly with my wife. But this Master Class so absorbed me through most of the flight that I hadn’t noticed the passing hours as we cut across the sky at nearly 500 mph, 34,000 feet high. Jotting notes on my phone, I was distracted from time to time by the fear that my battery would drain before the end of the class. Five-and-a-half hours later and three hours back in time, we landed at JFK with 6% left in my battery and what would turn out to be more than five pages of printed notes.
Later my wife complained that I hadn’t talked to her for most of the flight, and she was right, of course, for I was “in the zone, that magical, mystical sphere writers and artists and athletes are sometimes blessed to know when they’re immersed in their work, enthralled by it, transfixed beyond time. I was engrossed in a Master Class and flying home with Amy Tan.