In the swim with Dr Sacks

I had intended to publish a review of John Cleese’s autobiography So, Anyway, but I find myself travelling and without my notes. Another time. Instead, as I have a copy of Oliver Sacks’ On the Move: A Life (which I am reading with great enjoyment), I think I want to encourage you to get in the swim with Dr Sacks.

Oliver Sacks On the Road cover imageFriends and followers will know that I enjoy swimming and have written a number of posts about it over the years. (Most recently here at Stops and Stories.) One of the positive features of swimming I find is that it clears my mind in a way that allows creative thought. One of the disadvantages, though, is that I have to train myself to hold in my head the great ideas I have while I’m swimming until I can get to either a notepad or a recording device. I was delighted to read, in On the Move, that Dr Sacks had exactly the same problem, though he solved it differently.

In the chapter called “The Bull on the Mountain” he describes a period in the 1970s when he used to spend weeks at a time at a sleepy lakeside resort in upstate New York called Lake Jefferson (Lake Jeff). He writes:

Life at Lake Jeff was healthy and monastic… [I]n the long summer days I would cycle for hours. I would often stop at the old cider mill near the hotel and get two half gallon jugs of hard cider, which I would hang on the handlebars. I love cider, and the half gallons, sipped gradually and symmetrically – a mouthful from this jug, a mouthful from that – would keep me hydrated and slightly tipsy through a long day of cycling.

I’m not really sure that riding around on a bike all day slightly tipsy from regular sips of cider is best described as “monastic”. (Although, to be sure, the monks of Belgium do make their world-renowned beers.) However, Sacks goes on:

…the greatest joy of all was swimming in the placid lake, where there might be an occasional fisherman lounging in a row boat but no motorboats or jetskis to threaten the unwary swimmer… Swimming timelessly, without fear or fret, relaxed me and got my brain going. Thoughts and images, sometimes whole paragraphs, would start to swim through my mind, and I had to land every so often to pour them onto a yellow pad I kept on a picnic table by the side of the lake. I had such a sense of urgency sometimes that I did not have time to dry myself but rushed wet and dripping to the pad.

As a result, these notes for Oliver Sacks’ book (it became A Leg to Stand On) were handwritten, blotted, and almost illegible.

Jim Silberman, my editor and publisher in America, was disconcerted when I send him the Lake Jeff section of the book. He had not received a handwritten manuscript for 30 years, he said, and this one looked as if it had been dropped in the bath. He said it would have to be not just typed but be deciphered, and he sent it to one of his former editors… My illegible, water-stained manuscript with its ragged incomplete sentences, arrows, and indecisive crossings out came back beautifully typed and annotated with wise editorial comments.

I can’t help but think that Oliver Sacks’ earlier success – Awakenings – helped. His editors and publishers knew the quality of his writing and were prepared to tolerate a little eccentricity in manuscript submission. If I – or any unknown author – were to submit to a publisher a handwritten manuscript that had been composed poolside, I think I would be guaranteed a rejection.

By the way, reading Oliver Sacks’ book I find myself wondering if he ever met John Cleese. Neither one mentions the other in their respective books, but they were of more or less the same age and they both knew Jonathan Miller. Sacks went to school with Miller in London and they were friends throughout their lives. Miller and John Cleese were both undergraduates at Cambridge University and both members of the Cambridge Footlights, though at slightly different times. Cleese describes how he first saw Jonathan Miller when Miller performed in Beyond the Fringe with Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett. Later Cleese himself performed with Miller in sketches for The Secret Policeman’s Ball – the series of comedy shows put on in aid of Amnesty.

There is no reason in the world why Cleese and Sacks should have got to know one another and the only reason I associate them now is because I’ve just read both their autobiographies (which both include photos of the respective authors with Miller). But I think they might have enjoyed one another’s company. I imagine them both swimming in Lake Jeff, coming up with ideas at the same time and racing one another to the lakeside to be the first to reach that yellow pad.

Ah the magic of imagination, eh?


The illustratons are borrowed as follows: The partial image at the head of the article is of the cover of the US hardback version of On the Road, the smaller intertextual illustration is of the front cover of the UK paperback edition. The latter is loaned from Oliver Sacks’ own website, the former from the review of the book on the website of the New York Times

The Habits of Successful Authors

Thinking about writing
Thinking about writing.
I did not make a resolution, but I was rather hoping that this year I would be writing frequent blog entries At the Quill – and at least one a week for the #Blogg52 challenge — but I haven’t managed it. The ordinary, the everyday (which has not been either ordinary or everyday as we moved to Brussels on 5th January) has intruded and distracted and I’ve barely managed to keep up appearances on the social networks.

