Literary powerhouse, Isabel Allende, straddles the coveted line between commercial success and critical acclaim.
Her awards are many, her topics heavy, and her prose luxurious.
Allende’s debut novel, The House of the Spirits, is an experience that might change you.
For me, it shined a spotlight on my naive mental framework and exposed its many holes. She changed the way I saw the world and the people in it. She changed the way I saw myself.
After Allende, I understood my humanity a little better. I learned that, as a human, I was capable of all the horrors I recoiled at in history books. That only luck stood between me and the myriad people I might have been. That the experiences that shaped me could as easily have happened to someone else.
Allende taught me about humanity under pressure. And she taught me a few things about writing.
Here are a few of them.
#1 The Rules Don’t Matter
The rules of writing are superficial. They’re the one-size-fits-all spandex stretched over the bulge, and it’s bursting at the seams.
No rule on writing could apply to all situations. Writing is too complex for this rigidity.
Better to ask a chess master “what is the best move in all of chess?” How soon do you realize there isn’t one? There is only what is right for the given situation.
Allende knows it. Allende breaks the rules.
Have you heard “limit each scene to one character’s POV?” Allende jumps character viewpoints, three and four in a scene.
Her sentences meander, revealing long luxurious avenues to get lost in. You’ll find repetition. Digression. She’ll break into the narrative to tell you the future.
This should slow up the story. But the story prevails.
The rules she breaks are about one thing: don’t confuse your reader. She knows that if the prose is clear, nothing else matters.
#2 Focus on Character and the Rest Will Follow
The other reason Allende can break the rules is she focuses on character.
“I never try to deliver a message,” she says, though her stories stir nations. “I want the stories to be memorable and the characters to touch the reader’s heart.”
Focus on character. The rest will follow.
#3 Even Expert Authors Don’t Always Nail It
In this case, I learned from Allende’s failure.
I first read Allende in an honors Anthropology course—Latin American Culture through Literature. The instructor asked the class “Is there anything in the book that might reveal Allende is a female writer?”
Why, yes, instructor. There is.
Trueba, the patriarch character in The House of the Spirits, rapes a child on his estate. It isn’t the rape that reveals the female author behind the character. It’s Trueba’s motivation: lust.
But rape isn’t about sex. It’s about power.
Men know this without being told. Had a man written The House of the Spirits, Trueba would have coerced the girl. Threatened. Tricked. Cajoled.
Women have to be told lust doesn’t drive rape.
Maybe it’s the product of social training, that we as women lose sight of this obvious fact.
Regardless, the lust motivation revealed Trueba’s author was female.
Even brilliant writers don’t always get it right.
#4 Write Reality
Don’t get me wrong. You can write unreality. Rowling did.
Rowling charmed the world with fantasy, even though Harry would never have survived Voldemort in those woods. Even after coming back to life.
Voldemorte would have destroyed Harry. Not just his life, but his body. Hagrid would not have carried him home to Hogwarts. There’d have been nothing left to carry.
This is human nature in war, and the psychological gymnastics we develop to cope with it.
It isn’t right. It’s reality. And it’s Allende’s unflinching realism that makes her a leader of social change. Which brings me to my next point.
#5 Don’t flinch
Go where the story takes you. Allende did. And it skyrocketed the unknown writer into instant literary stardom.
Allende’s character, Esteban Garcia, resents his biological grandfather. To Trueba, though, Esteban is little more than a tenant on his property. His coupling with Esteban’s grandmother is a long-forgotten convenience.
Esteban hasn’t forgotten. For him, the injustice is fresh and refreshed when he meets Trueba’s favorite granddaughter, Alba.
When Esteban is left alone in a room with the pampered Alba, Allende follows his hatred to its natural end. I’m sure you can guess where it goes.
Allende doesn’t flinch. And neither should you.
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