Looking for a way into your story? Learn how to write micro narratives and determine what’s essential in a piece of writing with novelist Darien Hsu Gee.
What’s in Store
- Generate and refine micro narratives and poems
- Introduce readers to someone in your lineage and explore your connection to them
Write along with Darien’s playlist!
Prompt #1: Family Ties
I write about family, both known and unknown. For this next prompt, write about someone in your lineage, by blood or by choice or by inspiration. What are your connections to this person? The excerpts I read share one thing in common— emotional truth. That’s what we are going for here, a small revealing of yourself or somebody in your life, real or imagined, or an intense moment that may have changed you or triggered a significant or pivotal moment.
As with all prompts, follow where it leads and don’t worry if you stray or go down a rabbit hole. Explore whatever shows up on the page.
Think of this person and of your lineage. What would be the first line of a poem or essay about your family history or your artistic lineage? Once you have your first line, finish your poem, or aim to write your essay in 300 words or less. Title the piece when you are done.
Prompt #2: Swapping Forms
If you wrote a poem in the last exercise, take a few minutes to revise it into an essay of 300 words or less. If you wrote a micro essay, take a few minutes to revise it into a poem. Which version do you like better?
Prompt #3: Back to the Start
The final step is to revise the piece back into its original form. You don’t want to look at the first exercise you wrote, but take the second exercise and decide what you’d need to do to put it back in the same original form you wrote, poetry or essay/prose poetry. You can then compare what you originally wrote to the revised version and see what changed and what remained.
Compare all versions and choose the one you like best. If you haven’t already, be sure to give it a title, even if it’s just a working title. Letting it sit, writing about difficult things— these can be hard.
Q&A with Darien Hsu Gee
Can you describe your publishing journey?
In a nutshell, I feel like I’ve always been a writer. I told stories when I was younger, I used to write little plays. My parents had a typewriter that was not electric, so I was sort of always picking away at my stories. But maybe because I’m Asian, and there’s always this thing about work ethic and jobs and paying for your house and things like that, I kind of felt like there wasn’t… I didn’t know anybody who was a writer. And I didn’t know that you could actually maybe make money from a writing. I just didn’t know anybody who had made that a career, so I went into business and a corporate kind of life. I always wrote stories on the side, but it wasn’t until I was in my 30s when I was like, “I think I could write a story— a novel— and I want to try.” I tried, and there’s a longer story there, where basically it took me ten years to get out of my own way. I even had an agent for one of the books and I sort of self-sabotaged that.
But I finally went for it, and I was around 32, and one thing that I want — if I leave you with anything, it’s this. My life at that time was really chaotic. We were really, really, really broke, and it was a hard time, and ironically, that was the thing that got me out of my own way. Because I was so busy, that I couldn’t talk myself out of doing this thing that was super scary. And I don’t recommend writing under stress on a regular basis, but I just feel like if you’ve got a super full life right now, with tons of demands, and you’re like, “I don’t know how I could do this, I don’t think I could do this,” try to carve out your room, but also trust what’s happening in that moment. Because I took a whole year off at one point to write the novel, and all I did was burn through my savings and get in my own way and create a lot of anxiety for myself.
And sometimes, as writers, we are really good at judging our work and messing with it, and when we were so overwhelmed when I decided to write my first novel, I was just like, “I think I’m gonna do it! I think I can do it, I’m just gonna do it,” and then I did everything I could to make it good, and then I sent it out. I did go through a regular query process, which is what you do with fiction memoir to find an agent. That took a while, but I did get an agent, the agent eventually found me a publisher, and that was sort of how my career started. I did start in traditional publishing, with what they call a Big 5 publisher, Penguin Random House, and then I actually had a book that did really well, and it sold in multiple countries, and I got paid a good advance having been paid almost nothing for my books, but, you know, I didn’t care, I was just so excited to be published. And then it was kind of a bummer because it didn’t do well, and so my agents were like, “Oh, I’m sorry, I don’t think that’s gonna happen.” This has happened several times in my career, where I was told it was over, and I got depressed, and then I decided to pivot and make something else happen.
