On Sleepiness and Writing

Am I the only writer out there who regularly falls asleep over her keyboard? Please tell me I’m not.

It goes like this: I’ve carved out a precious hour or two to write, but as soon as I hit a point where I need to stop and think for a moment, which is often very early on because I’m an incredibly painstaking writer and slow thinker, I start nodding off. I may stave off the drowsiness for a while, but eventually I flop face-down on my bed or couch and conk out.

I used to really hate this about my writing self. Every time it happened I’d berate myself for being lazy, lacking focus and discipline, not really taking my work seriously, etc.

Then one day, in a rare moment of non-judgmental clarity, I realized that it was silly to feel bad about these naps. For one thing, there were so many other things in life, including my own life, more deserving of my bad feelings. But besides that, the naps just weren’t a problem. I never fall asleep for very long—ten minutes, sometimes 20. Rarely, half an hour. And then I get up and go back to work, and I’m usually good for another hour at least. Even better, the catnap has often cleared my head, sometimes in a very specific way. I’ll return to my laptop and find that I can now rewrite that convoluted sentence or unstick a plot problem that had bedeviled me just 15 minutes earlier.

I know that one reason I end up sleepy when I write is that I sleep so poorly at night. I’m a lifelong, card-carrying insomniac, and please resist the urge to put your favorite insomnia cure in the comments below because whatever it is, I know about it. One result of nighttime sleeplessness is daytime sleepiness, of course. And when this sleepiness hits, it’s sometimes so strong and unignorable I wonder a bit resentfully why I can’t feel this way at night when I’m supposed to. I find myself wishing I could bottle that sensation and ingest it when I need to sleep. And then I think, Wait, they have bottled that sensation—it’s called Ambien.

But I digress.

The point is that I’ve come to accept these catnaps as something I need in order to function with my particular and peculiar wiring. I’m very fortunate in having the sort of life where I can surrender to that occasional sleepiness without, you know, being fired or endangering people.

But I’ve also begun to actually welcome the naps as part of my “creative process.” (I’m putting “creative process” in quotes so you know I know that that term is corny and unhip and also because in all honesty I don’t know that it’s really a “process” as such, and even if it is, whether it’s really so different from other, less obviously “creative” processes in my life.)

This writing-related sleepiness never comes over me when I’m humming along in one of those rare “flow” states where I’m lost in my work and unaware of the passage of time and my fingers are tapping away at the keyboard and all of that pseudo-genius-y stuff. The sleepiness comes when I’m not lost in my work and the work is just work and the seconds are ticking by audibly and I can also hear the neighbor’s dog and I’m fighting the urge to check Facebook again and I have no idea what the next word should be because this project I’m embarked on actually sucks and what the hell am I doing here anyway pretending I can write. That’s when I get sleepy.

I used to get mad at myself when this happened and add guilt about falling asleep to the voices of self-doubt and recrimination already buzzing around in my head. No longer. I just crash for ten or fifteen minutes, and when I wake up—all better. Well, okay, maybe not all better. But a lot better. And as often as not, whatever thorny issue had sent me into that somnolent tailspin in the first place has either resolved itself or become less daunting. Occasionally—only occasionally, mind you—I’ve actually been aware of fixing a narrative problem in my head while I nap.

One of my favorite websites in all the world is Maria Popova’s Brain Pickings. She has several good entries on sleep there, but I especially like this one about Thomas Edison and sleep. Edison apparently liked to inveigh against sleep as a time-waster and bragged about sleeping very little every night, but he also napped a lot, and there are several terrific photos, like the one I’ve linked to here, of the great inventor catnapping. Genius at rest, genius at work!

Thomas Edison napping in the Blue Ridge Mountains, 1921. (Image: Bettman/Corbis via TIME)

Before I wish you all sweet dreams, I want to let you know about some events/teaching gigs I’m doing over the next few months. My Events page lists some upcoming appearances in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New York.

I’m also teaching in the Sacramento area this spring and summer. My friend, writer Valerie Fioravanti, has created a terrific series of weekend Master Classes. I’m incredibly honored to be teaching one in Sacramento on June 11 & 12. And for Davis, CA-area writers, I’m also running a multi-genre Writing Salon this summer at the Davis Arts Center. Please check them out and spread the word!

And now I will wish you all every creativity-boosting nap you ever need.


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