Advice from the Masters: Oliver Sacks

Jun 24, 2015 | Better Writing

Most of Oliver Sacks‘ writing is about neurological patients in the manner of 19th Century clinical anecdotes. He’s known for books like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Awakenings, which was made into a film starring Robin Williams. For my money, as good as those books are, his best piece of writing is the NY Times Op-Ed piece, “My Own Life.” He wrote it after finding out that he had terminal cancer.

This next bit of advice is longer than most of the ones I share. It’s about how Sacks uses a personal journal.

“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.”

Hat tip to Maria Popova and her marvelous blog Brain Pickings, which is where I found this quote and lots more.

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