Sleep has long been considered a source of creative inspiration, which makes it fascinating to consider the role it may have played in some of our most treasured works of literature. Maria Popova of Brain Pickings, in collaboration with illustrator Wendy MacNaughton and designer Giorgia Lupi, created a marvelous visual that tracks the correlation between the wake-up times and productivity of famous writers from Honoré de Balzac, who rose at one in the morning, to Charles Bukowski, who, perhaps unsurprisingly, woke at noon.
But how does sleep affect today’s burgeoning writers? Does it hinder or help? Inspire or interrupt? Here, seven contemporary authors discuss the ways in which sleep affects their writing — and writing affects their sleep.
Matt Gallagher, author of Youngblood and Kaboom
I'm a deep sleeper, and always have been. In 1994 my family was visiting Disneyland when the famous Northridge earthquake struck. I slept right through it in our hotel room, much to my dad's dismay. I guess I had a really great dream going on or something, and no time or interest in the realities of the moment.
As for sleep in my writing: there's a pivotal scene in my new novel Youngblood that involves a group of soldiers taking a knee in the center of a riot. It's an attempt, a plea really, for calm. For years, I remembered my mom telling me a similar story before my unit deployed to Iraq in 2007, as an example of moral courage taking form in a unique way in the midst of war and armed conflict. She's a big reader, well-versed in history, and though memory distorted when and where it'd exactly taken place—had it been British-occupied India? the Gaza Strip? Somewhere in Central America?—the idea and story took hold in my mind. It had great impact upon me, both as a junior officer in Iraq and then later as a creative writer.
Anyhow, a couple months ago my mom finished a galley of Youngblood. To my great relief, she liked it. "But where did you get this imaginative idea for the soldiers taking a knee?" she asked. I explained that she'd told me about it some years before. She looked at me with confusion and then concern. "This is the first time I've heard anything like that," she said.
To quote the great Biggie Smalls, "It Was All a Dream."
Judith Claire Mitchell, author of A Reunion of Ghosts
The first week of my MFA program I learned the most important lesson there is about being a writer: the importance of naps. Every writer I spoke to, whether student or faculty, were dedicated nappers. You cannot imagine the joy we felt over this commonality, especially for those of us with partners. We were not lazy louts after all, we informed our formerly judgmental loved ones. Napping was part of the process.
Whether mid-day or at night, sleep and the moments before and after—drifting off and struggling back to a fully conscious state—turn out to be creative times for many of us. Certainly that’s the case with me. When I lie down and close my eyes, I deliberately empty my mind of all thoughts other than the story I’m currently working on. Then, blankets pulled to chin, I actively imagine my characters. I work out plot points. I even hear voices—but in a good, artistic way. For me, pillow talk has a whole different meaning than it does for most people.
Although I let my characters talk me to sleep, I’ve never woken having dreamed the perfect ending to a story or the denouement to a novel. But I have woken up feeling clear and ready to go and, upon sitting at my desk, I’ve been surprised at how easily a thorny plot point has worked itself out. That’s when I know that while I slept a part of my brain had been working away. I call it my unconscious. The Greeks called it the Muse. Whatever we call it, I’ll say this much: writing while sleeping is an awfully pleasant way to be hard at work.
Nickolas Butler, author of Shotgun Lovesongs and Beneath the Bonfire: Stories
For better or worse, my bed is oftentimes my office, too. My nightstand is covered with novels-I'm-reading-for-fun, ARCs-I'm-reading-to-blurb, comics books, kids' books, magazines, and perhaps most importantly, a handy Field Notes pocket journal and some pens. I began carrying around a journal during grad school; a convenient and analog central storage device for a semi-Luddite writer with a very poor memory. My Field Notes are filled with song lyrics, story ideas, grocery lists, snatches of conversation, real-life anecdotes, Bible verses (very handy for the agnostic church-going writer), poems, etc.
I keep a journal on my bedside because I'm often lying in bed when I come up with some idea. Scraps of paper are fine, but then, if you're like me, you begin accumulating literally thousands of scraps, most of which are both somehow "genius" and/or useless. Booting up the computer at midnight is no good; my Toshiba (Toshi, his name is) is seven years old and about as loud as a lawnmower. But the Field Notes are an elegant solution. I turn on my bedside lamp, grab my journal, scrawl out a page of mental gibberish, extinguish the light, and feel confident that I've at least recorded my idea. I can go to sleep, assured that I've lost nothing. Though not necessarily gained anything, either.
Kirstin Chen, author of Soy Sauce for Beginners
Taped on the wall above my computer is a sheet of paper with these inspirational words from Joyce Carol Oates: “I have forced myself to begin writing when I've been utterly exhausted, when I've felt my soul as thin as a playing card…and somehow the activity of writing changes everything.” Every once in a while, Oates’s words thrust me through a truly rough writing day—the kind that follows a night spent seething in bed as the upstairs neighbors open and shut kitchen cabinets in preparation for some midnight feast.
