Writing Assignments

Isabel's vintage Underwood typewriter. Isabel says it is what she wrote "The House of the Spirits" on!

Isabel’s vintage Underwood typewriter. Isabel says it is what she wrote “The House of the Spirits” on, but I don’t quite believe her!

Just for fun, I asked Isabel to play professor and come up with an assignment that she would give an aspiring writer. As an example, I told her that once, while working on a book about the photographer Ruth Bernhard with Lori (Isabel’s daughter-in-law), we were happy to receive a list of photography assignments that Ruth would give her students. One, for example, was to photograph a white shirt against a white wall.

Here is what Isabel told me about her teaching days:

I don’t teach anymore, but I did teach a couple of creative writing courses. Usually in a writing class not everybody has the same knowledge of the language, and they don’t have the same level of creativity or discipline. So the homework that is turned in is very uneven, and because the class is maybe only an hour you don’t have much time. I wanted the students to write under pressure because my training is as a journalist. I was a journalist in a huge newsroom full of people, manual typewriters and NOISE, phones ringing and people walking by and so much pressure, tight deadlines, and you really had to tune everyone out. Actually, having a deadline really helps. And although I start all of my books on January 8, I also give myself deadlines throughout the writing of the book. That helps me also. 

I would give my students a variety of assignments. For example, we would pick a sentence from any book—just open a random book and not read the story, just that sentence—and then create a story around that one line in five pages, let’s say, or during the class even, so there is more pressure. People are always scared of writer’s block because they can’t come up with an idea. Well, how do you get an idea? By forcing yourself to think of something that is unusual. That would be one thing, one idea. Or I would say: write a violent scene. When I did that, almost always the men in the class would write about a fight or something that happened in a bar, maybe. Women almost invariably spoke about being assaulted, even if it had not happened to them. That was the most violent thing they could think of.

Once I got an extraordinary piece that was written by a woman who had been a Catholic nun for 12 years. Her piece was about how they would gather for the evening meal in this big dining room. The meal was eaten in silence, although one person was assigned to read from the Scriptures. In the piece she writes about one young nun who forgets to bring the book to the meal. When it is her turn to read, the nun falls to her knees and says, “Please forgive me, I have forgotten to bring the book.” The Mother Superior says, “It is not for us to forgive, only for God. But we cannot eat without hearing the words of the Lord, so there will be no dinner tonight, no one can eat.” The nun sinks into despair and falls to the floor prostrate, her arms open, and cries. And so the tension, the violence of that scene was so incredible, and at the same time there was no hitting, no screaming, just mental stress—very harsh.

I have also asked students for love scenes or to write about someone looking at a love scene. There is a twist there that creates a tone for the story.


When people ask me to write their stories or to coach them, which of course I cannot, I always tell them what has worked for me, as well as something that I once heard from Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love. What I say is that writing is like training for sports. If you want to play the game you train and train and train, and while no one sees the training, a muscle is being built. The same is true of writing. You write and write and write, and everything you see you write it down. And sometimes writing TO someone is very helpful; I write to my mother every day. You are all the time thinking and training and you write thousands of pages before there is one page that deserves to be shown.

Here is what I heard from Gilbert when she was asked the same question: “Do not expect your writing to support you or give you fame, you write because you love the process. The result is not the point, what is important is that you really love the process.” I know that is true for me—for every word you don’t write it weighs on you.

Ps. Here is a link to a talk that Isabel did with Elizabeth Gilbert last year at the 92t Y in NYC. It’s fun to see them together, they have a nice back and forth.

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A Whim of Steel


“A Whim of Steel” is how Olga Murray’s husband described her way back when. Olga, who has been featured before on this blog (check out a past story here), is the founder of the Nepali Youth Foundation, which provides many life-saving programs to the beautiful people of Nepal; programs include Nutritional Rehabilitation, the Indentured Daughters Program and the shelter J&K House. Recently the organization has been involved in disaster relief following the devastating earthquake and aftershocks that hit Nepal in April. See Olga interviewed on CNN about the situation on the ground and her experience during the first round of quakes.

