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This blog was featured on 04/26/2018
SWU Instructor Kirstin Chen Talks Writing Habits and Women Writing Communities
Written by
She Writes
April 2018
Written by
She Writes
April 2018

Kirstin Chen is the author of the novels Bury What We Cannot Take (Little A, 2018) and Soy Sauce for Beginners, a Kindle First selection, an O, The Oprah Magazine “book to pick up now,” and a Glamour book club pick. She was the fall 2017 NTU-NAC National Writer in Residence in Singapore, and has received awards from the Steinbeck Fellows Program, Sewanee, Hedgebrook, and the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference. Her short stories have appeared in ZyzzyvaHobartPank, and the Best New Singaporean Short Stories, among others.

Born and raised in Singapore, she currently resides in San Francisco, where she is working on a novel about the counterfeit handbag trade.

Her She Writes University class, Did That Really Happen?: Writing Characters So Real, They Walk Right off the Page is taking place May 10.

SW: Briefly set the scene for your writing habits: Where do you write? How do you write? What's your routine?

KC: I write every day that I don't teach, always in the same place—my home office. I need complete silence, so no coffeeshops or background music for me. If I'm writing something new, I aim for 1000 words/day. If I'm revising, then I work in two-hour chunks. I'm a true creature of routine. On the plus side, I know what works for me. On the negative side, I have a tough time getting anything done when I’m away from home. 

SW: What is the first thing you can remember writing?

KC: When I was nine, I had to participate in a grade-wide poetry contest. The prompt was to write a poem about an animal, and almost every kid wrote about a dog or a cat. I did, too, because those were the easiest words to rhyme. And then, just as I'd completed my mediocre cat poem: a flash of inspiration. The opening line to a new poem—that would go on to win third place—came to me fully formed: "My crocodile lives in the river Nile."  

SW: Describe a moment when your own writing scared you or surprised you.

KC: My writing surprises me all the time. When I started working on my new novel, BURY WHAT WE CANNOT TAKE, I quickly figured out that the character of San San, a nine-year-old girl, had to be the protagonist. This filled me with dread. The story felt too large for a young child to carry. But, as I dug deeper into the book, she surprised me again and again with her resilience and courage. Now when I think of her, I even feel a little bit of awe. 

SW: At what point did you begin to truly feel like a “writer”?

KC: Probably not until I sold my first novel. 

SW: What’s one of the lessons in your She Writes University class that you really wish YOU had learned earlier in your writing career?

To approach crafting characters with awareness and intention as opposed to simply by instinct. 

SW: Why do you feel it’s important to offer a writing class to other women writers through She Writes University?

KC: I didn't understand how powerful and important it would be to have a community of women writers until I attended Hedgebrook, an all-women writers' colony, a couple years ago. Since then, I have made sure to cultivate friends and mentors who are women writers. It's been so fruitful to be able to turn to them for guidance and support, and I hope that the women of She Writes University have the opportunity to form their own communities, whether it's online or in real life. 

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