Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Creative Insomnia

Sometimes my characters wake me with their chatter. My job is to listen to those voices, only they don’t keep normal hours. I stow index cards and a pen in the bathroom so as not to wake my husband. Henry sighs in the morning when he finds my nocturnal scribblings. Many of my author, artist and composer friends share this affliction or blessing, depending on your point of view. The problem is you can’t control when inspiration will hit.

During the day, I always have a notebook in my bag. Snippets of conversation are game, so is the way a storm dropped snow mushrooms in a brook (thanks, Alida, for showing them to me.) I collect laughter and sorrow. I have a hard time answering the question: “How many hours a week do you work?”

I do try to keep normal hours and write while the kids are at school. I’m there for them when they come in the door and need to talk. Once they start homework, I catch up on email and blog comments. I read other people’s novels in the evenings. I try to get my story out of my mind so that I can sleep.

Still, sometimes my best writing comes from those crazy nights. This happens more frequently during revision. I need extra time to see the entire manuscript as a whole. The adrenaline flows, and I can visualize every word. I get into a zone, and I won’t stop until I finish the draft. I love writing and revision, but it is my vice.

On my desk is the perfect first chapter. At least it’s perfect until it’s time to revise again. In the mean time, I’m catching up on sleep. Perfection can only be a dream.

Groundhog Day (1993) with Bill Murray is not about writing a novel, but it captures the process.

For those of you suffering from a more debilitating form of insomnia, I recommend Insomniac by Gayle Greene. It’s a layman’s review of the disease and its treatments (there is no known cure) as well as a memoir of a woman’s struggle to live with chronic insomnia. Gayle interviewed doctors, researchers and insomniacs. She presents the complex information in a format that is both easy to understand and engaging to read. Insomniac was a New York Times "Editors' Choice" when it was released in paperback last summer. Gayle and I share an agent, which makes us agent sisters (according to Barrie Summy.)

Gayle's list of insomniac writers includes: Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, Mark Twain, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Rudyard Kipling, Edgar Allan Poe, Anne Lamott, Vladimir Nabokov, Charles Dickens, "maybe even Shakespeare" and Joyce Carol Oats, who provided the jacket blurb: "Impassioned and fascinating."

The book opens with this W.C. Fields quotation: "The cure for insomnia? Get plenty of sleep."

Blog watch: dovegreyreader scribbles and 3 other UK book bloggers are hosting Not the TV Book Group with online discussion of selected novels. Cynthia@Catching Days is posting a series on “reading like a writer.” A fun new blog, Books in the City, lives up to its name. She Brews Good Ale cooks good food too: a multi course meal prepared entirely from local ingredients and paired with locally brewed beer, recipes included. sixtyfivewhatnow posted artsy rainy day photos.

Theater watch: excellent New York Times review of As You Like It, playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through March 13 and directed by Sam Mendes. I just figured out what I want for my birthday.

My Photos: sunset at Bailey Island, dawn from our back door, "snow mushrooms" in the woods behind our house, our mudroom entrance.


kj said...

hello sarah,

so you are a fine writer and a fine photographer.

i laughed and loved your description of waking in the middle of the night to jot down words that would not otherwise make it to the light of day.

haha! i do that all the time. i try to keep a pen and paper at the side of my bed and i often scribble in the dark, hoping for the best. it took me a while to learn (and respect) that the muse comes when she comes, and she does not leave reminders or remnants if i'm not wise enough to be ready to listen.

very nice blog, sarah. i see you visit some of my very favorite people.


Emma Michaels said...

Great post! I absolutely love the photographs. They are amazing!

Bonnie Zieman, M.Ed. said...

Sarah! Stunning photographs. Enjoyed reading about your writing 'process'. Our bodies get tired but our brains just continue working for us - day and night!!

Sometimes I talk to my brain (yes, I did say 'talk') and tell it that it is okay to take a break - that the rest of the body is much more likely to get the rest it needs, if it does. Sometimes it works!

Shaista said...

The photographs are almost tangible, your home is clearly an incredibly 'speaking' place. I loved the clip of Groundhog Day - the good thing about it is Murray's life becomes richer and deeper and more layered with each new (or old) Ground hog day.
The book on Insomnia sounds fascinating, I shall try to find a copy here x

Hana Njau-Okolo said...

You know just the other day I was sharing about my overactive imagination! So, reading your post put a huge smile on my face because I can relate to what you said about getting the story out your head so you can sleep, and all! :-)

And you are so wise to keep index cards in the bathroom. I have learned that I will not remember the sentence in the morning; so right you are about inspiration.

Love the photographs. Fresh, fresh, fresh!

Les said...

Your Snow Mushrooms are masterly, especially in black and white with those tree branches reflected in the water.

I suffer from imsonia periodically with about a week of waking up entirely too early around 3 or 4, followed by a week of normal sleep. Then the cycle repeats, but unfortunately, unlike you I have nothing creative to do, just replay the past days events in my head, librally sprinkled with games of "what if".

Sarah Laurence said...

Kj, welcome to my blog and thank you! I have scribbled in the dark and not been able to read my words in the morning. I enjoyed remembering Italy on your blog. Nice to connect with you!

Emma, thanks!

Bonnie, I loved your post today about loners too. It was like we were in synch, thinking about creativity and the mind. I wish my brain were a better listener.

Shaista, I do live in a special place. I saw Groundhog Day years ago and never forgot it. We just rented the DVD and liked it better the second time. I’m not sure if Insomniac was published in the UK, but you can still get it through

MS, an overactive imagination is the best trait in a novelist even if it can interrupt sleep. I’m glad I posted those snow photos. The heavy rain just washed most the fresh snow away.

Les, the image wasn’t that much different in color – snow does that to a landscape. I loved seeing the bright orchids on your blog today for contrast. My insomnia also comes in waves with weeks of normal sleep. The creative bursts are good, but the insomnia we all get from worrying is never helpful. I hope this a good week for you.

Angie Muresan said...

Sarah, I know just what you mean by that. It seems the less I sleep, the more creative my writing gets.

Charlotte said...

Definitely true that you have to catch ideas before they run away, no matter when they arrive. Lovely Morse photos from last week, too. Love it when we can see Mt. W from the coast, as we so well can in winter.

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Oh, I would love to see As You Like It! I hope you get your birthday wish.

Although I often stay up quite late, real insomnia would be such a dreadful malady. On the rare occasion when I can't sleep, it's a miserable feeling. My heart goes out to those who suffer with it. Much different than being nudged awake by the muses.

Rosaria Williams said...

Sarah, thanks for the shout-out.
I understand the insomnia, the obsession with a story. At times, it's a real debilitating situation.

Barrie said...

How strange to be up with insomnia and reading a post about insomnia.:) Thank you for worrying about me. Basically, I've got too much going on, including lots of writing! But I did manage to finally get a post up this week. ;)

Kelly H-Y said...

Gorgeous pictures; beautiful words. 'Snow mushrooms' ... I love that! Your home and surroundings are stunning!

Sarah Laurence said...

Angie, how nice to connect with another writer. Welcome! I’ll come visit later. It’s a super busy week.

Charlotte, I like the image of an idea catcher. We owe ourselves another day at Morse.

Pamela, some wishes do come true: we’re going to As You Like It in NYC. It would be horrible to have insomnia every night. My creative bursts are followed by an unproductive crash day of recovery. I wish my muse kept more regular hours.

Lakeviewer, although useful in a crunch, insomnia is not a good habit. You are right that it can be very debilitating.

Barrie, aren’t blogs great company when you can’t sleep? We’ll have to add you to the list of insomniac authors. Message to Sherry: cut that out and go to sleep!

Kelly, I’m lucky to live here. The winter is harsh but beautiful.

Rose said...

I love the snow mushrooms! And you have ghosts hiding in your back yard:)

You're certainly in good writing company with insomnia, Sarah. I can understand that when the muse comes, you must act on it, no matter the time of day.

A Cuban In London said...

Oh, great, I can post my comment now! Well, first of all, thanks for your comments on my post about The Clash.

As I mentioned before, as much as you try, writers can't keep normal, regular working hours. And artists by extent. You're constantly observing, your mind is going places, scrutinising. You might have regular hours where you sit down and put your thoughts onto paper, but I bet you anything that sometimes you want to remember that brilliant dialogue you created for this or that scene and alas, it's not forthcoming now. Good you keep a notepad with you at all times. :-)

Have a good weekend.

Greetings from London.

TBM said...

