Nine Timeless Insights on Journalism from Gabriel Garcia Marquez

“I’ve always been convinced that my true profession is that of a journalist.”

During an interview held at his house in Mexico City with the Paris Review, for the Winter 1981 edition of the literary magazine, Gabriel Garcia Marquez berated interviewer Peter H. Stone for bringing along a tape recorder to harness the accuracy of the exchange.Marquez

The interview, which occurred over the course of three late afternoon meetings spanning approximately two hours each, involved the Colombian artist speaking mostly in Spanish, with his sons translating much of his words.

Through it, Marquez provides illuminating insights into how a novel and a piece of journalistic literature are conditioned by the expectations of editors. Writing for newspapers versus novels impedes the flow of creativity, suggests Marquez, when he writes:

“I had to condition my thoughts and ideas to the interests of the newspaper. Now, after having worked as a novelist, and after having achieved financial independence as a novelist, I can really choose the themes that interest me and correspond to my ideas. In any case, I always very much enjoy the chance of doing a great piece of journalism.”

There are nine important lessons an explorer of ideas, writing, and journalism — or an ethnographer — can learn from Marquez’s approach to journalism.

1. Do not use a tape recorder for the conversation:

“As a journalist. I never use it. I have a very good tape recorder, but I just use it to listen to music.”

2. Understand that the reason you shouldn’t use a tape recorder is because of a profound distinction between the meaning of “interview” versus “report”:

“… As a journalist I’ve never done an interview. I’ve done reports, but never an interview with questions and answers.”

3. Realize that prepared questions can lead you to already predict the outcome of the story and the line of questioning. Embrace, instead, an approach that valorizes the words of the narrator. Instead of using questions and answers, do as Marquez did, when writing about a shipwrecked sailor:

“It wasn’t questions and answers. The sailor would just tell me his adventures and I would rewrite them trying to use his own words and in the first person, as if he were the one who was writing.”

4. Be humble and allow your informants’ voices to speak for themselves. 

“When the work was published as a serial in a newspaper, one part each day for two weeks, it was signed by the sailor, not by me. It wasn’t until twenty years later that it was republished and people found out that I had written it. No editor realized that it was good until after I had written One Hundred Years of Solitude.”

5. Realize that good writing conveys the same messages, despite the medium, and there is no difference between journalistic reporting and novels.

“Nothing. I don’t think there is any difference. The sources are the same, the material is the same, the resources and language are the same.”

6. The expectations of readers is what drives the responsibilities of the writer.

“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.”
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7. Remember that people are conscientious about being recorded and this may change their behavior.

“The problem is that the moment you know the interview is being taped, your attitude changes. In my case I immediately take on a defensive attitude.”

8. There are two fantastic ways of collecting ideas in a conversation and recording it:

“The best way, I feel, is to have a long conversation without the journalist taking any notes. Then afterward he should reminisce about the conversation and write it down as an impression of what he felt, not necessarily using the exact words expressed. Another useful method is to take notes and then interpret them with a certain loyalty to the person interviewed.”

9. Being conscious of being interviewed changes the way that your informant will react, which is undesirable and unproductive to a good reporter:

“What ticks you off about the tape recording everything is that it is not loyal to the person who is being interviewed, because it even records and remembers when you make an ass of yourself. That’s why when there is a tape recorder, I am conscious that I’m being interviewed; when there isn’t a tape recorder, I talk in an unconscious and completely natural way.”

How else was Marquez influenced? Read about how Marquez began writing as a young university student in Bogota.

To find out how other writers viewed creativity, read Susan Sontag’s wonderful insights on the importance of creativity,  and on the need to evaluate, in order to remain productive and true to our creative selves. Additionally, mix these up with how overarching life questions shape the way we humans feel in our life, as told by prolific diarist Anais Nin.

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64 thoughts on “Nine Timeless Insights on Journalism from Gabriel Garcia Marquez

  1. Wow. That is advice which just about flies in the face of all advice given to journalists and writers giving interviews. I love it! Much more in tune with my own way of thinking. This is going to have to be reblogged on my site.

  2. This is very interesting. I’m getting back into school, working on my AA for the moment, but wanting to expand to a higher degree after. But I have been toying with the idea of journalism, and one of the biggest things that holds me back is writing interviews. I cannot stand the idea of it. However, with number 8 in mind, it brings a different light to it. I can appreciate reminiscing and musing, almost, about an interaction.

  3. Like kenthinksaloud said, this goes against everything my Newswriting class taught me. I love it though. I’ve definitely noticed people change how they conduct themselves when being recorded. Some people change just knowing what they’re saying is being written down. A good journalist needs to be able to talk and converse not just interview. I’m going to reblog this. It’s great!

  4. Reblogged this on Marissa Isgreen Creations and commented:
    Ironically, the points made here go against everything my Newswriting class taught me. However, I strongly agree with what’s said in this post. To truly report on a story, you must have a conversation with someone. Not interview them. A process that takes much practice and finessing.

  5. Last night my wife was telling me how boring journalism was but I disagreed. After reading Marquez, I must say the way he puts journalism into a new form struck me. Especially, not using a recorder part… It might even add some more creativity to the content. Thank you for this great post. Shared it on Facebook 🙂

    • Thank you for the share, and I’m glad you liked the post too. I had a lot of fun researching and writing it as well. The recorder part really threw me off too, I wasn’t expecting it either.

    • Thank you so very much for the share, and I hope you continue to like future posts. I’m glad I’ve given both your wife and you something to think about, and hope you will continue to read and like other posts.

  6. I somehow disagree of the point presented in number 1, why dont we use tape recorder if we can. This might help us in the mere future if there would be something bad happened to our written article. But anyway, what I understood in that idea, is that we should make ourselves sure of everything we are writing.
    Thanks for this great thoughts, anyway. I love it much.

    • Yes, many people do have an issue with number 1. I am just the messenger here, no point shooting me… 😉 But thanks, I am glad you appreciated the piece, regardless. I love how full of strange ideas Marquez always is…

  7. I think we have all lost the knack of going with our intuition, placing trust in our own feelings and being overwhelmed by facts and figures. When it comes to ‘interpreting’ an interview, or portraying someone you have just met, these pointers are truly enlightening.

  8. I did a lot of interview without recorder when I worked for media. But I was using recorder myself when people interviewed me. Why ? I guess every journalist knows the hidden rules….

  9. Reblogged this on Journal with Sue and commented:
    I wanted to reblog this because I will always love old school. We do have to give the audience what they want, but there comes a time when the masters win out on advice.

  10. I have a friend who is currently studying to become a Journalist, but we have not yet spoken of anything like this. I tend to ask her questions about her chosen profession, as she likes to improve her knowledge and pass on to me what she has been learning, in the hope that she has remembered all the important points. In a way, it’s as though she is filling me in on each lesson she has — as a way of revising the information she has been given on a particular day and gaining a better understanding of it.

    As this is something she has not yet mentioned, I think I may bring it up during our next discussion and find out her own thoughts on the matter. Personally, I would not much like being recorded when interviewed, but in some cases I do understand it is necessary.

    • It sounds like you and your friend have a wonderful relationship of exchanging ideas that matter, and I’m glad that this piece will help provide fodder for your conversations! Thanks for the comment!

  11. Reblogged this on Karen Atienza and commented:
    In an era when the boundary between fact and fiction is occasionally blurred by commercial or political factors, writers can find inspiration from the candid, somewhat counterintuitive insights of novelist-journalist Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

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