Write or die?

Would you risk your life to write a book?

Here‘s an oldish Radiolab podcast where Oliver Sacks describes the threat he made against himself in 1968 to get past his writer’s block and write his first book: Either I write this book in the next ten days, or I commit suicide.

I guess this gives a new depth of meaning to the word “deadline.” Turns out Sacks met the deadline and produce a book called Migraine that is still in print.  So, good for him.

This story raises two questions for me:

First, does this sort of bargain with yourself really work?  The podcast gives another example of someone who used a self-threat to quit smoking (If I ever smoke another cigarette, I’m going to contribute $5000 to the Ku Klux Klan).  But I’m inclined to think most people’s wills aren’t that malleable, or we’d have plenty more successful diets and quit-smoking campaigns.  The self-threats that worked make for good stories, though. (I could imagine a bad novel where the would-be author hires a hit man to kill him unless he produces an acceptable manuscript in the allotted time.  Hmm.)

Second — let’s assume this sort of thing does work, at least for some people.  Is writing a book worth the risk that Sacks evidently thought he was taking?  Nowadays I’d say it isn’t.  The very idea is absurd.  On the other hand . . . before I managed to get a book published (er, Forbidden Sanctuary), a whole lot of my self-image was tied up in whether I could legitimately think of myself as an “author” rather than as just another wannabe with a stupid hobby that dribbled away his nights and weekends.  I don’t think I could have threatened myself the way Sacks did, but I’m not unsympathetic.  Sacks was 35 in 1968 and already a successful neurologist.  But something similar must have been driving him to get a book out and become an author.  He thought it was worth the risk, and the world is a better place because he was successful.

Oliver Sacks, “Proof of Heaven”, and Newtown

Here is Oliver Sacks in The Atlantic denying the supernatural origin of near-death experiences like the one described in Proof of Heaven:

Hallucinations, whether revelatory or banal, are not of supernatural origin; they are part of the normal range of human consciousness and experience. This is not to say that they cannot play a part in the spiritual life, or have great meaning for an individual. Yet while it is understandable that one might attribute value, ground beliefs, or construct narratives from them, hallucinations cannot provide evidence for the existence of any metaphysical beings or places. They provide evidence only of the brain’s power to create them.

And here is Father Robert Weiss of St. Rose of Lima Catholic Church in Newtown, Connecticut last night:

“Thinking about those little children, we now have 20 new saints looking over us in all the days to come.”

I am dubious about the idea that there are no atheists in foxholes, but if religion does any good, it is to provide consolation to people like the families whose children were senselessly murdered yesterday.  They don’t need Oliver Sacks; they need Father Weiss.  They need hope, no matter how ephemeral and unproven it may be.