Whenever I read Oliver Sacks, I feel the desire to write myself. What strikes me with each of his sentences is his profound humanity. His essays convey a tone of conversation so strangely abandoned in current times. The most mundane event or encounter becomes magical, alive, and symbolic for life, love, and loss.
With certainty, I cannot be the only one. Yet I sense that, like many others, I have seldom begun actually to write in response to this desire. So today, I found myself wondering why, and I found myself pulled in the direction of varied answers. Each reason has its dedicated burrow from which my thoughts seem to dive deeper into different paths, coming together only after miles and miles of digging deeper and deeper. I want to follow one of these burrows today, at least for a couple of first steps.
Sacks writes for other people, he writes for conversation. Still, he does not seem to have in his mind all these scattered voices of other people responding to each sentence when he lays it down. When trying to express a thought, I admit, I do sometimes find myself utterly debilitated by these aimless voices of such ghostly others. A flavorless nakedness of my thinking and feeling emerges before me, so much so that I start mistrusting the process of encountering roots in contemplation. In my hapless search for words, I realized that while following Sacks’ continuous flow of minute observations, which he so seamlessly encapsulated in strings of letters, I seem to have lost the sound of my mind. No sentence feels right or proper, as I cannot grasp the basis of my thoughts. But these thoughts and sensations were there just a minute ago! And did they not come to me in words? In the face of writing them down, each idea seemed to have dissolved in its burgeoning expression, leaving behind nothing more than an echo of memory about its faint existence.
I stand bewildered at this phenomenon. More so, I think it is the reason why so many of us continue to stop writing, contrary to this ongoing desire to write… and to express our mind in written language. While I believe this strange experience is rather typical of the writing process, I also have come to think that our modern failure to persist in writing is not.
Sacks seemed to know what he wanted to tell others because he understood what was in his own mind. I cannot say the same about myself if I am really honest with myself. Philosophers like to argue that consciousness is “transparent” to ourselves. That is to say, we experience the world through it, and its existence feels evident to us by our direct access to it. The same rings true about our thoughts. But I think this view is mistaken. The amount of time I tend to live on autopilot, doing chores and working almost mindlessly at required tasks, bureaucratic procedures… I cannot say that I feel deeply rooted with a conscious experience of these daily realities. At the end of the day, what have I eaten, what have I felt (besides stressed), and what was the last joke I laughed about? And have I seen anything new on my way to work — a flower perhaps, a smiling face, a sound of a bird I know? Do I have any clue how these different birds usually sound? My day feels frighteningly impoverished in experience when I ask myself such questions. Similarly, when I walk my dog and watch bypassers on the street, they do not seem present in their moments but circle in a state of “anywhere but here” on their phones, on the way to work or home, or in anticipation of something seemingly happening next. We’ve lost our fundamentally conscious quality of life. And this also links to why so many of us have stopped, or maybe never even started, writing: writing essays, letters, diary entries, and the like. Longer form, not 280 characters that can be thrown into the public like missiles, and that either hit and miss their target of virality. Only to be lost in the ether of senseless repetition. What was the last viral tweet that you remember? Did it alter your day?
Writing forces you to slow down and listen to your inner life. But our current lifestyles seem to scatter our senses repeatedly away from us. It feels impossible to have a center that roots us in a moment. We lack genuine presence. This lack of center is quite paradoxical, as we seem to have reached some form of collective attention with mass (social) media with its strange pull on our awareness. While we may still hear people saying different things about an issue, we all think and talk about the same things. We stopped observing and listening to our own thoughts, and now we merely respond to what’s being stated as being observed and followed by others. The constant pull of public thought turns the inner monologue into an anxious hum of shapeless otherness. Our thoughts are not transparent to us, as we merely adopt, copy and paste, the stream of this collective chatter.
I stopped writing because I judged I had no time. When I had some spare time, however, I soon fell into an undirected state of distracted being, passing the time between moments when I needed to do something for someone or something else. My epicenter had lost its drive. It had no pull because it had no roots and direction. It was at a time of empty despair, which seemed to have permeated every day during the pandemic, that I began reading for pleasure again. That was when I rediscovered the voice of Oliver Sacks, among others.
His mesmerizing essays, especially at the end of his life (“Everything in its place”), find a larger story in each short encounter because his mind is a cosmos in itself. He found a story with meaning in the seemingly mundane because he consciously participated in its observation, making the minute unmute by laboriously dressing his thoughts with words.
Watching his surroundings intensely and with conscious awareness, Oliver Sacks co-created his mind with the world while writing. So I decided not simply to “find time to write” but to pursue such co-creation in the rediscovery of my own voice.