In On the Move: A Life, Oliver Sacks’s recently published memoir, we become better acquainted with the complicated human being whose popular case studies have given us insight into rare neurological conditions and whose commentary in the New York Times has both made us better appreciate the Periodic Table (not that I ever needed that kind of encouragement) and look forward to turning 80.
In The Joy of Old Age (No Kidding), published on the cusp of his 80th birthday in July of 2013, he wrote:
“My father, who lived to 94, often said that the 80s had been one of the most enjoyable decades of his life. He felt, as I begin to feel, not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective.”
Less than two years later, however, he received a terminal cancer diagnosis. He has chosen to live out his days in the “richest, deepest, most productive way” he can, saying:
“I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.”
I have thought about his joyful approach to aging and his determination to feel alive in the face of death quite often over the last few months as the mainstream media — and this blog — have been obsessed with another octogenarian, the mysterious Harper Lee. It’s hard to know how old age has affected her, but her lawyer’s attempts to ruin her legacy cast doubt on her competence (particularly when the lawyer acts as though she’s representing an estate rather than a living, breathing person).
But I digress, a tendency that I apparently share with Dr. Sacks.
In On the Move, he describes his penchant for “tangential thoughts” and his love of adjectives:
“… I discover my thoughts through the act of writing, in the act of writing… often my writings need extensive pruning and editing, because I may express the same thought in many different ways. I can get waylaid by tangential thoughts and associations in mid-sentence, and this leads to parentheses, subordinate clauses, sentences of paragraphic length. I never use one adjective if six seem to me better and, in their cumulative effect, more incisive.”
When it comes to “sentences of paragraphic length,” Dr. Sacks reminds me of my other half, Mr. AMB, who in real-life is a far more prolific and accomplished writer than I am. I am often the person who slashes adjectives from his swollen, but beautiful, sentences. Meanwhile, he’s the one who points out when I‘ve been succinct when I should’ve been concise, two words that aren’t interchangeable in my book.
I’m one of those writers who never exceeds a word limit. Most of the time, I wouldn’t even come close to the limit without “tangential thoughts” packaged in short sentences separated by returns.
How about you? Are you “guilty” of sentences of paragraphic length (like Dr. Sacks and Mr. AMB) or paragraphs that consist of short, solitary sentences (like yours truly)?
***August 30, 2015: Oliver Sacks has passed away. He was 82. It’s impressive that he kept writing until the very end. According to the New York Times, “On Aug. 10, his assistant, Ms. Edgar, who described herself as his ‘collaborator, friend, researcher and editor’ as well, wrote in an email: ‘He is still writing with great clarity. We are pretty sure he will go with fountain pen in hand.'”