How to Use Memory and Imagination to Write Attention-Grabbing Content

6 minute read

In my previous article, “What Content Writers Can Learn From Fiction Authors,” I shared how digital copywriters can learn storytelling techniques from fiction authors. The article featured advice from Zen in the Art of Writing, written by award-winning author Ray Bradbury.

Today, I’m sharing a book with storytelling advice from author Amy Tan.

Where the Past Begins: Memory and Imagination

In her memoir, Where the Past Begins: Memory and Imagination, best-selling novelist Amy Tan shares that she was only eight years old when she discovered her talent for writing and the benefits it provides.

Her local library had announced an essay contest on the topic of “What the Library Means to Me.” Young Amy decided she wanted the prize and was going to win. She took first place in her grade level.

Tan says she won because, “…I wrote what I knew the judges wanted to hear.”

Amy Tan began her writing career as a freelance writer in the telecommunications niche. In addition to technical writing, she also created ad copy, direct-mail campaigns, and other marketing materials.

Tan’s first novel, The Joy Luck Club, became a bestseller and was adapted into a successful feature film. She has written eight novels and co-authored six nonfiction books, including her memoir, Where the Past Begins: Memory and Imagination.

In addition to stories from her past, her memoir includes notes about her writing process and helpful information writers can use to improve their storytelling skills.

Let’s explore some of her advice for writers.

Daily Routines and Focus

In Where the Past Begins: Memory and Imagination, Amy Tan explains how her routine and dedicated writing space signals to her brain that it’s time to transition into her “writing mindset.”

After starting her day with coffee and playtime with her dog, she often visits her garden to watch the birds and let the dog roam before heading to her home office.

On entering the office, Tan continues her morning ritual by visiting the pictures of her relatives and glancing out the window for a final peek at the garden before settling into her chair to begin writing.

If you don’t have a routine that helps you transition into your “writing mindset,” try to notice when you are the most productive, and ask yourself these questions:

What was I doing before I started writing?

Was it my usual routine or something different?

Did you find your creative juices started flowing after a quick walk around your neighborhood? Or was it after all your chores were done, and your mind was no longer cluttered with a to-do list?

Having a consistent writing routine that takes advantage of your productive time helps you transition into your “writing mindset,” so you can make the most of your day.

Amy Tan also struggles with many of the same issues that digital copywriters do… from the temptation to edit while writing to staying focused on the work at hand.

On editing as she goes, Tan says, “I need to stop rereading each sentence I write before I continue to the next. You can’t write a novel one sentence at a time.”

To sharpen her focus, Tan tries to eliminate distractions and continues to write, even if she knows some of the sentences she’s putting down will be lost to edits.

Music As a Muse

“Writing requires conscious crafting, and the more conscious I am of how I write, the clumsier my sentences come out.”

Tan is saying that the more you think about your writing, the harder it can be to let the words flow, which leads to frustration and a loss of focus.

One of the ways Amy Tan increases her focus is through listening to music while she writes. She says music helps her to be less conscious of her writing.

Tan also uses music to feed her imagination and set the tone and mood in a particular scene or story. Setting the mood helps to move a story forward to the next scene and chapter.

Her favorite composers are Rachmaninoff, for emotional elements, and Beethoven to set the mood. While she enjoys full orchestral pieces, her favorite classical instrumentals are performed on the piano.

While Amy Tan also loves the improvisational quirkiness of jazz, it is not a genre she listens to while writing, because she hears its music as a “personality with strong opinions.”

She says, “I need to be my own version of quirky when I write. The opinions I hear in my head have to be my own.”

Her playlists contain songs from classical compositions to contemporary tunes. The music fills the background while she writes.

If you don’t have a playlist, try creating one. Experiment with different genres, tempos, and moods to see how they influence your writing. Pay attention to the specific songs that inspire your creative thoughts. And those that don’t.

You may find that creating a unique playlist for each of your clients helps you transition into their brand voice or industry.

Imagination and Emotion

“When I see a visual image in my mind as a scene, I try to capture it in words.”

Tan says to inhabit the room or location you are writing about. Experience the noise, smells, and personal details. Then, use these details to create an image for your readers.

She shared an exercise to help experience the feelings you want your readers to feel.

Start with a setting. It can be whatever world you want — indoors or outdoors. In your mind, picture how it looks in as much detail as possible: the colors, the smells, the sounds, and even the people who may be there.

Just close your eyes and experience it as much as you can. When you’re ready, decide what happens in your imagined setting.

Write whatever comes to mind. Don’t worry about the plot or even if it makes sense. Tan says this is where she finds surprising intuition and starts writing as if she were there, watching the characters.

She explains that using the principle of “showing” rather than “telling” will let the reader experience the character’s feelings. This can be done using descriptive language, actions, and authentic dialogue.

This technique is also a good exercise for getting into your prospect’s mindset to help your writing convey genuine feelings and emotions that will resonate with your reader.

For example, if you are writing a product page, close your eyes and try to experience the setting of the product the way Tan describes. Try to envision how it looks, how it feels, and how it sounds. Picture yourself using it and benefiting from it. Then, bring your target audience into that experience.


While using your imagination, look for metaphors to convey emotions and experiences within your copy and content.

Using metaphors can enhance the emotional impact of your writing, making it resonate with the reader and become more memorable.

But don’t look for the physical likeness; see how one thing is like another based on the emotions or feelings it represents. Tan says, “The best metaphors appear unexpectedly out of the deep blue by means of intuition and nuance.”

Which means, “Don’t try too hard.” Relax, keep your mind open, and let the ideas flow.

Let’s look at a few examples of metaphors that are based on fear:

  • Fear is a thief stealing your courage.
  • His heart was a drum, signaling his brain.
  • Jill was a cheetah cub running from a lion.

Metaphors such as these can convey emotions you want your readers to feel. But don’t overdo. Metaphors are best when used sparingly.

Narrator’s Voice

“We are the character because we are immersed in the story’s emotions, yet we know that we are not the character.”

Do you use the first-person narrator in your content? Or maybe you write your sales copy in the voice of another person…

In her novel, The Joy Luck Club, Amy Tan uses a first-person narrator. She was so convincing that one reviewer created a checklist comparison to prove that she was the narrator, and that the novel was her life story.

Tan explains that using a narrative voice can provide a more authentic portrayal of experiences. It allows the author to convey emotions, memories, and insights in a more genuine manner, building a stronger connection with the reader.

She also recommends that the narrator be “likable yet flawed.”

This helps your readers connect and relate to your content by understanding and empathizing with the narrator’s struggles and imperfections.

When sharing a brand’s story, include challenges, setbacks, mistakes, and imperfections. Your work will be more credible and relatable.

Before doing this kind of writing, you’ll need to understand your client’s voice. You can do this by reading their existing content and asking questions about their brand personality, mission, and tone guidelines.

Fiction Writing Insights Can Improve Your Content and Copywriting Skills

Try these techniques from Amy Tan to improve your digital copywriting and enhance your storytelling skills:

  • Establish a daily pre-writing routine.
  • Experiment with background music to enhance your creativity, concentration, and flow.
  • Visualize what you are writing about before you write.
  • Weave fresh metaphors into your copy.
  • Pay attention to the narrative voice you’re using.

When you do, you will find that you have an easier time tapping into your creativity and bringing it to your projects. That can mean you build stronger connections with your reader and deliver better results to your clients.