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Norman Geschwind and Orrin Devinsky


My time at the Blue Mountain Center for writers
Oliver Sacks Scientist
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In 1984 I went to a writing centre, or... or an... an artist’s colony in Blue Mountain in the Adirondacks, the Blue Mountain Center. It was a new experience for me, I’d never been… found myself among writers before, and I didn’t really regard myself as a writer. In some ways I still don’t, I am simply a doctor who does a little... a little writing on the side. Disingenuous... I can feel it, the disingenuous smile on my face, but I do feel I am a physician first and a writer afterwards. I went to this art colony for a month. I found myself completely without any thought of writing and blocked for 15 days. On day 16, I happened to pull out a book, which was the memoirs of Luis Buñuel, the film director. And there was a phrase in it in which he expressed his fear of losing his memory, as he said his mother had done catastrophically when she became old. This phrase about losing memory suddenly activated all my memories of a patient, an amnesiac patient I had started seeing eight years before that. And so I wrote nothing for 15 days, on the 16th day I wrote The Lost Mariner, about this patient, and then I immediately became blocked again from 17 to 30, and so I don’t know whether this was a successful visit or not. It was an odd one, and... and all the other people who had been writing and typing industriously looked askance at me at this strange creature who does nothing for 15 days, then writes a masterpiece, then gets blocked again for 15 days. But anyhow, I... I liked this piece very much, I think partly because I had been working with this patient so long, and I... I liked him as a human being.

And I offered the piece to Bob Silvers at The New York Review of Books, and he liked it, although he made an interesting comment. He said, 'Can I see your notes on the patient?' and I said, 'Sure'. And he looked through my notes, the notes which I had made immediately at the time, he said, 'Many of these are more vivid and immediate than your writing, insert some of your notes, weave things together so we both have the immediate response to the patient, and the more reflective one as you look back over the years'.

Oliver Sacks (1933-2015) was born in England. Having obtained his medical degree at Oxford University, he moved to the USA. There he worked as a consultant neurologist at Beth Abraham Hospital where in 1966, he encountered a group of survivors of the global sleepy sickness of 1916-1927. Sacks treated these patients with the then-experimental drug L-Dopa producing astounding results which he described in his book Awakenings. Further cases of neurological disorders were described by Sacks with exceptional sympathy in another major book entitled The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat which became an instant best seller on its publication in 1985. His other books drew on his rich experiences as a neurologist gleaned over almost five decades of professional practice. Sacks's work was recognized by prestigious institutions which awarded him numerous honours and prizes. These included the Lewis Thomas Prize given by Rockefeller University, which recognizes the scientist as poet. He was an honorary fellow of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and held honorary degrees from many universities, including Oxford, the Karolinska Institute, Georgetown, Bard, Gallaudet, Tufts, and the Catholic University of Peru.

Listeners: Kate Edgar

Kate Edgar, previously Managing Editor at the Summit Books division of Simon and Schuster, began working with Oliver Sacks in 1983. She has served as editor and researcher on all of his books, and has been closely involved with various films and adaptations based on his work. As friend, assistant, and collaborator, she has accompanied Dr Sacks on many adventures around the world, clinical and otherwise.

Tags: Blue Mountain Center, The Lost Mariner, The New York Review of Books, Luis Buñuel, Robert B Silvers

Duration: 3 minutes, 7 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2011

Date story went live: 02 October 2012