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.