How I Write: Oliver Sacks
Published: February 20, 2002
|An alchemist who turns scientific explorations into literary gold, Oliver Sacks, one of the nation's foremost neurologists, is, above all, a facile storyteller. Whether exploring mysterious neurological puzzles or recalling his early fascination with chemistry, he weaves a compelling human drama in each of his eight books. Born in London into a family of doctors, metallurgists, chemists, physicists and teachers, Sacks developed early a passion for the natural world and learned quickly to value curiosity, experimentation and reading. He obtained a medical degree from Oxford and studied neurology at UCLA. Since 1965, he has lived in New York City, where he has a practice, writes and teaches.|
Credits: Oaxaca Journal (2002); Uncle Tungsten (2001); The Island of the Colorblind (1996); An Anthropologist on Mars (1995); Seeing Voices (1989); The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985); A Leg to Stand On (1984); Awakenings (1973); and Migraine (1970).
Why: It comes out of a necessity to articulate what's in my head. To come to terms with it, fix it, transform it imaginatively and communicate it. I really don't know what I think and what I feel until I write. It's not planned out beforehand; that realization comes with the act of writing. At the same time, the desire to tell a story may come from a sort of desire to bear witness.
When and where: I try to be consistent and to put aside the morning for writing, but often it doesn't work because I'm distracted. I have a room that, when I was writing [Uncle Tungsten], was lined with books on chemistry and physics. I have a manual typewriter in the car and electric typewriters in my apartment and office. I'm a hunt-and-peck typist but a quick one. I don't know how I do it, but I can keep up 60 or 70 words a minute. Apparently, it looks rather bizarre.
I do a certain amount of my writing underwater. I'm a passionate swimmer and sometimes as I swim, sentences start swimming through my mind. This was particularly strong when I wrote A Leg to Stand On. I would swim for half an hour, come out dripping and scribble. I remember sending my editor a water-stained manuscript. He said, "No one has sent me a handwritten manuscript for 30 years, let alone a water-stained one!"
How: I do much of my writing with pen and paper. I've had notebooks of all shapes and sizes. I've written endless journals since I was 14--tens of millions of words.
I sort of start a sculpture, not knowing either the form or the content. It begins to emerge, then I start to see what I'm doing, and what I need to do.
When I'm working on a particular theme and an issue is in my mind, I will go over it again and again and try to find ways of saying it. It's sort of obsessive and keeps me awake at night. I will write it out, then be unhappy and redo it. I don't find it easy to go over what I write. I tend to produce another draft from a different angle. For better or worse, I write multiple versions.
Occasionally I get on a roll, and then I work nonstop. I don't want to go to bed in case it's all gone in the morning. It's partly systematic work and partly a series of rushes. There is no joy like those rushes when they come and no frustration like having them interrupted.
Writer's block: For me, writer's block is a state of not knowing what to do, not knowing what comes next. Although it may seem like a block, it's sort of a testing internally. Then a solution may come and I can move ahead.
Advice: Be oneself. When I was in my early 20s, I submitted a piece to an editor, and he said it was very nice but he found my sentences too elaborate. He said, "Why don't you be snappier, write like Hemingway?" I didn't submit anything for 15 years after that. I think the advice to be like Hemingway or emulate anyone is dangerous advice. One should only write about what genuinely moves and interests one. If you don't, the falsity will show.
Photograph by Nancy Crampton