11 Bits of Wisdom from Doris Lessing, On Reading, Writing, and Life

After I read in the New York Times that The Golden Notebook author Doris Lessing, who won the 2007 Nobel Prize for Literature, passed away this morning, I turned to rereading some of her writings and interviews. I hope you'll enjoy these little wisdoms I've collected:the_golden_notebook

  1. "You should write, first of all, to please yourself. You shouldn't care a damn about anybody else at all. But writing cant 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." - from A Small, Personal Voice
  2. "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." - from The Golden Notebook
  3. "There is no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth." - from Under My Skin
  4. "[T]he book, the story dictates how I'm going to have to do it. The story dictates the means of telling it..." - from a telephone interview with the Editor-in-Chief of Nobelprize.org following the announcement of the 2007 Nobel Prize, October 11, 2007
  5. "I tend to speak my mind, which is not necessarily a good idea." - from a Time Magazine interview
  6. "When I was bringing up a child I taught myself to write in very short concentrated bursts. If I had a weekend, or a week, I’d do unbelievable amounts of work. Now those habits tend to be ingrained ... I think I write much better if I’m flowing. You start something off, and at first it’s a bit jagged, awkward, but then there’s a point where there’s a click and you suddenly become quite fluent. That’s when I think I’m writing well. I don’t write well when I’m sitting there sweating about every single phrase." - from a Paris Review interview
  7. "It's amazing what you find out about yourself when you write in the first person about someone very different from you." - from a Paris Review interview
  8. "I think a writer's job is to provoke questions. I like to think that if someone’s read a book of mine, they’ve had—I don’t know what—the literary equivalent of a shower. Something that would start them thinking in a slightly different way perhaps. That’s what I think writers are for." - from a Paris Review interview
  9. "Whether literature accomplishes anything or not, we do keep going." - from a Southern Review interview
  10. "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&emdash;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&emdash;and vise versa. Don’t read a book out of its right time for you." - from the 1971 introduction to The Golden Notebook

and my favorite, although I have not yet found the source of it:

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

(If you have the source of that last one, please let me know!)


This post originally ran on Meg Waite Clayton's 1st Books. Meg is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of The Wednesday Daughters and The Wednesday Sisters (a writing group novel), and hosts the novelist group on Shewrites.

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Comment by Mark Hughes on December 2, 2013 at 10:31am

Thanks for putting this together, Meg. Numbers 8 & 9 particularly caught my attention - as I'd recently read this article regarding the newly discovered (more accurately: newly proven) benefits of reading literary works. Lessing was entirely right then with her analogy of a literary shower effect. Good for her.

Comment by Mariana Dietl on November 26, 2013 at 8:42pm

Thanks so much for sharing these quotes, Meg! I loved Doris Lessing, her work and her thoughts, and reading your piece was a great way to honor her passing. Happy Thanksgiving!

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