I can relate to this, Sarah! In my bag are two journals, a camera (sometimes two), a watercolour set, a water pen, and a variety of pens and pencils. I've started carrying my bag with me from room to room--it makes it easier when inspiration hits. It is rare that I can't sleep because of creative insomnia, but sometimes I wake up really early with something on my mind and can't wait to get started. I am a morning person, but not by choice ;-)

Booksnyc said...


That sunset picture of Bailey Island is beautiful - the sky at sunset in the winter is such a stunning collection of colors.

Thank you for mentioning blog - I am glad you enjoy it and hope you keep stopping by!

tina said...

Congrats on the first chapter Sarah!

cynthia newberry martin said...

There are so many things I enjoyed in this post that I had to open it in a separate window so I wouldn't leave any out!

First of all the topic--creative insomnia. I know I'm really getting to a deep level with my writing when that's what I'm thinking about when I wake up at four. I remember 2 nights in a row when I was revising this novel I just finished that I woke up in the middle of the night and was able to see clearly a point of view problem in a scene.

Second, I love the first and last photos--I much prefer sunset to sunrise and I loved seeing all that snow.

Third, I was laughing out loud watching that clip from Groundhog Day--that is so like working on a novel! But how did you make that connection???

Finally, thanks for the mention. And I'm off to write the last post in the series.

Joanne said...

Oh so true, a writer's work is never done! Notebooks and scraps of paper and journals and photographs ... What wonderful ways to research, recording the comings and goings of life.

Anil P said...

I liked the snow mushrooms, the picture as well as the term snow mushrooms.

True, inspiration can come knocking anytime, and it must be a pleasure (most times) as well as a pain (at times that is) to open the door.

I suppose a writer's mind rarely rests.

Sarah Laurence said...

All, sorry to be late to reply. I needed time to unwind from my manic high. Last night I slept 8 hours plus!

Rose, my landscape makes for good material. I found it reassuring to find authors I admire producing great works at irregular hours.

ACIL, London Calling is the best. I entertain both the artist and the writer muses. Sometimes a full moon or a sunrise wakes me and demands a photo shoot too. Your comment makes me realize this: my whimsical notes allow the words to flow during the day. I almost never get stuck. Good weekend to you too!

JAPRA, what a terrific bag! You should show the contents on your blog. I get what you mean by early mornings not being a choice. The words chose me at 4AM.

Booksnyc, thank you! I will keep visiting – both Bailey Island and your blog.

Tina, thank you. I’m so, so excited about my first chapter. My new first sentence is a tested laughter-inducing hook. Perfect for teens.

Cynthia, you are right about depth. After revising for 3 weeks, my perfect first sentence woke me at 4am last weekend. I abandoned the cards and any hope of returning to bed. I was at the computer rewriting the chapter at 5am. I prefer sunsets too, especially since a sunrise means I woke up too early. I’m not a morning person by choice. My husband rented Groundhog Day last weekend to see with the kids – they loved it. Back in the 1990’s, when we first saw it, I wasn’t writing novels. The connection only came now, thick in revision. I’m going to read the story you deconstruct before I comment on your post. Time to visit a bookstore – Munro’s latest story collection was already at the top of my list.

Joanne, yes, a camera functions like a notebook too. I do enjoy research, and it sounds like you do too.

Anil, I’d noticed the snow mushrooms while skiing in the storm and then came back with my camera the next day. I ran into my friend Alida, who coined the term. Writers are magpies – we scavenge word scraps for our literary nests. I like your door metaphor. My mind is resting this weekend after a grueling work out.

Anil P said...

Several years ago I happened to own Steinbeck's Working Days: The Journals of The Grapes of Wrath.

He kept the journals while writing his epic. While it may not apply to all writers, still it made for insightful reading.

Anonymous said...

The ice mushrooms are splendid.
I can quite understand about your characters chattering at night..........
Insomnia must be awful beyond belief. I'm lucky enough to sleep quite well..........
Yes, your intended birthday present sounds excellent especially in view of your Shakespeare project.
I just re-read Lear and was bowled over by the language though the plot creaked and groaned.

Cynthia Pittmann said...

Hi Sarah, love the idea of creative insomnia, though I'm glad it doesn't strike me often! Actually, I'm not sure the insomnia I experience is creative at all. It's usually saturated in anxiety. I wake up early...and sometimes I'm afraid I will I just get up out of bed 2:30/3:30am - the goal is to get up at 4:30.