My own empirical research suggests that sleep deprivation affects me much more than the average person, but I suspect that’s partly due to my line of work. As a novelist, I spend most of my time on long-term projects with few hard deadlines to provide those jolts of adrenaline that fueled me in grad school. Only my own sense of discipline keeps me motivated and focused through the years each novel requires. As such, much like a serious athlete (or so I imagine), I’ve come to view sleep as integral to my writing process. I’ve trained myself to get eight hours of good sleep before each writing day, and while it might sound funny (self-righteous?) to use the word “trained”, it really does take some rigor.
On pre-writing nights, I stay home and avoid all alcohol (which makes me wake up too early, overheated and parched.) I stop checking my email at 8 p.m.. I put away my laptop at 9. I do simple stretches like back twists and hip openers to slow my breathing and soothe sore muscles. And then I’m in bed by 9:50, on track to fall asleep by 10. My husband calls me the most rigid “work-from-homer” he’s ever known. I take it as a compliment.
Brittany Cavallaro, author of A Study in Charlotte and Girl-King
Sleep and I have a fraught relationship, in that we love each other a little too much. If I can get ten hours, I'm a happy camper, and a good day for me is one where I begin my morning answering emails from a giant stack of pillows. That said, nights are always better than mornings for me, in terms of artistic process. I've unfortunately never been the kind of writer who can set an idea on to simmer before going to bed and wake up to find that it's improved--instead, my brain tends to switch on to its brightest, smartest setting as soon as I tuck myself in for the night. If I don't start writing down ideas in the dark, they won't be there when I wake up.
I tend to solve most of my plot problems around 11:45 at night, on my phone, misspelling my character's names with my thumbs, grumbling under my breath. It's always a bit weird to wake up to a barely-coherent email to yourself, subject line SERIOUSLY WHY, but it's one sleepy gift horse I'm not looking in the mouth.
Susan Coll, author of The Stager, Acceptance, and others
My relationship with sleep and writing is not very complicated. I need a lot of sleep to write. When I am in writing mode I do everything I can to keep myself in good shape, to sleep well, and to exercise, because I view my body as a vehicle to get my writing on the page. On days when I have not had a good night’s sleep I notice the difference; the words come less easily. I wish I could say that something magical happens in the middle of the night, that I resolve plot problems in my dreams, but I don’t. I just sit at the keyboard and write. This is a very boring answer, but I suppose it’s my own version of Flaubert’s view of art: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” My own version of this is simply “get a good night’s sleep.”
Brian Christian, author of The Most Human Human
I decided to commit myself to writing after a dream I had when I was nineteen, the summer after my freshman year of college. In the dream I had been invited back to my old high school, to be part of a panel discussion for the students on life after high school. Somehow I felt peeved, fraudulent, to be dispensing the very kind of guidance I so badly felt I needed myself. In a brash, impetuous act completely out of character for me, I simply stood up and interrupted someone else who was speaking, blurting out, "Yeah, but how am I supposed to decide what to do with my life!?"
I think I—the dream-me—intended it as a rhetorical question, a bratty way of stymying the proceedings, a way of exposing the discussion as too vague and platitudinous and generic to be of use to any specific person. I wanted, I think, to instigate an awkward silence, to prove a point by everyone else's collective failure to answer it. Instead, a totally surprising thing happened.
Without missing a beat, my ninth-grade biology teacher – Mr. Roche by name – immediately made eye contact with me and said, "It's easy, Brian. Just listen to your small thoughts. They'll tell you what to do."
Your small thoughts – this seemed so significant that I bolted awake and scribbled on a pad I kept on my nightstand, "Roche / small thoughts," and fell back asleep. I woke up the next morning with no recollection of the dream until the note jogged me. Of course, I had no idea what "small thoughts" meant.
Later that day I was paging through my notebooks from school that year. In the margins of my philosophy lecture notes were scraps of poetic turns of phrase I thought were interesting. In the margins of my computer science lecture notes were ideas for formal structures for stories and plays. Whatever my brain took in produced these little mental eddies in its wake – small thoughts. My brain was making literature. I had a writer's brain. I should be a writer.
More than a decade later I still marvel at the process that led me to that epiphany. My own mind, of course, scripted the words of dream-Roche. Dream-me was struck enough to rattle sleeping-me awake, but neither knew the meaning of the words I myself had offered myself – only the significance. Waking me pieced the puzzle together, and a huge puzzle I was facing at that point in my life was solved, by this curious collaboration between all of these different strata of my subconscious and conscious.
The comedian Mitch Hedberg says of his own process, "if the pen is too far away, I have to convince myself that what I thought of ain't funny." Thank god I had the pen and pad within a drowsy arm's reach.