two swans

No doubt we’ve all set ourselves deadlines in our writing goals. Some may even come attached with a mental forfeit. Not many can be as extreme as the one Oliver Sacks set himself over fifty years ago when writing his first book.

To complete it within ten days or failing that kill himself.

Spurred into action he wrote at times twenty hours a day and on the tenth day he handed in ‘Migraine’ to Fabers in London. The writing turned to joy and the threat dissipated by a sense of elation.

Writing has been an integral part of his life and besides his numerous books, amongst them the famous ‘Awakenings’ which was made into a film starring the brilliant late Robin Willaims, he also uses notebooks compulsively. sacks

Oliver Sacks writes non-stop, taking note-books with him wherever he goes, often pausing to jot down notes. There he is, resting his notepad on a car-roof, scribbling away. Over there, standing still at a train station, pen and paper in hand, oblivious to the huge swirl of the crowds parting around him and his briefcase which stands abandoned for his feet.

Altogether Sacks reckons he has filled over a thousand notebooks. He calls these an ‘indispensable form of talking to myself’ and that they were not written to be read by others, nor does he read them himself.

‘The act of writing is itself enough; it serves to clarify thoughts and feelings.’

Reading these words it was as if a long-lingering dark cloud has lifted from me and in a few single puffs of words my intermittent anxiety regarding my own collection of notebooks has faded.

Stashed safely in two bed boxes, their weight alone threatening the thin chip board base, the notebooks have rarely seen daylight since the day they were filled. On a few nostalgic moments I’ve retrieved the odd one and snuggled in bed, relived a few days of my youth, dipped into past loves, sorrows, tragedies, read a few words of innocent dramatic musings written in my childish scrawl. tworoses

Otherwise they lay there, untouched. By no means reaching Oliver Sacks’s thousand, but near a hundred notebooks and I had wondered, why? Why did I bother? What should I do with them?

Now I am reassured. I can face a contented security that this is normal, whatever normal means. To scribble away, to put away. These inner thoughts, emotions, a creative conversation within myself, an outpouring of energy that helped in the moment and helped to form myself. To create and re-create myself. At times two hours would disappear in frenzied writing and as I emerged with aching fingers and blurred vision my soul and mind felt purged, as thoughts and ideas became vivid and crystal clear.

Each notebook is precious, from the smallest, earliest one at 2 x 4 cm in a golden hardback flip case, to the largest, latest lurid pink ‘blott’ notebook. From misspelt words, feelings, lists, to ideas on life, friends, boyfriends and politics, I scribbled away. Not forgetting the dreams…those dream entries still freak me out. Once for two weeks I kept a dream diary and as early morning writing turned into the next morning, the dreams seemed so ominous and fantastic, too real. My sleep suffered and finally I had to stop.

Nowadays I find one notebook alone does not suffice and so I work around four different journals, each assigned a specific topic.

  • My traditional black hardboard notebook is full of observations of life around me, conversations overheard in shops, description of particularly striking people spotted whilst out shopping, of interesting signposts, newspaper articles.
  • Another hardback journal is white with the loud and proud words of ‘Hold on People I’m having an Idea’ plastered across the whole front cover. In here I write down story ideas, some are merely a sentence long, whilst others stretch over pages.
  • The blue one with a blue elastic band serves as my book journal; in here I jot down notes on books I’m reviewing as well as books I have read and ones I intend to buy.
  • Finally I write in a smaller beautiful multicoloured notebook with a magnetic flip front fastening. Unusually this was not a gift as most of my journals have been (I’m easy to buy presents for!) but I acquired this myself in Cambridge years ago and for a while it was left unattended as I felt it was too special to write in. Finally I decided to use it for the funny wise sayings of my son. Keen observations of the world that were uttered with startling clarity, seeing things anew only as they young can, and in the process reigniting the novelty of life for weary adults.

How could I resist this kind offer made by my son when he still very young! Reckon I didn’t take the money!

‘You should be a home-author. You can write stories for me whilst I’m at school. You don’t have to publish them. If they’re good I’ll give you 10p.’

  • I must not forget my mslexia dairy, full of blog notes, story ideas, competitions, quotes (plus of course school trips, doctor visits, birthdays…)

I approach each new notebook with the same eager anticipation I experienced in my childhood. The blank pages bursting with promise and expectation, so empty and free. With almost religious zeal I will flip through the pages, imaging the outpourings that might fill their bleak space. A feeling felt as keenly now as when a child and many a notebook will start with very similar feelings to these written seven years ago in a new gold-leaf edged notebook given to me by a life-long friend.

‘Monday 12th October 2008 Always such a great responsibility – marking that very first page. All pristine, empty of thoughts and emotions, now to be scarred forever, must be something special methinks, of particular value. … Once again I trust I will keep with it, once again I say for my sanity, once again I say, let’s see where it leads.’

bookRecently Oliver Sacks seems to have been everywhere I’ve turned; his latest autobiography reviewed in papers and online and convinced I bought ‘On the Move: A Life’ for my Dad for Father’s Day (hint to Dad: Please hurry up and read quickly – I want to borrow it!)

Then reading about the life of Oliver Sacks I discovered his addiction to notebooks and its absolute and phenomenal impact on his life This face reassured me about the sanity of writing these, holding on to them, for no particular reason but for their very being. I hope you too might find this of consolation.

I am sure many of you write and keep notebooks. I would love to hear from you about them. What topics are covered? Are they gifts or self-bought? Do you reread them often or let them rest in peace?

Finally, of course it does not just have to be notebooks. As Oliver Sacks said, ‘The need to think on paper is not confined to notebooks. It spreads onto the backs of envelopes, menus, whatever scraps of paper are at hand.’

37 thoughts on “SACKS AND NOTEBOOKS

  1. Ah I envy you those notebooks. I used to keep writing diaries as a teenager (of my travels abroad, and I used to write about my cat Chester.) Sadly I have no idea where these are. I expect they are tucked away somewhere in my mum’s house and maybe one day I will find them. I would love to re-discover them again. I started off writing my story about Amelina on notebooks, and still have all of these early story ideas tucked away in my wardrobe. Believe me they fill a box! Not that I’m much of a planner really, I tend to write by instinct and then have to spend a lot of time editing, and re-editing…..

    1. I don’t know about envying me about all my notebooks, I do wonder what I will do with them all one day. I do hope you find your old diaries some time, I bet you would love to reread all about Chester (cool name – my cat was so unoriginally called Sooty). At least you have your Amelina notebooks – do you refer to those whilst writing now? There’s a lot to be said for writing instinctively and I feel too much planning swallows up my creative thoughts, like a stranglehold. As for editing there will always be a need for that anyways! Take care.

  2. A lovely article. I don’t use notebooks myself; I have a habit of taking a walk or a swim to store up my writing ideas, and then I come back and type them out. On second thoughts, maybe they are typed notebooks.

    Thanks for following me. I’m following you.

  3. Reblogged this on Ms M's Bookshelf and commented:
    I meet some of the most interesting people crossing paths on my blogs. Annika Perry stopped by recently and I’ve become a follower of her writing blog. I found this particular offering extremely interesting and thought many of you might enjoy it as well, as my Sunday reblog.

  4. Peter R

    I wish I had kept notebooks, or at least a diary. From the age of seventeen to twenty-one I did keep a dairy, which I now look back on with the hindsight of fifty years. Some of it makes me cringe!!! Notebooks, however, are different. Keeping ideas, rather than letting them float out into the ether. I wonder how many world-changing ideas have flown from people’s heads before they could be put into practice?

    1. Ouch…I felt that cringe, Peter! I’m sure they’re not that bad! I stopped a diary a few years ago and am much happier with notebooks, at first I had one for everything, interesting to read but confusing to work from. Why don’t you give it a go – just the one though. I’d never thought about all those important life-changing ideas, given the weight of thought before disappearing into the ether. Scary I agree.

  5. I’m not familiar with Sacks writing but must seek him out. (I think I need that little notebook to hand for all the authors/interesting people I need to expand my world with 🙂 ) I keep a book of ‘scribbles’ when I’m travelling, and confess to the stash of diaries from my younger days. I do find myself scribbling thoughts in my head as I wander and being in constant lookout for somewhere to put them. 🙂 It’s a strange phenomena, isn’t it, but I enjoyed reading about your addiction, Annika. 🙂

    1. ‘A Man without a Hat’ is very readable and if you are going to read his books this is a great one to start with I think. I can identify with ‘scribbling thoughts in my head’, the problem is holding onto them long enough to find the notebook and pen! :-)) I read somewhere that thoughts only stay three seconds in your mind before flitting away…I like that addiction – should I join NA – Notebooks Anonymous?? If there isn’t one, anyone want to help starting one? Jo? Thanks for your lovely comment, Jo.

  6. I read ‘The Man Who Thought His Wife Was a Hat’ as research for one of my novels. What a delightful book. It was so readable despite the psychological topic. The man is an amazing writer.

    1. Hi Jacqui. That is the only book I’ve read so far of Oliver Sacks – many years ago when it came out. Loved it. He is brilliant being able to make what could be a dry subject so personable and approachable. I didn’t realise you wrote novels, as find all your tech books but no fiction. What novel did you use this research for? Have you published it? Would love to know.

  7. Anonymous

    Now this is a deep and interesting blog. I only have one notebook I write in (mainly lists of “a to do” variety.) I am obviously a mere beginner compared to you, and you are so organised to boot. If it assists you with writing like this, then stick with it.

    I was interested to read about Oliver Sacks too. He is new to me but I’m going to seek him out on good old Goggle.


    1. Thanks for your comment Mike. I’m not sure my notebooks are so much being organised as part of my life and keeping it quite sane! The more I’m reading and seeing about Olive Sacks the more I am determined to read much more by him – you give it a go as well. Only rewarding I’m sure.

  8. Barbara

    I love the work of Oliver Sacks too! Although I did not know his name until I read your wonderful blog dear Annika…collector of notebooks. I loved the movie awakenings. It was very meaningful and touching. When my father-in-law struggled with dementia and subsequently ended up in a nursing home before he passed from this earth at 92 years young….I remember viewing my father in law and other residence in a different light…partly because of this work of Sacks. I knew there was more to the person locked in by their disease. An entire life story locked in each person. They were each like unopened notebooks collected together in the nursing home…..hoping someone would take the time to stop to read the story within.
    Thanks for reminding me of the wonderful works of Oliver Sacks and the importance of writing thoughts in notebooks.

    1. Lovely to see you back Barbara! I’ve missed you and your wise words here! I think Oliver Sacks first gained huge recognition with Awakenings, an extraordinary film and true story and the warmth and kindness of the doctor shone out throughout. It must have been very hard to see your father in law so lost within himself; I can’t imagine it. How true that each such person has a whole life lived that is locked away. Very hard. As to the notebooks, do you get any chance for a few moments to yourself to write some thoughts down, to sort the business in your brain? Sure hope so. Take good care of yourself and thanks for your great comment.

      1. Barbara

        Thanks for asking dear author…. Yes…..I use to keep a notebook. It was full of short poems, song lyrics, ideas for me to follow up on, and many sketches. Very eclectic notebook indeed! Your words struck a chord with me when you mentioned finding notebooks later and reading them. I have done that too. It is like time traveling.
        Just like reading your wonderful blog. I enjoy your creative insight and your words either take me back to a moment or move me forward in time. I consider this a sign of a wonderful writer…..
        You are a wonderful writer Annika.

