Sunday morning. August 30, 2015.
I am a storyteller, for better and for worse.
I suspect that a feeling for stories, for narrative, is a universal human disposition, going with our powers of language, consciousness of self, and autobiographical memory.---Doctor Writer-Writer Doctor Oliver Sacks.
This is the only way I am at all like Oliver Sacks as a writer:
I started keeping journals when I was fourteen and at last count had nearly a thousand. They come in all shapes and sizes, from little pocket ones which I carry around with me to enormous tomes. I always keep a notebook by my bedside, for dreams as well as nighttime thoughts, and I try to have one by the swimming pool or the lakeside or the seashore; swimming too is very productive of thoughts which I must write, especially if they present themselves, as they sometimes do, in the form of whole sentences or paragraphs…
But for the most part, I rarely look at the journals I have kept for the greater part of a lifetime. The act of writing is itself enough; it serves to clarify my thoughts and feelings. The act of writing is an integral part of my mental life; ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing.
My journals are not written for others, nor do I usually look at them myself, but they are a special, indispensable form of talking to myself.
I started late. Nineteen. But it took me a few years to really get going. I haven’t filled close to a thousand notebooks. But it’s up into the hundreds. I keep them in clear plastic storage boxes so I can look at them anytime. But I don’t just look. I read them. What’s more, I make use of them. A lot of what goes onto the blog comes out of the pages of notebooks. This post you’re reading right now, for instance. Point is, he kept journals, I fill notebooks, and that’s about the size of it. Where our alikeness ends. I’m what I am. He’s Oliver Sacks.
Was Oliver Sacks.
He told us he was going, back in February, but I didn’t believe him. We need people like him to live forever. I thought he knew that.
A MONTH ago, I felt that I was in good health, even robust health. At 81, I still swim a mile a day. But my luck has run out — a few weeks ago I learned that I have multiple metastases in the liver. Nine years ago it was discovered that I had a rare tumor of the eye, an ocular melanoma. The radiation and lasering to remove the tumor ultimately left me blind in that eye. But though ocular melanomas metastasize in perhaps 50 percent of cases, given the particulars of my own case, the likelihood was much smaller. I am among the unlucky ones.
Last spring, one of my students was pre-med and during an editorial conference we got to talking about writing in general and doctors as writers in particular. She wanted to improve her own writing, but she also wanted to read about her chosen field written by people who didn’t drain all the life, interest, excitement, and joy out of it. I told her there’s a tradition of doctors who were good writers or, if you wanted to look at it the other way, good writers who happened to be doctors. She was surprised. Everything she’d ever read written by people in the medical profession was dry and dull, textbook-ese even when it wasn’t a textbook. I listed a few doctor writers (or writer doctors), starting with Sacks. Could have ended with Sacks. A summer spent reading all his books---assuming she could fit them all in---would have been all she needed to learn what she wanted to learn.
The act of writing, when it goes well, gives me a pleasure, a joy, unlike any other. It takes me to another place — irrespective of my subject — where I am totally absorbed and oblivious to distracting thoughts, worries, preoccupations, or indeed the passage of time. In those rare, heavenly states of mind, I may write nonstop until I can no longer see the paper. Only then do I realize that evening has come and that I have been writing all day.
Over a lifetime, I have written millions of words, but the act of writing seems as fresh, and as much fun, as when I started it nearly seventy years ago.
I have Sacks’ book of essays An Anthropologist on Mars and some of his online writing on the syllabus for my course this fall, Public Intellectuals in the Digital Commons. I was planning to use his online chronicling of the coming end of his life and lesson in what can be done in writing for a virtual audience and how to write well about esoteric subjects and abstruse ideas, that is, for lessons my student was looking for for herself when she and I talked about doctors writing and writers doctoring. I think I’ll leave him on it.
There’s still so much left for him to tell us and I think my students will appreciate the lessons:
I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.
This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.
I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.
The quote at the end and the one in the middle are from Sack’s op-ed in the New York Times in which he told us he was dying, My Own Life. The quotes on writing from Sacks are from an appreciative post by Maria Popova at Brain Pickings, Oliver Sacks on Storytelling, the Curious Psychology of Writing, and What His Friendship with the Poet Thom Gunn Taught Him About Creativity and Originality. Even though the class ended months ago, I put the link up on our Facebook group page in hopes my student will see it. I hope you’ll see it too.