Fans of Oliver Sacks, take note.
“You know, dear,” I said to him one day, about two months after the stroke, when he was feeling mighty low, “maybe you want to write the first aphasic memoir.” He smiled broadly, said, “Good idea! Mem, mem, mem.” And so he began dictating, sometimes with mountain-moving effort, and at others sailing along at a good clip, an account of what he’d just gone through, what the mental world of aphasia felt and looked like. Writing the book was the best speech therapy anyone could have prescribed. For three exhausting hours each day, he forced his brain to recruit cells, build new connections, find the right sounds to go with words, and piece together whole sentences. Going over the text the next day helped refine his thoughts and showed him some of aphasia’s fingerprints in the prose.
Now, three years later, he has just finished writing his first novel since the stroke, one with Westian characters and themes. During a three-hour window of heightened fluency in the middle of the day, he can write in longhand, make phone calls, lunch with friends. He has reloomed vibrant carpets of vocabulary, and happily, despite the left hemisphere stroke, he seems happier than before, and I think his life feels richer in a score of ways.
What follows is an excerpt from The Shadow Factory, the aphasic memoir Paul dictated with such struggle and resolve, “forcing language back on itself.” In it, he recalls life in the hospital’s rehab unit, what he felt and thought, and explores some of the all-too-real tricks the mind plays to save itself from the tomb of lost words.