Lessons about Writing – Inspired by Oliver Sacks

Sacks-Island-coverOliver Sacks claims that he wrote The Island of the Colorblind  “in a sort of swoop, a single breath, in July 1995, it then grew. . .” (xx). He makes writing sound easy, as if already-formed sentences tumbled out of his head onto the page in the correct order.  Yet, when he clarifies the process of reconstructing memories, we get a hint at the behind-the-scenes work required of communicating his Pacific island experiences:

“Writing, in these past months, has allowed me, forced me, to revisit these islands in memory.  And since memory .  .  .  is never a simple recording or reproduction, but an active process of recategorization—of reconstruction, of imagination, determined by our own values and perspectives—so remembering has caused me to reinvent these visits, in a sense, constructing a very personal, idiosyncratic, perhaps eccentric view of these islands . . . .” (xvii-xviii)

Like Sack’s exploration of the islands, his writing process follows a journey from discovery to synthesis or “reconstruction” and provides an example of important concepts about writing.

Concept 1:  Writing is more than a transcription from the mind directly to paper.  Writing is thinking on paper.

Concept 2:  Writing is messy. Making meaning requires work to tease out what we really want to communicate.

Concept 3:  Writing is re-writing.  Because writing is a process of discovery, new ideas might erupt at any time.  In the messiness, ideas collide and produce new ways of thinking about a subject.  Re-visioning our ideas can lead to a more sophisticated structure.  Look what happened to Sacks: his new ideas took the form of pages and pages of endnotes, creating a text of their own.

Concept 4:  How we shape our ideas is influenced by our “values and perspectives.” Each reader brings unique experiences to a text. That’s why “write about what you know” has become a truism – if we connect what we are reading or researching to things we know or have a passion about, our writing stands a better chance of capturing our readers.  Through our writing, we have an opportunity to share our perspective and challenge readers to think in new ways.

By writing Island of the Colorblind, Sacks has given us a glimpse of writing as thinking, as a process of meaning-making. Our challenge is to embrace the process.

Co-Creating Communities

Sharon Zuber is the 55th recipient of the Jefferson Award. Photo by Stephen Salpukas.

Receiving the Thomas Jefferson award has given me an opportunity to reflect on the tradition of “community” at William & Mary that has made my job possible.

I’ve been known to confess that I liked college so much that I never left! Why?  I value the spaces – the physical, intellectual, and spiritual spaces – that define our College. In this W&M Community, we are given an opportunity to grow, to thrive, to embrace tradition while redefining and revising that tradition in dynamic ways that often cross disciplinary boundaries.  One example of this process is how the COLLege curriculum builds on and re-visions our Liberal Arts tradition, encouraging us to think in new ways, and one of these spaces is our own Writing Resources Center.

When working on the documentary about the Gloucester, VA, watermen, I learned that a Chesapeake Bay blue crab molts as many as 20 times before reaching maturity.  As learners and educators, we also go through “moltings” – growing and shedding old ways of thinking, working through feelings of discomfort and resistance.  The W&M community provides a place for us to take risks, to experience different cultures, a place that values innovation and critical thinking and encourages collaboration.  At its best, our community gives us a safe space, like the writing center, to try on new ideas and be vulnerable – laying a foundation for our future.

Some of you may choose academics, but every person here has the potential to become a co-creator, a designer, within your chosen communities – those of your family, the workplace, and around the globe; you can do this by building into these spaces support for creativity, compassion, and social justice.

If you do, you will be following in the footsteps of W&M alums who are continuing their education on Broadway stages; at Standing Rock; in the Peace Corps; being thoughtful, supportive partners and parents; coaching and playing sports; producing events and documentaries; and even directing writing centers.

I am proud to be a part of this W&M community and thankful for all of the people who have given me an opportunity to continue to grow and learn!

But I want you to know – I’m still molting.

Thank You.