Inside Oliver Sacks’s Creative Process: The Beloved Writer’s Never-Before-Seen Manuscripts, Brainstorm Sheets, and Notes on Writing, Creativity, and the Brain
Inside the “buzzing, blooming chaos” of a brilliant mind at work.
By Maria Popova
“The act of writing is an integral part of my mental life; ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing… a special, indispensable form of talking to myself,” Oliver Sacks wrote as he reflected on storytelling and the curious psychology of writing. Indeed, what makes his writing so singular and splendid is that it makes the reader feel like she is listening to the inner song of the writer’s very consciousness, where concepts are syncopated, ideas harmonized, and divergent associations strummed into a smooth melody of meaning.
What a privilege, then, to witness the raw rhythm of that consciousness in Dr. Sacks’s notes to himself — the creative sandbox in which he worked out his ideas and sketched the skeletons of what he would later flesh out into essays and entire books.
“The need to think on paper is not confined to notebooks,” he professes in his indispensable memoir. “It spreads onto the backs of envelopes, menus, whatever scraps of paper are at hand.” That miscellany of canvases for informal thought is what I have the grateful chance to share here — a rare glimpse of an extraordinary mind at work, courtesy of Bill Hayes, Dr. Sacks’s partner (who has written beautifully about their love and life together in his memoir Insomniac City), with special thanks to Dr. Sacks’s editor, Dan Frank, and his longtime assistant and collaborator, Kate Edgar, currently heading the Oliver Sacks Foundation and putting together the Oliver Sacks archive of which these papers will one day be a part.
Using whatever paper and writing instrument he had on hand, Dr. Sacks jotted down ideas as they occurred to him — unedited, un-self-censored flights of fancy, captured before they flew away and later domesticated into the thoughtful, exquisitely structured, immensely insightful formal writings for which he is so beloved.
On a plain piece of legal paper, he ponders the mysteries of consciousness. In a lengthy diary entry snaking around the cartoon airplanes on an airline menu, he records with childlike wonder the thrill of being allowed to go inside the cockpit and marvels at the “hundreds! thousands of dials” inside the “tiny cabin.” On the inside of a folder, he contemplates what it means to be alive. On hotel stationery, he contrasts fancy and imagination. On two loose leaves stapled, he distinguishes between the two modes of creativity.
After countless hours of deciphering his archetypal doctorly handwriting, and with greatly appreciated help from Bill Hayes, I’ve transcribed the most notable of Dr. Sacks’s notes.
In one set of notes — part of what would become “The Creative Self,” one of ten essays in the forthcoming posthumous anthology The River of Consciousness — he appears to be offering a wonderful taxonomy of the two types of creative work: making and birthing, reminiscent of Lewis Hyde’s dichotomy of work vs. labor.
Dr. Sacks characterizes making as “elementary,” “primitive,” “juvenile,” and “pathological,” and birthing as “deep,” “motivated,” “personal,” “not immediate,” and “not conscious,” underlining “theoretical/structural.” Where making is driven by association and memory, birthing “needs ‘incubation'” and is marked by intuition. But before we hasten to assume that he valued the latter type of creative work more highly than the former, he lists Darwin as an example of a writer who makes and Rilke as one who births, which strongly suggests that he saw the two not as a hierarchy but as distinct, complementary forms of creative work — Darwin was, after all, one of Dr. Sacks’s great heroes.
He continues on a second page, contrasting the “quick” and “funny” thought process of making with the “pondering,” “weighing,” “judgment,” and “reflecting” of birthing. Where the former is aimed at “learning,” the latter is “concept-driven” or “self-driven.”
On another page, beside the circled exclamation “the miracle of language,” he considers the eternal question of why writers write, making his own contribution to the canon of excellent answers by writers like Jennifer Egan, W.H. Auden, Pablo Neruda, Joan Didion, David Foster Wallace, Italo Calvino, and William Faulkner. Among his reasons, Dr. Sacks lists:
put in perspective
speak for others
“fix” in words
find verbal equivalent
Next to “fun” and “wit,” he jots down a parenthetical example: “I sighed as a lover, I obeyed as a son” — a line from the memoirs of the great historian Edward Gibbon, which must have impressed itself upon Dr. Sacks’s literary imagination in the course of his lifetime of voracious reading.
In red ink, he adds another set of motives which differs from the first in seeming to be aimed more at the effect of writing than at its cause:
On another piece of paper, he lists the categories of writing under the bold heading “The Writing Life”:
PORTRAITS ~ bios
MEMOIR — AUTOBIO.
School or college “essays”
On the inside of a folder, Dr. Sacks considers what it means to be alive:
Alive — hence universals of activity, organizing, adapting, but equally of individuality, identity, diversity.
He circles in red an insight he perhaps deemed most worthy of preservation and further development:
Organisms are not machines, computers, automata, replicas, factories, “standard models,” or identities (like atoms!).
Opposite it, he contrasts inner concerns (“passion, curiosity, concern, tenacity, audacity”) with the outer ones, among them “community” and two other illegible words. He then lists the encouraged qualities — in all organisms? in humans? in himself? — “adventure, novelty, risk, error, stimulation, support, adventure, freedom.”
On the back of the folder, he further crystallizes these wonderings and ponderings under the heading “Creativity and the Brain”:
The brain is alive, incessantly active, seething — physiologically — from the moment of birth to the moment of death. All brains — of idiots or geniuses, human beings or dogs. This is most evident in unusual/abnormal conditions.
He proceeds to consider the chief function of the brain:
ORDER OUT OF CHAOS. The brain is in an organism which has to negotiate a complex world, from adequate representation of the world. To understand the world — to seek or make meanings — categorize.
On can almost see the characteristic enthusiasm animating his beaming face as he adds, in two different colors for special emphasis:
BUZZING, BLOOMING CHAOS — literally chaos.
On a piece of stationery from the Ritz Carlton in Chicago, Dr. Sacks ponders memory and creativity, contrasts fancy and imagination, and lists as “The Neural Basis”:
Consciousness, creativity, sensibility, talent, personal… identity…
They called me Inky as a boy, and I still seem to get as ink stained as I did seventy years ago.
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.
On another legal pad page, he jots down a short autobiographical sketch under the title “The Joy of Writing,” reminiscent of Antoine de Saint Exupéry’s The Little Prince in its warmhearted contrast between the penchant for writing and the comical incapacity for drawing:
Words came to me early and easily, and I was reading and writing by the age of four or earlier.
On the other hand, I could not (and cannot) draw anything recognizably — my dogs look like insects, my elephants like amoebae. I seem to have almost no voluntary visual imagery. I cannot conjure up scenes of people or animals in my mind. I cannot “see” my parents or the house where I was born. And yet, I am told, my writing is often very “visual” — may call up vivid images in other people’s minds.
And indeed it does — how can one read Dr. Sacks’s vivid descriptions of the island of the colorblind or his vibrant account of nearly dying in a Norwegian fjord without being fully, sensorially transported to those scenes?
All manuscript photographs courtesy of Bill Hayes
Published March 7, 2017