Write On

My simple mistake changed everything.

September 2022

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Illustration: Erin Sonnenschein

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As a clueless sophomore, I waltzed into my first creative writing course by accident, thinking it was a literature class on how to read short stories, not how to write them.

The number of students in the room baffled me. I’d never seen a humanities class so crowded. Every seat around the table was taken, so I joined the folks standing with their backs pressed to the walls, who quickly informed me that the roster was full, and so was the waitlist. What, I wondered, was going on?

When the instructor walked in and introduced the course, I realized my mistake. The course wouldn’t count toward my major, comp lit. Since I was already there, however, I decided to see what all the hype was about. I can no longer recall how the class unfolded that day, but what I do remember is my inexplicable conviction that I had to be a part of it. Perhaps, as a lifelong reader, I yearned to understand how stories worked their magic; perhaps the buzzing energy in the room had gone to my head.

But taking the class would be impossible: I wasn’t even on the waitlist. That’s when the instructor asked for a volunteer to submit the first workshop story.

Silence blanketed the room. No one risked eye contact. Whoever volunteered would have to write a whole story in a week. Perhaps they, like me, had never written one before.

Seizing my chance, I raised my hand and asked the instructor, “If I go first, will you give me a spot in the class?” He said he would.

Once again, instead of keeping my head down and avoiding eye contact, I did the opposite.

I’d gained admission to Stanford by setting goals and working to meet them with singular focus. And yet there I was, diving into a class that wouldn’t count toward my major, simply because it had piqued my interest.

Years later, I’d completed an MFA in creative writing and was working on a novel manuscript when a literary agent I met at a conference asked to read the first 40 or 50 pages—whatever I felt comfortable showing her. But I wasn’t comfortable showing her anything; the manuscript was far from done.

All through grad school, I’d heard over and over: Don’t query agents until you have a complete, fully revised draft. At the same time, I knew the beginning of my manuscript was compelling. I also knew the agent might not remember me after a year.

So, once again, instead of keeping my head down and avoiding eye contact, I did the opposite. I sent her the first three chapters, hoping she’d be intrigued enough to wait for the whole thing. A month later, she signed me on the strength of those chapters alone. She has since seen me through the publication of three novels.

Doggedness, focus, grit—the traits that I credit for getting me into Stanford no doubt helped me become the novelist I am today. And yet if I’d trained my gaze solely on the path ahead, I would have missed so many happy accidents, so many beautiful opportunities to look up, raise my hand, say yes.

Kirstin Chen, ’03, is a writer whose most recent novel, Counterfeit, was published in June. Email her at

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