Embracing a Creative Pivot: Q&A with Darien Hsu Gee

Darien Hsu Gee (@dariengee) is an award-winning author who has been recognized for her work across multiple genres. She’s been published by large publishing houses as well as small regional indie presses and has been represented by multiple literary agents. Recently, she went back to school for her poetry MFA at the age of 50.

Most recently, Darien started exploring the micro-essay genre, and last year she published Allegiance, a new memoir consisting of micro-essays. It’s part of a new micro-memoir series for which she also serves as founding editor, dedicated to telling personal narratives.

Because of this new venture on the indie publishing scene, as well as her numerous creative pivots, I was eager to learn more about her insights into the business of publishing.

Jane Friedman: Many traditionally published authors—especially one who has won significant awards and grants, like yourself—can be reluctant to get into the business of publishing themselves or others. They worry about credibility, there are issues of status anxiety, and of course it can be hard to get attention or visibility with new ventures. Have these concerns weighed on you at all?

Darien Hsu Gee: That’s a great question, and I’ve grappled with it over the years, almost to the point where it’s paralyzed me because I felt like it had to be done a certain way or not at all. I was wary about “doing it wrong” and sabotaging future opportunities because I had gone out on my own.

For a few years, it looked like that was the case, and I finally surrendered and said, “Oh well.” It was freeing. I was back at the beginning, so to speak — no agent, no new book, no big publisher — so in a way I had nothing to lose. That mindset opened up more opportunities and allowed me to take creative risks which ended up paying off.

I think it’s important to have a strategic approach to your literary career, if that is what’s important to you. You need to weigh your aspirations against your fears. I could sense my fears taking over, and if the pandemic has taught me anything, it’s to live in the present. I have had to reinvent myself so many times in my literary career—when I was “trending down” as a midlist author and told I couldn’t be sold again, and then when I was sold again (and at auction), I was told again I probably couldn’t be sold again because the auction was so significant that anything short of a bestseller would be considered a fail (spoiler: it wasn’t a bestseller).

That kept me from writing for a few years, and then I fell into a project because I wanted to help writers in Hawaii tell their stories, and that launched me into something new.

I did self-publish a few titles that didn’t do as well as my commercially published work, but they helped pay the bills and allowed me to keep writing. And then I won some grants and a fellowship, and then a Poetry Society of America award. Now, at 52, I don’t let fear stop me from creating and moving forward as an author.

You’ve talked about being open to creative pivots—that they don’t have to be permanent or forever, and they can be a way to honor one’s creative voice, especially if you’re stuck. Have you been feeling stuck (especially or perhaps with more traditional efforts)?

Looking back, I feel like I’ve spent almost as much time being stuck as being in the flow, and a lot of that was because I was standing in my own way. Fears, insecurity, anxiety about doing it right – those are creativity killers right there. I don’t think there’s a “right” way any more, and I don’t think there’s any “one” way to do anything, including publishing.

Creative pivots are all about staying flexible and open. And guess what? You can pivot again even after you’ve pivoted the first or second or third time — it’s a dynamic, organic process.

These other projects I’ve worked on — the poetry chapbook, the memoir craft books, the micro memoir writing program and hybrid publishing line, other content creating endeavors — exist in their own universe and have their own path. Once I was ready to listen, it became clear to me what direction I wanted to go with them.

How did the most recent publishing venture come about?

The Hali’a Aloha micro memoir line and hybrid publishing program was birthed and launched this year because of the pandemic — a local publisher and I were talking about how we hoped people were finding ways to tell their stories during this difficult time. And I said, “The micro narrative format would be perfect because it’s less demanding” (micro narratives are 300 words or less). The program was born.

Then, another indie publisher, Woodhall Press, approached me a couple months ago because of the work I was doing with micro narratives and women’s voices through my recent work. We’re now in contract for a spring 2022 release for an anthology I’ll be editing called Nonwhite and Woman: 153 Micro Essays on Being in the World. A call for submissions will go out at the end of January 2021 and I’m really lit up about it. Everything about that project just fell into place, and I’ve learned to pay attention to the universe and say yes when a gift is being given.

Great projects and great writers are happening all around us, and it’s exciting when you get tapped into that.

Will you go back to your traditional publishers?

I have every intention of having my next novel publish commercially with a traditional publisher — I don’t think those days are over for me at all. Check back with me in a few years on this, LOL.

Tell me about your experiences with those traditional publishers—and you’ve worked with the big one and small ones. Satisfying?

