Saturday, 22 January 2011

Insomnia And Creativity

I screwed up my body clock when I was at school. Long before I ever tried to become an author. From the age of 14, I used to come home at 5pm, sleep for 2-3 hours cos I was so tired from previous night, have dinner at 8pm and then do homework until 1 or 2am and then go to bed with my head still fizzing from such application. As an unemployed adult one summer, I wrote for a period between 5pm and 5am and during a spell of paid work, I popped homeopathic stay awake tablets, without appreciating that it was just Nature's amphetamines albeit a slightly more depleted dose.

So I brought my sleeping difficulties entirely upon myself. There are two different types I've laboured with. One is not being able to fall asleep (and cursing those who extol their ability to drop off the moment their 'head hits the pillow') and tossing and turning all night long, where the bedroom becomes like a gladiatorial arena full of menace, rather than a relaxing place to let go into sleep's embrace. Of course you normally drop off just in time for the alarm clock to summon you to get up for work. The second is you manage to fall asleep, but you wake up several times during the night. Instead of being rested and restorative, sleep is fitful and draining. In my case, I sort of slide out of sleep into an awareness of 'oh, I'm awake'. The archetypical light-sleeper. Some people suffer sleep aponea, whereby irregular breathing wakes them up. I've never had myself tested to see if this is the case with me. Certainly my insomnia pattern started out of the former kind, the unable to drop off, usually because my head was pulsing with thoughts, some significant, many trivial, the brain saying 'we're not done with the day yet mister'. As a writer, I've used this to my advantage, more of which below.

The treatments I've sought in the course of my insomnia, range across acupuncture, herbal remedies and homeopathy, reflexology, kinesiology, self-hypnosis, cognitive therapy, and psychoanalysis. Some helped take the edge of a crisis of sleeplessness for protracted periods, but none made the problem disappear and nor could I really expect any to. The one thing I have never done is take either prescription drugs or those purchased over the counter. The latter I gauge to be less than useless, the former I will keep in reserve for when I'm in my dotage and really need medicated assistance to sleep; I judge, rightly or wrongly, that if I started now or even ten years ago, I would require such a high dosage in latter years as to make it impracticable, or dangerous, or both. Acupuncturists study the tongue for a diagnostic; mine said I had the tongue of a 70 year old - when I was under 30).

Insomniacs do get more sleep than they credit, but there's no doubt a lack of zzzz's leaves you short of energy, irritable and maybe under-par at work. So, that's the downside of insomnia. But believe it or not for me there are boons as well. I didn't really 'get' cognitive therapy, which seemed to be about changing one's way of thinking about the whole issue, to de-problematise it, but it did bring out one interesting facet. I admitted that I feared losing my ability to write if my sleep problem magically disappeared overnight (or even during the small hours of a morning which only slightly less improbable). You see I do tons of writing lying in bed with my eyes shut.

Not actual writing with pen on paper, but composition in my mind. There is something about retiring to bed with the intention to sleep, when the brain, or my brain at least, seems to say okay, now we've got a little peace and quiet from the hurly burly of the day, let's bring to the surface all the stuff that we didn't have time to look at. I'm hardly unique in that, since people lie awake at night making lists of things to do tomorrow, or trying to work out the solution to a problem. There is something about that space, lying prone and in the dark, that seems very conducive to a quality akin to meditation on the practicalities of life. In my case, it's the time for all the ideas that have been simmering for whatever writing project I'm engaged in, but have been unable to address during a day of work and child-rearing and running a kids' soccer team, to elbow their way to the forefront and demand they be heard.

This is the part of the creative process that I am amazed by. Sometimes whole scenes or exchanges between characters emerge fully formed, seemingly from nowhere. But like the marble sculpture that exists in the artist's mind as he contemplates the unworked slab, the work has been proceeding at a level just below open consciousness. I used to get up when I was single and switch the light on and jot it all down, which only furthered the unlikelihood of ever getting to sleep that night. Over the years I have taught myself techniques to avoid doing that. As the ideas come, I number them off and attach a keyword to each number. I go over them matching number and keywords a few times, before (hopefully) succumbing to blissful unconsciousness. In the morning when I wake up, I know I may have say 6 or 7 things to recover and as long as I can recall the key word, I pretty much reproduce the thoughts from the night before. Some I may not recall in all their detail and some I never recover, but again over the years I have allowed myself this fall-off. Maybe the best idea I ever had for a character goes by the wayside in this manner, but I feel that's just the price of maintaining my equilibrium between getting some sleep and yet retaining the creative processing. Anything else would possibly invite madness.

