Doris Lessing: The Story Telling Instinct

That epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny.”

The Swedish Academy’s citation for the 2007 Nobel Prize in Literature awarded to Doris Lessing.

Doris Lessing (1919 – 2013) wove space exploration, migration, climate change and social disintegration into novels that seem astonishingly prescient today.  She was born to British parents in Iran where she lived until 1925. Her family then moved to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where she remained until moving in 1949 to London, England. Her novels include The Grass Is Singing (1950), the sequence of five novels collectively called Children of Violence (1952–1969), The Golden Notebook (1962), The Good Terrorist (1985), and five science-inspired novels collectively known as Canopus in Argos: Archives (1979–1983).

Although all of Lessing’s works are critically acclaimed, The Golden Notebook was her breakthrough and remained her best-known work. A structurally inventive and loosely autobiographical tale, the 1962 book was daring in its day for its frank exploration of the inner lives of women who, unencumbered by marriage, were free to raise children, or not, and pursue work and their sex lives as they chose. The book dealt openly with topics like menstruation and orgasm, as well as with the mechanics of emotional breakdown. Her editor at HarperCollins, Nicholas Pearson, said that The Golden Notebook became a handbook for a whole generation.


On the Story Telling Instinct

“The storyteller is deep inside every one of us. The storyteller is always with us. Let us suppose our world is ravaged by war, the horrors that all of us easily imagine. Let us suppose floods wash through our cities, the seas rise. But the storyteller will be there, for it is our imaginations which shape us, keep us, create us – for good and for ill … It is our stories that will recreate us, when we are torn, hurt, even destroyed. It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker that is our phoenix, that represents us at our best, and at our most creative.

Vignettes of Her Life

From the old stone house where I was born were views of the mountains with snow on them, and of the dusty plains that surround the little town. It was a high dry place. My mother said that the washing, put out to dry at eight in the morning was dry long before lunchtime. The outside world was present inside the house itself, in the person of a young American sharing the house with us. He was an oil man. “There were a lot of oil men around then”. Thus did the future announce itself. It was his voice I remember but overlaid by probably a hundred American voices since.


Some memories have to be cherished, held tight, kept as reminders. If I want to know what some small child is experiencing, I make myself remember that slow ride on my father’s horse, gripped tight by my father. The smell of horse in itself is a giddying intoxicant. That was my best memory of my first two years, that and the smell that comes back at the words marketbazaar, a warm spicy smell, and the cries and commands in the other language.

The three years in Tehran are a gallery of memories, but I will use three. The little children are carried out to see the full moon, the stars. I lisped out the words for moon, stars, doubtless a dear little thing, but later when I was a horrible teenager, under another sky, other moons and stars, my father barked at me, “You were such lovely little things, with your ‘mun, mun,’ your ‘stars,’ but look at you now, who would believe you were ever such a pretty little thing.”

I did see his point, yes, and I did leave home about then, fifteen or so, I was.


We are in the nursery in Tehran, I and my brother, undressing for bed, and I say to him, “What’s that you’ve got there.” And I point at his male equipment. YI have been familiar with my brother’s sexual endowment for years, since he was born in fact. Yet, it seems, I only now notice it. “What’s that you’ve got there?” And my brother, aged three, perhaps, four, pushes out his front, and points it at me. “Mine” he says, “it’s mine.” “My pee place is better that your pee place,” I claim, vainly trying to make something impressive of my cleft. “It’s mine, mine” said Harry, making of his penis a little bow, which he releases, at me. “You haven’t got anything,” he asserts. This scene I put into my novel The Cleft, as a key moment in the lives of those two little children. And of course we have all witnessed something similar if we have had any connection at all with nursery life. Surely a scene that must recur again and again, an exemplary scene.


And then there was the war, and I got married, because that is what happens in a war and for three years I was the most conventional white madam, doing everything just right, cooking, making clothes and there were two babes. How infinitely adaptable we all are. I hated the life, the society – one hundred thousand whites commanded half a million blacks in old Southern Rhodesia. I left that marriage, married a German refugee, Gottfried Lessing, had another child.


For most of the time I had a child and we all know that the life of a writer is better without small children. But that is not to say I had ever wished the child away. And I even at various points in my life added children and young people when I didn’t have to, as in The Sweetest Dream, for instance. But the real story of a life is in the record of the memories or dreams… and where should I begin, or end? Once I thought I would write my autobiography in dreams. My failed attempt became Memoirs of a Survivor. Dreams, a dream, have often rescued me when stuck in a story or a novel.

Related Interest

Doris Lessing’s Nobel lecture:

Leave a Reply