Writing Rituals

Add to favorites

Internationally best-selling author and human rights advocate Isabel Allende on her daily letters to her mother, how she fell in love with reading, and her common-sense approach to writing and literature. 

Omega: You start writing all your books on January 8th, write a letter to your mother every day, and meditate regularly. How did these rituals begin and what do you think the value of ritual has in women's lives?

Isabel: We live at a time in the West when rituals have been lost. What is the purpose of ritual? To mark an event. When we get married, we wear a special dress, there is a party, there is a ceremony, and we will always remember that day. That’s very important because you remember the vows, you remember who you were and who was with you. Now, except for a baptism or a marriage or a funeral, we don’t have that.

It’s not that I live in rituals, but rituals allow me to divide my year, to organize my life, and to mark a day. If I start writing on January 8, can you imagine what January 7 looks like? It’s the worst day of the year. Starting a book is like falling in love. It’s a total commitment. It may work and it may not. But it’s a road that you have to travel step by step, day by day, word by word.

Having that day means I have planned my year to have the first few months free. I’m free from long travelling, other commitments, noise, people, and social events. It’s my work time—my introverted time. That’s sacred for me. I light a candle every morning when I begin. 

Why the candle? Because the candle reminds me that I’m working. They’re small candles, so it burns out or I blow the candle out when I’m done. Then it’s time to rest or do something else.

Why the letter to my mother? Some people write journals. But I have lived separated from my mother since I was 15. So this tradition of writing each other started very early. We are so close that there is nothing about my mother’s life that I don’t know: physically, sexually, financially, and spiritually.

Everything is in the letters, with the understanding that no one else will ever read them. By the end of the year, I have around 600 letters back and forth. They get boxed and labelled and stored in a closet full of decades of letters. 

The ritual of writing to my mother allows me to remember that I lived that day. Because memory—not because I’m old, but because that’s the way memory is—remembers highs and lows. It doesn’t remember all the grays in between and the grays are what life is about.

If somebody says, “In that year my grandson was doing this and that,” and I don’t remember, I look back at day-by-day what happened. In that way it’s like a journal. 

Those moments for themselves of just pausing, marking the day, having a sense of ‘I lived today,’ everybody could use that, not only women. But it’s very difficult to teach it, maybe you grow up with it or you make it a ritual because you need it.

I need it. Without that, everything is blurred.

When I wrote Paula, it was about my daughter. She fell into a coma in Spain. It was a huge public hospital and we were allowed to see her for five minutes a day but we never knew what time. So I would spend the whole day, sometimes the whole night, in the hospital. There were no waiting rooms, just a corridor with chairs.

My mother came to be with me and we called it in Spanish, “the corridor of lost faces.” So we would walk one way, then the other way. That was our day. And all days were identical. The corridor was always the same. And we would go to see Paula and she would be exactly as the day before. Nothing would change. So how can you remember what happened?

So I started taking little notes every day. Then my mother got sick and went back to Chile, and we started the letters again. A month after Paula died, on December 6, 1992, I was supposed to start my new book on January 8th. My mother asked what I was going to write about, and I said, “Are you crazy? I’m not going to write. How can I write?” She said, “Well, you have to or you will die.” And she gave me back the letters I had written to her, 180 letters. Because in my mind it was all the same, I could not say what had happened in January versus September, I had no idea. 

So for me, these little rituals have helped me give meaning to my life and to remember. They are like lighthouses along the way.

Omega: Did your letters with your mother change a lot when you could email instead of mailing? 

Isabel: Absolutely. It changed our lives. At the beginning, we didn’t like it because my mother writes beautifully. For my mother, the letters were the beauty of the language, the grammar, the calligraphy, the paper you choose—everything was important. The emails made it very matter of fact at the beginning. But now we write as if by hand, but much faster, of course. My mother, she doesn’t write casually, if she sees a word is repeated it she will change it.

Omega: Do you think any of your love for language comes from her?

IsabelYes, yes, my love of language comes from her. But it also comes from reading, because I was a lonely, difficult, angry child who didn’t fit in anywhere. My mother married a diplomat, so we travelled and I was always changing schools. During the break I didn’t interact with other kids—I was too shy and sometimes didn’t speak the language. My way of being protected was the shield of the book in front of me.

And I read adult books at a young age. This idea that kids need special books, special furniture, special colors—that didn’t exist. Kids were just kids, nobody cared about their psychological needs. I read whatever was available at home or from libraries and friends. I read Russian novelists when I was 11. My first gift from my stepfather was the complete works of Shakespeare in Spanish. I still have the book on my night table, chewed up by a dog, actually. 

Omega: How do you feel about your books in translation, knowing how translation can change the texture and the meaning of a story?

Isabel: I don’t care. Once the book is published it’s gone, it doesn’t belong to you.

I cannot go to every reader, “Look, this is what I meant.” When they make a movie, I’m not watching over the director’s shoulder, because it’s none of my business anymore. Somehow, the story comes through whatever the language, whatever the worlds. I know because I’m popular in places I’ve never been, like Romania.

The other day I got a copy of an edition and my assistant and I could not figure out what book it was or which language it was in. It didn’t resemble anything that we had ever seen. To the point that I said, “Maybe it’s not even my book.” It could be anybody’s book. Or maybe the translation even improves the book. It could be. It could very well be.