The Power of Sleep

It must seem like I have way too many excuses for not writing. I have already blogged about my preference for procrastination and my habitual traveling. In my own defense, I truly believe that to be a good writer you need to lead a full life. The lonely writer shut off from the world is unnecessarily isolating himself, and is hardly likely to emerge after 2 years with a masterpiece. Balancing a healthy, active life with your work is the best way to go. While you’re busy being a writer, it’s important to get out there and do other things or your creativity will suffer.

To add now to my litany of writing sins, I want to discuss the power of sleep. Besides providing your body with the rest that it needs, sleep is the time when your conscious mind gets turned off, and the unconscious takes over. Fortunately for the writer, the unconscious mind is often better at solving story problems than you’re awake and incessantly thinking about them.

Whenever possible, I do my writing in the morning. One’s energy is always on the increase until about mid-day, so it makes sense to write as much as possible before noon. I spend my afternoons on story planning, organization and other work. If I’m in a hot climate I’ll try and take a nap in the afternoon. I also walk a lot in the afternoons and evenings, which is another great way to think about my story.

But when it comes to stubborn story problems that I can’t think my way out off, I’ll turn to a good night’s sleep. Lots of writers like to feed their subconscious in this way, and I was not altogether surprised when I found this passage in Graham Greene’s autobiography Ways of Escape:

Dreams, perhaps because I was psychoanalysed as a boy, have always had great importance when I write…Sometimes identification with a character goes so far that one may dream his dream and not one’s own.

I have never personally had that experience. But many seemingly insurmountable story problems have vanished thanks to several hours sleep. Graham also had this to say on the subject:

I imagine all authors have found the same aid from the unconscious. The unconscious collaborates in all our work: it is a nègre we keep in the cellar to aid us. When an obstacle seems insurmountable, I read the day’s work before sleep and leave the nègre to labour in my place. When I wake the obstacle has nearly always been removed: the solution is there and obvious – perhaps it came in a dream which I have forgotten.

I had already been doing this before I knew of Graham’s methods. And I can absolutely vouch for it. If you are really doing your work, sleep does help.

Of course, thinking too much before trying to sleep has it hazards. If you’re not careful it can lead to bouts of insomnia. That will certainly adversely affect your ability to write and maybe even sap your interest in the story altogether. But I have found that by considering a single problem as I drift off to sleep, I will invariably wake up with the solution at hand. It’s not magic, and it’s probably not science either. But it does have a lot to do with making writing a balanced part of your life. Never let writing consume all of your time.