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This blog was featured on 01/16/2020
Isabel Allende on Motivation & Writing with a Purpose
Written by
She Writes
January 2020
Written by
She Writes
January 2020

Chilean author Isabel Allende won worldwide acclaim when her first novel, The House of the Spirits (1982), born from a farewell letter to her dying grandfather, became an instant bestseller. Since then, she has written nearly two dozen novels and memoirs – selling more than 74 million copies – and has established herself as a feminist force in Latin America’s male-dominated literary world.

Her latest novel, A Long Petal of the Sea, will be released later this month.

She writes stories of passion; her characters are fiercely dedicated to their relationships, to their lands and to their beliefs, and Allende’s own passion goes far beyond the pages of her books.

She has led two Ted Talks, including Tales of Passion (2008) and How to Live Passionately, No Matter Your Age (2014).

Allende has also poured herself into community work through The Isabel Allende Foundation, which works with nonprofits in the San Francisco Bay Area and Chile to empower and protect women and girls towards a path of social and economic justice.

On Motivation

“I am a writer because I was blessed with an ear for stories, an unhappy childhood, and a strange family. (With relatives as weird as mine there is no need to invent anything. They alone provide all the material for magic realism),” she says on her website. “Literature has defined me. Word by word, page after page, I have invented this hyperbolic, flamboyant me.”

On Inspiration

Like so many successful authors, Allende is a voracious reader, devouring newspapers and novels of all kinds – often discovering that a small story buried deep within a larger story can inspire an entire novel.

“I am a good listener and a story hunter. Everybody has a story and all stories are interesting if they are told in the right tone,” she says on her website.

On Process

Allende begins writing each new book on the anniversary of the date she began writing her first novel, The House of the Spirits. 

“At the beginning it was superstition, because the first book had been so lucky. Now it’s just discipline. My life is busy, so I need to save some months of the year to be in a retreat,” she told The Harvard Business Review. “I need time and silence, or I will never be able to write. Having a start date is good for me and everybody around me. They know that on January 8, I’m not available anymore.”

Allende reports spending 10-12 hours each day writing in solitude. And during that time, she connects to her stories on a level all her own:

“I'm just a medium or an instrument of something that is happening beyond me, voices that talk through me. I'm creating a world that is fiction but that doesn't belong to me. And in that long, very patient daily exercise of writing I have discovered a lot about myself and about life. I'm not conscious of what I'm writing. It’s a strange process – as if by this lying-in-fiction you discover little things that are true about yourself, about life, about people, about how the world works.”

This excerpt was originally published within an interview on her website. Read the full interview here.

On Writing with a Purpose

Allende’s works are inarguably purposeful in their messaging, often used as a tool for the author’s own healing. Paula was a memoir about the death of her daughter; The House of the Spirits was a letter to her dying grandfather. Here she recalls those dark times and the writing that pulled her back to life:

The House of the Spirits was an attempt to recover the world I’d lost in exile – my family, my country, my past, my grandfather – and I think I did. It will forever be in that book. After my daughter died, everything was dark. She had been in a coma for a year, and I had taken care of her at home. A month later my mother gave me back 180 letters I had sent her during that year, and I started writing. It was very painful, but also healing, because I could contain what had happened in those pages and it allowed me to see around me again. My grandchildren were being born. I had a husband who loved me. There was life all over.”

This except was originally published in The Harvard Business Review. Read the full interview here.

On Setting

Allende’s books are often in conversation with history, an in-depth portrait of a moment in time.

“I have a very acute sense of place and time, so all of my stories are rooted in a place and a time. And before I start writing, before I have an idea of where and when the story happens, I research it thoroughly.”

This excerpt was originally published in Lenny Letter. Read the full interview here.

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