Sandra Tsing Loh is “both a Caltech graduate in physics and a noted writer/performer/radio commentator. Aside from having been a regular commentator on NPR’s Morning Edition and on Ira Glass’ This American Life, she is a contributing editor to The Atlantic Monthly and author of five books, most recently the New York Times notable book Mother on Fire .
“Loh has starred in two solo shows off-Broadway and at the Geffen Playhouse, Seattle Reportory Theatre, and the Kennedy Center, and is also a composer whose music was featured in Jessica Yu’s 1998 Oscar-winning documentary Breathing Lessons.”
Profile from producer site of her show The Loh Down on Science.
Hear an episode: “Survival of the Funkiest” 24 Dec 2012.
More episodes at KPCC Radio.
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Interview by Douglas Eby
Q: In reviewing your own personal development, would you say there are any particular aspects of your family life, education or other areas, that furthered your creative growth?
A: I think in growing up, my parents, my mother particularly, were extremely supportive of whatever we were doing. And she just instilled the notion that whatever we decided to do, we would not fail. Although both my parents wanted to steer us into science, and in fact I have a B.S. in science.
So the good part was they told us we were really smart and talented and could do anything. Possibly the down side was they were sure not of us could make a living in anything liberal arts, so we should use our brilliance to become aerospace engineers. So it’s a two-sided coin.
Q: What was your parents background?
A: My mother was German and my father is Chinese, and he is a scientist, and she was 60s housewife. And we had a lot of piano lessons, ballet lessons. They instilled all these lessons into us pretty early on.
Q: Was that something you enjoyed as well?
A: Sometimes enjoyed, sometimes not. Sometimes it was a complete burden, and a hassle, and a pain. I really wanted to be in the Brownies, and never got to be because of being too busy going to ballet lessons. So we fought against that, but overall, in retrospect, I’m glad that it happened that way.
Q: What would you say was one of the first areas of creative expression that you got to choose for yourself?
A: I actually began as a painter, when I was a kid and teenager, and into college. I painted all the time. I no longer do that at all. But I was always painting, for whatever reason, and then in college I started composing at the piano, little compositions.
Q: When did you first get involved with writing?
A: I didn’t really get involved with it until graduate school, when I was about 22, when I went to graduate school in English. I was at USC and I noticed they had a writing program, with playwriting, and I’d always loved playwriting and the idea of it, so I just decided that I would try everything at that point, since I was no longer going to be a scientist.
Q: Was it an ongoing issue for you in any sense, choosing not to pursue science?
A: Yes, it was a very very big issue. When I graduated from CalTech with a BS in physics, and went on to English in grad school — in our family, with our values, it was kind of a failure not to go on to your PhD in physics. To go on to a PhD in English was like a failure, because it was a soft topic.
So that was a big crisis. I was the youngest in my family, but the first to break out of that, and it was all very shocking to everyone, and it looked like I was at the beginning of a tragic tumble into living as a street person.
Q: Was going to CalTech a good experience for you?
A: Not really. I didn’t enjoy the work, and didn’t understand the work. I think I was regarded as a very odd person, indeed. I didn’t fit there, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I was bad in science. It was kind of a mess.
Q: That whole idea of fitting in, and not fitting in, seeing oneself as an outsider, is a common theme with talented people. That came up in a recent interview I had with director Caroline Thompson. Do you continue to feel that?
A: Yes, and I think there are a lot of reasons. Growing up, in junior high school especially, when I went to Malibu Parks Junior High, where we literally had movie stars going to our school, I mean you were definitely of the ‘nerdy kid’ group, as opposed to the popular kids.
You were taking cello lessons, and in the Latin Club, and such a geek compared to everyone else. And junior high is a particularly horrible time. But I remember around that time I and my friends, who were totally the nerds, had real fun starting our own little clubs and stuff like that.
If you see photos of us then, we look so geeky, but there’s a joy in our creativity that we’re building, imagining a whole second world where we rule the world and have power.
I think that’s what makes creative people — the most popular kids in junior high, who won the popularity contests, the beauty contests, zero of them have gone on, I believe, to do anything creative. Except for the few people who were actors, and that’s a whole other story.
Q: Have you seen the new Apple Computer ads which celebrate creative people, and talk about how they are often outsiders? There seems to be a growing sense of appreciation of creative individuals.
A: Absolutely, and I think of myself as a humorist, and that’s been really important; in everything I’ve done there’s been comedy. And with the comics I admire, they do come from an outsider place, and can take whatever enrages them or makes them cry or whatever, and transform that into something hysterically funny.
I think that is the tool, that’s what comics do; they are very much outsiders, they are not in power, they’re the underdog, and that’s what makes them funny.
Q: Are there any specific women comics you particularly admire?
A: Well, I always loved Fran Lebowitz, from way back when, and also the fiction of Flannery O’Connor, which is so incredible. And she was very much an outsider when she was writing.
I also love Jane Austen, and I get the sense from her that she’s looking at these different social classes in England, and sees the pain of being outside of one, or into another, or something that’s very sly and very witty. None of these women were homecoming queens.
And I also love Janeane Garofalo. I think everyone does, and she is wonderful. She’s inside Hollywood, but yet outside it, and that informs her work.
Q: Now that you have established yourself as a writer and radio program host and so on, is your family more accepting and supportive?
