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“Intuition is Essential.” Writing Advice from Gabriel García Márquez

Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry. Both are very hard work.

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In the face of the literary world’s ongoing fetish for youth, I often like to remind myself that Gabriel García Márquez didn’t become famous until he was 40. That’s when he published his fourth novel, One Hundred Years of Solitude. Now, of course, he’s a household name, beloved for his storytelling ability and fantastical imagination (though as he’d tell you, everything in his most famous novel happened—somewhere, to someone). García Márquez is a master of storytelling, but he’s also a master of discipline: above all else, he put in the work. For that alone, we should all listen to his advice. Here is some collected literary wisdom from one of the all-time greats.

Write what you know:

I had to give a young writer some advice I would say to write about something that has happened to him; it’s always easy to tell whether a writer is writing about something that has happened to him or something he has read or been told. Pablo Neruda has a line in a poem that says “God help me from inventing when I sing.” It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination.

–from a 1981 interview with The Paris Review

Eschew the “starving artist” cliché:

In general I believe you write better when you have all your creature comforts around you. I don’t hold with the romantic myth that the writer has to be starving and all screwed up before he can produce. You write better if you’ve had a good meal and you’ve got an electric typewriter.

–from an interview with Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza

Embrace hard work:

Ultimately, literature is nothing but carpentry. . . Both are very hard work. Writing something is almost as hard as making a table. With both you are working with reality, a material just as hard as wood. Both are full of tricks and techniques. Basically very little magic and a lot of hard work are involved. And as Proust, I think, said, it takes ten percent inspiration and ninety percent perspiration. I never have done any carpentry but it’s the job I admire most, especially because you can never find anyone to do it for you.

–from a 1981 interview with The Paris Review

Start early:

Something I heard the Dominican writer Juan Bosch say in Caracas about twenty-five years ago[:] He said you had to learn the craft of writing—the techniques, ways of structuring, the meticulous hidden joinery—when you’re young. We writers are like parrots, we can’t learn to talk when we’re old.

–from an interview with Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza

And focus on technique:

When you are older, when the inspiration diminishes, you depend more on technique. If you don’t have that everything collapses. There is no question that you write much more slowly, with much more care, and perhaps with less inspiration. This is the great problem of the professional author.

–from a 1985 interview with The New York Times

Work on your writing, not on your career:

There’s a French professor at the University of Toulouse who writes about Latin American literature; many young authors wrote to him telling him not to write so much about me because I didn’t need it anymore and other people did. But what they forget is that when I was their age the critics weren’t writing about me, but rather about Miguel Angel Asturias. The point I’m trying to make is that these young writers are wasting their time writing to critics rather than working on their own writing. It’s much more important to write than to be written about. One thing that I think was very important about my literary career was that until I was forty years old, I never got one cent of author’s royalties, though I’d had five books published.

–from a 1981 interview with The Paris Review

Write the next story (and listen to your friends):

“In any case, that story already belongs to the past,” [my friend Jorge Álvaro Espinosa] concluded. “What matters now is the next one.”

I was flabbergasted and foolish enough to look for arguments to the contrary, until I understood that no advice I heard would be more intelligent than his. He expounded on his unshakable idea that you had to conceive of the story first and then the style, but that each depended on the other in a kind of mutual servitude that was the magic wand of the classics. He also spent some time on his opinion, which he had often repeated, that I needed to read the Greeks in a profound, unbiased way, and not just Homer—the only one I had read, because I was required to for the baccalaureate. I promised I would, and I wanted to hear other names, but he changed the subject and began to talk instead about André Gide’s The Counterfeiters, which he had read that weekend. I never found the courage to tell him that our conversation might well have determined the course of my life. I stayed up all night making notes for my next story, which would not have the meanders of the first.

–from “How I Became a Writer,” published in The New Yorker in 2003

Feel free to make up your own rules—but make sure you follow them:

[When I read Kafka,] all of a sudden I understood how many other possibilities existed in literature outside the rational and extremely academic examples I’d come across in secondary school text books. It was like tearing off a chastity belt. Over the years, however, I discovered that you can’t invent or imagine just whatever you fancy because then you risk not telling the truth and lies are more serious in literature than in real life. Even the most seemingly arbitrary creation has its rules. You can throwaway the fig leaf of rationalism only if you don’t then descend into total chaos and irrationality.