So I value that genuinely silent space on retiring to bed. I never go and lie down with the intention of working, but if it comes I never reject its outpourings either. I feel it's a few layers removed from dream consciousness, but in my case the realm of dreams have never provided me with any creative output. I rarely remember my dreams at all. No, this is a conscious level, albeit I don't seem to be in full control of the ideas emerging from the creative forge as they rise up in a shower of touchstoned sparks.

Over the Christmas period I was about halfway through the first draft of a new novel. Without fail, every night of that 2 week holiday period I was assailed by the next tranche of writing for an hour or two as I lay in bed. Sometimes taking me ahead on to parts as yet unwritten, or rewrites or links across to what I had written earlier that day. The circumstance of being off work meant that I could have the luxury of sleeping till late, thereby giving full rein to the 'writing' by night. Energy-wise I wasn't in much of a state do lots of other activities over the holiday period, but then I probably wouldn't have done much anyway. Instead I virtually finished the second half of the novel draft in that period.

So for me, and I recognise this doesn't necessarily hold true for other insomniacs, it is a price I'm prepared to pay. It seems indelibly tied up with my writing and creative processes (sorry Mr Cognitive Therapist and Shrinkety Shrink). During those periods when I'm not writing, then it does flicker across my consciousness as being a burden, but fortunately these are few and far between. I'm also aware that it may have an impact on my long-term health, but this is both an imponderable and again, a calculated trade-off in the cost-benefit columns.

It isn't always writing that keeps me awake. My kids' football team have caused me sleepless nights, which is even more ridiculous that writing being the culprit, but there you go. My mind has also arbitrarily posed me obscure musical challenges to keep me company through the night, or a dare to name all 105 (as was) elements in the Periodic Table. I think that may be my brain having a laugh at my expense, just to keep me honest and remind me who's in charge in this relationship.

I'm not for one moment advocating that insomnia is a good thing. At the moment I'm battling with my 12 year old son who refuses to go to bed at a reasonable hour, pointing to the weathered skin around the eyes and telling him that not even I started at so tender an age to defy our circadian rhythms. But I think it is instructive to not let it dominate you and your thinking. Don't clock watch - it took me about 15 years to kick that habit for example. Don't let the insomnia own you.

Do any of you folks have similar experiences with creativity and sleeplessness? Or are there any long-term insomniacs who want to share tips?

Just leave a comment. I can't guarantee that it will help you sleep any better tonight, but you never know.


writeanne said...

I'm a lifelong insomniac and night 'writer'. I've tried everything - including prescription drugs - which was a short term solution when I was utterly desperate.

I get to sleep quickly but don't stay asleep.

I seem to cope on little sleep for the most part and do have flashes of insight and inspiration in that inbetween state.

The most effective method I've found for getting over is meditation - if I can empty my mind I can drift off.

A lot of what you say, Marc matches my experience.

TF said...

Firstly, respect for this admission, Marc: "I admitted that I feared losing my ability to write if my sleep problem magically disappeared overnight."

After a week of sleeplessness, last night I took a single sleeping tablet, of the over the counter variety, for the third or maybe fourth time in my life. This was a deceptively risky thing to do - the last time I took one I was on a plane and actually didn't fall asleep at all. The next day I spent in a nightmarish anxious limbo, afraid (but still hoping) that sleep would hit at any moment.

Last night I popped it without much thought and sat in front of the TV to let come what may. I began to feel drowsy, so I got in bed expecting to be out pretty quickly. Instead, a wave of anxiety hit as I worried what the pill was in fact doing to my brain, if it was the right time of the night to have even taken it, if there'd be any side effects the next day etc. Sleep did come - and I stayed asleep - but no quicker than usual.

I have never been a good sleeper. When I was a kid I had to have the perfect conditions to actually fall asleep. I needed the right clothes, level of darkness, temperature, pillow softness and height etc. Staying at friends' homes was hell at a bed time.

When I started writing, like you I found that insomnia wasn't all bad. My subconscious would knit narratives together and problems I'd previously overlooked would surface, as would solutions. Sometimes I had the freedom to get up and write things down, but a lot of the time it would be lost. I like your idea about keywords and numbers - it's a very methodical way of collating ideas (if not the method of someone who has many a sleepless night to think about it!).

The problem is that I am a morning writer. So the later I get to sleep, the later I'll wake and the less time I'll get to write before I have to hurry off and do what needs doing! Thus, the cruel cycle continues.

The most effective thing for me has been to go to sleep when I am actually tired and ready. Unfortunately, when you have to be at work the next day, going to bed at 3 a.m. is rarely viable.

Sulci Collective said...

Thanks guys for your input.

