10 June 2012

writing thoughts: sleep

I try to keep a civil tongue about most writing advice I disagree with. That is, I try not to say anything about it at all. There's one piece of advice I've decided to speak up about, though, and that's because it is possibly hazardous to your health.

That's the one about getting up one or two hours earlier than you usually do to write.

Now, if you usually clock eight or nine hours of sleep a day, enjoy regular relaxing evenings filled with family time and light chores (do the dishes, take out the garbage), then getting up an hour, or even a couple of hours early on weekdays is probably fine. I say "probably" because I'm only speaking from experience, not as a medical expert.

However, if you are not someone who usually gets that much sleep and/or has low-stress evenings, you might want to do a web search on the effects of chronic sleep deprivation first.

Sleep deprivation became a special interest of mine after I spent most of my twenties living on between three and five hours of sleep a night. Maybe I'd get six or seven on a random weekend night, but usually not. If you want to compare symptoms with that list of articles I linked to, I got to the point where:
  •  My craving for carbohydrates was insatiable — I'd eat a (large) lunch and if someone else was having a sandwich or a cake or something, I'd sit there and stare at them eating it, even if I was so full my stomach hurt.
  • I had to write down everything, because my memory was completely shot. Not only could I not remember what I needed to get at the grocery store, I'd get halfway down the street and not be able to remember which shop I was supposed to be going to. I had a calendar-style pocket diary in which I wrote down everything. Otherwise, I simply couldn't cope.
  • I was cold all the time.
  • My immune system worked at a sort of "bare minimum" level  — I always had minor infections that would get better or worse, but never go away entirely.
  • I had a tendency to repeat myself a lot, mostly because I couldn't keep good track of what I was saying.
  • Towards the end of the eight-year period I was going through this, I had a lot of visual and auditory hallucinations. At one point I was afraid to vacuum the lower-level stairwell in my apartment because of the "ghosts".
There's more, but you get the idea. At the time, even though I was always complaining about lack of sleep, people put it down to job stress, having too much of an imagination (!), and "aging". The symptoms started interfering with my life when I was about twenty-four, and someone overhearing me telling a friend about it interrupted and said, "Guess you're getting older, eh?". I was twenty-four.

And writing? It didn't happen. I still got ideas in my head, still imagined scenes, but they very rarely made it to paper. When they did, they never made any sense, and unfortunately not in the "oooh, that's so imagistic and surreal" way. Truth be told, I couldn't read very well at the time either — I had to read an entire chapter of a book at once, or else I couldn't remember where I was in the story at all.

I finally got control over my sleeping and living habits when I was a few months shy of turning thirty. That was twelve years ago, and there is still long-term health damage. I joke that my circadian rhythm runs like an experimental jazz piece. Mostly I put myself to bed and wake myself up by the clock. Mostly it works.

It doesn't take eight years for things to get bad. After just a few weeks of too little sleep (days if no sleep at all), you won't be able to write, because you won't be able to think.

Getting up early is one way to find some writing time, but there are other ways. If getting up early works for you, great, but please think twice before trumpeting to the world how wonderful it is. I've read precisely one article that admitted the "get up early" advice assumed you were already getting enough sleep.

The point is to write more and live better, not write less and live worse.

Take care of yourselves.


  1. Yeah, I saw that in the 15 Habits thing I'm doing and thought "Screw that". It just doesn't fit into everyone's schedule, and I hate the implication that if you DON'T do it, you're somehow not a real writer. Well I find it's just as easy to fit an hour of writing into my lunch hour, and another hour in when I get home from work. I've still done the prescribed two hours, but I've done them when it suited me, and it means I'm not like a bear with a sore head from tiredness (I can't let myself get too worn out or I get three day migraines). So I say "poppycock" to that piece of writing advice, and just work when it suits me.

    1. Exactly! The point is to find the time, not wreck your health.

      I once added up the times for all the tasks I was advised to do "first thing in the morning" (write, meditate, floss my teeth, work out, and on and on) and it came out to over four hours. I would have had to get up at 2am to do them all. No thanks.

  2. Thanks for sharing this. Writing advice tends to make me spiky, especially if it's right!

    I haven't experienced sleep dep as much as you but I when the Bean was a baby I remember how useless I became. Wondering into rooms without knowing why, failing to finish sentences, that sort of thing.

    I sometimes wish I'd started writing five years ago when I had 'so much time' to do it but in reality I was a zombie back then.

    1. Every time a parent talks about those first few sleep-deprived months or weeks (hopefully not years!) I get a shudder. I really believe there's supposed to be more help in that first period -- maybe when we used to live with our extended family there was.

      Glad you're writing now!


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