Oct. 22, 2009

The Speaker

by Louis Jenkins

The speaker points out that we don't really have much of
a grasp of things, not only the big things, the important
questions, but the small everyday things. "How many steps
up to your front door? What kind of tree grows in your
backyard? What is the name of your district representative?
What is your wife's shoe size? Can you tell me the color of your
sweetheart's eyes? Do you remember where you parked
the car?" The evidence is overwhelming. Most of us never
truly experience life. "We drift through life in a daydream,
missing the true richness and joy that life has to offer." When
the speaker has finished we gather around to sing a few
inspirational songs. You and I stand at the back of the group
and hum along since we have forgotten most of the words.

"The Speaker" by Louis Jenkins, from Before You Know It: Prose Poems 1970–2005. © Used with permission of the poet. (buy now)

On this day in 1964, Jean-Paul Sartre (books by this author) declined the Nobel Prize in literature. He was the first person in history to voluntarily and unrelentingly refuse a Nobel Prize.

Sartre had announced that he did not wish to receive the prize. When he learned that he was being seriously considered, he wrote to the Nobel Institute asking that his name be removed from the list of candidates, saying that he wouldn't accept the prize if it were given to him. But the Swedish Academy had decided, and they gave him the prize anyway, noting in their citation: "The fact that he has declined this distinction does not in the least modify the validity of the award." Later, a Swedish Academy spokesman said that even if he didn't collect the money, Sartre would be a Nobel laureate, and that "the academy is guided not by a possible winner's wishes but by the decision of its members."

Sartre had not wanted to cause a scandal by declining the prize, nor did he want to offend the Swedish Academy, which had chosen him. After it was awarded, he prepared a statement noting that he always turned down "official distinctions." It was his belief, he said, that "a writer must refuse to allow himself to be transformed into an institution, even if it takes place in the most honorable form." He said that it wasn't fair to the reader if he carried the authority of an institution along with his name. He pointed out, "It is not the same thing if I sign Jean-Paul Sartre or if I sign Jean-Paul Sartre, Noble Prize winner." Sartre had previously turned down his home country's highest accolade, the French Legion of Honor, and he'd also declined a tenured teaching position at the prestigious Collège de France. The Nobel Prize came with a large chunk of money (it was $53,000 in 1964; today it's about one million dollars), which Sartre — who was not at all rich — had to forgo when he declined the prize.

Sartre said, "If literature isn't everything, it's not worth a single hour of someone's trouble."

Today is the 90th birthday of the woman who won (and accepted) the Nobel Prize in literature in 2007, Doris Lessing, (books by this author) born in 1919 in Kermanshah, Persia (now Iran). She's the oldest person to ever win the Nobel literature prize. She is the author of many novels, including The Golden Notebook (1962) and The Sweetest Dream (2002). Her father was a former captain in the British army who had lost a leg in World War I, and her mother was a nurse whose first great love, a doctor, had been killed in the war. Lessing grew up feeling that both her parents were full of regrets left over from that war.

When she was young, her father moved the family to Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, with the idea that he would get rich by farming tobacco and prospecting for gold. The plan didn't pan out, and the family lived a hard life in a mud and thatch house, sleeping under mosquito nets. Her father would stand outside their home for hours, shaking his fist at the sky, shouting that everyone in Africa was mad. Lessing would fall asleep at night to the sound of her mother playing Chopin on their piano against the thudding of the tom-toms from the village down the hill.

Lessing dropped out of high school after a year and moved to South Africa, where she earned money working in a dress shop and by writing advertising jingles for a furniture store. She also began to read great authors, including Virginia Woolf, Marcel Proust, and D.H. Lawrence — and she herself began to write. She also became involved with a group of leftist revolutionaries who believed that the European colonization of Africa was an injustice to the African people.

After World War II, Lessing immigrated to England. By that time, she was a divorced single mother still struggling to establish herself as a writer. But she said, "I had sticking power, which is just as important as literary talent. I just got on with the work. And I think there are such things as writing animals. I simply have to write."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




  • “Writers end up writing stories—or rather, stories' shadows—and they're grateful if they can, but it is not enough. Nothing the writer can do is ever enough” —Joy Williams
  • “I want to live other lives. I've never quite believed that one chance is all I get. Writing is my way of making other chances.” —Anne Tyler
  • “Writing is a performance, like singing an aria or dancing a jig” —Stephen Greenblatt
  • “All good writing is swimming under water and holding your breath.” —F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.” —John Edgar Wideman
  • “In certain ways writing is a form of prayer.” —Denise Levertov
  • “Writing is a socially acceptable form of schizophrenia.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” —E.L. Doctorow
  • “Let's face it, writing is hell.” —William Styron
  • “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” —Thomas Mann
  • “Writing is 90 percent procrastination: reading magazines, eating cereal out of the box, watching infomercials.” —Paul Rudnick
  • “Writing is a failure. Writing is not only useless, it's spoiled paper.” —Padget Powell
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  • “I think all writing is a disease. You can't stop it.” —William Carlos Williams
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  • “Writing is my dharma.” —Raja Rao
  • “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work.” —Anthony Powell
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