A few days ago, out of the blue, I received a mail offering me a ready-written blog article. For just a moment there I thought: Here’s someone who’s been reading me and is fed up of waiting for the next blog entry so they’ve written one for me! Not a bit of it, of course, but I was taken in for a moment. The blog article purported to be an info-graphic. The person offering it — let’s call him Steve — said he had just produced it and he thought it might suit my blog. Of course what he was really after was for me to accept his article without looking too carefully at it and not spotting that it was designed to take readers away from my blog to the article’s home website. I went and looked and found the home website was offering writing services (at a price) for bloggers and school students.

As a teacher (former teacher) I have no interest in promoting websites that help students cheat. And as a blogger — albeit an irregular and sometimes reluctant one — who writes about the process of writing, I really have little interest in publishing other people’s work. So, thank you for the offer Steve, but no thank you.

Of course, I read through Steve’s info-graphic — I’m nosey as well.

I wasn’t overly impressed. First of all because Steve hadn’t really managed very well. True there were six or seven images, but then several paragraphs of text. In my book an info-graphic ought to manage to compress all its information into graphical form, otherwise it’s just an illustration.

Secondly, I’m afraid Steve did not quite come up to my standards of literacy. (Modest cough.) Not to say he was illiterate, no, but there were misused prepositions, odd combinations of pronouns, some dodgy punctuation and I wasn’t terribly impressed by the logic of some of his sentences. Now, these are all the sort of slips I might make myself (hopefully not all of them in the same article) but then they’re my slips. I would either catch them before publishing, or publish and then spot them — or get called out by a reader — and hang my head in shame before correcting them and hoping no one (else) had seen them. Why would I be interested in publishing Steve’s uncorrected drafts?

As for the subject: The Habits of Successful Authors. Hrmmph.

Steve had gutted a book and a couple of Internet articles for authors’ writing habits, collected a bunch of author photographs and then composed a dubious analysis. Some of his authors started writing early in the morning, others late in the afternoon. Some wrote stone cold sober, others wrote under the influence of various forms of narcotics from the mild — tea, coffee and cigarettes — to the less so — alcohol, hash, opium and so forth. Some had to write in the presence of certain smells (Schiller), others (Victor Hugo) wrote naked. There wasn’t anything particularly new to me in the list (except for that about Schiller and his rotten apples) and after reading I wasn’t anywhere closer to an understanding of what Steve meant by “success”.

Is success as an author defined by the ability to produce texts? Or is it defined by the ability to get published? Or the ability to attract and hold an audience? I would say all three, but an author’s writing habits are only able to ensure success in the first of these.

Beyond this, the paragraphs of text that followed the pictures basically backtracked on every recommendation they made and ended up saying nothing much at all: Getting up early worked for A, B and C, but starting late worked for X, Y and Z. Writing drunk worked for D and E, but V and W only wrote sober.

The truth is, “the habits of successful authors” are the writing habits that the authors themselves found worked for them personally. That doesn’t mean they’re going to work for anyone else. Of course you can try out different strategies in the search for what works for you, but setting out to copy other people’s strategies because you believe that therein lies the secret of success could also be a distraction from finding how to write yourself.

(Another way to avoid actually learning how to write yourself, Steve, is to borrow — or buy — someone else’s work to present as your own. Just saying.)

What habits work for me? I know from experience that what I need is a regular schedule. I have to get into the habit of sitting down in front of the computer at a fixed time daily and writing – either producing a minimum number of words or staying at the keyboard for a specific period. Once I’ve established my rhythm and can carry on doing it, day in, day out, the occasional short interruption is not a problem. Longer breaks are. Getting started in the first place (and getting started again after a longer interruption) is really difficult.

All my plans for writing success once we moved to Belgium were predicated on being quickly able to get into a regular writing rhythm. I just haven’t been able to do that yet. The mundane, the quotidian, keeps intruding.

I keep trying though.


The medieval woodcut that illustrates this article comes from the collection at ClipArt Etc. I am happy to thank and acknowledge them.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.