It's really hard to distinguish chemical anxiety from the pill, with all the inverted placebo effects running around our head just by the fact of taking the damn thing. Lying in bed, failing to drift off racks up the anxiety anyway, as you contest with all the downsides that you know will inevitably follow from a sleepless night - you look ahead to the penalty for not sleeping and it only makes it even less likely that you'll relax enough to sleep.

The discussions with the cognitive therapist went further and on to more metaphysical planes (anathema to a cognitive therapist grounded in practicalities I feel). I compare falling asleep into a limbo with death itself, of which I am terrified to the core of my soul. That surrendering of consciousness and awareness is I think akin in some ways to death, though fortunately we get to wake up each morning from such a void. I don't know, this may be a fanciful notion too far, but it plays on my mind to some subconscious degree.

Unknown said...

Great post here ... Never really thought about some of these things since my little one drains me and by day's end, I'm ready to plop. But the nature of creativity and insomnia is fascinating...

Anonymous said...

My experience with insomnia began in my teens - completely willingly - I would rise at 3 or 4 am (after going to bed around midnight), just to have some quiet. I've always found noises, especially the domestic kind, to be completely unnerving. With two noisy younger brothers and a mother unable to control her volume (especially when angry), having this quiet time for a couple of hours before they woke was essential for me.

Now, age 40, chronic insomnia has been the bigger part of my life. I've had nights of eight hours (or more), but they are not the norm. The nights I stay awake are just like the days and no more likely to be part of any particular creativity.

The thing that has informed my life and pushed or pulled creative influence has been Depression and, more recently, post traumatic stress/anxiety which shape my thoughts in sometimes very morbid ways, perhaps unconsciously fed through my insomnia. Lack of sleep is lack of dreams; dreamless sleep is shallow sleep where ideas can literally drown.

If you're able to use the time to steer your dreams toward characters and scenarios, you have an ability I envy. The worst of my sleepless nights are usually spent trying to find ways to relax - music, meditation, crosswords - so my brain doesn't overload. The sort of thoughts I can't shut off tend to be layered conversations that never stay on any one topic for long. If I can focus enough, some conversation may find itself into a story, but rarely.

The only part of it I wouldn't change is how open I feel on such nights - no real inhibitions in where my brain will go or what it will consider. There also seems to be a level of perception I don't experience otherwise - but that might be delusion!

Sulci Collective said...

Thanks DJ. There's no doubt in my mind that it is a curse, even though I seem able to manage it on some sort of workable level now. I think the link with depression is a salient one, because whatever causes insomnia, sure as heck the body and mind ravaged by sleeplessness is very vulnerable to feeling profoundly down. The endless vigil of the night passing and sleep evading your grasp is one of the most dispiriting (in all shades of meaning of that word) aspects of it. That's why clock watching is so debilitating and I've weened myself off that. I guess I sort of cheat myself from knowing exactly how much sleep I do manage to get. But there were plenty of nights as you say where you just know you haven't had one jot of sleep.

I find it fascinating what you say about the quality of silence you were able to wrest by forcing yourself awake in the small hours. That seems to me to underscore everything else about sleep that has since followed. In a similar way to my own comparisons of sleep as death. I remember the trigger for that, at age 6 when my noisy parent had his radio on and through the wall I heard crystal clear some item about how some people wouldn't wake up the next morning, (presumably because they would die in their sleep, though somehow I've conflated this into them being metamorphosised into dragons, but then I was 6) and I remember being terrified to go to sleep that night. It didn't spark my insomnia, but it probably lay dormant (if you'll excuse the pun) until it got dredged up with the silt and sediment of other factors.

Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.

M x

Anonymous said...

You've brought up another point - that childhood anxiety about death, what it is (not waking up), or, more specifically, the nightmare of some terrible calamity happening somewhere that will affect you. For me, it was two-fold, on one level, the calamity of my parent's marriage (and having to listen to their arguments when I was in bed) and whatever was on the news - murder, war, etc. Think I was a nervous kid, led to need for quiet times (control) and diminished sleep.

But there's that side where sleep keeps you from knowing things. Once you start hearing all this information, you can't stop taking it in, have to know more - if you fall asleep, you'll miss out. You won't know and if you don't know, you won't feel complete. I had to know everything that went on in my house, everything that was happening everywhere; I was afraid to listen, but afraid not to as well.

Today, I have to be extremely careful what information I take in - so much 'news' today is just opinion or PR, almost always too dire, and trying to sift through to what is true is serious work. Family dramas are no less complex and have to protect myself from them unless the anxieties take over. Too much stress from too much information means no sleep, sometimes for days.

What sort of information could you live without, or is it necessary for you?

Sulci Collective said...

