BILL MOYERS: We end as we began this week, with a metaphor; in this case, the phoenix—that great bird of ancient Greek mythology—reborn and rising from its own ashes, a bright and colorful symbol of renewal. That’s how the Nobel Prize-winning writer Doris Lessing described the storyteller she believed is deep inside each one of us. “It is the storyteller, the dream-maker, the myth-maker that is our phoenix,” she said, “that represents us at our best, and at our most creative.” Doris Lessing died last Sunday, age 94. “There is no doubt fiction makes a better job of the truth,” she wrote, and so she proved in her master work, “The Golden Notebook,” and the many other novels written throughout a literary career that spanned six decades. She was an iconoclast. She didn’t suffer fools; she said what she meant and meant what she said, with no holds barred and no subject off limits. I spoke with her ten years ago as she described growing up in Africa and her one great love, the written word.
BILL MOYERS in NOW: Do you never stop writing?
DORIS LESSING in NOW: No. I'm compulsive. And I deeply think that it has to be something very neurotic. And I'm not joking. It has to be. Because if I've finished a book, and this wonderful release, which I'm now feeling. It's off, it's in a parcel, it's gone to a publisher. Bliss and happiness. 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 in NOW: Was there what we call an ah-ha moment, a eureka moment, when you knew that you were going to spend your life writing, rather successfully or not. Was there such a moment?
DORIS LESSING in NOW: Well, I was writing all my childhood. And I wrote two novels when I was 17, which were terrible. And I'm not sorry I threw them out. So, I wrote. I had to write. You know, the thing was, I had no education.
BILL MOYERS in NOW: You left school at age 14, right?
DORIS LESSING in NOW: Fourteen. Yeah. And I wasn't trained for anything. BILL MOYERS in NOW: What was there in a young girl, you know, 12, 13, 14 or 15, that said "I want to write?"
DORIS LESSING in NOW: I was, at that time, being what we now called an au pair. I was a nursemaid. And it was pretty boring. So I thought, "Well, let's try and write a novel." I wrote two. I went back to the farm, and wrote two novels.
BILL MOYERS in NOW: In Africa.
DORIS LESSING in NOW: This was in Africa.
BILL MOYERS in NOW: Where did that idea come from? Had you read a lot? Had somebody--
DORIS LESSING in NOW: I never stopped reading. You know. I read and read and read. And it was what saved me. And educated me. So, writing a novel seemed to be a way out.
BILL MOYERS in NOW: As you talk I think of the traumatic century you lived through, all those events. You were born right at the end of the first Great War. You lived through the Great Depression. You lived through the Second World War. You lived through the nuclear era, the Cold War, genocide, the collapse of the British Empire. I mean, does anything remain of the world you knew when you were young?
DORIS LESSING in NOW: Nothing. Nothing at all. The World War I-- I'm a child of World War I. And I really know about the children of war. Because both my parents were both badly damaged by the war. My father, physically, and both, mentally and emotionally. So, I know exactly what it's like to be brought up in an atmosphere of a continual harping on the war.
BILL MOYERS in NOW: He couldn’t stop talking about it? Your father couldn't stop talking about it?
DORIS LESSING in NOW: No. He was obsessed with it. It was terrible, you know? These men were — had been so traumatized. Though, of course, outwardly, they were very civilized and good and kind and everything. But in actual fact, they were war victims.
BILL MOYERS in NOW: We keep having wars despite the fact that great novelists tell us the truth about wars.
DORIS LESSING in NOW: Well, we don't have much effect, do we? Do you know when I first recognized that horrible truth, I was standing in Southern Rhodesia. I was very young, and watching the night's bag of prisoners, the Africans who were being caught out without passes. Hand cuffed, walking down the street. With the jailers, white, in front and back. And I looked at that and I thought, “Right, well, this is described in Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky and all the others. So what have they achieved?” is what I thought. Didn't stop me writing novels, though. I think we might have a limited effect on a small number of people. I hope a good one.
BILL MOYERS in NOW: But you keep writing.
DORIS LESSING in NOW: Yes I do. I have to.