Midpeninsula Post

All aboard The Prose Train: Writing nonprofit pioneers collaborative storytelling

The Prose Train founder Irene Tsen in July 2023. (Raj Virginkar)

The Bay Area may be synonymous with the tech industry, but when it comes to creative writing opportunities, it’s a different story. Gunn High School senior Irene Tsen is trying to rewrite that narrative. 

The Prose Train, founded by Tsen, is a nonprofit organization that organizes collaborative storytelling projects to explore beyond the boundaries of creative writing and provide writing practice for its contributors. Since 2021, the organization has accumulated over 650 student writers from 48 countries and published 52 “Prosetrains” — collaborative short stories. 

Tsen founded The Prose Train in 2021 after observing the limited opportunities for literary work at Gunn, a heavily STEM-oriented school. Especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, Tsen said she wanted a creative way to connect with others. One of Tsen’s friends suggested starting an anthology, a published collection of short stories submitted by different writers. But instead of having separate stories, Tsen decided to experiment with writing one story together.

“Collaborative writing is something that people don’t consider when they think of writing,” Tsen said. “I want that to become a more mainstream thing because that really helps you sharpen your writing skills and think of plots and characters in ways you usually don’t.”

Similar to how a train has different car units, once 30-40 writers have signed up and “boarded” a story, writers take turns adding 2-15 sentences to each Prosetrain story draft.

Before publishing, project managers and The Prose Train’s two faculty advisors — Gunn English teachers Katherine Ja and Tarn Wilson — edit the stories. Once a final draft is approved, writers suggest and vote on the title.

Because there are usually more than a dozen writers per story, it can take roughly two to three months before a story is published on The Prose Train’s site. The entire experience helps participants see the value of collaborative writing and the creativity it can foster.

“A lot of students are craving a creative outlet,” Wilson said. “[The Prose Train] is a low-risk and fun way to engage yourself in the writing process. The pieces are so wacky and fun, and they go places that just one person would never go.”

An example of this is Tsen’s favorite Prose Train called “Beef with the Bureau,” which tells a story of a girl that finds out that she’s half cow, then sets out to join the FBI to avenge her parents — with a lot of cow puns included.

Excerpt of “Beef with the Bureau.”

While Tsen now manages a team of over 40 students to run outreach, story management and operations, she actually started The Prose Train on her own, and ran it by herself for over a year.

“Irene is such a powerhouse,” Wilson said. “She really just built it on her own … all the energy has been hers.”

Running an international nonprofit comes with its challenges, though. Tsen said brand positioning was the biggest challenge, since The Prose Train encapsulates an idea that has never been executed before.

“The first challenge was how to write it in a way that was pithy and snappy but also made sense,” Tsen said. “That kind of marketing aspect was the hardest initial part, as well as recruiting writers.”

At first, The Prose Train’s main form of outreach was through Gunn English teachers, who’d encourage students to sign up to be writers. But through Google and Instagram ads, it expanded beyond the Bay Area and California to spread collaborative writing.

With writers from all over the world, it’s no surprise that operations are completely virtual. There aren’t Zoom calls or virtual meetings — the writers just receive text reminders on the morning of their assigned writing day. Throughout the writing process, writers can also comment and suggest edits on the document.

Prosetrain draft document.

“It’s hard not to get excited by what’s been written already by everyone else and want to join in on the fun,” said Project Manager Alyssa Tang. “Having a preset prompt and exposition provides a scaffold for your writing to flourish where you’re most comfortable, or discover something new about your writer’s voice.”

Although The Prose Train is already relatively widespread at the high school level, Tsen is looking to recruit college writers and hopes to publish the 100th Prosetrain before she graduates next year. The organization also plans to host a writing contest where writers can submit collaboratively written pieces.

Even though Tsen does more editorial writing nowadays — she’s also the managing editor for her school’s newspaper and the editor-in-chief of two other literary magazines — Tsen is still confident that she’ll keep writing creatively, especially in a collaborative manner.

“[Writing] is definitely something that brings me a lot of joy,” Tsen said. “It’s that feeling of after you’ve finished writing, it’s like a sense of fulfillment, and bringing something new to the world. That’s really what I love about writing. It’s that ability to create whatever you can imagine.”

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