How I Began to Write


Arts & Culture

Gabriel García Márquez delivered the following speech at the Athenaeum of Caracas, in Venezuela, on May 3, 1970.

Gabriel García Márquez. Photo: Patrick Curry.

First of all, forgive me for speaking to you seated, but the truth is that if I stand, I run the risk of collapsing with fear. Really. I always thought I was fated to spend the most terrible five minutes of my life on a plane, before twenty or thirty people, and not like this, before two hundred friends. Fortunately, what is happening to me right now allows me to begin to speak about my literature, since I was thinking that I began to be a writer in the same way I climbed up on this platform: I was coerced. I confess I did all I could not to attend this assembly: I tried to get sick, I attempted to catch pneumonia, I went to the barber, hoping he’d slit my throat, and, finally, it occurred to me to come here without a jacket and tie so they wouldn’t let me into a meeting as serious as this one, but I forgot I was in Venezuela, where you can go anywhere in shirtsleeves. The result: here I am, and I don’t know where to start. But I can tell you, for example, how I began to write.

It had never occurred to me that I could be a writer, but in my student days Eduardo Zalamea Borda, editor of the literary supplement of El Espectador, in Bogotá, published a note in which he said that the younger generation of writers had nothing to offer, that a new short-story writer, a new novelist, could not be seen anywhere. And he concluded by declaring that he was often reproached because his paper published only the very well-known names of old writers and nothing by the young, whereas the truth, he said, was that no young people were writing.

Then a feeling of solidarity with my generational companions arose in me, and I resolved to write a story simply to shut the mouth of Eduardo Zalamea Borda, who was my great friend or, at least, became my great friend later. I sat down, wrote the story, and sent it to El Espectador. I had my second shock the following Sunday when I opened the paper and
there was my full-page story with a note in which Eduardo Zalamea Borda acknowledged that he had been wrong, because obviously with “that story the genius of Colombian literature had emerged,” or something along those lines. 

This time I really did get sick, and I said to myself: “What a mess I’ve got myself into! What do I do now so Eduardo Zalamea Borda won’t look bad?” Keep on writing was the answer. I always had to face the problem of subjects: I was obliged to find the story before I could write it.

And this allows me to tell you something that I can verify now, after having published five books: the job of writer is perhaps the only one that becomes more difficult the more you do it. The ease with which I sat down one afternoon to write that story can’t be compared to the work it costs me now to write a page. As for my method of working, it’s fairly consistent with what I’m telling you now. I never know how much I’ll be able to write or what I’m going to write about. I hope I’ll think of something, and when I do come up with an idea that I consider good enough to write down, I begin to go over it in my mind and let it keep maturing. When it’s finished (and sometimes many years go by, as in the case of One Hundred Years of Solitude, which I thought over for nineteen years)—I repeat, when it’s finished—then I sit down to write it, and that’s when the most difficult part begins, and the part that bores me most. Because the most delicious part of a story is thinking about it, rounding it out, turning it over and over, so that when the time comes to sit down and write it, it doesn’t interest you very much, or at least it doesn’t interest me very much, the idea that’s been turned over and over.

I’m going to tell you, for example, about the idea that has been turning over and over in my mind for several years, and I suspect I have it pretty rounded out by now. I’ll tell it to you because there’s no doubt that when I write it, I don’t know when, you’ll find it completely changed and be able to observe how it evolved. Imagine a very small village where there’s an old woman who has two children, a boy seventeen and a girl not yet fourteen. She’s serving her children breakfast with a very worried look on her face. Her children ask what’s wrong and she replies: “I don’t know, but I woke up thinking that something very serious is going to happen in this village.”

They laugh at her and say those are an old woman’s misgivings, just something that will pass. The boy goes out to play billiards, and as he’s about to shoot a very simple cannon, his opponent says: “I’ll bet you a peso you can’t make the shot.” Everybody laughs, he laughs, takes his shot, and doesn’t make it. He gives a peso to his opponent, who asks: “But what happened? It was a really simple cannon.” He says: “It was, but I’m worried about something my mother said this morning about something serious that’s going to happen in this village.” Everybody laughs at him, and the one who won the peso goes home, where he finds his mother and a cousin or a niece, or some female relative. Happy about his peso, he says: “I won this peso from Dámaso in the simplest way because he’s a fool.” “And why is he a fool?” He says: “Oh man, he couldn’t make a really simple cannon shot because he was worried about his mother waking up today with the idea that something very serious is going to happen in this village.”

Then his mother says: “Don’t make fun of old people’s misgivings, because sometimes they come true.” The relative hears this and goes out to buy meat. She says to the butcher: “Give me a pound of meat,” and just as he’s cutting it, she adds: “Better make it two, because people are saying that something serious is going to happen and it’s best to be prepared.” The butcher hands her the meat and, when another woman comes in to buy a pound of meat, he says: “Take two, because people are coming in and saying that something very serious is going to happen and they’re preparing for it, buying things.”

Then the old woman replies: “I have several children; look, better give me four pounds.” She takes her four pounds and, to make a long story short, I’ll say that in half an hour the butcher sells all his meat, slaughters another cow, sells all of that, and the rumor spreads. The moment arrives when everybody in the village is waiting for something to happen. Activities grind to a halt and, suddenly, at two in the afternoon, it’s as hot as it always is. Someone says: “Have you noticed how hot it is?” “But in this village it’s always hot.” So hot that it’s a village where all the musicians had instruments repaired with tar and always played in the shade, because if they played in the sun the instruments fell apart. “Still,” one person says, “it’s never been so hot at this time of day.” “Yes, but not as hot as it is now.” And, without warning, a little bird flies down into the deserted village, the deserted square, and the news spreads: “There’s a little bird in the square.” Everybody goes to the square and is frightened when they see the little bird.

“But, my friends, there have always been little birds that fly down.” “Yes, but never at this time of day.” It is a moment of such tension for the inhabitants of the village that they are all desperate to leave but lack the courage to go. “Well, I’m a real man,” one of them shouts, “and I’m leaving.” He gets his furniture, his children, his animals, puts them in a cart, and crosses the main street, where the poor villagers are watching him. Until the moment when they say: “If he has the courage to leave, well, we’re leaving too,” and begin literally to dismantle the village. They take away things, animals, everything. And one of the last to abandon the village says: “Let no misfortune fall on what remains of our house,” and then he burns his house and others burn other houses. They flee in a real and terrible panic, like an exodus in wartime, and among them is the woman who had the misgiving, crying out: “I said something very serious was going to happen, and you told me I was crazy.”

—Translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman


Gabriel García Márquez was born in Colombia in 1927. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1982. He is the author of many works of fiction and nonfiction, including One Hundred Years of Solitude, Love in the Time of Cholera, The Autumn of the Patriarch, The General in His Labyrinth, and News of a Kidnapping. He died in 2014. Read his Art of Fiction interview.

Edith Grossman, the winner of a number of translating awards, most notably the 2006 PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal, is the distinguished translator of works by major Spanish-language authors, including Gabriel García Márquez, Mario Vargas Llosa, Mayra Montero, and Alvaro Mutis, as well as Carlos Fuentes. Her translation of Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote was published to great acclaim in 2003.

From I’m Not Here to Give a Speech, by Gabriel García Márquez. Copyright © 2010 by Gabriel García Márquez. Translation copyright © 2014 by Edith Grossman. Reprinted by permission of Vintage Books, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC.