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.