Last week we celebrated Olga’s 90th birthday. It was an honor to sit at a table with her and hear stories from her long life of service to the people of Nepal. Olga is one of our heroes here at the Isabel Allende Foundation. She describes the work she does today as her “failed” retirement. After retiring from her 37-year stint as a staff attorney to the Chief Justice of California, Phil Gibson and Stanley Mosk, and further work with the State Supreme Court, Olga set off in 1984 for an adventure in Nepal. That adventure would change her life and mark the beginning of her love affair with the country and people of Nepal. Read more about Olga here, and if you want to help the children of Nepal, particularly now, post-earthquake, here is a link to Olga’s beloved Nepali Youth Foundation, a group we know will use the money for the very best good.

Happy Birthday Olga!

The whole party, Olga is in the middle wearing one of her birthday presents: She Needed a Hero, So She Became One t-shirt.

The whole party, Olga is in the middle wearing one of her birthday presents: She Needed a Hero, So She Became One t-shirt.

Ps. The donation page of the Nepali Youth Foundation asks you to: Spend a little. Give a lot.  That is the theme of a recent speech Isabel gave in Baltimore where she addressed the Association of Fundraising Professionals. Here is a clip about Olga and Nepali Youth Foundation from that speech.

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Mary Ellen

Isabel asked me to post this on the blog about her friend Mary Ellen Mark.

Lori Barra, Mary Ellen Mark, Isabel Allende & Ina Bernstein in New York Christmas 2014 © Nicole Frias

Lori Barra, Mary Ellen Mark, Isabel Allende & Ina Bernstein in New York Christmas 2014
© Nicole Frias

Today I say goodbye to a beloved friend, and extraordinary artist, the renowned photographer Mary Ellen Mark. In the short time we knew each other, I came to love her deeply and now I regret that I never told her so.

Mary Ellen was a force. And I admired every breath of that strong, courageous, gutsy energy she had.  She demanded  much of  her friends and her students, but she demanded of herself much more.  She expected nothing less than perfection from her work every single day. And she achieved that.

She believed deeply in the humanity in each of us and in the ever-loving healing power of all dogs, big and small. I still wish I could have brought my high-maintenance pup, Dulce, to meet her in NY. They would have loved each other.

She observed and listened with her whole being. Through her work, Mary Ellen Mark taught her students and friends to pay attention to the world with an open heart. She gave each person she photographed back the precious gift of seeing themselves with compassion. The photographs she took of my family in December are among my greatest treasures. We were unaware of it that day in the studio but she saw something in each of us and in our relationship to each other that is only now becoming clear to me. She saw and touched our souls. Not to mention we all look like movie stars; I don’t know how she achieved that miracle. In a decade or so my grandchildren will appreciate these pictures as an important part of their legacy, something to cherish forever. I am sure they will remember that Sunday photo shoot with much gratitude. And in two decades or so, when Willie and I will not be in this world, my descendants will look at Mary Ellen’s photographs and think that they had very interesting grandparents.

Family Portrait and Isabel Allende ©Mary Ellen Mark

Family Portrait and Isabel Allende ©Mary Ellen Mark 2015

I so often hear Lori, my daughter-in-law, say that Mary Ellen believed in her and through her generous teachings gave her back her creative voice. For Lori, who attended Mary Ellen’s workshops every year, that has been one of the greatest gifts of her life.

Mary Ellen Mark  lived fully with passion and humor and grace until her last day on earth. We, the privileged ones that got to participate in her unique world of images and stories, will love her forever.



Mary Ellen, Isabel and Ina


Lori, Ina, Mary Ellen and Jodi


Ina, Isabel and Mary Ellen in New York October 2012

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The Japanese Lover


We are excited about the Spanish release of Isabel’s new book El Amante Japonés, or The Japanese Lover, soon to be released in English. We already have dates for the US tour schedule.

Reporters are coming from all over the world to our little office to talk to Isabel. Today there were folks from Korea and Italy; last week we had visitors from Spain and Chile. And this is just the beginning! It’s fun to meet people, even briefly, from all parts of the globe.

I just now snapped this photo of Isabel holding her lovely new book. Plaza & Janés designed it beautifully and you can see more details here.

You can preorder the book in English here.