That’s kind of where it’s been for me — and I think that’s one reason why I sort of ended up doing these new forms, too. People say, “Are you a poet now? Are you an essayist now?” and I’m like, “No, I’m just a writer.” I think, as a writer, we get to write, and we get to do whatever you feel like in that moment is the right kind of writing for you. Which is one reason why I love this process that I’m sharing with you today. It asks you a little bit, maybe shake up your definition of what form is, and maybe even what kind of writer you are, right? And I really do look at myself as a storyteller, both of fiction stories as well as nonfiction stories.
How do you overcome writer’s block?
OK, so, you’re either going to love or hate what I’m about to say.
I am actually not a believer in writer’s block. I am, however, a believer in not being able to get something done and not being able to finish a project and talking yourself out of projects and self-sabotage and all that stuff. Writer’s block, and the way we’ve traditionally defined it, at least, is that you don’t know what to write or you don’t know what to do. And actually, I think, you do know what to do, you either just haven’t figured it out yet, it hasn’t presented itself to you, or you kind of know it and you just don’t want to do it.
That’s actually the kind of writer’s block I have, where I’m like, “Ugh, I know I need to redo that scene, but I don’t want to redo that scene because it’s painful and it’s hard and I don’t want to put in all this emotional energy into fixing it, and then have it not work. So I’d rather just not do it, and talk about it, and clean out my drawers.” Right? If you’re having problems with your story, or your poem, or you essay, or whatever it is you’re working on, that, for me, is a signal that you need to find another way in.
It’s not that the project isn’t any good, or that you’re not any good as a writer, it means that you just haven’t found the right way into the story at this point in time. All these things that you hear, some of them actually work. And the whole point is not that, OK, you’re going to include that in your book, but that you’re going to stop thinking or approaching a problem or the story in a way you might have in the past. Which means that you’re also going to be applying the same rules to them, the same structure that you’ve already proven is not working ‘cause you’re stuck. So, say, “OK, well none of that has worked, so forget that. How else– can I come in from this way? Can I come in from this way? How else can I do this?” Right?
That’s sort of my thing on writer’s block, is to be kind to yourself. Also tell yourself, “I know how to fix this problem. I just don’t know yet. But I know it’s in there somewhere, it’s just my job to figure out how to unlock that.” So kind of look at it like a creative problem.
How do you submit micro prose stories?
One reason why I like working with this form. If you look at my work, they have all been published and they all look about the same, which is poetry, prose poetry, creative nonfiction, micro essays and micro narratives. You could actually see them in different literary journals where they have these separate headings and they’re the same kind of work, right?
What’s cool about this is that you can send out these pieces into the world and place them pretty quickly. And if you wanted to, you could put them all together in a collection. In some cases you see people who launch into their novel or their books that way.
This event was originally recorded on November 13th, 2021.
Darien Hsu Gee is the author of five novels published by Penguin Random House that have been translated into 11 languages. She won the 2019 Poetry Society of America’s Chapbook Fellowship award for Other Small Histories and the 2015 Hawaiʻi Book Publishers’ Ka Palapala Poʻokela Award of Excellence for Writing the Hawaiʻi Memoir. She is the recipient of a Sustainable Arts Foundation grant and a Vermont Studio Center fellowship. Gee holds a B.A. from Rice University and an M.F.A. from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. Her most recent book, Allegiance, is a collection of micro essays about family, motherhood, and growing up Chinese American. She lives with her family on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi.
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Darien Hsu Gee is the author of five novels published by Penguin Random House that have been translated into 11 languages. She won the 2019 Poetry Society of America's Chapbook Fellowship award for Other Small Histories and the 2015 Hawaiʻi Book Publishers' Ka Palapala Poʻokela Award of Excellence for Writing the Hawaiʻi Memoir. She is the recipient of a Sustainable Arts Foundation grant and a Vermont Studio Center fellowship. Gee holds a B.A. from Rice University and an M.F.A. from the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University. Her most recent book, Allegiance, is a collection of micro essays about family, motherhood, and growing up Chinese American. She lives with her family on the Big Island of Hawaiʻi.