Oliver Sacks: On Writing and Editors

I have just finished reading On the Move: A Life (2015), the autobiography of the late Dr. Oliver Sacks. Dr. Sacks had a gift for storytelling that was apparent throughout his career and especially in his illuminating case studies in neurology. In this book, he offers glimpses into his writing process. One anecdote from the book stands out for me as particularly instructive regarding the nature of the working relationship between the writer [Sacks] and the editor [Colin Haycraft]:

It seems to me that I discover my thoughts through the act of writing, in the act of writing. Occasionally, a piece comes out perfectly, but more often my writings need extensive pruning and editing, because I may express the same thought in many different ways. I can get waylaid by tangential thoughts and associations in mid-sentence, and this leads to parentheses, subordinate clauses, sentences of paragraphic length. I never use one adjective if six seem to me to be better and, in their cumulative effect, more incisive. I am haunted by the density of reality and try to capture this with (in Clifford Geertz’s phrase) “thick description.” All this creates problems of organization. I get intoxicated, sometimes, by the rush of thoughts and am too impatient to put them in the right order. But one needs a cool head, intervals of sobriety, as much as one needs that creative exuberance.

Like Mary-Kay, Colin had to pick among many versions, restrain my sometimes overabundant prose, and create a continuity. Sometimes he would say, pointing to one passage, “This doesn’t go here,” then flip the pages over, saying, “It goes here.” As soon as he said this, I would see that he was right, but – mysteriously – I could not see it for myself.

It was not just unmuddling that I demanded of Colin; it was emotional support when I was blocked or when my mood and confidence sagged, as they did, almost to the point of collapse, when the first rush was over. (Sacks, 2015, pp. 190-191)

Unmuddling and emotional support – what a wonderful explanation of the relationship between writer and editor, from the perspective of the writer!

Sacks, O. (2015). On the move: A life. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.