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Shooting the Yak


I admit I had to research the title of this blog just to make sure I wasn’t inadvertently using an illicit term for…well, anyway, you just can’t be too careful.

Let me explain. Recently Lori was asked to do a photo shoot for an upcoming American Craft magazine article that features the Tail of the Yak, a small shop in my second hometown of Berkeley, California, which sells an eclectic selection of jewelry, stationary, soaps and more. The magazine editor and art director asked Lori if, prior to the shoot, she would handle hair and makeup for the owners of the store, Lauren McIntosh and Alice Erb.

But here’s the thing: Lori doesn’t know much about makeup, and she knows even less about hair (although she does take stunning photos). So there we were, one day prior to the photo shoot, discussing the problem. Overhearing us, Isabel offered up her talents, and volunteered to do the makeovers for the photos. How sweet is that?

Here are some pictures I took that day (including of Lori—above—taking photos of her own). In the photo above you can see Isabel holding a light reflector and working her magic in the wonderful little space that is the Tail of the Yak.


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Oaxaca Notes

This week’s blog post comes courtesy of Lori, who has been doing a lot of traveling lately, both with Isabel and on her own. Here she talks about her recent visit to Mexico, where for the last few years she has visited and photographed an extraordinary group of children and their caretakers.


Isabel and I recently traveled to Baltimore, where she addressed the Association of Fundraising Professionals. The part of her speech that really struck me was when she quoted Khalil Gibrain: “Generosity is giving more than you can.” I love that line, particularly because it feels like the mantra of so many of the organizations we support in Mexico.

I just returned from a moving trip to Oaxaca, where I had the opportunity to study photography for the fifth year in a row with my mentor and hero, Mary Ellen Mark. The first year I attended Mary Ellen’s Oaxaca workshop, she quickly put together my love of photography with the work I do at the Foundation on behalf of women and children and assigned me to photograph several children’s homes and centers throughout the area. I have been photographing these precious children every year since, and all of the organizations have become Foundation grantees. Each year these visits both tear at my heart and renew my faith in humankind.

The organizations (listed below) are called “homes” rather than “orphanages” because the children all have at least one parent. Due to a myriad of reasons—including a single mom living without extended family, extreme poverty, abusive homes, mental illness and physical disabilities—the children have nowhere to live. Parents and other family members visit as often as possible—sometimes once a month and sometimes just every few years. It was hard for me to imagine this at first, but one day while I was visiting one of the homes I met a man who had come to see his granddaughter. It had taken him all year to save up enough money for the bus fare to make the three-day trip over the mountains to see her. The scene when he had to leave at the end of the day left me in a puddle of tears.

Another day, I saw a young girl of about 18 months wearing a cotton shirt with the words “Mommy’s Little Girl” inscribed across the front. Given that the motto was in English, that the shirt wasn’t actually hers (all clothes are communal) and that the little girl hadn’t seen her mother in months, the irony of the words was not lost on me.

Most of the children who end up at Casa Hogar Hijos de la Luna (Children of the Moon), one of the homes I always visit and photograph, are “night active” when they arrive—that is, they remain wide awake at night and sleep during the day, having matched their rhythms to the night-time work schedules of their mothers. In addition, many of the children arrive with serious health issues due to malnutrition, nervous disorders and various forms of trauma. They may also have have speech problems, learning disabilities and display anti-social behavior. But all improve dramatically thanks to the love and care they receive at Casa Hogar Hijos de la Luna. The other homes I visit take in children suffering perhaps less in the way of overt trauma and disability, but they are no less in need of love, compassion, empathy and a good meal each day.

These children and the women that run the organizations that house them have blessed my life beyond measure. In my opinion, María Socorro Ramirez González (Casa Hogar Hijos de la Luna), Carol Marin (Casa Hogar Benito Juarez), Dr.Rosa Maria Gonzalez Ruiz (Centro de Apoyo Para La Integracion del Nino Down, A.C.) and the Sisters at Albergue Infantil are the true unsung heroes of our time.

Casa Hogar Hijos de la Luna de Oaxaca, A. C.

Casa Hogar Benito Juarez A.C.  Facebook: www.facebook.com/CasaHogarBenitoJuarezAC

Albergue Infantil Josefino, A.C.

