The least interesting part of Doris Lessing’s Nobel Prize speech has been getting a lot of attention this week — the part where she claims that the speed by which the internet has been developed has led to a sort of mesmerism by screen, and has subsequently caused a serious devaluation of the book and of reading and of education and expertise. I don’t think she’s entirely wrong, nor do I think the online reaction, that this is the part of her speech where she sounds most like a cranky old woman, is invalid either.
But that was not the part of the speech that spoke to me — the paragraph that gave me heart was this:
Writers are often asked: “How do you write? With a word processor? an electric typewriter? a quill? longhand?” But the essential question is: “Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write? Into that space, which is like a form of listening, of attention, will come the words, the words your characters will speak, ideas – inspiration.” If a writer cannot find this space, then poems and stories may be stillborn. When writers talk to each other, what they discuss is always to do with this imaginative space, this other time. “Have you found it? Are you holding it fast?”
These past few months, I’ve been making steady progress on my new book. The way I’ve done this is by becoming very fierce about my weekends. I might go out on a Friday evening, because the day has already been ruined by my real job — but Saturday and Sunday I make no plans, and see nobody. I take the dogs for a walk in the morning — if the weather isn’t terrible we go up to Pine Creek or Suce Creek where we can walk outdoors, in nature (see my piece at Culinate for my feelings on the importance of walking outside.) Then home to do a little cleaning, maybe put in some laundry, and then I have the whole afternoon and evening ahead of me to read, and write, and live inside my own head. I’ve been managing between 750 and 1500 words a weekend — which isn’t bad. I wish it was more, but it is what it is.
Now, I’ve written before about how important Lessing has been to me — how she’s always been a writer I’ve turned to for courage, and here she is again, at 88 years old, giving me faith and courage to continue. Because let’s face it, spending your weekends in your basement office is an odd and anti-social thing to be doing with your time. Turning down dates, or dinner invitations and refusing to join in social activities because you only have two days a week to yourself and you’ve discovered that they must be guarded is weird. And here’s Lessing, as always, telling me that yup, kind of weird, but if that’s what it takes to access “that empty space” then, well, that’s what it takes. So maybe in honor of Doris Lessing’s Nobel Prize we should all turn off the screens for a bit, and immerse ourselves in an evening with a good book — spend a couple of hours not looking at a screen, but looking at pages …