Friday, July 01, 2011

Writers and Sleep Habits

Frankie here. Sorry I'm late, but I overslept. And I was so thrilled that I'd overslept that I tossed out my intended post and decided to write about sleep habits. You see, in summer I have an awful time getting a full 8 hours of sleep. I usually average around 4 hours. That's because I like staying up late to write. That's fine in the winter when I can snuggle under the covers and sleep well past dawn. In fact, I have no trouble at all sleeping in fall and winter.

But then come my "summer blues". Aside from the heat when I try to snuggle under the covers, there are birds chirping and dogs barking and neighbors mowing . . . you get the picture. But last night I was really exhausted. I'd spent 5 days in New Orleans with the Sisters in Crime team attending the American Library Association conference (more about that soon). When I got home, my sleep pattern was even more out of whack. So I was delighted to finally get eight hours sleep.

Well, not really eight hours. Towards the end, I had slipped into that half sleep that some of you may have experienced. Mind ticking along, working on writing ideas, trying to solve a problem. That, alternating with dreams that you're directing. But still close enough to sleep that you don't want to let go. I think of it as a part of the writing process. The reason writers keep note pads on their night tables and jump up in the middle of the night to rush to their computers.

This morning I was so intrigued by the subject of writers and sleep that I did some research to see what articles might pop up. I found a fascinating one titled "On the Edge of an Abyss: The Writer as Insomniac" (by G. Johnson, Virginia Quarterly Review, 66 (4), 1990, 643-655, for those of you who feel the urge to read it). According to the author, insomnia has been a common affliction of many well-known writers. Real insomnia -- not my seasonal disorder. D. H. Lawrence wrote in a poem, "nothing in the world is lovelier than sleep." His fellow insomniacs include Franz Kafka, Charles Dickens, Sylvia Plath, William Wordsworth, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickson, Charlotte and Emily Bronte (who walked around and around the dining room table until they were tired enough to sleep), Joseph Conrad, and Joyce Carol Oates. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a 1934 essay, "Sleeping and Waking," detailing his trouble with sleeping. Ernest Hemingway wrote to Fitzgerald about his problems sleeping after the critics panned his Green Hills of Africa in 1935. But Virginia Woolf, who also had trouble sleeping, thought that she was more productive when she was wakeful.

The author of this article looks at the research on insomnia and concludes that what these writers and other writer-insomniacs may have in common are some personality characteristics which include both anxiety and a need for control. Some of the writers seem to have developed bad sleep habits over time. Some of them did attempt to self-medicate (with alcohol and drugs) to get a good night's sleep.

Given what we know now about the psychology of sleep and how much the body needs sleep to prevent all kinds of maladies from high blood pressure and diabetes to deterioration of eyesight, I have to say I'm willing to trade some writing time for a really good night's sleep. I think I get much more done when I "work" with my eyes closed and then jump out of bed and head to my computer. How about you?

1 comment:

Dana said...

Came across your blog post while researching writers' sleep patterns. I'm in the middle of a novel, and I seem to sleep *long*, not short. Nine to ten hours a night. And it seems that during the whole time, I'm dreaming. Often the same dream all night. Problem is, when I wake up, I'm so into the dream that I can fall write back into this 'fiction' for another hour or two every morning. The dreams aren't about my novel, but just other, equally complex stories. Not sure whether this comes from staying up until 3 a.m. because I can't sleep, and then I'm exhausted, or whether it's the novel writing process...or both. Anyway, thanks for the post. Glad to know I'm not alone...