Jamaica Kincaid also has insomnia and uses that time to write. (She wrote that in her My Garden Book.) A drama/RT professor I knew in California also had that experience of waking up all night. I wonder if she was able be productive. I think so. (Sometimes she looked so tired.)
The way you describe the experience of not sleeping is as kind of a blessing, especially when you are inspired.

Love the larger size of photos you have here-so clear and sharp-beautiful.

Also, I admire the way you organize your life, Sarah. There's time for all the people you love-and still time to be creative.

Thanks for visiting over at Oasis and at Blogland Lane-I appreciate your readership and your inspiring artistic blog.

Sarah Laurence said...

Anil, thanks for the recommendation. It would be interesting to see inside Steinbeck’s process.

Ewix, you are lucky to be able to sleep when you want and still write well. In my young adult novel I borrowed the themes of As You Like It, but not the plot, in part for those pace reasons. As Shakespeare plays go, Lear is on the long side. You are right about the language; it’s what I love the most about the Bard. My daughter and I just saw the movie Young Victoria – I think you’d enjoy it too.

Cynthia, anxiety insomnia is the worst. Even creative insomnia becomes a curse if repeated more than one night in a row. A productive night is also followed by an unproductive day. It’s much easier to deal with the day after if you have no other commitments. I’m lucky to have the flexibility in my life to tend to both my family and my muse. However, my loved ones much prefer me on more sleep. Thank you, I enjoy your blog too!

Dawn Maria said...

I plan out the work I hope to get done each week with my writing. Since my time is limited, this helps me not waste it, but it isn't always as productive as I'd like.

This week I has one of those beautiful, unexpected creative moments when I was working on character collages. While cutting and arranging magazine photos I'd collected, I discovered two new things about two of my main characters that I didn't know before. The crazy part? I was doing this at work, on my break.

We never know when creativity will hit us, so showing up is really important, don't worry about when or where.

Sarah Laurence said...

DM, thanks for sharing your story. It’s a good idea to schedule regular time for writing in addition to grasping inspiration.

Kathryn/ said...

The only time I have "suffered" from this "problem" is when I first got on Twitter!! I would awaken in the night and find myself figuring out how to construct some thought I REALLY had to share (hahaha) in 40 characters or less. And now it doesn't happen at all. I think I do so many pragmatic things that allow me to be processing mentally simultaneously that my sleep time really is my sleep time--except of course for dreams. I admire that you do this, though. LOVE the photo of the steps leading to mudroom--strangely inviting in spite of the billowing snow! :)

walk2write said...

As always, Sarah, you've taken some breathtaking photos. The frozen 'shroom pic fits well with the subject of the post. Congrats on your first chapter! I hope that reading your post doesn't infect anyone with insomnia. ;) Remember G. G. Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude? A little lavender oil on my pillow works wonders when the voices speak too loudly...

Bee said...

Joyce Carol Oates came to my university (oh, those many years ago) and I remember her talking about carrying a notebook around and taking just the sort of notes you describe here. She didn't mention the insomnia though. :)

I have been sleeping like a log lately, but in the context of this post that doesn't seem like a good thing. I think my creative brain must be slumbering, too.

Lovely contrast between the coloured pictures and the black-and-white ones.

cynthia newberry martin said...

Bee, I love this:

I have been sleeping like a log lately, but in the context of this post that doesn't seem like a good thing.


Sarah Laurence said...

Kathryn, I hope your insomnia was also only 140 characters long.

W2W, blogging about insomnia has cured me, but I do hope it hasn’t gone viral. I’d forgotten about the insomnia reference in One Hundred Years of Solitude. I wonder if G G Marquez was also plagued by it. His novels have such a dream like quality to them.

Bee, that must have been interesting to hear about Joyce Carol Oates’s writing method. Maybe she didn’t have insomnia back then. No, I envy your log nights (Cynthia is right – very funny!) Creative insomnia is a bitter pill. I’ve been sleeping well for 3 nights, happily.

Donna said...

Those photos are so beautiful. I enjoyed getting a glimpse into the life of an author and what it's like to always be "on call"!

Sarah Laurence said...

Donna, as much as I appreciate the manic energy and ideas, I’m relieved when my brain takes time off too.