An Insomniac's Guide to Writing
"Listen: there was a goat's head hanging by ropes in a tree.
All night it hung there and sang. And those who heard it
Felt a hurt in their hearts and thought they were hearing
The song of the night bird½"
- from Brigit Kelly's "Song"
I think if we took an unofficial survey of our writer friends, the majority of us would classify ourselves as "night owls." Let's be specific here: by night, what I really mean is living between that very late / early morning time--when it's two a.m., the house is asleep, and you're still there, streaming music and reading online, when you can't quite shut off your mind. For me, as a college freshman, the worst thing about living in a dorm wasn't a hall full of women, or even sharing a tiny room with another person, but having to sit in the hallway to read at 3 am, or pace the halls, conforming to another person's sleep habits.
Because this is when we're supposed to sleep--that's why restaurants stop serving dinner at 9 pm, because we'll all be asleep soon enough. Of course, for the insomniacs among us, 2011 is a good time to be a late-night person: we aren't limited to the Law and Order reruns that were my main entertainment as a teenager. Spotify! The New York Times! E-Readers! Hulu! At least if I can't sleep, I don't have to think about the not-sleeping.
Often, I think there's something about the romance of night, and how the light that we use at night isn't real, and yes, maybe this is why we're in love with our collective insomnia. We like the not-sleeping, we like being night owls, even though it's a terrible bird: nocturnal, solitary, and surviving by its ability to eat other birds. In a sense, that's what we do as writers: we're birds of prey. We steal what we need from watching others, from our conversations, we steal from our own memory, taking the experience and re-packaging it, trying to learn at midnight what we couldn't figure out at 10 a.m.
It's a fun task, to try and go through your favorite writers and see how many of them mention the night--specifically being awake, and alone, and realizing things. So here, in short order, is a survival guide for the insomniacs:
Food: Good Cheese, Orange Juice, Ciabatta Bread
Even if you can't sleep, that hamburger from McDonald's will just give you indigestion. Say no to fried things if you're sober and awake late. A good cheese (goat's milk for maximum flavor) and ciabatta bread will keep your hunger at bay, and the sweetness of the orange juice is a perfect complement to the bread.
Entertainment: Six Feet Under or documentaries involving words (i.e. Wordplay or Helvetica)
Early morning is not the time to watch Dexter
or The Walking Dead
. While both are shows that I love, they're also shows that have enough gore to keep you up later than you need to be. But Six Feet Under is just enough pathos to make me feel interested in life without nightmares.
Mode of Writing: Emails
I feel productive, but the logic required is less so than trying to map out a short story or writing a draft of a poem, and I can always wrap up an email with "best" or "questions to consider for later."
Place of Not-Sleeping: Office Chair, Oversized
Working in bed is bad for your posture, people. So says my doctor. It's much better to work in an ergonomically unfriendly chair, preferably with a comforter across my lap (to make me miss the sleep I'm not having.)
Theme Song: "Half Light," Arcade Fire
"Lock us up safe / And hide the key / But the night tears us loose / And in the half light / We're free"
Indeed, Arcade Fire. The night does tear us loose. And makes us better, perhaps.