Centro de Apoyo Para La Integracion del Nino Down, A.C.

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Raindrops on Roses

This is a little list of Isabel’s favorite things. I asked her to provide it for me the other day at lunch—we were eating crackers with Bellwether Farms’ divine Basket Ricotta cheese, which is produced locally—and she rattled these off in such a rapid-fire way I was barely able to keep up.

•   Bellwether’s Basket Ricotta—either sheep or cow milk, you choose

•   Watching movies with my husband (currently Willie) and my dogs (Olivia and Dulce)
•   Being with the few people I love
•   Intimate conversations
•   Reading and writing
•   Researching
•   Beading
•   Wine, cheese, bread
•   Textures, colors and clothes—selective!
•   Flirting
•   Being noticed by certain men
•   Dark chocolate

•   Something that only happens in Español: witty conversations that make use of my colloquialisms
•   Makeup
•   Women friends: my prayer group, Pia, the women I work with
•   Babies—little ones!


Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens
Bright copper kettles and warm woolen mittens
Brown paper packages tied up with strings
These are a few of my favorite things
— From “My Favorite Things,” The Sound of Music


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Busy Day in San Francisco

Isabel, Lori and I spent a wonderful day in San Francisco’s Mission District recently, where we went to visit a few nonprofits.

Isabel with Carmen Ortiz, PhD, Founder/Executive Director of Circle de Vida on the right

Isabel with Carmen Ortiz, PhD, Founder/Executive Director of Círculo de Vida on the right

Our first stop was Círculo de Vida, which helps Latinas diagnosed with cancer navigate their health care. The organization offers aid managing immigration concerns, bridging the language barrier, setting up care and counseling during treatment and after surgery, organizing child care support, and much more.

The nonprofit was recently threatened with potential eviction to make way for an expanding tech company, an all-too-familiar story in San Francisco these days. But this story has a happy ending: the incoming company, a startup called DoubleDutch, agreed to a compromise that would allow Círculo to remain in the building. Read about it here.

Our next stop was…okay, so it was Gracias Madre, an organic and vegan Mexican restaurant on Mission and 18th. What can I say? We got a little hungry. When we sat down the waiter proudly announced that the restaurant was “local, organic AND vegan”—a detail I’d neglected to mention to Isabel. I thought she was going to strike me. Vegan is really, really not her thing. Not to worry, though: the food was AMAZING—even Isabel had to admit it. If you’re lucky enough to go, try the Mexican hot chocolate, which is made with horchata (a non-dairy beverage made of rice or nuts) instead of milk.

Isabel outside The Women's Building SF, CA. © Lori Barra 2015

Isabel outside The Women’s Building SF, CA. © Lori Barra 2015

Our real next stop was The Women’s Building on 18th Street, a women-led nonprofit arts and education community center decorated with stunning murals inside and out. Check out its website here. There we visited Mujeres Unidas y Activas, which fights for justice and immigrant rights, and caught a glimpse of the myriad other organizations within the building that devote themselves to helping women and children throughout the Bay Area.

It was pretty much a perfect day—we met great people doing great work AND enjoyed delicious food. What more could we ask for?

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Dare to Dream

Meet Judith Curr and Johanna Castillo!


Visiting us this week from New York are Isabel’s new publisher, Judith, and her new editor, Johanna, of Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster. We had a little love fest in the office today as we made friends with these two and discussed Isabel’s new book, The Japanese Lover—YES, it is coming soon, and will be available in Spanish this summer and in English in the fall. Johanna and Judith have a slew of fresh ideas for supporting the book, so it is all very exciting for us.

Here is a quick story about perseverance: For ten long years Johanna wrote to Carmen Balcells, Isabel’s beloved agent in Spain, asking if Isabel was happy with her publisher, if, just perhaps, she might be able to speak with her. Every year Carmen wrote back saying thanks but no thanks, and that, all was well, everything was fine. Still, Johanna kept Isabel’s name pinned to her idea board above her computer at work, and every year she reiterated her goal to get Isabel to work with her. Finally, this year, Carmen said, “Let’s talk,” and that was it. They talked for several hours that first day and, as they say, the rest IS herstory!

