‘In 1984, while I was in a deep and long depression, largely, I think, about how I wasn’t being a writer, my previously adoptive or foster mother, Doris Lessing, would say, in her matter of fact, impatient way: ‘Well, just write down your life story. It’s interesting enough, and there are editors who can deal with sorting out your sentences and that kind of thing.’ She wafted her arm in the air to show me how easy it would be. It was intended to encourage me. It made me even more silent with despair. I wasn’t interested in just being published. I wasn’t even interested in writing something ‘interesting enough’. I was a writer and I couldn’t understand why I wasn’t writing. The answer was, I think, that I hadn’t understood how writing gathers everything into itself to make a satisfactory piece. My story, someone else’s story, a place, an idea, a dream, human anatomy, the mind acting on the world, vice versa, some or all and more yet unthought of, had to be combined in the right amounts in order to make a book, an essay, fiction, non-fiction, history, comedy, whatever, work. I was enough of a writer to know that writing the story of my interesting childhood was not being a writer. I was enough of a writer to be dismayed that Doris, having known me by then for nearly two decades, didn’t know that about me. I was also, in spite of my depression, quite insulted that she thought my sentences needed such tending.

In my experience, writing doesn’t get easier the more you do it. But there is a growth of confidence, not much, but a nugget, like a pearl, like a tumour. You learn that there is a process, and that it doesn’t very much matter what you write, but how you do it, that is crucial, and that nothing I wrote, or you wrote, is ever going to be the same as what she wrote and he wrote, unless, as Truman Capote said, what you’re dealing with isn’t writing, but typing. So I’ve got cancer. I’m writing.’

Jenny Diski, A Diagnosis, London Review of Books, September 2014.


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