Friday, January 8, 2016

Life and Writing Advice from Isabel Allende

By Amanda D. Stoltz, Night Manager at The Writer’s Center
Near the end of 2015 on an unusually warm night, we arrived an hour early to find all of the seats already taken (including the floor), while more people piled into the cramped store. A woman next to me nearly fainted from the heat, or possibly from claustrophobia, and had to sit down in between bookshelves of Politics & Prose. Yet despite the size of the crowd, we all waited patiently for the brilliant Isabel Allende to grace the stage. I noticed four other BCC High School graduates in the crowd who, like me, read The House of the Spirits in English class. The House of the Spirits was Allende’s debut novel, a thrilling family saga brimming with magical realism.

I knew that I loved Isabel Allende as a novelist but during this event I came to adore her as a person. For such a small woman (her Twitter bio reads “vertically challenged”), her personality is enormous. This was apparent from early on when Allende cut short Marie Arana’s introduction by saying, “They came to hear me, not you.”

It was true. We were there for Allende. The entire audience seemed deeply inspired by her work and her life. When someone asked her which writers were her inspiration, her answer was one of the funniest moments of the night: “My favorite writer is me!” she said. Laughter blossomed throughout the room, although I got the feeling she wasn’t joking. The evening was full of sassy moments and sage words of wisdom. Below are the top five.

Five Pieces of Advice from Isabel Allende

It’s never too late to start writing. 
Allende grew up at a time when female novelists were rarely critically acclaimed artists like their male counterparts. She started her career as a journalist and was frequently told that she was a terrible at journalism because she lied too often. Yet, she did not delve into creative writing until she was 40 years old. What began as a letter to her father transformed into The House of the Spirits. The novel is based on her own family, a family so colorful she hardly had to make up anything at all.

Write what will sit on you like a stone.
A man in the audience asked Allende how she found the strength to write Paula, a memoir about the loss of her daughter. Composed, she explained that it was the other way around—writing the memoir gave her strength. “Some of the most beautiful works of art are those that cannot avoid being created,” she said.

Pay attention to the people around you.
The idea for Allende’s most recent novel, The Japanese Lover, sprang out of a casual conversation. A friend of hers mentioned that her Polish mother befriended a Japanese gardener. Most of us may find that statement somewhat irrelevant or uninteresting, but Allende immediately jumped to a strange conclusion by asserting, “They must have been lovers.” Her friend denied this, saying that they were not lovers and that Allende was being ridiculous, but the seed stayed planted and grew into the beautiful book that I am now halfway through reading and am happy to recommend.  

Books are never finished, only abandoned.
Often us writers want to know when the book we are writing is finished. We want to know how long it has to be and how long we have to spend editing it before we can tie a neat little bow around it and walk away. Allende says that she never finishes her novels, only abandons them. She edits and writes until she realizes that there is nothing more to add that can improve the story.

“I recommend lovers.”
Allende is looking for a new one. Preferably a younger man, she noted. Lovers are better than husbands because you don’t have to worry about things like laundry, she explained. The real gem to take away from this strange advice is to never take life too seriously. Allende is recently divorced yet intensely humorous and optimistic.

Seeing Isabel Allende was an absolute pleasure. Her novels always feature strong female characters, something I hope to emulate in my own writing. I will always keep in mind what she told the young man who asked where she finds such strong women to write about.

“I don’t know any weak women,” she said without missing a beat.

Allende is the author of 21 novels. She also runs the Isabel Allende Foundation, which helps women achieve social and economic justice both in California and her native Chile. For more about her, visit

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