I liked this so much from today's Writer's Almanac that I thought to post it. Isabel Allende is one of my favourite writers, though I can only read her in translation.
Today, writer Isabel Allende
(books by this author
) is starting a new book, just as she has been doing every single January 8th for the past 29 years. On January 8, 1981, when Chilean-born Allende was living in Venezuela and working as a school administrator and freelance journalist, she got a phone call that her beloved grandfather, at 99 years old, was dying. She started writing him a letter, and that letter turned into her very first novel, The House of the Spirits
. She said, "It was such a lucky book from the very beginning, that I kept that lucky date to start."
Today is a sacred day for her, and she treats it in a ceremonial, ritualistic way. She gets up early this morning and goes alone to her office, where she lights candles "for the spirits and the muses." She surrounds herself with fresh flowers and incense, and she meditates.
She sits down at the computer, turns it on, and begins to write. She says: "I try to write the first sentence in a state of trance, as if somebody else was writing it through me. That first sentence usually determines the whole book. It's a door that opens into an unknown territory that I have to explore with my characters. And slowly as I write, the story seems to unfold itself, in spite of me."
She said, "When I start I am in a total limbo. I don't have any idea where the story is going or what is going to happen or why I am writing it." She doesn't use an outline, and she doesn't talk to anybody about what she's writing. She doesn't look back at what she's written until she's completed a whole first draft — which she then prints out, reads for the first time, and goes about the task of revising, where she really focuses on heightening and perfecting tension in the story and the tone and rhythm of the language.
She said that she take notes all the time and carries a notebook in her purse so that she can jot down interesting things she sees or hears. She clips articles out of newspapers, and when people tell her a story, she writes down that story. And then, when she is in the beginning stages of working on a book, she looks through all these things that she's collected and finds inspiration in them.
She writes in a room alone for 10 or 12 hours a day, usually Monday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. During this time, she says, "I don't talk to anybody; I don't answer the telephone. I'm just a medium or an instrument of something that is happening beyond me."
She's the author of nearly 20 books published since 1982, among them Paula
(1995), Daughter of Fortune
(1999), Portrait in Sepia
(2000), and the recent memoir, The Sum of Our Days
(2008). Her work has been translated into 30 languages, and her books have sold more than 51 million copies. She continues to write fiction in Spanish though she's lived in the United States for decades. Margaret Sayers Peden has done the English translations of several of Isabel Allende's books.