Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing (October 22, 1919 – November 17, 2013) was a British novelist, playwright, poet, short story writer, and biographer.  She was born in what was then Persia (present-day Iran) to British parents, raised in Rhodesia (what is now Zimbabwe), and spent much of her life in London. Lessing left school age 14, and received no further formal education, though she self educated from then on. A passionate social observer, she wrote about women’s issues, communism, motherhood, mental health, and eroticism. She even wrote science fiction laced with social commentary.

In her teens, Lessing held a number of jobs to piece together a living. She worked at various times as a telephone operator, office worker, and journalist. When at age 15 she got one of her first jobs as a nursemaid, her employer gave her books on politics and sociology to read. Around the same time she started writing stories, and successfully sold two to magazines in South Africa. Being a writer at once gave her a feeling of freedom.

Married at age 19, she soon had a son and daughter. But she felt trapped, and left the marriage after four years. She had a third child with her second husband; that marriage ended as well. In 1949, she moved to London with her youngest child, leaving her older two children in South Africa with their father. She felt she had no choice.

NPG x4062; Doris Lessing by Roger MayneWith the publication of her first novel, The Grass is Singing (1950) she finally considered herself a real writer. Semi-autobiographical and somewhat philosophical, the book was an immediate success. It was The Golden Notebook (1962) that was her breakthrough novel and earned much attention among feminists. She later became something of an icon and the book is considered a “feminist bible.”

Doris Lessing was an outspoken opponent of apartheid in South Africa, and spoke regularly about the subject. She practiced Sufism, a branch of Islam.

When she won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2007 the jury described her as “that epicist of the female experience, who with skepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilization to scrutiny.” Lessing was the was the eleventh women and oldest person to receive the award at age eighty-eight. In 2008 The Times put her at number five in the list of “The 50 Greatest British Writers since 1945”

Lessing passed away on November 17, 2013, at the age of 94.

Major Works
Doris Lessing was incredibly prolific; the list of her work below represents but a fraction of her output, as she wrote a great deal of nonfiction as well.

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Quotes by Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing young“We are all of us made by war, twisted and warped by war, but we seem to forget it.”

“Whatever you’re meant to do, do it now. The conditions are always impossible.”

“What’s terrible is to pretend that second-rate is first-rate. To pretend that you don’t need love when you do; or you like your work when you know quite well you’re capable of better.” (The Golden Notebook,1962)

“There is no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth.” (Under My Skin, 1994)

“Novels give you the matrix of emotions, give you the flavour of a time in a way formal history cannot.”

“There is only one way to read, which is to browse in libraries and bookshops, picking up books that attract you, reading only those, dropping them when they bore you, skipping the parts that drag — and never, never reading anything because you feel you ought, or because it is part of a trend or a movement. Remember that the book which bores you when you are twenty or thirty will open doors for you when you are forty or fifty-and vise versa. Don’t read a book out of its right time for you. ”

“With a library you are free, not confined by temporary political climates. It is the most democratic of institutions because no one — but no one at all — can tell you what to read and when and how.” (Index on Censorship, March/April 1999)

“Words. Words. I play with words, hoping that some combination, even a chance combination, will say what I want.”

“Parents should leave books lying around marked “forbidden” if they want their children to read.” (Interview with Amanda Craig, “Grand dame of letters who’s not going quietly,” The Times, London; November 23, 2003)

“Advice to young writers? Always the same advice: learn to trust our own judgment, learn inner independence, learn to trust that time will sort the good from the bad — including your own bad.”

“Most novels, if they are successful at all, are original in the sense that they report the existence of an area of society, a type of person, not yet admitted to the general literate consciousness.” (The Golden Notebook, 1962)

“I’ve been close to the literary machine now for a long time. I know what’s good about it and what’s bad about it. It’s not the publishers I’ve had it in for so much as the reviewers and the critics, whom I find extraordinarily predictable…”

“As you get older, you don’t get wiser. You get irritable.”

“Think wrongly, if you please, but in all cases think for yourself.” (Interview with Amanda Craig, “Grand dame of letters who’s not going quietly,” The Times of London; November 23, 2003)

Doris Lessing 4“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 probably better give it to me now before I’ve popped off.”

“That is what learning is. You suddenly understand something you’ve understood all your life, but in a new way.” (The Four-Gated City, 1969)

“Art is the Mirror of our betrayed ideals.” (The Golden Notebook, 1962)

“A writer falls in love with an idea and gets carried away.”

“You should write, first of all, to please yourself. You shouldn’t care a damn about anybody else at all. But writing can’t be a way of life – the important part of writing is living. You have to live in such a way that your writing emerges from it.”

“In the writing process, the more the story cooks, the better. The brain works for you even when you are at rest. I find dreams particularly useful. I myself think a great deal before I go to sleep and the details sometimes unfold in the dream.” (Interview with Herbert Mitgang, “Mrs. Lessing Addresses Some of Life’s Puzzles,” The New York Times, April 22, 1984)

 

“I am sure everyone has had the experience of reading a book and finding it vibrating with aliveness, with colour and immediacy. And then, perhaps some weeks later, reading it again and finding it flat and empty. Well, the book hasn’t changed: you have.”

“You can only learn to be a better writer by actually writing. I don’t know much about creative writing programs. But they’re not telling the truth if they don’t teach, one, that writing is hard work and, two, that you have to give up a great deal of life, your personal life, to be a writer.” (Interview with Herbert Mitgang, “Mrs. Lessing Addresses Some of Life’s Puzzles,” The New York Times, April 22, 1984)Doris Lessing

“Remember that the book which bores you when you are twenty or thirty will open doors for you when you are forty or fifty-and vise versa. Don’t read a book out of its right time for you.” (The Golden Notebook,1962)

“Any human anywhere will blossom in a hundred unexpected talents and capacities simply by being given the opportunity to do so.”

“I don’t know why I have to write. It’s just something I have to do. If I don’t write for any length of time, I get very irritable. If I had to stop, I would probably start wandering the streets, telling myself stories out loud.”

“It is terrible to destroy a person’s picture of himself in the interests of truth or some other abstraction.” (The Grass is Singing, 1950)

“I do not think writers ought ever to sit down and think they must write about some cause, or theme … If they write about their own experiences, something true is going to emerge.” (“Literature Nobel Awarded to Writer Doris Lessing” All Things Considered NPR, October 11, 2007)

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