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Lessons About Writing From Doris Lessing

Doris Lessing instructs us on the craft of writing

-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.

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

-What I had that others didn’t was a capacity for sticking to it.

-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.

-The story dictates the means of telling it.

-Well, it’s certainly true that I’m driven myself, about writing. But you know I don’t do anything else. I don’t have much of a social life, and I’ve been very circumscribed by other circumstances in my life which keep me writing. You know, if I hadn’t (I am a naturally social person) I think I would have frittered away my life having fun, which I’m quite good at.

-The reader makes up his or her mind and the writer goes along with it. There’s nothing you can do, really, if they get something that you’ve written absolutely wrong. You’re not then going to issue a sort of statement saying “Oh dear, that’s not right at all. What I really meant was something else.” No, no, you write, and then they make what they want of it.

-I’m usually thinking about what I’m writing now. But you know I don’t have a great range of other interests, let’s put it like that. For one reason or another.

-No, once I have an idea, a story, or something, in my mind, then it has to find the right expression. You know, I don’t say “Oh, now I’m going to write a, I don’t know what, a realistic book of 50,000 words”. What happens is that the book, the story dictates how I’m going to have to do it. The story dictates the means of telling it. So I have written a lot of different styles, if you want to call it that, because I’ve written a lot of different stories. It’s not at all a question of wanting to try out this or try out that. I mean when I started to write the Shikasta series, which covers millions of years, that fact in itself dictates a style. You can’t start that by saying, “Oh well, Joe Bloggs sat in his kitchen and drank a cup of Typhoo tea, and wrote a letter to his sister-in-law”. You have to have a different way of doing it. So that’s how that comes about.


Earlier in her career, Doris Lessing was told by the Swedish Academy that she would never receive the Nobel Prize. “They told me a long time ago they didn’t like me and I would never get it,” Lessing told reporters.

Doris Lessing

Dubbed as the “Titan with a pen dipped in acid,” Lessing’s response to the Swedish Academy’s decision to award her  the Nobel Prize for literature in 2007 was,  “I can’t say I’m overwhelmed with surprise,” she explained. “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.”

Lessing popped off last November 17, 2013. She was 94 years old.  She left a legacy that includes 55 works of fiction, non-fiction and poetry, as well as numerous tips and lessons about the craft of writing.

Born Doris Tayler in Persia (now Iran) in 1919 to British parents, she later  moved to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe} with her family. Since she was a child, the young Doris was constantly at odds with her mother. She later described her mother as refined but cold and unemotional. Lessing said her mother’s concerns were focused primarily on wearing beautiful dresses, keeping the silver perfectly polished and the piano in perfect tune – not so much on her and her brother.

The young Doris heard her mother complain, “I have sacrificed myself to my children.”

Ironically, it was her mother who helped her become the extraordinary writer that she was. Her mother shipped parcels and parcels of books from England to her daughter in Southern Rhodesia.

Lessing left convent school at the age of 14,”I was never educated, you see,” she recounted. “Without the books, I would have come to grief.”

At the eve of World War II, when “everyone got married,” Lessing entered into a marriage as a means of escaping what she felt was a stifling, rural life in a foreign country. She was 19 when she married Frank Wisdom,  a 29-year old civil servant.

After less than five years, the couple had two children and a crumbling marriage. Lessing decided to abandon her children rather than subject them to the same kind of detached mothering she experienced. She left her husband to care for her son and daughter.

In 1944, she married the German internee, Gottfried Lessing. The marriage was blessed with one child before it failed and the couple parted. In 1949, Lessing fled to London with her son.

One of her bestselling books is  The Golden Notebook, which was published in 1962The book revolves around a writer named Anna Wulf, who records her struggles with motherhood, work, sex and politics in her notebooks.

doris lessing

Photo of Doris Lessing courtesy of MailOnline


  1. “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.” Why do you have to give up a great deal of your life? Toni Morrison wrote while working a full-time job and raising children as a single mother. But at the same time, I’m just finding my groove when my children are older.


      • To accomplish that, yes. I can see that. Ironically, Toni Morrison won even though she started her writing career at 39. Of course most of us won’t be in the running. Good piece.


        • Journalist and non-fiction writer William Zinsser (Google him for more info), who taught writing at Yale University, is of very much the same opinion about the writing life as Doris Lessing, saying that professional writers are “solitary drudges” who seldom find time to socialize because writing is hard and lonely work.

          And if I remember correctly, Stephen King lamented the same thing in his book on writing.


          • I don’t hold myself in the same rank as the two famous authors, Cecil, but I do have to give up a big chunk of my social life just so I can write.


            • I knew that, Rosanna, even before you mentioned it. It was obvious from the quality of your writing that you edit your work carefully before posting (one of the reasons your posts are such great reading).

              It reminds me of an interview with Bryce Courtenay I listened to. When the show host mentioned that a particular best-selling author rewrites his novels up to ten times before he’s satisfied, Bryce exclaimed, “Only ten times? Good heavens, he must be a brilliant writer!”


            • Thanks for the kind words, Cecil. I worked as a feature writer for many years and I felt it my responsibility to bring to my readers my best work, so I had to edit repeatedly. Ten times was average, although I don’t edit as much for my blogs. Writing for me takes a lot of time but it’s ok because I love to write.


  2. I now immediately have to re-read “The Golden Notebook.” I love your posts especially the ones like this. They remind me of all the complexities of writing and life that I love so much.


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