Again I can relate to what you say DJ. I remember when being sent upstairs to bed as a child, crouching down in the small landing that split the stairs (which interestingly was where my parents had their low level bookshelves not that I read anything there for many years), hiding behind the balustrade and imbibing the ambience from below, of TV, the occasional exchange between parents etc. It was as if I had to take control of when I went to bed and didn't want to be wrenched away from the family tableau (even though like yours it wasn't particularly warm or happy). If I heard any approach, which was rare, I would hightail it off to bed, Mind you in bed I did also play out fantasies that either criminals or invading armies were at the door and imagining where in my room I would hide. If the night was free of external bustle - and in 1970s it was a lot quieter in suburbia than it is now - then the distant clanging from railway sidings and the odd shout would drift over the air into my room, conjuring up different fantasies of alien activity just beyond.

As to information. This is a tricky one. It doesn't persecute me as it may once have (I think that has to do with the downgrading of my political activism, pulling the lid over my immediate nuclear family and letting the rest of the world slowly go to hell without my input other than some literary sniping from the sidelines). I am less rigorous about collecting such data, but such is the data overflow that I come by it anyway. Even with my cynical meter actively filtering out most of it like yours, maybe there is something about the passive receipt of it in the first place on my part that makes it less portentous. I don't know, it's something I'm going to have to go away and think about. But I do suspect my anxieties bound up with insomnia are far more selfishly centred around me, rather than external events. Somewhere in a contorted way, the ability to write manages to purge most of my exasperation at the injustices and insanities of the world. What it can't seem to lance is the knotty problem of mortality.

Andy said...

I suffer too from a lack of sleep, but it is often in fits and starts and more often than not linked to anxiety/fear over something. Depending on the fear/worry I do get flashes of insight and ideas and snippets of lines, but not to the extent you do, that is impressive and I can see how you could form a link between writing and sleep.

Also your comment 'The discussions with the cognitive therapist went further and on to more metaphysical planes (anathema to a cognitive therapist grounded in practicalities I feel). I compare falling asleep into a limbo with death itself, of which I am terrified to the core of my soul. That surrendering of consciousness and awareness is I think akin in some ways to death, though fortunately we get to wake up each morning from such a void. I don't know, this may be a fanciful notion too far, but it plays on my mind to some subconscious degree.'

That is really interesting and if you have developed a link between death and sleep then becoming insomniac would be a reasonable answer. There is a feeling of the existential in that idea, that life is so rich, so full, that sleep is a waste of life. Also there maybe a fear of unfinished business as you talk of night as time to yourself. I really think there is something in what you say.

Mari said...

I have what I call "creative insomnia", which is the way my muse probes me at night, waking me up and/or not letting me sleep until I put things down on paper/screen. I love it because the result almost always pleases me, but then, I don't get to actually sleep. If you saw the dark circles under my eyes...

And I am a light-sleeper too, which is a pain. Lately, I have been using Valerian to solve the non-creative insomnia problem, but it's not guaranteed.

Martin @ Insomnia Land said...

Thanks for sharing. It's always refreshing to read about someone's more positive experience with insomnia.

I think there's definitely a link between creative people / 'thinkers' in general and insomnia. Many members of our insomnia help forums are creatives - one is a published author, others are in bands and some are keen poets.

Just be careful with the valerian - the American Academy of Sleep Medicine reports that there is limited evidence that it's effective in treating insomnia and scientists still don't completely understand how it works.

Sulci Collective said...

Thanks for commenting Martin. Good to get a view from outside the artistic community, from someone directly involved at the insomnia coalface.

Anonymous said...

I'm in Martin's community,InsomniaLand, and he summarized this post, as well as giving us the link to it.

I don't think I ever intentionally sought different hours for awake/sleep.

I don't read disturbing sites, fiction, or non-fiction before trying to sleep: truly bad idea.

You wrote:
Certainly my insomnia pattern started out of the former kind, the unable to drop off, usually because my head was pulsing with thoughts, some significant, many trivial, the brain saying 'we're not done with the day yet mister'.
I think that may be my brain having a laugh at my expense

That resonates with so many of us in InsomniaLand! Many of us have tried any remedy thrown our way, including folk/OTC (yeah, right) "remedies", as well as prescription meds. I have an idiosyncratic reaction to sleep meds: most keep me awake, but none of them have ever worked for me.

I used to be able to go to sleep with a problem in mind, and wake up with the solution, but that's been decades gone.

Since you can't read material in the InsomniaLands forums without being a member, I'll post in a second comment what HAS been able to turn my "active" brain off, to get away from an area of verbal activity.

BTW, I never managed to eject myself out of bed until dinnertime, so yeah, sleep cycle shifted, and I'm up in the wee hours.