I'm finally reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, the Nobel Prize Winning novel and one of the best selling books of all time. Gabriel García Marquez's novel about a small village in Colombia has become the best known work of magic realism, a literary genre that blends detailed realism with elements that couldn't possibly exist.
There are things I like and things I don't like about the novel, but apart from personal taste, it quickly became clear to me García Márquez is a great writer, perhaps among the best writers alive (he's eighty-six).
In this post, we will explore seven writing lessons we can learn from the Colombian master.
The Good and Bad of Gabriel García Márquez
There are things I like about One Hundred Years of Solitude:
- The freedom author García Márquez takes with magical elements
- The unique perspective of Colombia—a country I don't know much about
- The strange and vivid world he creates for the reader
There are also things I don't like about the novel:
- García Márquez's stream-of-consciousness style is jumpy and sometimes confusing
- The novel doesn't have much of a plot, or rather, there are so many plots that it's hard to keep track)
- There is no clear protagonist (unless you call Colombia itself the protagonist)
Whether you like him or not, García Márquez is one of the most influential writers of the 20th century. Here's what we can learn from his experimental style:
1. Write What You Know
From The Paris Review:
If I had to give a young writer some advice I would say to write about something that has happened to him (want to tweet that?); 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.
I've written stories invented strictly from my imagination and stories that draw from my own personal experience. The stories that draw from experience are always better.
However, if that feels limiting to you, García Márquez proves you can still create imaginative, fantastic, speculative stories even when you're writing what you know.
2. Draw From Your Childhood
From The Paris Review:
… I realized that everything that had occurred in my childhood had a literary value that I was only now appreciating.
García Márquez grew up in a small village in Colombia, and he drew on this setting for One Hundred Years of Solitude, as well as many of his other novels and short stories.
Don't disdain your own experiences, especially your experiences in childhood. They can provide inspiration for your writing.
3. Create Magic
One Hundred Years of Solitude was García Márquez's first use of the magic realism style. The story involves magical elements like flying carpets, alchemy, and candy that gives you insomnia and makes you forgetful. García Márquez says he learned this style from the way his grandmother told stories:
She told things that sounded supernatural and fantastic, but she told them with complete naturalness.
What's so surprising about García Márquez's style is the way he goes from talking about a character's obsession with science to a band of nomadic gypsies charging everyone in the village to ride on their magic carpet and does it with what he calls a “brick face,” with no change in tone so that the magical elements merge with the very real story without interruption.
It's jarring and confusing… and exciting. You should try it!
4. Become a Journalist
From The Paris Review:
Journalism has helped my fiction because it has kept me in a close relationship with reality.
Despite the element of fantasy in García Márquez's work, his stories find their foundations in real life, and part of this is because of his training as a journalist. Many of the greatest writers of the 19th and 20th century were journalists first, including Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, and John Steinbeck (another great magic realist writer, Salman Rushdie, was a copywriter).
If you want to be a great writer, consider practicing journalism.
5. Make the Reader Believe
From The Paris Review:
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.
We talked about writing what you know, but what you know is just the starting point for invention. The key is that when you invent something, you have to believe in it yourself. Otherwise, how can you expect anyone else to believe it?
6. Take Sensual Leaps
One of the things I find fascinating about García Márquez's writing is the way he connects a sensation with a feeling you wouldn't expect, like in this example from the first line of Love in the Time of Cholera:
It was inevitable: the scent of bitter almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.
Almonds and unrequited love? How do those two connect? I'm not sure, but the link is fascinating.
7. Write in Political Allegories
It took me more than fifty-nine pages to realize the village in One Hundred Years of Solitude is a political allegory for Colombia. García Márquez wrote the novel in period of political turmoil in the 1960s, and his feelings about his beloved nation are represented in the novel.
The secret to using allegory in your writing is to make sure the story works, first and foremost, as a story. The definition of story says that stories are meant to “amuse, entertain, and instruct.” Allegories can certainly instruct the reader, but if it doesn't amuse and entertain as well, you probably won't find many readers.
Gabriel García Márquez's Writing Legacy
In the end, Gabriel García Márquez's writing shows us that real life is filled with magic, that peeking between the curtains of “reason” is a whimsical magician universe who takes great delight in surprising us, if only we're looking.
After reading One Hundred Years of Solitude, I began asking myself, What is magical about my life? And how can I incorporate a sense of wonder and surprise into my own stories?
What about you? Have you read Gabriel García Márquez's writing? What do you like or dislike about it?
Write in the style of magic realism, taking a real event that happened to you and incorporating magical elements like leprechauns, levitation, and perhaps even a flying carpet.
Write for fifteen minutes. When your time is up, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, please be sure to give feedback on a few practices by other writers.