The photo is of the three of them. To the left of Isabel is Judith, who hails from the sunny Snowy River area in Australia; Johanna, who is from Ecuador, is on Isabel’s right. The photograph above the bookshelf is of Sofia Loren elegantly carrying the Olympic flag in Turin, Italy, in 2006, with Isabel running along behind her.

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Top Reads from Recent Travels


Isabel has been reading. A lot! Here is a list of recent gems that made their way past Isabel and through our office and then, because we loved them so much, were passed along to friends. Several people contributed to the following write-ups: they come from Isabel, Lori, Chandra and me. Consider this a book club of sorts.

1. The Awakening of Miss Prim

By Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera

This author’s first novel was my go-to book gift over the holidays. Nothing bad happens; it is so idyllic that it will leave you searching for the real San Ireneo de Arnois and you’ll be so disappointed when you realize that, perhaps, it does not exist. Make sure when you are reading this book that you have ready access to a good cup of tea and at least one freshly baked treat.

2. The Rosie Project

By Graeme C. Simsion

Can science help you find love? Part love story, part comedy, The Rosie Project is about a professor with awkward social skills and the love he finds. The book is such a laugh-out-loud read that I couldn’t help but cast it as a movie as I read.

3. Just Mercy

By Bryan Stevenson

If you can, listen to this one. It is read by the author and is at once astonishing and heartbreaking. If you listen in your car you will find yourself talking back in outrage. Though Just Mercy is in no way fiction, it has been compared to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, and rightly so. It shines a light on the criminal justice system, showing just how much injustice prevails. It is searing and upsetting, but Stevenson will show you a little light.

4. The Paying Guests

By Sarah Waters

Now here’s a gem of a book that made its way quickly around the office. It is unputdownable (if that’s a word) and yet simple and ordinary. The twists and shifts happen amid a most delicately observed place and time, leaving you relaxed and comfortable one moment and jarred by sudden action the next. Both the love story and the setting (the book takes place just after World War I), feel so perfectly observed that the crime, when it comes, sneaks up on you just like it should.

5. The Luminaries

By Eleanor Catton

Stating that this book was the 2013 winner of the Man Booker Prize may say it all, but I will say a little more. I read this because I am a fan of the Gold Rush genre, and the fact that this book takes place in New Zealand makes it all the more intriguing.

6. The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence

By Gary A. Haugen

A wake-up call to the violence in our midst and an attempt to show a path out of poverty. It is a hard book to read, hard because it is so terrifying and sheds light on the unchecked violence that blocks the ways out of poverty. This book is an eye-opener, brilliant and insightful. 

7. The Light Between Oceans

By M.L. Stedman

Yeah, they are making a movie about this, so you know it is good, right? Well, trust me, it is strange and beautiful, and in fact it reads like a movie. The plot is well crafted, but that’s all I’ll say; many reviews give it away, but I won’t. Worth the read!

8. The Case for God

By Karen Armstrong

The Case for God is kind of like a theological CliffsNotes. It’s a 400-plus-page history of religion—actually of many of the world’s religions and how they are connected. It makes you consider all sides and points to the compassion that spirituality can bring.

9. The Ocean at the End of the Lane

By Neil Gaiman

We all loved this quick read, which is strange and compelling and reads like a fairy tale. If you want a little magic and some escapist distraction, this book will charm you—and scare you a little, too. It is both an adventure and a gem of a novel.

10. Residue Years

By Mitchell S. Jackson

This story begins with the protagonist, Grace, who has just been released from a court-ordered rehab, and her son, Champ, a former star on his basketball team turned drug dealer. I was unable to put down the book as mother and son try beyond measure to remake a life together but continually fall into a cycle of poverty. The writing is flawless and captivating.

11. Animal’s People

By Indra Sinha

You will fall in love with this twisted little animal, one of the strangest books I have ever read. You may remember parts of the real-life story that Animal’s People is based on: the horrible gas leak in Bhopal, India, in 1984, following an explosion at a Union Carbide pesticide plant. This is the story of what came after, as well as of justice, love, frustration and the human spirit.

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