Perhaps you’ve been there. When your body is so exhausted that even rolling over in bed feels like too much work. When you cannot fall asleep, but skip over its surface like a smooth stone skimming the waves. When your brain refuses absolutely to slow, to sink, to sleep.
I go in cycles. The average is one good week of sleeping very heavily, followed by two in which I hardly sleep at all. Around a year ago, the ratio used to be 1:1. I shudder to think what may lie ahead.
It feels, at times, as if I’ve forgotten how to do it. As Dorothy Parker once said, “How do people go to sleep? I’m afraid I’ve lost the knack.”
I hear you, Dodo.
I know all the alleged cures but counting sheep is for the birds.
When I’m fatigued I run to verse
Which is vexatious, but could be worse.
Last night, well, technically some time around two-eighteen this morning, I did a little research on insomnia and writers. I am not, it seems, alone. Wordsworth, Hopkins, Dickinson – basically, all your poets — were sufferers. So were Hemingway, Styron, Palahniuk, and many more.
“I believe this sleeplessness comes only because I write.”
~ Franz Kafka
For me, the reasons I cannot sleep tend to be for one of two reasons:
The writing is going badly and my brain is determined to find and fix the problem.
Or the writing is going well and my brain doesn’t want to stop working.
My insomnia is, itself, pretty creative. For years it was content with just keeping me awake at night. Only when the comforting glow of pre-dawn light in the sky appeared could I settle down for a solid two or three hours. Lately, though, it has added the fabulous touch of waking me about an hour after I’ve nodded off, or forcing me out of bed at six am, no matter what time I fall asleep.
I’ve done a little research (at 2am, because, yes) and discovered that not all writers who suffer from insomnia use the time to write. The majority feel the work suffers if they try.
I know from past experience that I daren’t attempt any sort of plotting when I can’t sleep. At least, not on paper. I can make notes, though, and usually do. Phrases sparkle though; words dance before my shrunken eyes and I have to write them down. OK, so sometimes they shrivel in the course of the night and their carcases in the morning emit an odour one could best describe as fetid. Still, it doesn’t stop me trying. And it does work. Sometimes. If you can hold your breath and avoid the pong.
The night before last I had a full story unfold before me. It’s different from my usual work, like an old fable. Will it be any good? I don’t know. Insomnia hands me some raw material, but it’s up to me to forge it into something valuable.
It is quieter at night – well, for most people. My next door neighbour and her six dogs are given to strange, nocturnal activities that involves a lot of yapping (the dogs. Well, mostly) and yelling (her, solely).
But for most people, when the rest of the world is asleep, they can think. If the house is busy during the day, if they have a busy job or a large family, 1am may be golden for them.
There are people who embrace their insomnia. They feel it kickstarts their creativity. Others feel like they are the ones who are being kicked.
If you can train your brain to react positively, you can use the time productively. OK, you may not be able to produce optimal work, but at least you can use the time productively. I find the following activities help (with the writing. Not so much with the sleeplessness):
Visualise the scene you’re working on. Watch it unfold like a film or even step inside it. Follow your hero down the street, and observe how he interacts with others. Possibly sit him down and chat with him about his situation.
Let your mind wander and see where it takes you. If possible, try not to force your imagination into words. Just see the people and the environment. Let the story bubble up before you.
Have a conversation with your imaginary mentor. Tell him or her what you’re working on. Ask him his thoughts and listen to his feedback.
If you do want to write, try to do it without turning the light on. Use the darkness to croon to your muse. You can use your laptop without needing a lamp. If you want to use pen and paper, use one of those tiny reading lights that clips onto your notebook. You can also dictate into your phone, though I can’t guarantee you’ll be able to make much sense of it come morning.
After a lifetime of sleepless nights the only thing I know for sure is the strategy that works on Monday cannot guarantee anything on Tuesday. For every move I make, my wakeful weird mind comes up with a countermove. Even my coping strategies turn into nightmares.
I used to imagine being on a train, but then that led to plots of murders (thanks, Agatha Christie) so… no.
I tried imagining relaxing on a drifting boat. It sprung a leak.
Counting sheep brought me to The Slaughtered Lamb (An American Werewolf in London.) Rik Mayall is saying, What’s the matter? Are you prejudiced against werewolves? This leads to Gene Wilder telling me his name is pronounced Fraunkenstein with Tim Curry leaning over his shoulder in pearls shaking his head no and inviting me in to see what’s on the slab. Then Tim and Peter Boyle do a hearty rendition of Putting on the Ritz / Sweet Transvestite. It’s all very psychedelic and exhausting.
I give up and try to play chess but this leads to odd visions of The Avengers with Steed and Mrs Peel having a conversation over glasses of champagne about why I can’t sleep and why so many of the original Avengers’ women showed up in Bond movies. By now the visions are in black and white and all the characters are wearing Mary Quant outfits except for Michael Caine who stands out in a lime green suit, and wanders around saying, Not a lot of people know that.
Then, suddenly, I wake up, it’s morning, and I’ve had a blissful 20 minutes sleep.