Oliver Sacks’ Village

When Oliver Sacks starts writing, he may not stop writing for hours, days, weeks, and when he does, he may need an editor to wrestle a manuscript from unwieldy to publishable length.

He once fired off nine drafts of an article to the editor of The Listener, each so different that the editor could not combine them but finally just settled on one and went with it.

Writing about himself in his new autobiography, On the Move, Sacks says he gets “intoxicated, sometimes, by the rush of thoughts,” and they come out in a tangle that requires “extensive pruning and editing.”

He wrote so many versions of A Leg to Stand On – “each longer, more intricate, more labyrinthine than the last – that after nine years he had produced a manuscript of over 300,000 words, ultimately trimmed to one-fifth that length.

One could nearly conclude that it takes a village to make a writer – not only editors but people who love you, like Sacks’ Aunt Lennie, who, reading his account of his trips in the early 60s wrote to him, “I found the whole thing breathtaking. I was suddenly conscious that I was gasping physically.”

If Sacks, like many writers, has not been flying solo, his prodigious passion for storytelling has kept the plane in the air. Stories zing through his autobiography – long manic motorcycle rides, tender moments, and – of most interest to writers – lightbulb moments when he sees a story he wants to tell.

It is hard to imagine how he managed to tell the story of his own unruly life in a mere 384 pages, but we owe some gratitude for that to Kate Edgar who, he says in his Acknowledgments, “has played a unique role in my life – as personal assistant, editor, collaborator, and friend – for more than thirty years.” – Carol Polsgrove, August 25, 2015

 

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