–from an interview with Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza

Believe in your own story:

I had an idea of what I always wanted to do, but there was something missing and I was not sure what it was until one day I discovered the right tone—the tone that I eventually used in One Hundred Years of Solitude. It was based on the way my grandmother used to tell her stories. She told things that sounded supernatural and fantastic, but she told them with complete naturalness. When I finally discovered the tone I had to use, I sat down for eighteen months and worked every day. . . . In previous attempts to write One Hundred Years of Solitude, I tried to tell the story without believing in it. I discovered that what I had to do was believe in them myself and write them with the same expression with which my grandmother told them: with a brick face.

–from a 1981 interview with The Paris Review

Trust your intuition, not your intellect:

Inspiration is when you find the right theme, one which you really like; that makes the work much easier. Intuition, which is also fundamental to writing fiction, is a special quality which helps you to decipher what is real without needing scientific knowledge, or any other special kind of learning. The laws of gravity can be figured out much more easily with intuition than anything else. It’s a way of having experience without having to struggle through it. For a novelist, intuition is essential. Basically it’s contrary to intellectualism, which is probably the thing that I detest most in the world—in the sense that the real world is turned into a kind of immovable theory. Intuition has the advantage that either it is, or it isn’t. You don’t struggle to try to put a round peg into a square hole.

–from a 1981 interview with The Paris Review

The better you know your subject, the more concise you must be:

Graham Greene taught me how to decipher the tropics, no less. To separate out the essential elements of a poetic synthesis from an environment that you know all too well is extremely difficult. It’s all so familiar you don’t know where to start and yet you have so much to say that you end by understanding nothing. That was my problem with the tropics. I’d read Christopher Columbus, Pigafetta and the other chroniclers of the Indies with great interest, appreciating their original vision. I’d also read Salgari and Conrad and the early twentieth century Latin American ‘tropicalists’ who saw everything through Modernist spectacles, and many others, but always found an enormous dichotomy between their versions and the real thing. Some ofthem fell into the trap oflisting things and, paradoxically, the longer the list the more limited their vision seemed.

Others, as we know, have succumbed to rhetorical excess. Graham Greene solved this literary problem in a very precise way—with a few disparate elements connected by an inner coherence both subtle and real. Using this method you can reduce the whole enigma of the tropics to the fragrance of a rotten guava.

–from an interview with Plinio Apuleyo Mendoza

Commit to the truth:

In journalism just one fact that is false prejudices the entire work. In contrast, in fiction one single fact that is true gives legitimacy to the entire work. That’s the only difference, and it lies in the commitment of the writer. A novelist can do anything he wants so long as he makes people believe in it.

–from a 1981 interview with The Paris Review

But embrace your tricks:

[Y]ou can’t be a writer without having tricks. What’s important is the legitimacy of those tricks, up to what point they’re used and to what degree.

–from a 2005 interview with VQR

Take care of your body (and don’t write drunk):

One thing that Hemingway wrote that greatly impressed me was that writing for him was like boxing. He took care of his health and his well-being. Faulkner had a reputation of being a drunkard, but in every interview that he gave he said that it was impossible to write one line when drunk. Hemingway said this too. Bad readers have asked me if I was drugged when I wrote some of my works. But that illustrates that they don’t know anything about literature or drugs. To be a good writer you have to be absolutely lucid at every moment of writing, and in good health. I’m very much against the romantic concept of writing which maintains that the act of writing is a sacrifice, and that the worse the economic conditions or the emotional state, the better the writing. I think you have to be in a very good emotional and physical state. Literary creation for me requires good health, and the Lost Generation understood this. They were people who loved life.

–from a 1981 interview with The Paris Review

Most of all, keep on writing:

The only possible advice is to keep on writing, to continue and continue to write.

–from a 1979 interview with Katherine Ashton for The Harvard Advocate

Emily Temple is the managing editor at Lit Hub. Her first novel, The Lightness, was published by William Morrow/HarperCollins in June 2020. You can buy it here.

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This post originally appeared on Literary Hub and was published April 17, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.