Monday, June 4, 2012

The Power of Sleep

Sleep is a vital component of living; without adequate sleep, we remain tired and grumpy, perhaps even lethargic and/or depressed.

 It appears that adequate sleep can be different for different people, but I'll assume the tried-and-true 8 hours per night is adequate. The key word is "adequate". Being a person who suffers from sleep apnea and uses a cpap machine to get adequate sleep, I have experience with the problem of lack of adequate sleep. Before I was diagnosed with sleep apnea, perhaps 15 years ago, a 12-hour night of sleep left me exhausted and practically unable to function. I fell asleep at work more often than I want to admit. Fortunately, I had understanding co-workers and didn't get fired. I still need about 10 hours of sleep per night to feel alert. So, just to function in a busy and chaotic world, we need adequate sleep.

But adequate sleep has other benefits than just keeping our energy level high. For the creative writer, it may be an important component of our creativity. An article in the April 23, 2012 Time magazine "Shhh! Genius at Work" discusses the importance of sleep to creativity. Several scientific studies support the connection between sleep and creativity (and problem solving). The article mentions that Mary Shelley came up with the idea for her novel Frankenstein from a dream.

I think most writers can attest to the power of sleep for our writing. I see on blogs a lot of talk about sleep. Mostly complaints about not getting enough sleep, even complaints of coming up with ideas in sleep and waking up. But, really, this is a positive effect of sleeping well. Our minds are free from the restraints of our awake consciousness. This freedom of the mind to try out different solutions to problems while we're sleeping allows for more options: greater creativity. Many, many times I've awoken in the middle of the night with the solution to a problem in a story I was working on, mainly problems of plot. I've always valued ideas generated when I was asleep. I've written dialogue, even entire scenes in my mind while asleep, woke up, and wrote it all down at 2 a.m.

This tremendous benefit of sleeping may actually become a liability for many writers. And I think this is the primary problem for many of us. This waking up in the middle of the night causes us to be tired during the day when we have to work at our full time jobs. It helps make our workday unhappy, and this causes dilemmas for us. It probably kills more writing careers than anything. We just can't do both, write well and consistently when we're tired. Time management also becomes a big issue. But that's another topic. (This also goes for stay-at-home moms, who are also writers, with young children to care for.) The obstacles to writing are so great for both that many just give up.

But the full time writer, especially without children to care for, who can sleep as late as she wants, can reap tremendous rewards from waking up in the middle of the night to write down her inspirations. It's just too bad the vast majority of us can't live without a full time job. Most of us don't want to live in poverty, especially if we have families. Plus, in the USA, our jobs are our source for health insurance: no job, no insurance (not good). Unfortunately, we opt for our jobs, security, and suffer the unhappy consequences of hating our jobs.


Elizabeth Varadan aka Mrs. Seraphina said...

Interesting post, Richard. I think dreams are a great source of inspiration. I got a whole book from one I had a few years ago. I am not good about waking up and writing things down, but I've had the experience you've mentioned of waking up with solutions to a snag in my writing.

Kamille Elahi said...

I'm usually too tired at night to write something down. I do wake up a lot to put something up in front of my curtains to block the light just before 5 though.

Mary Shelley got the idea for Frankenstein in a dream. Stephenie Meyer also got an idea for a book in her dreams. We know how that one turned out lol! I think getting an idea from a dream is great but I don't think people should copy exactly what they dreamt or people are going to be reading books about flying sponges if I write my dreams into my books and get published.

I never realised sleep could play such a large part in a writer's life.

Rachna Chhabria said...

Great post, Richard. Though we all know about the benefits of sleep, we writers tend to forego or cut short our sleep to be able to write for a few extra hours.

J.L. Campbell said...

I wish I'd go to bed earlier, but for me, it's all about sacrifice. If I have a story idea that's flowing, I don't have a choice but to write it down. For a long time now, I've resigned myself to the fact that I haven't been functioning at my full potential - mainly from lack of sleep.

Julia Hones said...

If I don't sleep enough I can't write. Besides, I'm a morning person so I never write at night unless my characters' voices have something urgent to tell me. Interesting post, Richard.

Emily R. King said...

I wish I could wake in the middle of the night and use that time to write. Unfortunately, I'm usually awake with one of my children.

Like you said, I function better on adequate sleep. But what is adequate sleep? With four young children, I fear I've forgotten. :)

Nancy Thompson said...

I do a lot of work in my sleep. I dream of plot lines and work through scenes and dialogue. I've always been a lifelong bad sleeper. I found melatonin years ago and it helps considerably. I am lucky that I'm one of those people who can write in the middle of the night if I want and sleep during the day is necessary.

Tanya Reimer said...

I work harder in my sleep than I do all day. I always wake up exhausted but pumped.

But you're so right, if we sleep on a problem, the answer will come.

Lynda R Young said...

I love my sleep...especially in winter. It's not always easy though when my mind is abuzz with ideas, or stressed over line-edits ;)

Hilary Melton-Butcher said...

Hi Richard .. we sure do need our sleep - and I agree with Tanya .. I work hard during my sleep .. the problem is I still have to do the actual work - frustrating!

I'm sure there's a link to creativity - though I've developed the habit of switching on the World Service at night .. and I move in between listening and sleeping ..

Sleep is so important, so is having the buzz and moving with that flow ..

Sleep tight - though you've just woken up .. cheers Hilary

Elise Fallson said...

I wonder if my writer's block has something to do with me not getting enough sleep. The whole month of April was a disaster for me sleep wise and it seems I haven't caught up. I used to fall asleep thinking about my book and wake up in the middle of the night scratching down notes. I loved that. But lately, when I hit the pillow I see nothing but darkness until morning. ):

Richard said...

@Elise: If you're sleeping all through the night and waking up tired, then you may have a sleep problem. You might want to discuss this with a doctor. You can have a completely painless sleep study that will answer your question.