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Doris Lessing on the Compulsion to Write

"If you can imagine the sheer bloody pleasure of having an idea and taking it!"

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Doris Lessing on the Compulsion to Write

Doris Lessing (1919-2013)

For many years, Doris Lessing's name hovered near the top of the list of Greatest Living Writers Never to Have Won a Nobel Prize for Literature. That oversight was corrected in October 2007 when the Swedish Academy recognized the author for her "skepticism, fire and visionary power."

When Lessing was informed by reporters that she had won the prize, she responded, "I can't say I'm overwhelmed with surprise. I'm 88 years old, and they can't give the Nobel to someone who's dead, so I think they were probably thinking they'd better give it to me now before I've popped off." Lessing died on November 17, 2013.

Born in Persia (now Iran) and brought up in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Doris Lessing spent most of her adult life in London, with frequent visits to the U.S. for readings and book tours. Though she herself fiercely resisted all labels, several were attached to her, including social activist ("Movements get taken over by the hysterics," she once said), communist ("The whole thing turned out to be a dream"), feminist ("We don't seem to go in very much for self-criticism"), and mystic ("I'm so afraid of religion: its capacity for murder is terrifying").

Lessing published more than 55 books of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction, including several science-fiction novels and two autobiographical volumes--Under My Skin (1994) and Walking in the Shade (1997). Still, she remains best known for The Golden Notebook (1962), considered by many to be a feminist masterpiece. In its citation, the Swedish Academy said that the novel "belongs to the handful of books that informed the 20th-century view of the male-female relationship.” Lessing herself referred to The Golden Notebook as her "albatross."

In a number of interviews conducted over the years, Lessing commented on the indeterminate border between fact and fiction and on the forces that compelled her to keep writing. Here are a few of her thoughts on the writer's life and craft.

  • Autobiography and Memory

    As you start to write at once the question begins to insist: Why do you remember this and not that? Why do you remember in every detail a whole week, month, more, of a long ago year, but then complete dark, a blank? How do you know that what you remember is more important than what you don't?
    ("The Small Personal Voice," in Doris Lessing: A Small Personal Voice: Essays, Reviews, Interviews, edited by Paul Schlueter, 1994)

  • The Writer's Private Life

    There are certain things I don't talk about. I have kept diaries, of course, but they can't be read for quite a long time. What will emerge when people read them? I can't imagine that anything will emerge that can't be deduced from reading any of my books now. This is why I'm always curious about people who are fascinated by writers' lives. It seems to me that we're always in our books, quite nakedly. I wonder, too, does the private life really matter? Who cares what is known about you and what isn't? Even when you make public something that's been private, most people don't get it--not unless they're the same generation and have gone through more or less the same experiences. So, in a sense, we're all private, by definition.
    (Jonah Raskin, "Doris Lessing," in The Progressive, June 1999)

  • Writing as a Balancing Act

    I'm just a story teller. I have to . . . I have to. I'm very unhappy when I'm not writing. I need to write. I think it's possibly some kind of psychological balancing mechanism--but that's not only true for writers . . . anybody. I think that we're always . . . just a step away from lunacy anyway, and we need something to keep us balanced.
    (Jennifer Byrne, "Interview with Doris Lessing," in Foreign Correspondent, October 24, 2001)

  • The Compulsion to Write

    I'm compulsive. And I deeply think that it has to be something very neurotic. And I'm not joking. . . . I don't have to do anything. Nothing. I can just sit around. But, suddenly it starts, you see. This terrible feeling that I am just wasting my life, I'm useless, I'm no good. Now, it's a fact that if I spend a day busy as a little kitten, racing around. I do this, I do that. But I haven't written, so it's a wasted day, and I'm no good. How do you account for that nonsense?
    ("Bill Moyers Interviews Doris Lessing," PBS Now, January 24, 2003)

  • The Pleasure of Ideas

    I'm sure I've said this before but I'll say it again--there's a kind of problem between critics and writers. A writer falls in love with an idea and gets carried away. A critic looks at the finished product and ignores the rush of a river that went into the writing, which has nothing to do with the kind of temperate thoughts you have about it. If you can imagine the sheer bloody pleasure of having an idea and taking it! It's one of the great pleasures in my life. My god, an idea!
    (Harvey Blume, "Q&A: Doris Lessing," The Boston Globe, August 5, 2007)

When asked by Bill Moyers why she continued to write, Lessing said, "I have to. It is what I do." A delicious compulsion--one that perhaps only fellow writers can truly understand.

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