A: Yes, I think they are, and my father is certainly, since I use him as a topic, he’s thrilled that he’s getting his moment of fame. I don’t know deeply what this means for him, maybe he always wanted to be a performer and was never allowed to be, which is why he thought we shouldn’t, or whatever. But now, he’s really thrilled. And I think they’re relieved that it looks like I’m not going to become a homeless person.
Q: Do you think of yourself as a performer, or do you even categorize yourself?
A: I think of myself as a humorist, and a storyteller, and whatever form that comes out in, whether it’s a novel that adheres to the rules of a novel, or essays — and I’m going to go back to New York in January and do another solo Off-Broadway show.
And that springs out of my writing, and performing. I’m not really an actress per se, but I perform these monologues that are stories in the vernacular I would tell them, so it’s sort of a bastardized form of theater where you’re kind of yourself, telling a story.
So I do a lot of different forms, and they reflect humorous stories, and tragic-humorous stories.
Q: One of the women I quoted in an article was Jodie Foster commenting about questioning her abilities as an actress, and even thinking of quitting just before she got an Oscar nomination for “The Accused”.
A: I think that’s both good and bad. One is that people such as artists who continually question their ability, as long as they keep getting up in the morning and trying again are generally really excellent, because they’re always striving, they’re humble, they’re interested in the process.
People who are totally content with their work, and say ‘Boy, I’m terrific; I can’t do anything wrong’, generally do not get better and are pretty mediocre.
So it’s good to have a healthy skepticism for your own work. But sometimes, unfortunately, with women, if there’s a self-esteem issue, then it causes them to stop working.
One disturbing trend I see among gifted women is that sometimes a strong male figure in their life, a father or husband, boyfriend, mentor, or whatever, can shut them down very easily.
Sometimes women place way too much emphasis on what some guy has said to them about their work. I know with some of my own friends, some really brilliant writers my own age, in the 35 to 40 year old range, at some point in their 20’s a boyfriend told them that the project they were working on wasn’t worthwhile, so they literally quit it for ten years.
Or they don’t send out work. I don’t know why it’s wired that way, but I think it is a disturbing trend. It bothers me.
Q: Hopefully, making more women aware of that will be helpful.
A: Sure. Either they want to be good girls, good daughters, they’re uncomfortable with being smart and also pretty — you know, there’s an emphasis on being pretty and well-behaved. It’s such a cliche, but I do still see it.
Q: What could you advise gifted women to shift out of a corporate life, for example, and better realize their creative talents?
A: Well, there’s no simple, easy path. I would suggest to begin to slowly, in easy steps that you can digest. Probably to suddenly drop out of corporate life, and not have that income coming in anymore, and just be kind of trying to stay at home and discover your creativity, can be a recipe for disaster, because it’s too extreme.
Women also tend to worry a lot about money, to think maybe they’re going to become bag-ladies et cetera, so that can be so extreme and shocking, that it’s almost too scary a step.
So it’s probably better just staying in the job for the moment, taking one or two evening writing classes or whatever, and slowly easing one’s way into discovery of what works well. Sometimes it’s a jarring thing just to go from having a full schedule to being at home, having no schedule.
Being at home by yourself can be really depressing if you don’t structure it. And it’s a fine art, learning to structure your own time, and it takes a while. I had a hard time with that, at the beginning.
An adult education program is great, whether it’s painting or writing or whatever you’re interested in. And find like-minded people within that class who are intelligent, sensitive, who maybe share your goals of trying to express your selves, and bind a little group together so you can bolster each other once a month, once a week.
That’s an invaluable tool. I’ve been in women’s writing groups for the last ten years probably, and they change every year. Sometimes we read pages, sometimes we meet once a month and drink wine and complain about money. It’s so important to have people with similar goals and outlooks as you, to continue the struggle.
There are also a lot of good books out, like “The Artist’s Way” etc., that are good workbooks for people to work through their own creativity. That one is quite terrific, it’s a best-seller and everyone reads it, and there’s lots of journaling involved, and that’s a great way to discover your own creativity.
On the flip side of that, though, what I find as a working artist in my own career, is that sometimes I encourage women to ‘be a man’ about it, find ‘the soldier’, because it’s a war, it’s a battle. Creativity on your own is one thing, if you get fulfillment from doing projects at home, and totally enjoy that, and it’s helping you, that’s terrific.
But when you want to take that work into the marketplace, then you just have to ‘be a man’, you have to battle. There’s a whole other set of weaponry that comes along that women can use.
The first, initial phase is the self-exploration of creativity, the journaling, and the support and nurture. But if you want to go into the second phase, you just have to ‘be a man’, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
There’s a lot of language of dysfunction around now, like ‘computer impaired’, and sometimes the language of creativity is like that, and it is true that people who are creative are also quite often more sensitive and neurotic. Creativity is as good as therapy, a wonderful tool.
Sometimes people have writer’s blocks, and they are the most elaborate, creative thing about them.
But sometimes you just need a kick in the butt so you’re not languishing. Going ahead and just writing, getting it out — that helps you.
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[Original interview by Douglas Eby, from 2006]
Another book: The Best American Essays 2012, Robert Atwan, David Brooks (Editors). The collection “includes such names as Malcolm Gladwell, Jonathan Franzen, Francine Prose and Sandra Tsing Loh” [a piece first published in The Atlantic.]