I love every experience I’ve had with my US traditional publishers, my foreign publishers, my indie and regional publishers, my own press. I’ve pulled my hair out over all of them, too, for different reasons.

Here’s the bottom line: creating work, and then getting it out into the world, is hard. It takes time. There are frustrations. When you are sharing your work with the world, you’re going to have to manage expectations, miscommunications, disappointments, successes. It’s the writer’s life.

There are things about working with a large house that are great, and also not great, and same with smaller houses. I know authors who have had wonderful and terrible experiences with the same editors or publishers, so a lot of it hinges on personality, connection, timing. This is what I focus on now: creating good and clear communication with people who have an interest in a project I am excited about. I love that people still want books — all kinds of books — in the world.

I think writers, myself included, take themselves and their experiences a little too seriously, and that can cause a lot of stress. I, for one, would like to have less stress in my life. So staying flexible creatively, and knowing when to say yes (or no), is how I’m doing that.

You’ve had multiple literary agents. Can you share any of the story behind that? I know many authors are afraid of leaving their agent for fear they will never find or have another.

I have had three New York literary agents for different titles, so it’s a bit like being married three times, and divorced, with kids you’ll have with that agent forever. Let me start by saying that they are all truly excellent agents, wonderful and hugely successful in their own right, and I would recommend them in a heartbeat to authors where this is a fit.

I was trying to figure out what I needed in those difficult years. I’m not sure I would have changed anything, but I can see in the multiverse how it might have worked out differently in every case. I acknowledge, too, that they might have a very different perspective of what happened or why things ended.

My first agent was the first one who said yes. She sold my first book and I will be forever grateful for that. But I felt like we had a basic communication issue, and would hang up after a conversation not sure about what we had talked about or what was supposed to happen next. We weren’t aligned in some fundamental ways at that time, so I ended our agent-client relationship and after a few months, went out again. This time I found an agent I really connected with, and she sold two books for me but a few things got dropped with those titles because she was in transition and it was impacting her ability to support me. So that ended.

I was definitely discouraged because now I was feeling like Ross from Friends. I had writer friends with amazing forever agents who they bonded with in ways that were unfathomable to me—I really felt like it was me, and that I was at risk by ending each relationship without ever knowing if I could ever get represented again.

I wrote another book and found another agent, this one from another huge agency who ended up selling that book at auction. And that was a kind of bucket list moment. She was a terrific balance of friendly and professional, and I would have loved to keep working with her. But the book didn’t perform (industry speak for falling short of expectations), and she had told me that might happen when we were in auction, and that it would be really hard to sell me again.

I didn’t have another big book idea at the time, and my contract had been about representing that title rather than me as an author in general, so that relationship fizzled out. That’s when I pulled away from everything and did a few things on my own, and while it wasn’t great, it wasn’t terrible, either. I was learning how to be a better author under difficult circumstances. I kept pushing myself to move forward. Then I won a Hawaii Book Publishers’ award for one book, and then a few years later a PSA award for a poetry chapbook. I received a grant and fellowship.

Why did you go back for your MFA—at 50?

I used that time to push myself as a writer and gain new skills, even though I was already well published by most standards. A lot of people said to me, “What are you doing here?” or “Why do you need this?” All I could really say was, “I have more to learn.” It was a humbling experience, and I’d already felt kicked down more than once, so in a way I felt like a bit of a failure that I would need to start over again, but in the end, it lifted me up to a new level of creativity.

I’m taking a holistic approach to my career. I’m now a writer who writes fiction, nonfiction, creative nonfiction/memoir/essays, and poetry. I’ve been recognized in all these genres. And now I’m the series editor and co-founder of a micro memoir writing and hybrid publishing program.

I also ended up with a food blog as a result of one of my books, and that blog supported my family during the pandemic when my husband was furloughed, which is another example of staying open to creative opportunities. That blog, Friendship Bread Kitchen, was supposed to be my platform for one of my novels but it morphed into something else, and I followed it.

That is one reason why I still get to write — and it paid for grad school as well — without having to go back to the corporate life I left more than 20 years ago. I’m at a place where I feel like life is asking me to have faith in myself, my work, and my creative process, and to pay attention, pay attention, pay attention. That’s my mantra whenever the anxiety threatens to come back, which it does pretty much every morning. But it’s more like that auntie who has a laundry list of ailments and complaints — you love her, you listen and nod, but you take it all in stride.

Thank you, Darien.

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