Writing Assignments

This post is also available in: Spanish

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.

2 Responses to Writing Assignments

  1. Anne Burtyn December 21, 2015 at 12:31 pm #

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this blog. Last night I had a wonderful techni-color dream. I was being interviewed to be a nanny to a very wealthy family. The mother had just had twins. She and her husband also had two older girls, around 7 and 9 years old. In the dream, I was being interviewed first by the husband, and I spent time in their home and with their 2 girls and the infant boys. They had a wonderful, beautiful home full of art and architecture and furniture pieces so amazing it took my breath away. Pieces of light and color (blue) up high in the vaulted ceilings, that I think the architect husband had maybe created and installed in their home. It was such an amazing dream with so many wonderful details, I cannot hardly describe. However, after finally meeting the wife I would be working for, she took me on a more complete tour of their home. She detailed all the wonderful rooms in their home and told me how she had lovingly chosen all of the furniture and art pieces specifically for each room in their home. In one of her favorite parlors, there were 2 books on the table, both written by Isabelle Allende. The name was spelled like that. There were also pictures of the woman’s relatives, older black and white pictures. She told me she was related to Isabelle Allende and that Ms. Allende was her favorite artist.
    In real life, I am 50 years old, a mother of 3 children, and have never been a nanny. I am a sometime writer, but I have mainly been a world history teacher, French teacher and then an editor. I retired early a few years ago due to health concerns. I have always loved interior design and have always wanted to be an interior decorator, antique finder, or architect. My daughter is studying to become an architect now. My son is 24, and my youngest daughter is 18.
    I just thought it was so fascinating that your name was in my dream, very clear, very prominently spelled on a book cover, and the woman in my dream mentioned you more than once. Such an amazing dream, I had to share it.
    I did get the nanny job! How funny is that. The girls adored me and the infant twins needed me. I have no idea how that relates to my current life. They lived in a huge house full of art on a lake, fairly isolated. I definitely do not live in a home like that. We live in Colorado, in a suburb of Boulder and Denver.
    Thanks for reading this! I love your work. Thanks so much for sharing it on your blog.

  2. Sandy Curtis July 7, 2015 at 3:20 pm #

    Here’s the working link for the talk at the 92nd St. Y with Isabel and Elizabeth Gilbert: http://92yondemand.org/isabel-allende-and-elizabeth-gilbert

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