      2. Thank you so much Barbara, your words have me blushing!! Sharing thoughts and ideas is so important, food for life I think and I am so happy if my words touch others, waken some new thoughts and memories for them. As to your notebook – love the sound of this wonderful mixture – poems, song lyrics, sketches! Amazing – gosh:-)) If you haven’t got one on the go, head out and buy one now; you can’t stop this amazing mixture. You and your soul need this!!

    1. I’ve only read a couple of his books but I now can’t wait to read the autobiography and some of his other books. He seems such a warm and gentle person with infinite wisdom. Also a wonderfully varied life.

      1. Wow! Thank you so much for this link. Absolutely fascinating. I have never heard of these sort of hallucinations before – fantastical but also frightening. I’m now going to buy his book on the subject. Great that they can finally start to explain the mechanics behind them, but as Oliver Sacks says, it’s just the beginning of full understanding. Also interesting that he also experiences them as well as suggesting that these hallucinations could be behind cave and conceptual art – a whole dissertation on its own I reckon. Sorry to read you suffer from these hallucinations with Parkinsons. Does it help knowing the cause behind them? Hope they’re not too frightening. Warmest wishes.

    1. Oh, I don’t know about organised! I seem to misplace them all the time under papers etc but they are very useful. Envelopes etc are very good too and know people who have made great use of napkins in cafes for scribbling on.

      1. Sales receipts are paper too – anything to write on I will do I say! But do you write very small in that case? Like the Bronte sisters did, to fit as much on their precious paper as possible. Sales receipts are notoriously tiny, well at least here in the UK. Do you write all the notes up later or collect them in boxes?

  9. Mirja

    This post is great Annika and you leave us with many angels for comments.:)
    Poor brain on a hot day.
    What a challenge Oliver Sachs sat himself – and won. I love the way you tell how he scribbled everywhere, saying that “it serves to clarify thoughts and feeling”. How true this is.

    Thank you for letting us follow your relationship to Notebooks. It is fascinating and your vivid description of your various notebooks really bring them alive. What a good idea to have
    various ones for different types of purpose. How do you manage that when you travel though?
    It is clear that you have a very creative mind and maybe the notebooks are also
    a safety valve…:)

    Your little son’s pondering is priceless and I hope you wrote or told him stories of your own.

    I am so glad you are following your dream and always look forward to your posts
    and also to your first draft of a book. You have more than ten days though.

    1. Phew, glad I have more than ten days Mirja! I think he had lots of written notes and plans beforehand, even so a great achievement. Yes, I did indeed write my son some stories and made up many more for him too, precious magical days. It all helped to foster his love of literature so that is an achievement! Hmm…you noticed the flaw in my 4 notebook strategy, very true. Too cumbersome to travel with and I honestly have another notebook (!) that I only take on trips. It can slot into my handbag. Dreams are tricky things to follow at times I find…Thank you for you warm and in depth comment.

  10. This great post has got me thinking, Annika.
    I have masses of notebooks… full and virginal. Occasionally I read them and cringe. Mostly they stay hidden away.
    The very fact of moaning into a notebook, using a good pen usually puts a smile back on my miserable face! 😁

    1. Definitely know what you mean about the cringing when rereading old notebooks, but don’t some also just melt your heart? :-)) Yes, why is it, particularly when we are young, that it’s just so healing to moan away in writing, knowing no-one will ever see it? Oh yes, I answered that one didn’t I! Thanks for your lovely comment.

  11. This post resonates with me as I have a notebook/journal addiction, Annika. Not only do I have journals filled with writings, but I have blank journals stockpiled, waiting to be filled. It makes me happy to shop for a new journal. 🙂

    1. Jill, I have for all these years held off from buying lots of empty notebooks to store and use for later as I know the force within me would be unstoppable and I’d need a new room to store all the lovely notebooks I pass by in the shops and market stalls. Now, I fear my self-restraint is waning! Just thinking of stockpiling lovely blank notebooks has me heading for the door…:-)

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